Thursday, December 31, 2015

How Jessica Knoll Wrote a Powerfully Subversive Feminist Work

Spoilers abound for The Luckiest Girl Alive

As 2015 winds down I'm taking a look back on the great media I was able to consume. Fierce, powerful, provocative stuff--feminism had a good year. Yet despite the powerful blogs, books, comics, music, and film/tv that showcased a plethora of intersectional women creating iconic moments, the one that my mind keeps wandering to was a fast-paced summer page turner that delved much deeper than the genre usually allows.

TifAni FaNelli, protagonist of The Luckiest Girl Alive (why, Ms. Knoll, why with that horrible spelling?) has drawn comparisons to the heroine of the runaway lit hit Gone Girl, and on the surface, the two would have a grudging respect that would approximate friendship if Amy Dunne were capable of such, but TifAni (or Ani, as she prefers to go by in adulthood) is a powerfully feminist figure in a world that doesn't want her to be.

On the surface Ani is the worst example of "White Feminism", a well-educated white woman with a powerful job and a self serving streak larger than her family-in-law's Nantucket property. She ruthlessly decimates anyone she perceives to be lower in status than she, while simultaneously flaunting her privilege and demanding the appropriate veneration of such.

Through flashbacks to her high school days in rarefied Main Line Philadelphia, the brittle shells of Ani's personality are peeled back. We learn she's a rape survivor, one who has the audacity to maintain contact with her attackers, drink like a fish, and most importantly, be a total bitch. In short, she's aggressively unlikable--as far a cry from the perfect victim as pop culture has. But the flashbacks climax in an even more traumatizing event--Ani survives a Columbine-esque school shooting perpetrated by her former friend. Further, she is instrumental in halting his attack in a breathlessly brutal scene.

Ani cleaves to her superficial displays of power, wealth, and status as her ultimate plan to wall herself off from the victimhood of her early years. More importantly, she is without any other resources. Left and right her family, faculty, and friends who should be supporting and guiding her to dealing with her trauma don't simply drop the ball--they hurl it with ferocity and aplomb. Ani deals with victim-blaming and patriarchal power structure every time she turns around, and Knoll shows without telling us how her selfishness and status seeking are the only tools she has to protect herself (although several scenes in the book had me wanting to tell her to join a BDSM community and find a Dom who could help her process some of the feelings that inevitably haunt her)

Throughout the novel we see signs that Ani is a better person than she wants to be. She shows greater compassion to her friends and classmates than the frigid bitch she's trying to be is capable of, she rightfully lambasts her Ken doll fiance for supporting the conservative right to protect his assets at the cost of women's health and rights, she even risks her carefully crafted image in a public dressing down of her in-laws' blatant homophobia. She even maintains her career against the pressure to become a corporate wife and is ferociously against the idea of motherhood, even against the desires of her blue blood family. Ultimately, she makes the choices she needs, even when she's pressured to conform.

More figures like Ani are needed in fiction as mainstream as Luckiest Girl. She's a truly strong female character in the hands of an equally strong female writer. Ani is a victim who refuses to be defined by what happens to her, even as her past haunts her. We don't like her, but we're fascinated. Her agenda isn't preachy, it's intrinsic to who she is. Hopefully more queer and poc characters get her level of exposure in 2016, but as the New Year approaches, it's time to salute Ani FaNelli, and toast to the sisters to come.