The novel “Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson is a commentary on rape culture and youth feminism. It’s a book that follows the young Melinda Sordino, a freshman in high school. She attended a party a few weeks before her first day of high school where she met a boy. He seemed nice enough at first, until he took advantage of her. Melinda was raped. When she called the police, she couldn’t find the words to admit the event to the dispatcher. She couldn’t find any words for a very long time. She continued her year as an outcast, her friends dropped her as soon as they realized she was the reason that the police broke up the party. She was harassed and bullied in school. At home, she faced constant criticism from her parents. The only escape that she found was in her art class with a teacher that she felt connected to.
The feminist lens, according to Barry, is supposed to “exposing what might be called the mechanisms of patriarchy, that is, the cultural “mind set” in men and women which perpetuate sexual inequality.” What this basically means is that the feminist critique is supposed to show where and how masochistic ideals enter our narratives and framing, and sometimes it will even provide solutions for the inequality it finds.
In one scene in the novel, we see Heather, a new girl in school that befriends Melinda because she hasn’t met anyone else, ditch Melinda and join a popular “clique” of girls called the Marthas. She calls on Melinda whenever she needs help completing impossible tasks that the Marthas’ set out for her. This is a complete reconstruction of the feminine experience. High school can be particularly terrible for females. The societal pressures to be perfect and to snub those that are not are high. This novel truly recreates the complicated relationships between females at that age. A patriarchal view would highlight the black and white “mean girls vs. quiet girls” stereotype. Instead of immediately jumping to that scenario, Anderson pushed gave depth to the relationships by making them as uncomfortable as possible for the reader, it reminded me of all the weird relationships and friendships I had in high school.
A second scene is the moment that Melinda reveals her rape to Rachel, a former friend and the current girlfriend of Andy, the rapist. They have a conversation in which half is spoken and the other half is written through notes. Rachel is angered by the fact that Melinda would insinuate something like that and immediately storms out claiming that she was going to vomit. The feminist critique here is the lack of belief in Melinda’s truth. Her efforts to protect herself and her friend were met with something similar to what many girls see. This rape culture includes the dismissal of admissions of rape made by women. Anderson did a good job of recreating the feminine experience here because of the fact that it happens so often.
The major issue in both of these scenes is the mechanisms of the patriarchy that linger in
our society and are reflected in the feminist commentary in literature. Is it fair to say that our feminist writers are narrating stories that run parallel to each other and society? I think so, because of the strong connections that young women feel to these novels. When I first read “Speak”, I felt overwhelmed by the connections I made to my life and the lives around me. Its this sort of representation that the feminist critics of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s were looking for. The time has definitely come for feminist literature to rise, and it looks like they are.