Marybeth Ragsdale-Richards

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ABSTRACT: Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak is often used as a tool to engage students in conversation about rape. “Caught Between Voices, Caught Between Pages” examines Speak as a pseudo-feminist text, which allows readers to uncover a type of unbearable knowledge about the verbal violence Melinda, the protagonist, experiences post rape and the lack of female empowerment that follows. As a result, Melinda’s sexual trauma is compounded by the shame her peers subject her to, which cuts her off from having meaningful relationships, except with two secondary male characters. Although Speak seeks to disrupt rape culture, it reinstates a hyper patriarchal worldview.

I was seven years old when my brother, who was seven years older than I, molested me in the walk-in closet of my grandparents’ basement. I later found out that my brother had also molested my younger brother, who, in turn, raped my youngest sister. When my mother was twelve years old, she was raped and forced to bear her rapist’s child, alone in a home for unwed mothers. She told me this story when I was sixteen, in one of her drunken fits. Today, I am thirty-four years old, my sister would have been twenty-four had she not passed away from an overdose in February 2017, and my mother is fifty-six. As Hélène Cixous (1976) writes in The Laugh of the Medusa, woman “has always functioned ‘within’ the discourse of man, a signifier that has always referred back to the opposite signifier which annihilates its specific energy and diminishes or stifles its very different sounds” (424). Following Cixous, the relationship between my mother and my sister’s voices, the signifiers, and the “discourse of man,” the signified, speaks for—and through—the symbolic order. Neither my mother nor my sister had a voice to call their own, outside of the sexual politics of the patriarchy.

My voice was stolen from me long before I even realized I had one. I, like my mother and my sister, did not have the language with which to speak about my experience. As a consequence, one question has always haunted me: who would have believed me? In On Lies, Secrets and Silence, Adrienne Rich (1979) notes that women “must take seriously the question of truthfulness between women [and] truthfulness among women” (186). She wonders about the implication of believing in women: “As we cease to lie with our bodies, as we cease to take on faith what men have said about us, is a truly womanly idea of honor in the making?” (186). Accordingly, I have spent the majority of my life living in silence. In fact, my father died three days after my sister, and he never knew what his stepson had done to two of his daughters. I am tired of this lie playing out on the bodies of women. Feminist discourse teaches us that women’s writing is capable of “dislocate[ing] this ‘within,’ to explode it, turn it around, and seize it; to make it [mine], containing it, taking [the discourse of women] in [my] own mouth [. . .] to invent for [my]self a language to get inside of” (Cixous 1976, 424). For me, the only it that I have found that unburdens my pain is the work of committed feminist scholars like Cixous and Rich, as both women have not just given me a voice, but my voice.

It is impossible to deny that my daughters and my son—my children—are growing up in a society that breeds rape culture. As such, it is absolutely vital that young women and men find their voices amongst the texts they read. However, even in the face of an immense body of feminist scholarship, society continues to commodify women’s sexuality and objectify their bodies. This process pre-exists the woman, and it will continue long after she is gone. Not only is commodifying a woman’s physical corpus profitable, thanks largely in part to neoliberal politics and capitalism’s free market economy, but it also foregrounds the identity politics that allows the patriarchal structure to maintain its control. As an ideology, the mechanisms of the patriarchy are rampant in Western consumer culture, and the media often depicts the subjugation of women as socially normative.

Thus, from multiple venues, adolescents are bombarded with conflicting messages about sex and sexuality, which posits the media as a powerful agent of socialization. In Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature, Roberta Seelinger Trites (2000) observes, “[a]dolescent novels that deal with sex, whether they are obviously ideological, usually contain within them some sort of power dynamic wherein the character’s sexuality provides him or her with a locus of power [and] [t]hat power needs to be controlled before the narrative can achieve resolution” (85). Notably absent from Trites’s scholarship is a conversation about the representation of rape and sexual violence in young adult literature; consequently, the locus of control in early rape narratives in young adult fiction never break free of patriarchal ideology, which makes it all the more important that such texts not remain outside the scope of literary criticism.

One text that explicitly addresses the subject of rape in young adult literature is Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. The novel was published in 1999, and was named one of the National Book Award finalists and an honoree of the Michael L. Printz Award in that same year. Moreover, Speak was also named one of the Best Books for Young Adults by the American Library Association and turned into a made-for-television movie starring Kristin Stewart that aired on Showtime in 2004 (Malo-Juvera, 2014, 415). Additionally, the American Library Association lists Speak as one of the top 100 banned books between the years 2000 and 2009 (“Top 100”). Most recently, however, Speak was challenged in July 2013 after Richard Swier, a Tea Party activist, attempted to challenge the novel in a Sarasota County public school in Florida on the grounds that it constituted child pornography, which Anderson herself details in a blog post on her website, Madwoman in the Forest (Anderson 2013, para. 1). Thankfully, the review committee in Sarasota County, Florida decided to keep Speak in the curriculum (Anderson 2013; Alsup 2003; O’Quinn 2001), a testament to the novel’s staying power and its longevity in the classroom.

Speak follows Melinda, a fourteen-year-old girl, as she navigates her freshman year of high school while attempting to deal with the traumatic effects of rape. At the time of the rape, Melinda is just thirteen. The rape occurs at a summer party, and her rapist, Andy, is the most popular boy in the senior class. In response to Melinda’s calling the police and breaking up the party, her female friends ostracize her and she becomes a social pariah around school. Approaching Speak as a pseudo-feminist text highlights how Anderson misses several opportunities to foster a women’s culture, as it asks a student reader to consider how Melinda’s trauma might be lessened if the other females in the story were not oppositional agents of socialization put in the service of the patriarchy, but instead a diverse group of women strategically positioned to empower her on her journey toward self-healing. It also calls into question how Melinda’s journey would change if its two secondary male characters, Mr. Freeman, her art teacher/mentor, and David, her lab partner, were women—or at the very least, from a marginalized group.

It is not surprising that the first time I encountered Speak was during my undergraduate studies in a course that specifically focused on young adult literature. At the college I attended, students like myself, who were seeking a degree in English Language and Literature, often shared the classroom with those pursuing careers in secondary education to teach English in high school, which resulted in a clear line of demarcation as to how we approached the novels we read in class. While students of literature are primed to examine a text’s intrinsic traits and extrinsic contexts, students of education are concerned with developing pedagogy as well as finding best practices to teach their future students the necessary reading and writing skills to be successful in the classroom. On the night the professor introduced Speak to our class, she was quick to praise the text as an aspirational one for engaging in a conversation about sexual violence, a fact she solidified by confessing that it was the only text that she consistently assigns each semester. Although the intentions of the professor were well meaning, she did little to prepare any of us for a discussion regarding sexual assault and rape. Rather than positioning Speak as a rape narrative worthy of critical inquiry for its depiction of a silent epidemic, she framed it as a “dark problem novel,” as if this generic label alone was meant to explain the significance of its subject matter. Yet, by approaching rape in a roundabout way, as my professor did in a classroom of future educators, we in academia, do a disservice to students. Why exactly are institutions, academics, and students resistant to addressing issues of sexual violence in the classroom? Here, the most obvious reason is patriarchy, yet this assumption overshadows one of its invisible—even deniable—structures, rape culture. How can we speak of issues of consent or sexual violence in a patriarchal society if sexuality and sexual desire are split between dichotomies that oscillate between active/passive and dominant/submissive?

The answer, I argue, lies in the complexity of subjecting rape narratives, like Speak, to critical inquiry. Rich states: “There is no ‘the truth,’ ‘a truth’—truth is not one thing, or even a system [as patriarchy is]. It is an increasing complexity. The pattern of the carpet is a surface. When we look closely, or when we become weavers, we learn of the tiny multiple threads unseen in the overall pattern, the knots on the underside of the carpet” (Lies 1979, 188). Thus, it is the aim of this article to situate Speak as a pseudo-feminist text and highlight several instances in the text where Anderson fails to subvert the anxiety of authorship. Speak treats Melinda, the novel’s protagonist, as if it is her task in life to find the power to liberate herself, within herself, and by herself—largely cut off from other women.

As a concept, the idea of a pseudo-feminist text came to me as I closely read Speak as an undergraduate. Something about Melinda’s experience after the rape, and her coping skills provoked a visceral, affective response in me that I could not make sense of. Although, the residual affect of Anderson’s novel has always stayed with me, it was not until the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election in the United States that I began to revisit the idea of pseudo-feminism in lieu of Donald Trump’s campaign. I noticed that my students—female college freshmen—in a course about women writers were increasingly shying away from any conversation that related to politics and women’s writing. One of my students proclaimed that the feminist movement “is dead and irrelevant.” This student inadvertently provided me with the teachable moment I needed for us as a class to explore the reasons why they might feel hostile towards feminism. As we started to speak to one another, it became clear to me that these young women were balking at “consumer feminism” (Zeisler 2008, 105), as they identified the feminist movement being something akin to Taylor Swift’s girl posse, or as a brand to commodify girl power.

To that effect, I directed our attention to Annette Kolodny (1980), who makes an important connection between how young adults learn to read, and how they learn to interpret literature. She writes, “[f]or insofar as literature is itself a social institution, so, too, reading is a highly socialized—or learned—activity” (1980, 482). Unfortunately, the gains made during Second Wave Feminism give way to a trend that aligns with Kristin Anderson’s (2014) theory about post-feminism that arises in the nineties (3). In Modern Misogyny: Anti-Feminism in a Postfeminist Era, K. Anderson (2014) claims, “[t]he media help undermine feminist objectives by placing the focus of women’s empowerment on self-transformation rather than social transformation” (1; my emphasis). It is K. Anderson’s position that the years spanning the end of the second wave and the onset of a neoliberal economic system in the eighties and nineties that effectively neutralized the appeal of feminist activism. It is not a coincidence that arrival of Speak correlates to this time period. Consequently, I am continuously baffled by the lack of feminist literary scholarship on rape narratives in young adult literature, as these texts provide ample opportunity to sustain a dialogue about the invisibility of rape culture.

Further, I noticed when my students started to explore consumer feminism, they noticed that capitalism is dependent upon commodifying products—of which women’s bodies are only one. This is not to say that consumer feminism is not real feminism or bad feminism, but for the purpose of a college writing course, I wanted my students to engage with feminist literary theorists, and it was the ideas connected to “pop feminism” that proved to be the stumbling block from propelling the conversation forward. Hence, I began to use the term pseudo-feminism rather than K. Anderson’s conception post-feminism, because I did not want my students to assume that feminism as a movement is dead.

Subsequently, I turned our attention to closely read Speak. It is easy to read Anderson’s text as empowering, but this does not excuse the anxiety of authorship that posits girl against girl, or else puts them next to one another so they can bond over their shared oppression. Moreover, Anderson’s characterizations of the men that orbit around Melinda are not her allies—they are her saviors. Too often, feminist scholarship adequately identifies the societal ills that plague the patriarchal culture, like rape culture, but does not offer any workable long-lasting solution beyond merely critiquing cultural scripts. While the work of feminist literary critics calls the validity, aesthetic value, and “greatness” of the literary canon into question, it pays little attention to the paradox in contemporary feminist young adult fiction within the young adult genre, and this oversight fails to address the contradiction of pseudo-feminist text. Yet, navigating a pedagogy that teaches students about sexual violence does not have to be a site of contention in which the instructor attempts to subvert rape myths without first acknowledging their pervasiveness and presence in popular culture. It is possible for the literature that adolescents encounter to simultaneously embrace gender equality and promote solidarity among the population it caters to.          

Consequently, Melinda’s circumstances adhere to the theory of verisimilitude, in which Anderson uses rape as a plausible trope to grant Melinda the implausible physical strength to thwart her rapist at the novel’s conclusion. This type of narrative mirrors Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s (1979) conception of a palimpsest text, in which the “text’s surface designs conceal or obscure less [socially] accessible levels of meaning [and allows a female writer] to simultaneously conform to and subvert patriarchal standards” (73). Yet, the palimpsest mode is oddly inverted in Speak, as Anderson’s anxiety of authorship flows through her pen and into Melinda’s stream of consciousness. The paradox in Speak is that it first appears to subvert the patriarchy— rather than conform to it—as the trajectory of Melinda’s story moves from a life of silence, an alien existence, to a life of action, in which, like the title suggests, she is not afraid to speak. Nonetheless, in doing so, Anderson conforms to dichotomous gender ideology, as Melinda’s stable female-identified friendships from childhood deteriorate and fall apart in lieu of her trauma. Thus, the unbearable nature of Melinda’s narrative focalizes around the rape itself and the verbal violence that Rachel, her childhood ex-best friend, inflicts on Melinda as she engages in a romantic relationship with Andy after he rapes her best friend. These two plot developments build toward the novel’s climax, the inversion of domestic violence and the suggestion that it somehow empowers a survivor.

Notably, Speak is problematic in the classroom because it fails to foist a woman-identified experience into the text in a way that supersedes sexual politics. However, many academics disagree. The scholarship that emerges shortly after the novel’s release overwhelmingly focuses on the recuperation of the novel’s protagonist, Melinda Sordino’s, voice and the transformative power of speech. For instance, Elaine J. O’Quinn (2001) observes that the novel “reinforces the more actualizing notion that succumbing to victimization through silence only reinforces powerlessness” (55).  Another scholar, Jessi Snider (2014), notes that teachers and professors who use Speak as a critical text in the classroom “revitalize student interest in classical literature by insisting that what students may not be able to glean about sexual assault from canonical writers, such as William Shakespeare and Ovid, they might be able to garner from Anderson” (300).Moreover, Janet Alsup (2003), argues that Speak defies the “the narrative tale of rape” by insisting that Anderson flouts “certain characteristics that define it as a female cultural genre” (163). Accordingly, Alsup writes: “The rape survivor has to justify why it was preferable to be raped and live rather than to fight back and die. This cultural narrative has become so pervasive that it is seen as the “truth” about rape [. . .] The narratives begin to seem identical, and it is assumed that every rape survivor’s experience has a kind of sameness” (2003, 163).Nevertheless, I propose here that, as a critical text, Speak is not the exception to the customary narrative tale of rape, but a failed instance of politically engaged writing. Using rape as a trope to further the plot is habitually used by various media outlets, only one of which is literature. This idea is symptomatic of patriarchal discourse, and Alsup’s suggestion that Speak is a signifier of a female cultural genre is alarming because it is a prime example of such nefarious texts that second-wave feminists fought to expose.

Anderson constructs the digenesis of Speak across the four marking periods of the academic year, and within the four marking periods are a series of smaller vignettes that are told from Melinda’s point of view. The narrative oscillates between the present and the past because Melinda regularly experiences flashbacks pertaining to her memories of Rachel, her parents, and the night of the rape. Melinda is at once caught between silence and speech. For example, Anderson immediately draws attention to Melinda’s isolation, her “othered” status, as she steps across the threshold of Merriweather High. She thinks: “I am Outcast”(Anderson 1999, 4), a self-given label that situates her as apart from, not a part of, the school’s social network. Melinda is hyperaware that her old friends, members of a clan that used to call themselves “[t]he Plain Janes,” has been “absorbed by rival factions”(Anderson 1999, 4), a distinction that supports the idea that Melinda has been cast out of their favor. In the opening vignette, Melinda agonizes over whether or not to speak to Rachel. She describes how the“[w]ords climb up [her] throat [and she is] dying to tell Rachel what happened” (Anderson 1999, 5). Instead, Melinda notices that Rachel is staring at her, and she bites her lip until it bleeds; a moment later, Rachel silently mouths “I hate you” (Anderson 1999, 5).From the start, Anderson builds the exposition of the novel around the aggression of Melinda’s female peers, which doubly adds to her traumatic experience, as she is silent about the rape, and must now deal with girls at school who “gag on [her] like [she] is a hairball” (1999, 123).

In contrast, it is puzzling how easily Melinda identifies with Freeman and David. This is not to say that including empathetic men in Speak is problematic; rather, what is problematic is that Andy, who is likely a serial rapist if the writing on the girls’ bathroom wall is to be believed, escapes any legal repercussions for raping Melinda (Anderson 1999, 185). This abhorrence is compounded by the verbal violence and the public shunning Melinda experiences at the hands Rachel and Heather, her mother, and later, Ivy’s neutrality; which Anderson uses to prop up a reader’s appreciation of Freeman and David. For instance, the first-time Melinda encounters Freeman, he is “hunched over a spinning pot, his hands muddy red” from the clay he molds (Anderson 1999, 10). The image of a man at the potter’s wheel connotes the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, in which the sculptor, like Mr. Freeman, breathes life into his creation, as he fashions Galatea out of his desire in much of the same way that Freeman fashions Melinda’s art throughout the semester.

In actuality, the art teacher weakens Anderson’s intent to “free” Melinda through her artwork, precisely because it is a creative act that she cannot enact without the guidance of a teacher whose name literally reads “free man.” Anderson’s authorial intrusion, whether conscious or unconscious, superimposes the patriarchy into Melinda’s narrative, and it subtly conveys to its female readership that girls ought to remain malleable and molded around the constancy of males. In spite of this archaic approach, a simple feminist inversion of the Pygmalion and Galatea myth recasts Melinda’s mentor as Ms. Freewoman. Reconstructing Freeman as Freewoman provides a female student with the opportunity, as Gilbert and Gubarnote, “for her reading to merge with her seeing” (1979, 6).

In the same way that Anderson fails to undermine the patriarchal structure through the characterization of Freeman, she also fails in her description of David Petrakis. It is in Melinda’s “headvoice” (Anderson 1999, 37) that the reader comes into contact with her thoughts regarding David. For instance, O’Quinn (2001) declares that “David [is] a male character who stands in strong contrast with Melinda in that he is rewarded rather than punished for his silences” (56). Paradoxically, even though O’Quinn rightly identifies the gendered split between active masculinity and passive femininity, she does not address the conflict that this observation indirectly engages in, which is an issue of power connected to class and gender. Instead, Melinda reveres David for his capacity to command the space and his forwardness. For example, Melinda observes: “[David] has the potential to be cute when the braces come off. He is so brilliant he makes the teachers nervous. You’d think a kid like that would get beat up a lot, but the bad guys leave him alone. I have to find out his secret. David ignores me mostly, except when I almost ruined the $300 microscope” (Anderson 1999, 30).

As Melinda’s thoughts demonstrate, her fascination with David, however innocent and trivial Anderson intends it to be, is an invisible mechanism of compulsory heterosexuality. In Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence, Rich (1980) explains this phenomenon as the process of male identification, which she defines as “the act whereby women place men above women, including themselves, in credibility, status, and importance in most situations” (646). In spite of Melinda’s sexual trauma and its profound effects on her psyche, she recognizes David—not her mother, her friends, nor any of her female teachers—as being in possession of a trait that makes even bad guys leave him alone. I assert that David’s “secret” is not much of a secret when viewed from a feminist lens, but rather, male privilege.

Likewise, Melinda identifies David as “cute” and “brilliant,” even though he “ignores” her most of the time (Anderson 1999, 37). Melinda’s musing about David are self-defeating, and it attests to “the tradition of [Westernized patriarchy], which asserts that primary love between the sexes is normal, that women need men as the social and economic protectors [. . .], and for psychological completion” (Rich 1980, “Compulsory” 657). It is no surprise that Melinda views David as her hero, for not only is David male, but he is also affluent (Anderson 1999, 68). Melinda notes that his parents are wealthy enough that they can “hire a big, nasty, expensive lawyer” to press charges against a teacher David feels violates his civil rights by not allowing students adequate debate time in history class (Anderson 1999, 68). Therefore, Anderson projects compulsory heterosexuality into the narrative as she assumes that even Melinda’s sexual trauma is not enough to disrupt or dissuade a girl’s “natural” inclination toward heteronormative romantic relationships.

Moreover, in another example later in the novel, Anderson again posits David as Melinda’s savior. Here, Melinda refuses to deliver an oral presentation about the suffragettes in history class, so she “ask[s] David for advice,” and they “come up with a Plan” (Anderson 1999, 155; my emphasis). The Plan: have David deliver the speech to the class. He literally speaks for Melinda while she stands in the background. Immediately afterward, David chastises her for her silence. “But you got it wrong,” he says,“[y]ou can’t speak up for your right to be silent” (Anderson 1999, 159). Here, the obscure function of David’s advice undermines women’s suffrage, as his critique marks the moment Melinda begins to view her silence as a liability. The only difference between Melinda’s thoughts and David’s statement is that Melinda’s thoughts are not heard by anyone else except for the reader, but David’s speech is heard by everyone including: classmates, the teacher, the readers, and Melinda. Consequently, the rhetorical effect further reifies the split between active masculinity and passive femininity. For her part, Melinda fields his brutal honesty by asking whether or not he “lectures all his friends like that?” (Anderson 1999, 159). David replies: “Only the ones I like” (Anderson 1999, 159), demonstrating a reiteration of compulsory heterosexuality. Incidentally, his presence in the text reinforces the idea of male essentialism, which has historically been seen as natural. Given this point, if David were Davina, such an inversion creates the potential for the homosociality of female intimacy.

For Melinda, the act of speaking is difficult, which further problematizes her relationship with David, as traditional gender normsaided by the help of Freudian andLacanian psychoanalysis clearly locate speech within the symbolic law of the father. Julia Kristeva, a feminist psychoanalyst, notes that “certain biofamilial conditions and relationship cause women to deny this separation and the language which ensues from it, whereas men magnify both [. . .] to master them” (1979, 466), which is just one of the reasons David’s transformation into Davina would undermine the novel’s patriarchal subtext and advocate for a maternal lingua, or a figurative wo(man)guage. Similarly, Melinda’s inability to speak follows Gilbert and Gubar’s claim that aphasia,a language impairment that affects the production of speech, “symbolically represent[s] (and parod[ies]) the sort of intellectual incapacity patriarchal culture has required of women” (1979, 58). Melinda often thinks that“words are hard work” (Anderson 1999, 85), and at one point ruminates: “It is easier not to say anything. Shut your trap, button your lip, can it [. . .] Nobody really wants to hear what you have to say” (Anderson 1999, 9). The intellectual incapacity of patriarchal culture foregrounds itself in the juxtaposition between Melinda’s outward silence and her inner dialogue.

Anderson continues the theme of silence in “Devils Destroy”, a vignette where Melinda panics at the thought of having to attend a pep rally at school. During the rally, a few girls sitting around her confront her with accusations regarding the night she was raped. They interrogate Melinda: “‘Aren’t you the one who called the cops at Kyle Rodgers’s party at the end of the summer?’ Another girl chimes in. ‘My brother got arrested at that party. He got fired because of the arrest. I can’t believe you did that. Asshole.’” (Anderson 1999, 27-28).Here, the girls chastise Melinda for calling the police, and their accusations symbolically represent the aforementioned patriarchal culture on two accounts. First, the girls’ references to Kyle Rodgers and the other’s brother represent the patriarchy at the micro level, which is to say, the level at which individuals interact with one another. Second, the girls invoke the police, a facet of the patriarchal authority that exists at the macro level, which represents the pinnacle of institutionalized patriarchal power.

Ironically, Melinda does have a pseudo-female-friendship with Heather, a transfer student, who has no established peer group of her own. Heather embodies the cruel, cold way Melinda’s peers treat her, and she floats on the outskirts of several cliques, until she is initiated into a group Melinda calls “the Marthas” because they are “big on helping” (Anderson 1999, 43).Not only are the Marthas the embodiment of traditional womanhood as conceptualized by the patriarchy, but they are also an extreme representation of subordinated femininity, who live to serve the faculty and elite student body of Merriweather High. Heather’s initiation into the Marthas requires her to end her friendship with Melinda. One day during lunch, Heather says: “I think it’s time for us both to admit that we just are very different,” to which Melinda responds: “You mean we’re not friends anymore?”(Anderson 1999, 105).Here, Heather ridicules Melinda: “You don’t like anything. You are the most depressed person I’ve ever met, and excuse me for saying this, but you are not fun to be around and I think you need professional help” (Anderson 1999, 105). It is agonizing for a reader that Heather never asks Melinda why she is so depressed, as Melinda quickly internalizes Heather’s rejection, and it amplifies her pain. Melinda thinks:

Up until this very instant, I had never seriously thought of Heather as my one true friend in the world. But now I am desperate to be her pal, her buddy, to giggle with her, to gossip with her. I want her to paint my toenails [. . .] She has a choice: she can hang out with me and get the reputation of being a creepy weirdo [. . .] or she can be a Martha [. . .] Which would I choose? (Anderson 1999, 105, 106)

Melinda’s thoughts reflect her desire to be accepted by another female, as she internally expresses the need for a girl-identified experience; yet, at the same time, she cannot verbalize her feelings. The danger in Heather’s rejection is that it illuminates one of Anderson’s narrative traps, in which Melinda’s female peers obviously sense something is wrong, but virtually all of them—with the exception of Ivy in the fourth marking period—offer her no emotional support, only hostile judgment. The lack of empathy speaks to the novel’s pseudo-feminist quality that manifests in its overwhelming negative portrayal of female-identified dyadic relationships.

Following Rachel and Heather’s verbal antagonism, Melinda’s relationship with her mother is also unbearable and equally verbally overbearing. For instance, when her mother finds out about her falling grades, she goads Melinda with a “creepy smile,” and says: “Thought you could pull one over on us? Big high school student now, don’t need to show your parents your falling test grades” (Anderson 1999, 35). Melinda says nothing in response, and her mother’s anger is indicative of the larger emotional distance between them at a moment when Melinda needs to be secure in the knowledge that her mother is accessible to her. While establishing autonomy from the parental unit may be a convention of young adult literature, Melinda and her mother’s cross-purposes exemplifies why it is important for young girls—who might, in reality, need support from their caregivers—to see that Melinda has support of another woman in her private sphere.

Yet, the interplay between Melinda’s voice, its presence and its absence, is also at cross-purposes. After the Christmas break and Melinda returns to school, readers note the subversive feminist allegories and symbols that Anderson attempts to insert into the text; however, she negates them as she reinforces the cultural disparity between Melinda’s muted self and her rapist’s dominant position in the social hierarchy. For example, when Melinda and David dissect a frog in biology class, Melinda narrates:

Our frog lies on her back. Waiting for a prince to come and princessify her with a smooch? [. . .] David pins her froggy hands to the dissection tray. He spreads her froggy legs and pins her froggy feet. I have to slice open her belly. She doesn’t say a word.[. . .] A scream starts in my gut—I can feel the cut, smell the dirt, leaves in my hair. (Anderson 1999, 81)

As an allegory, the dissection of the frog facilitates Melinda’s memory of the night that Andy rapes her, but Melinda has not yet let the full scope of the rape into her conscious mind. Thus, the “froggy” becomes the referent for Melinda’s physical corpus, while David becomes the perpetrator who “pins” and “spreads”—inscribes—the frog’s body into the dissection tray. Even though the frog is already dead, his actions symbolically rob “her” of agency and exemplifies his power. Melinda insinuates that the frog needs “a prince” to “princessify” her with a kiss, an allusion that mocks the traditional princess narrative, as Anderson links the fairytale to male-inflicted violence against women.

Similarly, Anderson inserts other aspects of the fairy tale narrative into Speak through her use of mirrors. Early on in the novel, Melinda catches her reflection in a mirror in her bedroom. It is the first time that Anderson discloses to the reader what Melinda looks like. She observes, “I look for the shapes in my face. Could I put a face in my tree, like a dryad from Greek mythology? Two muddy-circle eyes under black-dash eyebrows, piggy-nose nostrils, and a chewed-up horror of a mouth. I can’t stop biting my lips [. . .] I get out of bed and take down the mirror” (Anderson 1999, 17). Anderson’s description of Melinda’s face is grotesque and exemplifies the “monster” typology that Gilbert and Gubar devise in relation to its “angelic” opposite. They claim that “women have expended not just trying to be angels but trying not to become female monsters” for “if becoming an author meant mistaking one’s ‘sex and way,’ [. . .] then it meant becoming a monster or freak, a vile Errour” (1979, 34). Likewise, toward the end of the novel, Melinda encounters a mirror in a dressing room at her mother’s store when she is trying on jeans. Melinda narrates: “I adjust the mirror so I can see reflections of reflections, miles and miles of me [. . .] I lean into the mirror. Eyes after eyes after eyes stare back at me. Am I in there somewhere? [. . .] I pull the side flaps of the mirror in closer, folding myself into the looking glass and blocking out the rest of the store” (Anderson 1999, 124).

Here, Anderson’s repetitive use of the words “eye” and “I” is another complex word that signifies the homophone’s “fundamentally incongruous meanings” (Miller 1995, 77) that represents a shift in Melinda’s conception of her/self as an autonomous agent that is not measured against “eyes after eyes after eyes.” In Narrative, J. Hillis Miller (1995) states: “[A] character is created out of signs—for example, the words on the page in a written narrative, the modulated sounds in the air in an oral narrative” (75). On the page, Melinda’s conception of self is conflicted at best, and nonexistent at worse; yet in the scene, Melinda’s “eye-I” monologue is controlled and moderated, which makes it impossible not to hear Anderson’s emphasis on Melinda’s “eye-I” split.

Additionally, as Melinda stares at her reflection, she wonders about a woman she saw in a movie who was “burned over eighty percent of her body and had to wash all the dead skin off” (Anderson 1999, 125). She then speculates about her own corpse/corpus: “I just need to hang on long enough for my new skin to graft [. . .] I have to stay away from the closet, go to all my classes [and] I will make myself feel normal” (Anderson 1999, 125). Symbolically, the scene is crucial because it illustrates the moment Melinda acknowledges herself. As the “eye-I” double-voiced discourse works tofacilitate the moment Melinda conceives of an entity that is akin to “the creative ‘I AM’” (Gilbert and Gubar 1979, 17), which endeavors her to become self-defined- a girl no longer defined by the culture that inscribes her textual body.

Furthermore, the moment Melinda truly sees herself in the mirror for the first time sets off a causal chain of events, as her moment of self-recognition triggers the memory of the rape itself. To some extent, readers experience the other side of the mirror when Melinda crawls out her window and gazes up at the sky. As she contemplates the way the moon looks like a “fat white seed that sleeps in the sky,” she simultaneously notes: “[T]he moon looked closer back in August” (Anderson 1999, 33). Melinda’s flashback to the night of the rape takes her to “a farm a couple of miles from [her] development” (Anderson 1999, 33). Anderson sets the scene of Melinda’s rape in the pastoral, a literary tradition that Kimberly Huth defines “as [being] characterized mainly by the tensions between the court and the country landscape to emphasize the community interacting in this rural setting and the ethos of those characters” (2011, 44). In classic literature, the pastoral is carefree, and it symbolizes an environment that is closest to nature outside of man’s power and influence. Although the scene does not contain literal members of the royal court per say, Anderson represents their modern foils when Melinda describes the cliques that are in attendance as “cheerleaders, seniors, and popular kids” (1999, 134), and refers to her rapist as a “Greek God” (1999, 134). The implication here is that these groups represent the top of the hierarchy in Melinda’s social world.

Additionally, Anderson depicts the ethos of the pastoral setting as Melinda engages in the community of her peers by drinking beer, dancing, and enjoying the people around her. Eventually, she notices that: “[M]ost people hung at the edge of the lights,” so she “walk[s] out of the crowd, toward the woods. The moon shone on the leaves. [She] could see the lights, like stars strung in the pines” and hears “quiet boy-girls whispers” (Anderson 1999, 133-34) who would not stop giggling. Melinda’s observance of her peers aligns with Huth’s summation that “the pastoral affords readers the opportunity to see how it connects the materials of the rural landscape with the social life of its resident communities and their ethos” (Huth2011, 44). However, Melinda becomes progressively less at ease with her surroundings as the night goes on. When Melinda happens upon the boy-girls in the woods, she is at once caught between the essentialism and anti-essentialism of patriarchal structure. Here, the conventions of society are lost in nature, and alcohol warps the ethos of the culture—of the adolescent community. The rape occurs when a “cloud cloak[s] the moon [and] shadows look like photo negatives” (Anderson 1999, 135). During the rape, Melinda loses all sense of what exists outside of nature and inside of reality. Melinda remembers:

I’m trying to remember how we got on the ground and where the moon went and wham! shirt up, shorts down, and the ground smells wet and dark and no!—I’m not really here, I’m definitely back at Rachel’s, crimping my hair and gluing on fake nails, and he smells like beer and mean and he hurts me hurts me hurts me and gets up and zips his jeans and smiles. (Anderson 1999, 135-136)

On the page, Melinda’s memory of the rape is fractured. The rape violates the tradition of the pastoral and circumvents the notion that women are closer to nature. Shaken, Melinda scrambles back to the farmhouse and calls the police. When she calls, she sees [her] face in the window over the kitchen sink and [finds that] no words came out of [her] mouth” (Anderson 1999, 136). When Melinda catches her reflection, it inverts Gilbert and Gubar’s theory of the looking glass. They write: “To be caught trapped in a mirror rather than a window, however, is to be driven inward, obsessively studying self-images as if seeking a viable self” (1979, 27). Notably, Melinda catches her reflection in the window after she has “fallen [violently] into sexuality” (Gilbert and Gubar197, 27), which robs her of her outward prospects. It is only in the mirror at her mother’s store that she is able to recognize a viable self.

Luckily, all hope is not lost, as Ivy’s character is Anderson’s attempt to provide Melinda with a female friend, and quite possibly, an advocate. Up until the fourth marking period, Ivy has been passive to Melinda’s presence in art class; nonetheless, in one of the most poignant scenes in the book, the girls run into each other at the mall, where they are both searching for inspiration for Freeman’s final project. Here, Ivy speaks to Melinda’s efficacy as an artist. She says: “You’re better than you think you are. If I were you, I’d just let it out, draw” (Anderson 1999, 146). The dialogue functions as double-voiced discourse as Melinda and Ivy share a creative moment, even though, Freeman’s spectral authority facilitates the scene. Yet the moment is fleeting, and it comes too little, too late. Shortly after the scene at the mall, Ivy and Melinda encounter Andy looking for Rachel during art class. Ivy says, “[b]elieve me, that guy is trouble with a capital T” (Anderson 1999, 165). Thus, Ivy’s presence in Speak represents the double-bind of female friendships in a patriarchal society. While the first scene disrupts patriarchal authority, the second scene reestablishes the focus on Melinda’s status—and potentially Ivy’s too—as victims of sexual violence. 

However, in the penultimate scene, “Prey,” Anderson brings the contradiction in a pseudo-feminist text into sharp focus. Here, Melinda finds herself “trapped with Andy” in the abandoned janitor’s closet, a space where Melinda regularly hides when she feels anxious at school (Anderson 1999, 193). It is a place that exists on the margins of Melinda’s social reality. In the scene, Andy physically abuses her by grabbing her wrists and pinning her to the wall in an attempt to rape her again. As he puts his teeth on her neck, she manages to scream before he punches her in the face, and in the process, breaks a mirror. He is taken off guard when she suddenly overcomes him by holding a broken shard of glass to his throat and says: “I said no,” and draws “one drop of blood” (Anderson 1999, 195).Andy surrenders too simply, he gives a “nod” (Anderson 199, 195),and the effect is unconvincing to a feminist literary critic, but his modest surrender may not come across as such to a young adult reader, as it assumes that Melinda has overcome her attacker, thereby vindicating herself. Therefore, Anderson misrepresents the moment Melinda reclaims her voice, a moment of redemption, as a moment of revenge. The violence Melinda inflicts on Andy harkens back to the aggression that he uses to violate her. The act is meant to signify a shift in power, yet it demonstrates that femininity is not relational to masculinity, but oppositional to it. Thus, it highlights the relative nature of power, as Melinda seizes it, and borrows from Andy’s domain of toxic masculinity and accosts him.

While Anderson may intend for the scene to be a compromise formation, hence the verisimilitude aspect of the novel’s climax, she wastes no time reinstating Melinda’s dependent status. Instead of recounting the details of how she survives the rape to a female peer or a woman, Anderson opts to conclude the novel as Melinda freely, if not enthusiastically, shares her story with Freeman. On their own, aided only by a teacher and a friendly boy, fourteen-year-old girls are not able to deal with the traumatic effects of rape. The absurdity of a pseudo-feminist text is that it is just a retelling, a subtle “modern” appropriation of the narrative tale of rape. Ultimately, Speak repurposes a girl’s vulnerability, and so it fails to subvert patriarchal standards. If a student is to believe the ways Melinda copes are empowering, then it must be said that Freeman, David, and even Melinda’s moment of revenge ascribes to—rather than departs from— patriarchal scripts. Although, it is tempting to approach Speak as an aspirational attempt, feminist scholars must not forget that: “[W]e have been required to tell different lies at different times [. . .] We have had the truth of our bodies withheld from us or distorted” (1979,Lies, 188). Here, I am reminded of my student’s concern regarding the compulsory branding of consumer feminism, as I hold steadfastly to the understanding that to assume we—and by “we” I mean all who identify as women—have achieved or are in some way past the necessity of sisterhood is naïve. I would be compelled, like my students, to ask what kind of a society holds up a novel like Speak and claims it as a cultural signifier of our progress? It is not enough to speak to men, as Melinda does, about our bodies without first speaking to one another about the lies we bear under their surface. It must be stressed that female-identified relationships are paramount to making sure that our young adult readers are not caught between voices, or caught between pages.

Works Cited

Alsup, Janet. 2003. “Politicizing Young Adult Literature: Reading Anderson’s ‘Speak’ as a Critical Text.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 47(2): 158-166. Accessed on 23 Oct. 2016.

Anderson, Kristin J. 2015. Modern Misogyny: Anti-Feminism in a Post-Feminist Era. New York, New York: Oxford UP, 2014.

Anderson, Laurie Halse. 2013. “Really? Again? Speak Labeled Pornography.” Laurie Halse Anderson, (blog), July 8, 2013. Accessed on 10 Jan. 2018.

Anderson, Laurie Halse. 1999.Speak. Harrisonburg, Virginia: RR Donnelley and Sons Company.

Cixous, Hélène. 1976. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Feminist Literary Theory and Criticism: A Norton Reader, edited by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company: 414-30.

Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. 1979. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.

Huth, Kimberly. 2011. “Come Live with Me and Feed My Sheep: Invitation, Ownership, and Belonging in Early Modern Pastoral Literature.” Studies of Philology, 108 (1): 44-69.

Kolodny, Annette. 1980. “Dancing through the Minefield.” Feminist Literary Theory and Criticism: A Norton Reader, edited by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company: 527-44.

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Malo-Juvera, Victor. 2012. The Effect of Young Adult Literature on Adolescents’ Rape Myth Acceptance. Dissertation. Miami, Florida: Florida International University.

Miller, J. Hillis. 1995. “Narrative.” Critical Terms for Literary Study, edited by Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin, Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press: 66-79.

O’Quinn, Elaine J. 2001. “Between Voice and Voicelessness: Transacting Silence in Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak.” ALAN Review, 29 (1):54-58. Accessed on 11 Nov. 2017.

Rich, Adrienne. 1980. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Signs, 5(4): 631-660.

Rich, Adrienne. 1979. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose. New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Snider, Jessi. 2014. “‘Be the Tree’: Classical Literature, Art Therapy, and Transcending Trauma in Speak.” Children’s Literature in Education, 45 (4): 298-309. Accessed on 4 Dec. 2016.

Trites, Roberta Seelinger. 2000. Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature. Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press.

Zeisler, Andi. 2008. Feminism and Pop Culture. Berkley, California: Seal Press.


Marybeth Ragsdale-Richards is an adjunct professor of English and Women’s Studies at Wilson College and Shepherd University. Her scholarship explores rape culture in young adult literature. Subsequently, Marybeth’s article, “Mapping the Specter: Seeing Louise O’Neill’s ‘Asking for It’ as Spectral Realism,” was recently published in the Journal of Language, Literature, and Interdisciplinary Studies in September 2018.

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