Criticism & Features

Year 2021: 30 Books

Girlhood by Melissa Febos: 2021 Criticism Finalist

By Adam Dalva

Cover of Girlhood; the word Girlhood, in shades of pink, repeated and gradually disappearing

Girlhood by Melissa Febos (Bloomsbury)

A Melissa Febos essay is the pedagogical equivalent of umami—it adds so much flavor to the classroom that it feels like cheating. Febos teaches emerging writers to meld the personal with the erudite, the researched with the pop, confession with formal interview. I was excited to read Girlhood, her collection of marvelous essays, but I found the rarest of things in this remarkable work: the book coheres into a whole, producing an incisive, vibrant critique of what it means to grow up female.

One of the essays, “Intrusions,” has been a favorite of mine for years. It takes on peeping in culture—Body Double and Lady Godiva—and chronicles interviewees’ experiences of being stalked, but it also details a harrowing peeping tom encounter from Febos’s own life. At one point, she brings her dog to confront the stalker, and then, a remarkable moment: 

“‘What the fuck are you doing?’ I asked, holding Red’s leash close to give the impression that he was bloodthirsty when actually I wanted to prevent him from lunging forward to lick the stranger’s hands in friendly greeting.”

I ask my students when we get to this part: why include this? And I love the answers. We like Febos more for the humor. The surprise makes the scene feel more real, more honest. But I really want to ask: How. As in, how did she think to do that?

Every essay in Girlhood is remarkably smart and consistently surprising. The orchestral tuning of the list-form opener, “Scarification”; standout pieces on, respectively, the trauma of spitting and the complex intergender politics of a “cuddle party”; the charged, elegiac close. Any book where Nic Cage and 15th Century Dominican monks can frolic together in the same essay is going to be a favorite of mine, but those are all supporting actors. The star here, on the page and with the pen, is unquestionably Febos.

Buy this book at Bookshop.