Ugly Resurgence

06.02.14

Slut-Shaming Gets the YA Treatment in ‘The Truth About Alice’

Jennifer Mathieu has always identified as a feminist, but she couldn’t have anticipated the explosion of #YesAllWomen just before the release of her debut young adult novel.

Rumor has it Alice Franklin had sex with two guys in one night.
Naturally, that was all everyone was talking about.

It sounds like a scenario straight out of a Monday morning high school hallway following a weekend of partying and promiscuity. And that’s why Jennifer Mathieu chose Alice as the protagonist for her debut young adult novel, The Truth About Alice: to battle the ever-present (and ever-growing) plague of slut-shaming girls.

Mathieu, 37, a journalist turned high school English teacher, says she always knew she was going to write a book. But when she first starting work on The Truth About Alice, she couldn’t have anticipated the resurgence of slut-shaming in America’s youth culture, most recently typified by Santa Barbara shooter Elliot Rodger and the #YesAllWomen social-media movement that followed.

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“When I started writing it four years ago, it wasn’t like, ‘I’m going to write that slut-shaming book,’” she tells The Daily Beast. “I didn’t even know that word existed. I’ve identified as a feminist since I was in college and was aware since I was a teenager that girls do get judged differently than boys. I think anybody who’s been through high school can think of those girls that we spread rumors or gossiped about. I don’t think I thought this in high school, but right after I began to think, ‘Why don’t we talk about guys this way?’”

The earliest example Mathieu can recall of slut-shaming was a nonfiction article she read in Seventeen magazine in the early 1990s. A girl in Minnesota “had become a victim of really nasty rumors at her high school, including sexual graffiti about in her in one of the bathroom stalls,” she says. Fifteen-year-old Katy Lyle ended up suing Proctor High School—whose officials, according to The Baltimore Sun, “did not remove the graffiti because they said there was no money for paint”—and received $15,000 for “mental anguish.”

Yet more than 20 years later, little has changed. If anything, the sexual defamation of women and girls has become more prevalent, especially gender bias and stereotypes, says Mathieu.

I would love to see a culture where words like ‘slut,’ ‘prude,’ ‘player,’ and ‘tease’ go out the window.”

“With my own high school students, this is something that we talk about,” she says. “We [particularly] talk about taboo language—about how many ‘dirty’ words there are in the world for ‘promiscuous’ girls, but there aren’t a lot of words for boys. And if there are, they’re more positive, like ‘player.’”

Since in real-life instances the victim is rarely heard from, Mathieu decided to tell her story inThe Truth About Alice —described by her editor as Friday Night Lights meets Easy A—through the perspectives of four peripheral characters. Elaine is the quintessential mean/popular girl; Josh is the star quarterback; Kelsie is Alice’s former best friend; and Kurt is the shy boy with a crush on Alice. It isn’t until the end of the book (spoiler alert!) that Alice’s voice is heard. “I have had a few people say, ‘I wish I could have heard from Alice more,’” says Mathieu. “I appreciate that, but I kind of have to laugh because the whole thing is that she didn’t have a voice. She’s the victim of all this gossip and all these stories.’”

These days, the number of victims of slut-shaming and bullying has skyrocketed. My interview with Mathieu, who has a son just finishing preschool, came at a particularly poignant time for a discussion of the topic, in the aftermath of Elliot Rodger’s mass shooting in California. While Rodger’s apparent hatred of women led to a series of discussions on gun regulation, mental illness, and romantic rejection, it also triggered a debate initiated by the hashtag #YesAllWomen on the disconnect between how we educate girls and boys on sexual behavior and interactions.

“The word ‘sex’ makes everyone so nervous, and we don’t know where to look. … Raising a son, on the heels of #YesAllWomen, I would love to see a culture where words like ‘slut,’ ‘prude,’ ‘player,’ and ‘tease’ go out the window,” says Mathieu. “It sounds like wishful thinking, but I really think we can have a culture where we’re raising men and women to make responsible, safe, and fulfilling choices about sex. So much of our language is trapped in the ’50s—like ‘giving away your virginity’—it just sets girls (and boys, too) to be up against these rules and these confusing messages. And they’re not making decisions for themselves. They’re just trying to follow these weird messages they get from society.”

The Truth About Alice is released June 3.