More than the Beauty or the Heroine
On Books by Julie Buntin and Carolyn Murnick That Complicate a Girlhood Trope
My first was named Sam. After Sam came Kate, and when Kate broke my heart I stopped going after them, best friends who were tiny and beautiful and wild enough to be just a little bit scary. These friendships, the perilous kind I was drawn to in my teens and early twenties, were of a specific type: I was compelled by them in part because I recognized them from the books I’d buried myself in growing up.
It’s a standard pop culture trope, right? The narrator loves stories but is too shy to live them for herself; a glamorous girl comes along, and sweeps her into one. The narrator is chosen, crowned by this attention. Whatever boy she ends up with—and she almost always ends up with a boy—becomes the resolution of her story, but everyone knows that the story begins with the girl who sees her first.
The current renaissance of female friendship as a subject has found women writing rapturously about the power of bonds between besties (perhaps best exemplified by this essay by Emma Straub); it’s also seen examinations of the toxic possibilities of those sometimes obsessively tight attachments, as in Robin Wasserman’s Girls on Fire or Emma Cline’s The Girls. But there hasn’t been as much conversation about how growing up in the shadow of these representations shapes the ways in which female authors tell stories, both fictional and non-, about our sister and ourselves.
Reading stories like these, girls understand that they are meant to be part of a unit; within that unit, they can be one of two types. There is The Beauty: compelling, lawless, gorgeous—and mute. The Beauty somehow never gets to tell her own story; she kickstarts the narrator’s and then she recedes into it. The narrator is The Heroine: the one who will be transformed, whose arc of change the narrative traces. The Beauty is the heart of the story but The Heroine is its voice. She is the one who wields the ultimate power: that of narrative control.
Carolyn Murnick’s memoir The Hot One, as the title suggests, explicitly investigates the effect of these kinds of cultural tropes on real-life girls. Murnick, was, of course, the bookish one in the friendship she writes about; her beautiful counterpart, Ashley, was murdered in her home when she was 22.
Ashley’s life had been wild, and the circumstances surrounding her death were replete with sensational details: she had been partying in Los Angeles throughout the week and earning a living in Las Vegas on the weekends, stripping and escorting. She was involved with Ashton Kutcher; he came to pick her up for a party the night of her death. If he’d come in, instead of knocking and then leaving, he would have been the one to discover her body: Ashley had become the victim of a sadistic serial killer, a neighbor who’d stalked her obsessively before the murder.
Sitting in the back of the courtroom as a trial for Ashley’s murderer begins over a decade later, Murnick watches his defense team turn Ashley’s lifestyle in a rationale for her death. “How many ways,” she wonders, “are there to pretend not to be asking if Ashley was a slut?”
Witnessing these crude projections leads Murnick to ask thornier questions about her own perceptions of Ashley throughout their friendship. With the clarity of hindsight, Murnick begins to see how, because they grew up in one another’s pockets, she and Ashley came to be defined against one another: Ashley was prettier, so she was “the pretty one;” Murnick smarter, and so “the smart one.” Both girls were pretty, and both were smart, but there was only room for one of each within the pair—and so their roles were determined.
“The Beauty is the heart of the story but The Heroine is its voice. She is the one who wields the ultimate power: that of narrative control.”
Because they were so young, those judgments came to feel absolute, when in fact they were only ever preliminary, and relative. “What if things had gone another way long ago?” Murnick asks. “Maybe with a different best friend, Ashley could have been the smart one . . . How might our lives have turned out differently?”
That question becomes particularly resonant as Murnick recontextualizes some of her last memories of Ashley, and recognizes that, though at the time Ashley’s attractiveness read to Murnick as a limitless power, it felt restrictive to her friend. “At 21, [Ashley] was pushing up against the limits of what sex could make possible,” Murnick writes, “and part of her was yearning to be on to the next thing.”
“What might it have been for her?”
Being The Beauty comes with power, but, as Murnick realizes, that power is limited and can in turn be deeply limiting. Murnick may have missed out on getting hit on in bars as a twenty-something, but she lived to tell the tale—in fact, to make a living doing just that as a writer and editor. Her life with Ashley played out according to that nasty narrative logic of so many girlhood stories: as tempting as it is to be the center of attention at a party, ultimately, in books, the narrator is the one who’s at the center of the story. She’s the one who knows how to find her way to a happy ending because it’s hers to write. What happens to the other girl in the picture, in fiction and in the world beyond the page, is often much less clear.
Writing about The Beauty can sometimes feel like an author’s attempt to claim her power, or erase it, but in Murnick’s case, writing about Ashley is largely an act of defense and memorialization. Ashley became a public figure unwillingly: reading comments on an online article during the trial, Murnick notes that “[Ashley] wasn’t around to defend herself . . . She was now being talked about on message boards and in tabloids and in courtroom by attorneys who had never even met her, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.” Murnick also recognizes that there are very few people in the world in the position of having known Ashley as something more than The Beauty, and so she tries to give us a sense of the girl who lived in Ashley’s beautiful body—to reclaim space for her outside of the binary division that precludes pretty girls from ever being smart, or interesting, or having a story of their own to tell.
Julie Buntin also lost her best friend young, although Buntin’s Lea died of substance abuse. Buntin, too, is interested in lessening the gap between her successful adult self and the troubled youth that came to define her friend: “I know my obsession with Lea is partly selfish,” Buntin wrote in an essay for The Atlantic in 2014. “Her story is like a hologram. Tilt it, let the light hit it from a different angle, and the dead girl we’re talking about is me . . . At the height of our friendship I matched her drink for drink, inhale for inhale.”
Buntin describes intimately how these friendships which may from the outside seem straightforward, one girl wild and the other compelled by her wildness, actually cause their chaos through voluntary symbiosis. “In my memory, yes, I’m the sidekick, yes, she was the one always egging us to take one more step into the shadows, where we could really get hurt. But wasn’t I holding her hand, encouraging her with my willingness to follow?” she writes.
Again, the binary shifts, starts to crumble. Instead of defining two opposites, Buntin describes pieces of a complementary whole. We hear so often from the girl in the back, being tugged toward something she isn’t sure is safe. Rarely do we imagine the girl who leads turning back, seeing her friend’s familiar face, and thinking if she’s still here, what we’re doing can’t be that bad.
Buntin turned her questions about Lea into a novel called Marlena, whose Beauty gives the book its name. This move is indicative of its structure: the narrator, Cat, does everything she can to avoid being The Heroine as she tells her friend’s story, and then, only incidentally, her own. Cat is a master of self-obliteration on and off the page: she narrates the events of her time with Marlena from a distance of years, as an adult who has become a functional alcoholic, slipping out to bars between work and home, promising herself one drink and downing three or four.
While Murnick recognizes that Ashley might well have been able to live a life beyond her wild, semi-self-destructive twenties, Buntin’s Cat asks a different kind of question. Because Marlena was The Beauty, and Cat The Heroine, but neither of those things ended up mattering, not the way that other things did. Marlena was an addict and Cat is an addict, but the difference is that one of them is killed by her addiction, and the other has, so far, miraculously, escaped unscathed. Why? How?
“Rarely do we imagine the girl who leads turning back, seeing her friend’s familiar face, and thinking, if she’s still here, what we’re doing can’t be that bad.”
Marlena traces the way that economic factors combine with cultural tropes, the stories we tell about ourselves and that get told to us, to harden circumstance into destiny. Cat’s family is poor, but relatively functional, whereas Marlena’s father cooks meth in the woods behind the barely-converted barn they live in, leaving her to care for her younger brother and trade sexual favors with local men for groceries. Marlena has grown up knowing hunger and desperation, and no one has ever suggested that there might be a way for her to escape either. No one can look at Marlena and imagine a future for her, including Marlena herself. She’s just not the “kind” of girl who survives.
And so she doesn’t. Marlena trips while taking a walk through the woods. She’s high on opiates; she hits her head and drowns in six inches of water. She is 17 years old.
Where Murnick contextualizes stories of Ashley’s sexualized young adulthood with tales of her comparatively “innocent” girlhood, Cat tries to convince herself to write honestly about how troubled Marlena truly was. “Why do I keep doing this?” Cat asks midway through the book, breaking through the narrative to say that she’s been eliding the details of Marlena’s pill addiction in the story so far. “Making her out to be more than she was, grander, omniscient even, lovely and unreal. She could be such a bitch. She could sense what you hated about yourself, and if you pissed her off she’d throw it back at your face.”
Both Murnick and Cat are trying, in their ways, to protect their friends: to round them out for their audience, and convince us that they were not just beautiful and reckless, in Ashley’s case, or beautiful and trashy, in Marlena’s. They were, of course, all of those things: beautiful, and reckless, and “trashy,” which is to say, poor. But as these books demonstrate, to insist that those qualities do not preclude innocence, kindness, and deserving to live past 22, is, sadly, still a necessary and tricky narrative act.
Cat and Murnick are both women left behind: they feel inside of themselves spaces that are permanently absent, created for, by, and with a person who will never again inhabit them. Their stories struggle to transcend the narrative that automatically equates a narrator with a protagonist, survival with some kind of moral high ground. They feel compelled to tell the stories of their friends, who can no longer speak for themselves, but they are also burdened by that power, wracked with it as a form of guilt.
Their penance is to try to make those friends seem human to a world that is accustomed to writing them off as types. They do what they can to erode this binaristic view of girls; they suggest that the consciousness of a beautiful woman is not alien, unknowable space—that if we don’t know it, that’s because we’ve found ways to mute them, not because they had nothing to say.
Though The Hot One and Marlena are narrated by the girls who got away, they do their best to center another perspective in their writing. They both acknowledge the power of tropes while reminding us that there is no such thing as a “type of person.” Most of all, they admit, over and over again, that the privilege of telling the story belongs not to she who is right, or deserving. There is only one binary that truly matters: the divide between the woman who is silenced, and the one who survives to speak.