X meets Y or Z: Myth as Norm Reinforcement in Girl Meets Boy

Cover image from wikipedia.org

Ali Smith’s masterpiece of a novella, Girl Meets Boy, is a love story—albeit not the one you’re probably thinking of, the one the clichéd title has deceived you into believing it is. The phrase, “girl meets boy”, is about finding the one person who is supposed to—destined to, even—wholly complement you in the heteronormative sense. And yet, while the novella does involve the so-called “happy ending” of a heterosexual couple, the heart of the narrative beats around the story between two female lovers: Anthea and Robin. Ostensibly then, the couple literally departs from the phrase completely, having girl meet girl. However, the brilliance of what Smith is doing here is perhaps more subtle. For while the text is emphatically not the restrictively heterosexual “girl meets boy”, “girl meets girl” does not simply take its place. Gaps prevail within this story, and Smith purposely leaves it that way, celebrating the absence of totalizing narratives that seek to make sense of everything for everyone.

Myths are exemplary and ageless tools for explaining abstract ideas, such as love, death, or—more relevantly—sexual and social norms. They have existed as long as we have been telling stories not just about our worlds, but about ourselves, and just as Robin notes, “nobody grows up mythless”. Indeed, this is a valid observation—myths about life itself are the very fiction we write and will continue to write about ourselves, delineating our purpose in an ambivalent world. Through myths’ openness to multiplicity, various voices resound from all directions, strikingly broadcasting their presence within the narrative. Therefore, they are particularly suitable to become alternate versions precisely because they are malleable and fluid entities. Myths are simultaneously an inherent fiction and yet there is resonance to them, and the nature of their being is what makes them conducive to the addition and subtraction of narrative elements.

Unlike the original myth where divine intervention is a powerful force, Girl Meets Boy has no magic, no dragons, no cyborgs. Despite its lack of explicitly supernatural characteristics, it is profoundly speculative because it is an intimately human story modelled in mythic form. And this structure itself is cause for further investigation. The text re-figures Ovid’s gender-bending myth, Iphis and Ianthe, transferring the basic elements of the story onto a contemporary framework. Iphis is a young woman who has been raised as a young boy due to financial circumstances. Upon falling in love with another girl, Ianthe, Iphis realizes that she is unable to wed her because she too is female. The inner monologue that follows wrestles with the contrasting notions of nomos (custom/law) and phusis (nature/birth). Finally, the goddess Juno intervenes and we see Iphis’s metamorphosis from a woman to a man.

Within Girl Meets Boy, there are multiple levels of retellings of the Iphis myth. There is the overarching narrative structure that is shaped by the myth, then we get Robin’s telling of the story to Anthea, and at the same time, we get Robin’s version with Anthea’s culturally relevant interjections. Thus, the original myth is wholly transformed from the inside out—encroached and layered by modernity and its various complexities and nuances. However, the most fundamental difference between the original myth and Smith’s reformulation of the myth is that girl does not ultimately become boy. Anthea does not transform into a man as Iphis does; instead, it is Imogen—Anthea’s homophobic (or, at the least, ignorant) sister who undergoes the great transformation from being intolerant to becoming an accepting individual.

But in spite of all these joyful revelations, Smith illustrates that a happy ending is always entirely a fiction; it too is a myth we tell ourselves and perpetuate within society. And yet, this fact should not be mourned. In one of the five epigraphs to the novella, Smith quotes Judith Butler, who argues that both sex and gender are performances. They are temporally contingent and enacted within said timeframe, only making sense in that very moment in space and time, but ultimately impermanent. Similarly, the very notion or myth of having a complete identity through a heterosexual relationship is exposed as being an illusion. These are constitutive labels that innately exclude others—“us”, “them”, “girl”, “boy”—and thus necessarily fabricate imaginary boundaries between self and other. In naming the final section of her work, “all together now”, Smith’s stance is clear.

Nevertheless, albeit the novella’s radically transformative agenda, it still wholeheartedly believes in love—not just romantic love, but a deep familial love and a profound love of texts. Although not the sickly saccharine “happily ever after”, Girl Meets Boy is a story about self-compassion and respect, and the novella makes room for people in the overarching narrative arc whose voices have not been heard. Thus, it draws our attention to how dominant narratives can write bodies, and, by extension, write lives. It must follow then, to place with most utmost delicacy and care the fabrication of these networks of myths.

-contributed by Janice To




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