When an agent first approached her about writing a book, Jill Gutowitz writes in the acknowledgements to Girls Can Kiss Now, she was ready with a pitch: “I want to write a novel about lesbian aliens.” Please notify me when preorders for that book are available, but in the meantime, we’re lucky to have this thoroughly enjoyable essay collection.
Combining cultural analysis with autobiography is a risky business. The audience of people who want to read about, say, Taylor Swift may not care to detour into how her music has affected your life; and if your reflections on your own life actually are interesting, weighing them down with art history or pop exegesis might similarly frustrate a reader who’s dying to know, say, how your parents reacted when you came out.
Girls Can Kiss Now works because the author, who’s built a Twitter following “for my writing and my lesbian jokes,” considers pop culture as a sea in which we swim. Her story is one of swimming upstream against heteronormativity, as she came to realize that a yearning for same-sex heat in TV and movies was also a yearning for such in her actual life – while also absolutely continuing to yearn for it in TV and movies.
Gutowitz both celebrates the rapid rise in pop-culture queer representation and chronicles how very, very late that’s been in coming. Falling on the younger end of the millennial generation, Gutowitz still grew up clinging to only a few scraps of lesbianism, and even those few were often problematic (for example: “exploiting female queerness for the male gaze”).
The book will be a balm for readers who share the author’s experiences, but I’m here as a straight guy from gen X to say that I binged these essays like Gutowitz watching a season of Orange Is the New Black. I often laughed out loud at the author’s dry delivery in the audiobook she narrates herself (who else could so endearingly have called herself “garbage” multiple times?), and I appreciated her breakdown of tropes like Lesbian Mommy Twitter.
Gutowitz’s list of things that are canonically lesbian is so epic, I found it impossible not to start seeing the world that way. Are the freighters carrying ore into the Duluth harbor lesbian? (Yes, according to Gutowitz: “All boats are lesbians.”) What’s lesbian in Star Wars? (There is one chaste kiss, but I’d imagine even that is overshadowed by the blinding brilliance of Laura Dern’s ombré vice admiral.)
For all the tongue-in-cheek grandeur of flourishes like that, there’s a fundamental grounded-ness to Girls Can Kiss Now; the essays are rooted in the author’s own relationships with people and pop culture, and the way those relationships affect one another. Yes, that includes her relationship with the music of Taylor Swift, which became dangerously woodsy at a sensitive time for the author, and for us all.
We’re not out of the woods yet, but Girls Can Kiss Now is a beacon.
Author photo by Tucker Leary, courtesy Atria Books.