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George: 11/23/15

George by Alex Gino

George by Alex Gino was originally titled Girl George but the publisher lobbed off the first word in an ironic demonstration of transgender erasure. The book is about a fourth grader who calls herself Melissa. Her problem, though, is she was born with a penis and the name George.

Let me start by saying I like Melissa and eventually I came to like her overly masculine brother. He's set up to be the BIG BAD but he doesn't take the bait. The older brother is a belching, pornography consuming, stinky, loud mouthed, stereotypical boy of the types you see in sitcoms (such as Home Improvement).

Melissa wants to be the exact opposite and has saved up her allowance money to purchase the types of teenage beauty magazines that make me cringe. She wants long hair, long dresses, makeup and jewelry.

The catalyst for Melissa to finally start making her true identity public is her otaku love of Charlotte's Web (yes, another in a long line of these recent homages). Her class is putting on a play based on the book and Melissa desperately wants to be Charlotte. Her problem, though, is that as a "boy" she's not given an opportunity to try out for any of the "girl" parts.

Now this boy vs girl parts in a play also shows up in Gracefully, Grayson, another story of a transgender youth. In both cases, it's expected for boys to play boy parts and girl to play girl parts and the drama comes to a head when the protagonist is forced to out themselves in order to participate in the way they feel most comfortable with.

It is the use of the rigidly structured play that I have the most trouble with George. Although I grew up in a fairly conservative, homogenous, and frankly, homophobic neighborhood, a child wanting to play a character of a differently perceived gender wouldn't have caused this much uproar. We did tons of plays all the way through elementary school and everyone was allowed to try out and play every character.

My other complaint with George is more of a reaction to the small but growing number of these books that I've read, and I will touch on this concern of mine in more detail in a separate post. The problem with books about transgender characters is that male and female are played to their stereotypical extremes. Melissa and her brother are set up as polar opposites from the very beginning of the book. Siblings are usually more like each other than they are like their parents even if one is male and one is female.

But George is such a short book and so focused on Melissa's troubles at school with the play that there isn't time to explore why her brother acts the way he does. Nor does Melissa give an explanation as to why she believes she has to act a certain way as part of being a girl. I wish these character traits for both siblings had been addressed, rather than leaving it as given that boys are a certain way and girls are a different way, even when trapped inside a body that looks male.

Three stars

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