A short story I recently read

‘Girls, At Play’, by Celeste Ng

Read it here in about half an hour.

Trigger warning: makes reference to teenage girls and sexual activity.

Thinking about how the story opens, and how readers are engaged…

The first paragraph uses an unemotional and factual tone to describe something shocking – a sexualised game, played by children (they’re 13 years old), while at school. Use of short sentences, and the shortness of the paragraph, enhance the shock. The present tense narration suggests normality – this is something that is always played, perhaps always has been played, rather than a new game. The colon, followed by the listing of the rules, mimics the way instructions are given; this creates the impression that the rules are being explained to someone – perhaps you, the reader, or perhaps another school girl. This first paragraph is all exposition, but it’s startling, and it provokes questions, so the reader is drawn in.

First-person plural ‘we’ is used to show the solidarity of the girls, as though their voices combine to tell the story of their collective experience (this continues throughout the story). The girls are named, but they’re interchangeable: ‘Angie or Carrie or Mandy’. The male school children, on the other hand, are nameless; collectively referred to as ‘The boys’, and individually as ‘he’ or ‘him’. The game is set up as ‘us versus them’, and both sides understand the rules.

Repetition of the words ‘play’ and ‘pretend’ emphasises that these are children, as does the story’s title; it also reveals their horrifyingly blasé attitudes towards sexual activity with multiple partners, who have chosen them without mutual consent or the opportunity to refuse (as per the rules), all while on the school playground. The girls are presented as willing participants who stand and wait for the boys to choose them. The euphemism ‘all the way’ shows their young age – they’re not mature enough to say the words, but they’re still carrying out the actions. The choice of verbs and adjectives highlights the male aggression: ‘snap’, ‘breaking’, ‘fast’ and ‘sharp’; these could also be metaphors for the physical act, as could be ‘breaking it like a rubber band’. Despite the school setting, the teachers not seeing/noticing is mentioned twice; the adults are blissfully unaware of what the children are doing (in denial, some might say). 

The opening sets up some of the themes the story explores: the loss of innocence; the normalisation/expectation of aggressive/animalistic male behaviour; the attitudes of young people towards sex and sexuality, including female desire; the objectification of females; and the creation/control of their sexual expectations and experiences. There is a suggestion that social/economic background has had an impact on the girls’ behaviour. On a positive note, we do see female solidarity and protection, rather than stereotypical bitchiness.

This short story resonates with me, as a female and a teacher. I like how, despite the isolation of the ‘game’ (the girls are alone when they’re with the boys; the other girls in the school keep away from them), the group of girls looks out for each other, and tries to support their newest member. Overall, the tone, the use of first-person plural, and the themes explored, make this story’s messages powerful.

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