I was super excited to read Maria Raha’s new book Hellions: Pop Culture’s Rebel Women, because her last book Cinderella’s Big Score: Women of the Punk and Indie Underground was unrelenting awesomeness. Cinderella’s Big Score made me feel like Raha was a kindred spirit in the art of unabashed fandom, but one who actually went to the trouble of doing the research and putting it on paper, making her a minor goddess in my eyes. This new book expands the scope to women from all corners, including fictional characters, and examines those who could model ways of being that strike back against stifling norms.
I’d recommend Hellions as a good college textbook or something to give a young woman in your life who seems like she might be veering dangerously towards buying and reading Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. Raha uses Kerouac and Neal Cassady as the prime examples of our culture’s romance with a certain kind of male rebel, one who isn’t, if you think about it, that rebellious. The beginning chapter of the book where she dismantles the myth of Kerouac, taking particular time to note that Kerouac and Cassady were deeply uninterested in rebelling against the idea that women are nothing but service workers that provide food, sex, and praise for free. Thank god someone said it, seriously. Raha notes that every woman she knows with a bit of wanderlust in her soul has On The Road taking up valuable book shelf real estate, and mourns that fact that even today, women with rebellious spirits feel like they have to look up to men who openly dismiss the idea that women might have rebellion in their soul, too. Of course, I remember reading On The Road and having a similar annoyed reaction—I failed to see how it was particularly rebellious, even for the 1950s, when it resembles a college sex road trip movie, the kind that comes out once or twice a year nowadays. Thank god I’d read the more intriguing Beats like Ginsberg and Burroughs first, or I would have found myself wondering what all the fuss was about. In Kerouac and Cassady’s world, men are the gods of women—women must worship and sacrifice for reasons of faith, while men can be capricious if they wish without running the risk of changing this dynamic.
Raha suggests that female rebels, because they have to rebel against the sort of gender dynamics that you Hollywood classic male rebels would never question, are bigger rebels and more unsung ones. So the rest of the book is dedicated to telling their stories and celebrating them. It was a very interesting read and I learned a lot of things I didn’t know about a lot of iconic women from Billie Holiday to Janis Joplin to Eleanor Roosevelt. For the trivia and the greater depth of understanding, I recommend this book. The one thing that I didn’t like, though, in contrast to Cinderella’s Big Score is that Raha doesn’t spend much time with each woman. I’d have preferred a book where she cut the number of characters in half, but spent more time analyzing each one. Raha has a lot of good ideas, especially regarding the way that genuinely rebellious and artistic women are steered into and and remembered for their self-destructive lifestyles, even though many men have the same self-destructive tendencies without being remembered as delicate, broken flowers. (Contrast the memories of Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, for instance.) More analysis is my taste, though. I can easily see that someone who gets weighed down with a lot of analysis might prefer this style. Younger women who are just testing the waters would probably do well with this book, because the sheer volume of examples would be inspiring, and might lead them to further investigate female role models who show you how to rebel as a woman, instead of show you a form of rebellion that locks women out.