When Charlotte Silver’s novel, Bennington Girls Are Easy, first blipped onto my radar, I didn’t think much of it. One thing I’ve learned from being a “Bennington Girl”– I prefer “woman”– is not to take things too personally. Everyone should be able to laugh at themselves, right?
Within a few days of the novel’s release, however, fellow Bennington Girls were already posting updates to Facebook and responding to the title with a combination of defensiveness and humor. Apart from a sensationalist title, I thought to myself, maybe it’s not that bad! We haven’t even read the book yet.
Two days later, my grandmother sent me a copy in the mail. She was getting her hair done, saw a review in People Magazine, and “had to” get it for me.
Look what my grandmother decided to send us?!?! LOL! Can’t WAIT to review. The last book she sent was “Slug: It’s Not Just a Name, It’s a Way of Life,” full of useful slug recipes. I’m expecting this to be equally academic.
Later that night, as I as read the inside jacket and first three pages of the novel, a hot lump rose in my throat; a righteous, how dare she? feeling that forced me to put the book down. Why did it hurt to read a book included on O Magazine‘s “Season’s Best” list? It was one thing to call me “easy,” but quite another to discredit the faculty and students who, I believe, changed my life. It seemed impossible to me that the Bennington of Charlotte Silver’s generation could be so different from the Bennington my generation attended.
Although this piece is not is not intended to be a review of Silver’s book, there is one important point I would like to touch upon. Under the copyright it is stated that the book is fictional, and that any resemblance to real people, places or incidents is coincidental. This cannot be accurate. Within the first chapter, Silver exploits and sensationalizes the deaths of two young women, directly referencing an actual tragedy that occurred at the College in 2005. The novel’s treatment of the women who die is horrifying — they are used as the butt of a terrible joke about the stupidity of modern dancers, and Silver’s characters treat the tragedy as commonplace and unworthy of attention or compassion. The Bennington community I know is still mourning this tragedy a decade later, certainly not laughing about it, certainly not poking fun at the dancers’ work, certainly not casting the event aside without thought.
After the first few chapters, Bennington College is no longer the focus of the book. The characters, all of whom are unlikeable, pretentious, and incapable of handling the real world, are associated with Bennington, but apart from a few choice snippets– “It won’t matter if she has a boyfriend. Bennington girls are easy,” and “…Bennington alumni were a remarkably nonresilient lot”– I was able to let much of it go.
Usually when I read work by a Bennington graduate, I am blown away by how amazing and articulate it is (Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch took my breath away). In that regard, it was disappointing to feel insulted rather than inspired.
I feel this novel should be a topic of discussion outside of the Bennington community. The ways in which young people are portrayed, homosexuality and race are discussed, and people of both genders are labeled and dismissed, have no place in a society that considers the language used around these subjects to be important. I do not take issue with the idea of being “easy,” but that must be a choice and not a label, just like any other word we use with the intention of lowering women’s status in society. We are free to call ourselves “easy,” but that should not be used to degrade us.
After finishing the last chapter, more than anything I felt sad that Silver had seemingly missed out on the best part of a Bennington education: the people. Rather than lashing out at the author (à la Sylvie and Cassandra), members of the College community instead rose to the occasion in a cooperative and empowering manner. Bennington “girls” collaborated in the creation of a video project, Bennington Girls Are, and now have created and distributed over 100 videos of themselves talking about the incredible things they have accomplished and offering up diverse and dynamic adjectives to describe themselves in place of “easy.”
Our discussion has gone further than the videos, however, and continues to grow. Within our community, we have treated the publication of Silver’s novel as an opportunity to discuss what “easy” really means. We’ve discussed the privilege of being a white educated woman and how that privilege has played a role in some of our achievements. We’ve discussed stereotypes, self-examination, and labels– both internally and externally imposed. We’ve discussed how to include men, and how to create an open and inclusive space for individuals who fall outside cisnormative definitions of gender or sexual identity. The result has been a beautiful compilation of stories that form a much more accurate picture of what Bennington Girls “are” than Silver’s novel.
And as for me — I woke up today next to the Bennington Girl I am about to marry and I thought about how proud of her I am. I thought about my friends who leave me awestruck with their intelligence and creativity. I’m inspired by Bennington Girls, or rather, Bennington WOMEN, many of whom I don’t personally know.
We are women who take action, speak out, inspire, lead, and collaborate. We sleep with who we want to sleep with, and we peel off the labels that people try to stick to us. I don’t think that Bennington Girls can be reduced to “easy,” and personally, the world described in Bennington Girls Are Easy does not resemble the Bennington I know.
Riley Skinner is a musician and proud “Bennington Girl” living in Seattle Washington.
Check out the Bennington Girls Are project here.