Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In “The Girls,” Wakoski uses the refrain “I have never been one of the girls” to separate herself from the mainstream, and in so doing she establishes herself as the “other,” a marginalized person who does not belong. At first, it is her physical appearance that isolates her and makes her the victim of the girls with Barbie-doll figures and designer clothes. An outsider, not a sorority girl, she is labeled and identified as a nonperson (an “encyclopedia”) or as one who is not complete (a “brain” only).

Often things change with time, but in the speaker’s case, at age forty-seven, things have not changed. “Now,” as she puts it, Peggy looks like Jane Fonda; the speaker does not. The speaker also differs from the “girls” in terms of men, who in this poem are represented or symbolized as phallic snakes—unlike the “girls,” who are at ease handling snakes literally (they put one “ritually” in a teacher’s desk) and figuratively (they swim with cottonmouths). For the girls, the snakes are intimate, nonthreatening associates personified in one case as a “cobra who sits on the family radio/ in Sri Lanka.” These “snakes” are almost domesticated by women, who know how to control the phallic snakes associated with Lawrence, whose fiction depicted castrating women attempting to destroy masculinity.

Compared to these “girl women,” the speaker is deprived of her sexuality: “In your presence I am neither man/ nor woman.” If to be a “woman” is to be the “girl woman” she has depicted, she is no woman, nor can she be an easily manipulated man with only the semblance of control. She is “simply the one/ afraid of snakes.”

The concluding lines do not suggest defeat because the speaker refuses to be labeled or identified in stereotypical gender terms. She will define herself, and when she adds that this fear of snakes is “the one thing/ not allowed,” she willingly and defiantly accepts her marginalized position. This tone is consistent with the tone used throughout the poem. While she states that she “envies” the girls and wishes she could shed her Medusa image, there is a kind of bemused contempt for the “girls” and their machinations. The notion of the “girls” being real “Gods” is surely bitterly ironic.