Gabrielle Zevin’s novel, Young Jane Young, deals with the lifetime effects of being the woman who is used as the scapegoat for the blame and culpability of a fallen politician.
It seems that now, in the aftermath of the exposé of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct, when the #MeToo campaign continues to present new horrific accounts of people who have been sexually harassed or assaulted by powerful men, both the media and the public have started to shift the focus of how these kinds of situations are presented. If you think about the political sex scandals that have rocked the foundations of what we believe to be true and possible, who do you remember most? Is it the perpetrator, the wife who stood by them during the press conference, or the woman who was shamed and who’s believability was destroyed in order to fit the narrative?
Gabrielle Zevin’s novel, Young Jane Young, deals with the lifetime effects of being the woman who is used as the scapegoat for the blame and culpability of a fallen politician. In the story the main character, Aviva Grossman, becomes infamous after being the intern caught having an affair with a congressman. In order to cope with the unwanted notoriety, as well as escape from the constant criticism, she changes her name and moves as far away as possible from her past. But nothing can stay hidden for long, and it’s only a matter of time before all her secrets begin to come out.
In an interview with NPR, Zevin spoke about how the Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton case was an event that, in a way, inspired her when creating the story, specifically, the way the young intern was slut shamed and blamed, while the politician managed to remain somewhat unscathed. It’s interesting to point out that, in most of these situations, the person who has more to lose, because they were never in power to begin with, is always seen or presented as the culprit, which is not only hypocritical, but also not objective at all.
“(…) So when we have a culture that is particularly harsh on women for all their missteps, I think it kind of leads directly to the path of why there are only 20 percent of women that serve in Congress, why we –only half of all states have had, you know, a female governor, things like that.”
But the novel does not end with the young woman whose life is forever marked by this scandal. There’s also the story of the woman standing unsmiling at the cameras while her husband admits to infidelity to the world. One quote I found funny and painfully real is when the congressman’s wife, Embeth, has to find the right kind outfit for this moment that will be repeated in every news outlet for the rest of her life.
“What suit jacket would say “supportive,” “feminist,” “unbroken,” “optimistic”? What one effing suit jacket could possibly accomplish that?”
One thing to keep in mind is that the novel takes place in a world before the Internet became the purveyor of news. In fact, it’s likely that without the web’s immediate and instant nature, the blame would continue to fall on the prey rather than on the predator. Because, though Aviva never claims be a victim and was in fact an adult when it happened, she was still someone who had no upper hand in the situation, like in most of these scandals where the power structure is never equal for both parties.
“They didn’t put a scarlet letter on her chest, but they didn’t need to. That’s what the Internet is for.”
Ultimately this is a novel about the expectations we place on people, as well as the prejudice and judgments we create based on the little information we have on what actually happened. Through comedy and drama, Zevin makes us confront our media-fueled misconceptions and narratives. Because how will we ever prevent more people from getting hurt if we can’t admit that the ones who’ve come forward have been vilified and chastised?