This summer, out of the blue, I became aware of Charlotte Silver’s novel Bennington Girls Are Easy when it started to explode into a controversy. Of course, being a Bennington girl myself, I was pissed off pretty quickly by the title. And so was my entire Facebook feed, at least anyone who currently attends or recently graduated from Bennington College. Overall, I think there was a sense of betrayal. Bennington, when you’re a student, feels like some sort of magical whispered secret we all share. We feel the need to protect it. It got weirder and weirder when the book was labelled a “sexy summer read” and even made it on to Oprah’s list of “42 Amazing Beach Reads You Won’t Be Able To Put Down.“ So I decided I needed to sit down and try to read it for myself.
I tried to give this sexy beach read a shot. I promise, I really did try. The novel follows two best friends, Cassandra Puffin and Sylvie Furst, who attended Bennington College together and play directly into Charlotte Silver’s easy stereotype of the college’s “saucy reputation for attracting free spirits.” Before the novel even starts, Silver slaps a “saucy” label on each of her characters and puts them in a lineup so we’ll keep them straight:
Pansy Chapin: that bitch!
Bitsy Citron: diamond-mine heiress
Penelope Enternmann: coffee-cake heiress
Dorian Frazier: hired by Sotheby’s because of her cheekbones
Vicky Lalage: worth staying in touch with for family real estate
Angelica Rocky-Divine: red-headed, bisexual, cross-dressing ringleader of the dances
The notorious Lanie Tobacco: she of the wine-stained bathrobe and halo of fruit flies
That’s great and all, but what do any of these Bennington girls study? What are their passions? Nothing, it seems like, which is what makes all of them not characters but caricatures.
The Bennington faculty is not safe from the same judgement throughout the novel. In the very first chapter, Silver describes a male faculty member thinking, during a class he’s teaching outside, ”[G]od was he looking for class being over so he could go meet that leggy cello student he was banging for a quicky in the secret garden.“ The words “leggy” and “banging” come off as childish and mocking and signal just what kind of literary territory Silver travels in.
I will be completely honest here and just straight up say I could not get through Bennington Girls Are Easy. I wish I could have, I really do. But I decided pretty quickly that I hated the beach and the book I was supposed to be reading on it.
Every Bennington girl I have talked to about Silver’s novel has a story about their relationship it. Some don’t care and think the title is actually kind of funny. Some care a ton and find the book extremely offensive. It has sort have become a popular question to ask how people first heard about Bennington Girls Are Easy, since we were all on summer break when it really started to gain momentum. In the end, I believe the novel has just bonded us together even more and started the conversation on what it means to be a “Bennington Girl.”
In mid August I got invited to a Facebook group titled “Bennington Girls Are,” which, to quote the description on the movement’s Youtube channel, is “a collective effort on behalf of members of the Bennington College community” to react to Charlotte Silver’s novel. The movement–there are currently over 100 videos posted by Bennington girls (and a few others at the College, like the Campus Safety officer known as Campo Mike)–explaining who they “are” and what being a member of the Bennington community means to them. The videos are meant to give a more “accurate representation of the Bennington College spirit and of the empowerment, ingenuity, and resilience of Bennington women.” That pretty much says it right there.
While following the videos on the Youtube channel this summer, I found myself learning intimate details about girls who I had just passed by on the way to a class, and new things about people I knew intimately. Here are just a few examples:
My name is Nicole, and I came to Bennington as a transfer student. I studied Literature and Italian, and am now entering my fifth year as a PhD candidate in Italian Studies at Stanford. My dissertation is the culmination of a long research project that actually started with my senior thesis at Bennington, which I was able to write because my advisor never once doubted that I was up to the task. Without Bennington, my life would be rudderless—becoming a Bennington girl taught me how to think critically, how to express my ideas, and the importance of community.
Hi, my name is Audre Wirtanen, I’m going to be a senior next year at Bennington. I really love this project and thought I would join. I study dance and neuroscience, both very intensely and equally. I’m usually dancing, on average, 25 hours a week. I’m also going to be graduating with my pre-med requirements because I’m interested in how the nervous system self-organizes based on the constraints of the physical body.
After re-watching many of the videos this fall, I decided to reach out to one of the Bennington girls who came before me: Riley Mae Skinner. Riley was involved with the #BenningtonGirlsAre movement from the start and wrote an article about it on the Huffington Post blog.
“My grandmother sent me a copy of the book as a joke,” Riley told me on the phone just over a week ago. “She’s a writer and she’s very sassy and smart, and she was getting her hair cut and saw it mentioned in People Magazine. That was right around the time everyone was posting things on Facebook that were just like ‘I hate this book!’ I don’t have problems necessarily with the title. I more have problems with the content of the book.”
While Riley talks about the content, she means, more specifically, an incident in the novel when two modern dancers are killed during a performance on campus, a reference to an actual event that occurred at Bennington in 2005. “The novel’s treatment of the women who die is horrifying,” Riley told me. “They’re 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.” Silver, instead of offering any real commentary about the tragedy and its ripple-effects, treats the students in her novel as two-dimensional paper dolls who laugh at the dancers’ deaths and are defined only by the people they have slept with.
Riley uses Donna Tartt’s The Secret History as an example of a novel that fictionalizes Bennington without trivializing it. Donna Tartt’s characters are not caricatures; they feel living and breathing and, above all, they have a passion for their studies. Tartt connects with the spirit of Bennington and skewers the self-indulgence of her characters (think of Judy Poovey) while still managing to protect the sanctuary of it. Tartt’s characters study ancient Greek and come to realizations based in their reading of the classics like “beauty is terror.” Silver’s caricatures, on the other hand, are too busy “sipping raspberry lime rickeys” and finding a “Harvard boyfriend” to actually have a thought.
“Silver didn’t even need to use Bennington,” Riley told me. “She could have taken out all that stuff and nobody would have ever had a problem. Donna Tartt utilized the campus and the Bennington vibe in a way that does feel fictitious. So someone can read The Secret History and respond to its similarities without taking offense.”
There is a lot to find offensive in Bennington Girls Are Easy. But let me be clear on one thing: I do not take offense with the word “easy.” Neither does Riley. Being called “easy,” Riley says, says more about the accuser than the accused. There’s nothing wrong with being a young woman who is sexually active. “Easy needs to be a choice,” Riley told me, “and not a label. Just like any other word that’s been used with the intention of lowering women’s status in society.”
“I don’t innately have a problem with somebody choosing to write a stupid title,” Riley went on. “I think the conversation [since the novel came out] has been much more interesting than that. We were able to talk about what we were doing. I thought it was really great, being a recent alumna, to see the sharing of voices by people who I knew and also who I didn’t know. I felt connected now to a pretty strong talented group of women in a way that I didn’t always feel after graduating.”
At the end of our interview, I ask Riley what she would say to Charlotte Silver about her novel, and #BenningtonGirlsAre, and other responses it received.
“Honestly, the one thing I would say to Silver is that I’m sorry she didn’t have a good experience with the Bennington community,” Riley says. “I feel the bitterness when I read the book, and that just makes me sad.”
Come back, Charlotte. Come back and talk to some students. Come back and sit in on a literature class here. Come back and pick apples.
by Lily Houghton ‘17