Mariah MacCarthy on Writing Messy Complex Characters
Author: Sara Gregory
June 25, 2019
Squad’s protagonist, Jenna, is self-involved turned scrappy when she loses the trust of her best friend and abruptly quits cheer squad. Without cheerleading—the driving force of her life and relationships—Jenna struggles to define herself. Along the way, she dates James, a trans boy and senior. Their relationship is lovesick and lusty as the pair negotiate boundaries, communicate consent, and get in over their heads. But the core of Squad isn’t James or any other boy, but rather Jenna’s relationship to her transforming self. Squad is a refreshing and well-deserved departure from the typical teen novel because nothing is tidy. Jenna’s mess is her own, and as she cleans it up, you root for her with all your heart.
I spoke with Mariah about writing Squad, being a gender cyborg, and why teenage girls deserve better.
Rae, you’ve said that your work—which includes award-winning plays, producing, and articles for Buzzfeed, and Refinery29, among others—are “sexy, femme-driven, queer, and funny.” Tell me more about your work and what defines it.
I’m being half-tongue-in-cheek about this, but also half-serious: A huge aspect of my work comes from the fact that I am a stereotypical Cancer, with tissue-paper-thin skin and emotions at a billion percent. So my protagonists–who are pretty much always women and/or trans–also feel things at a billion percent. And they’re trying, oh gosh they’re trying. They are trying so hard not to give into their worst instincts, but their emotions tend to run the show, so they mess up a LOT. In my plays, that messing-up often happens through the lens of romantic relationships; in Squad, it happens through a friendship. But I also think female and/or femme friendships are romantic as hell. They’re so intimate, and they utterly shape one’s sense of self.
There’s this interview that my friend Leah did with me a couple years ago, where the headline was, “In Mariah MacCarthy’s World, ‘Weirdos’ Take the Lead.” I loved that, and it felt accurate. I consistently write about folks who are left-of-normative: kinky people, queer people, disabled people, I write about my own experiences as a birth mother which is a highly unusual thing in my world–and as a playwright, I also love writing lead roles for “character” actors. What’s interesting about Squad is that Jenna, the protagonist, doesn’t start out as a weirdo at all. She’s a middle-class cheerleader who makes good grades and has a strong friend group, but then she’s unwittingly thrust into the role of “weirdo,” of “outsider,” for reasons that are a complete mystery to her. So the journey of Squad is, how does she handle now being the “weirdo”?
Your YA novel Squad flips stereotypes about teenage girls—specifically the kinds that write them off as shallow and silly—on their heads. You address dating, gossip, and female friendships as serious forces that shape young women and how they interact with the world. How do you reinvent and resist stereotypes about womanhood in your work? In your life?
I LOVE THIS QUESTION. In my work, what a lot of people have commented on is that my women characters are “flawed” and “complex.” I try to write someone who’s acting selfish or impulsive or destructive, yet you’re rooting for her. For some reason, that’s unusual. Like, we can have all the Tony Sopranos and Walter Whites in the world, but apparently writing a nuanced woman that you alternately love and hate is like “whaaaaat?!”
In my life, I have endless questions about what “womanhood” means to me. I don’t really identify as a “woman” anymore. Some words I use instead are boygirl, nonbinary, part-time boy, and gender cyborg. But almost everyone still experiences me as a woman, and I feel deep allegiance to women. So, where does that leave me with “womanhood”? I don’t know. I’ve been dressing more “masculine” lately, even though I still identify as a femme, because it’s the fastest shortcut to letting strangers know that I’m gender-weird. My personality is so “feminine”–I’m giggly, and squishy, and very expressive. It feels important somehow to be expressing that from within this more masculine physical container, to merge the two.
You’ve said that you “wrote Squad because it didn’t exist when I was sixteen.” What books influenced you as a teen? What does Squad offer that’s different?
This tends to surprise people, but I read a truckload of Ayn Rand in high school. Like, basically every single thing she wrote, except her book of essays or something. I wasn’t thinking of it in the economic terms that most people seem to associate with it. What I responded to was that these protagonists were okay with being alone as long as they had their integrity. They didn’t really care whether people liked them or not. As kind of a loner in high school, that was really fortifying for me. But it didn’t give me role models for how to actually have relationships that weren’t based on, “I see that you also have angular features and arrogant eyes, therefore we are both the heroes of this story.”
I also had really, really limited exposure to trans representation in high school. The earliest genderqueer characters I remember reading were Desire in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Pie’oh’Pah in Clive Barker’s Imajica. Both are incredible characters, but neither are, technically speaking, human: Desire is the personification of a concept, and Pie is an alien. It took me so long to see trans, human characters where their transness wasn’t their entire character arc. I wish I’d had more of those role models earlier. It took me until after my thirtieth birthday to come out to myself as nonbinary. That’s why, even in this book about cheer-leading where the protagonist is a cis girl, I’ve just casually dropped in a transgender love interest. Trans people are just, y’know, here! We’re just hanging out! We’re at your high schools! You can fall in love with us and it’s fine!
The crux of Squad seems to be the journey towards self-awareness. Jenna, the protagonist, eventually acknowledges that her strained relationships are caused by her own immaturity, and she seeks to make amends. When she falls for a trans boy, Jenna self-edifies, corrects pronoun usage, and reconsiders her stake in gender roles. This is striking because most teens aren’t raised to have conversations around accountability and self-reflection. What other media models new ways of being for young people? Does this exposure shift how we engage with one another?
I haven’t watched all of Sex Education yet, but from what I’ve seen, I’m super into the ways that Otis brings the language of therapy to his peers, connecting dots for them and giving them tools for greater self-acceptance. I also love that there’s so much radical literature out there for little kids, like the books Sex Is a Funny Word and Meet Polkadot. Sex Is a Funny Word frames sex in terms of consent and curiosity, while leaving room for kids to define gender and sexual attraction on their own terms. And Meet Polkadot breaks down nonbinary gender identity in easy-to-understand terms for kids.
I’m the birth mother to a six-year-old who lives with a gay couple in an open adoption. I’m so glad that he’s growing up at a time when there’s all this expansiveness available to him in the media that’s out there. That he can watch, you know, Steven Universe and see all these different ways that human relationships can look and maybe not feel so alone in the queerness of his family. It’s a horrifying time to be alive in so many ways, but it’s a glorious time to be alive, too.