Note: This is a personal response, not a review. It’s focused on my personal reactions to this book, and attempts to put them in context. It’s about how the book made me feel, instead of my evaluation of the quality of the book. If I post a review, I will link it at the bottom of this post. I am linking other reviews at the bottom of this post as well.
Further Note: This doesn’t have huge spoilers, but it’s not spoiler free, either.
(As a heads up, this post discusses cissexism, gender dysphoria, internalized trans hatred, internalized queer hatred, queer and trans stories containing violence and/or sexual assault)
When I was young, I watched Just One of the Guys over and over and over. I was an autistic kid who often watched movies over and over, but I watched this movie differently. The ending made me nauseous. That moment, when Terry’s “true” gender is “revealed”, after months of passing as a teenage boy, that’s when I would start to feel sick, and watch the last ten minutes of the film feeling terrible. It would last for days, this sick feeling in my stomach, accompanied by this sense that my body was both wrong and was going to be exposed, and this deep feeling of despair. And I would sign myself up for that again, a few months down the line. I couldn’t not watch it again. It was the closest thing to a trans teen film I had access to.
I did the same thing with the only queer YA books I had access to, where the queer characters are killed, tortured, and/or sexually assaulted at the end. I would make myself sick reading those books over and over. They were the future I imagined I would have, that I was terrified of, and my only way of accessing queerness, so they were also deeply precious to me. I described this in more detail in a post about the importance of queer stories that don’t end in tragedy.
There were no YA books I knew that had stories like Just One of the Guys. (It abounds in other genres, most notably historical romance. I have a friend who tracks these stories, and there are so many to track.) YA like this may have existed back then, but if it did, I hadn’t found it. Until recently, I did not know any contemporary YA with a similar storyline. Until Noteworthy by Riley Redgate. (It’s of course completely possible that there are many such stories.)
I just finished reading Noteworthy, and am having a similar reaction to watching Just One of the Guys. I know the words for it now, can identify dysphoria and depersonalization and despair, all those d words that are so familiar. I knew going in that this was a classic cross-dressing story, with a main character who identifies as a girl, and passes as a boy, to achieve a specific goal. It hit all the classic marks of a story like that, including having a crush on a boy that when revealed leads the character to be read as gay and outed to everyone as gay, being hit on by a cute girl, and a gender “reveal” moment where of course someone sees the character’s chest. So it’s not exactly surprising to be feeling this way.
I want to unpack it here, though. Because I think it’s notable, that even a story that acknowledges that Jordan is doing something that may negatively impact trans people, a story where a character first thinks that Jordan must be a trans guy after seeing Jordan’s chest, where the idea that Jordan is gay is really not a huge deal to anyone except a closeted gay character, and there are multiple queer characters including Jordan (who is bi), where Jordan isn’t shunned by everyone for passing as a guy even after the “reveal” happens…even with all that queering up of a usually deeply queer-hating kind of story, I still feel awful after reading it. I still cannot bear to use the pronoun she to refer to Jordan. I still have waves of dysphoria. It still hurts.
A good portion of that is because of what I bring to the story, of course, as is often true with reading experiences. I have a lot of baggage here. But I think there is more to it than just my baggage.
There is only one queer character who gets a happy ending, and that’s Jordan. Which I gotta say, is pretty hard to take. Especially when we have a self-loathing miserable deeply closeted gay guy who is basically the villain, if there is one at all. While his arc is heartwrenching and awful and touched me, it also makes me want to cry. And we have a gay guy who comes out to Jordan because he thinks Jordan is also a gay guy, and is treated badly by both the other gay character and Jordan. His arc is also pretty miserable. I would really like it if there were some other queer characters who got to be happy. I’d also really like it if the guy who outed Jordan to everyone was held accountable for it more; it’s treated like it’s no big deal that he does that.
The queer rep is definitely not great, despite being miles above the usual cross dressing story in terms of queerness. But for me, what was really hard were the gender aspects of the story.
Noteworthy frequently evokes and reinforces common cissexist concepts of gender. In particular, the book depicts Jordan’s presenting as a boy in a way that constantly marks Jordan’s boyness as false and fake. It frequently refers to it as acting and theater, all the way through the story. The mechanisms of how Jordan presents as a boy (clothing, hair, makeup, binding, etc.) are described in minute detail, a common narrative choice in cissexist stories about trans people’s genders being false and heavily constructed. There is a very stark and constantly reinforced real/fake binary presented around Jordan’s gender. Jordan’s boyness gets fairly constantly disrupted throughout the story, which leads the reader to constantly be thinking about how Jordan’s “true” gender might be “revealed” at any moment. (The detailed descriptions of menstruation are particularly stark.) There are several “reveal” moments to different people; the most difficult one uses a classic trans reveal trope of nakedness. In that moment, a character concludes that Jordan is a trans guy, which on the surface might seem like it’s trans inclusive, but made me cringe super hard because it frames trans bodies as telling the “truth” about the trans person’s “real” gender.
One way to mitigate some of how painful it was to read all of this cissexist framing of Jordan would be to also have a trans guy main character who is depicted without evoking these cissexist concepts of gender. Or, the engagement with Jordan’s gender could be framed with much less cissexism. Ideally both, as this cissexism is both unnecessary and hurtful.
It is really marked to me as a trans reader how much Noteworthy suffers from a lack of named complex trans characters (there are a couple trans students who are briefly referenced who we don’t meet). The author could have made one of the other boys in the a capella group trans, which would have created opportunities for some really complex moments throughout the book, I think. (I am especially tempted to headcanon Jordan’s love interest as trans, and imagine a dual POV book with both of them.)
At the core, this is a book about Jordan’s gender identity exploration and experience of living into a boy identity, being read as a teenage boy, and belonging to an all boy a capella group. And, in many ways, that is likely to resonate with a trans and/or non-binary readership, regardless of authorial intent. It definitely resonated for me, as someone who fantasized for hours on end of auditioning for and getting a man’s part in whatever musical my high school was putting on, and practiced various audition pieces until they were perfect, dreaming of having the guts someday to try out as a boy, just once. Who loved playing Nicely Nicely Johnson at age ten when there weren’t enough boys to play all the roles in Guys and Dolls. Who did improv theater for years as a child, where we got to play characters we made up, and almost always chose non-human characters, because it was better to be a word processor or a phoenix than a girl. Jordan gets to live something that I wanted desperately for much of my youth. Of course I am going to identify with a character like that.
Noteworthy isn’t only a book about gender. It centers an a capella competition where teams take competing a bit too far. It shows a main character joining a group and feeling a sense of chosen family and belonging. It shows a main character grappling with poverty while surrounded by wealthy people. It has a central romance arc. It shows a family grappling with a parent’s newly acquired disability. It shows a main character exploring and affirming a bisexual identity. This book has multiple moments that are orchestrated to be comic, and a generally lighthearted tone. There is one fistfight, but basically no bullying, violence, or sexual assault, or threat of these things. Jordan is read as a boy and never misgendered, never feels despair because of the deep disrespect of others, is not intensely self-loathing regarding gender identity.
It was striking to read, because I cannot imagine a contemporary YA like this about a trans boy. One that doesn’t contain a lot of violence. One where the trans boy doesn’t hate himself and feel awful all the time. One where the trans boy main character gets to do something he loves, like singing, and take part in a music competition, and have the competition be the backbone of the story. One where he finds a brotherhood, a chosen family, with other boys. One where there are complex family issues, and identity struggles, and they aren’t about gender. One where he gets a central romance arc that’s also not the only center of the story. One where his gender is not framed as something cis people, including his love interest, have to work at to accept. One that has a lighthearted tone, and multiple comic moments.
I mostly cannot bring myself to read trans contemporary YA because it is generally filled with bleakness and despair and self-loathing and violence. I have been searching for lighthearted trans YA, with incidental trans representation, where the trans character gets to do something other than be trans and hope cis people accept their gender. I have not found it. And that makes me bitter about Noteworthy, because this should not be the case, that I can find a lighthearted complex nuanced crossdressing YA, and there is nothing even comparable that centers actual trans teens.
Which, y’know, isn’t really Noteworthy’s fault. It delivered on being what it set out to be, and it did that pretty well, I think. It was gripping, I couldn’t put it down. It sidestepped much of the queer hatred that these stories often don’t, and centered complex queer characters of color, portrayed nuances of class in a way that I thought was very effective, offered a critique of misogyny, and a very sweet romance arc. The ending, while a bit rushed, is satisfying in a way that a lighthearted book should be and only somewhat strains reality to get to the happy ending. There’s a lot that is wonderful about this book, on its own merits, separate from the state of trans YA and from my own reaction of gender dysphoria. There is a lot that readers of color in particular have praised about this book, and it’s portrayal of characters of color. All of that is hugely important, and makes this book absolutely worth reading and easily getting 4 stars from me. (I plan on writing a review, separate from this response. For now, I have posted trigger warnings for the book, if you are looking for those.)
There’s just the other stuff. The hard stuff. The way it hurt to read, and made me feel sick and awful about myself. The way I fear that trans youth reading it may have similar experiences. The way that there is a vacuum in trans YA and this might be the closest thing to a lighthearted trans contemporary YA that we will see for many years, and how harmful that vacuum is for trans youth. The way I am still waiting, 20 years after my own high school experience, for a trans contemporary YA that shows a trans kid doing something fun like an a capella competition and not hating himself or being constantly targeted for abuse, misgendering and violence. The way I can, if I squint and don’t peer too close, see how Noteworthy could have centered Jordan as a trans boy who joins a boys a capella group, and maybe has a similar arc of lightheartedness and romance and brotherhood, complete with a happy ending.
Links to reviews of Noteworthy:
Review by Shenwei, a non-binary/genderqueer/genderfluid reviewer
Review by C. T. Callahan, a non-binary author
Review by Anonymous, a non-binary reviewer
Review by Nicole Field, a multigender writer
Review by Polenth Blake, a non-binary writer