Tessa Masterson Will Go to Prom by Emily Franklin and Brendan Halpin
While I am a queer femme (on a fence between the hard and high varieties), skirts and dresses just don’t feel right on me. It’s not, as my mother assumed for years (and, let’s be honest, probably still assumes), a matter of “not showing skin”. It’s a matter of feeling wrong in your skin, especially when you know people are seeing through the actual you to what they think should be the correct you—which is all kinds of erasing and deeply insulting. While I think this Byzantine glitter dress is supercute, I know that putting it on will just make me feel like a sad queer kid in an ill-fitting burlap sack, while this hot pink pantsuit and a pair of towering wedges would make me feel like the Imperatrix of the Galaxy. Finding what makes you feel that confident is a major part of finding your own style, whether you’re queer or straight.
Naturally, as someone who has struggled with being “allowed” to present the way she wants and as someone who owns a Zac Posen (for Target) tuxedo, the premise of Tessa Masterson Will Go to Prom caught my eye. (I did not go to my prom. I had a Six Flags adventure with my high school friends instead, because we were awesome.) A teenage girl fighting her conservative small town for the right to bring her girlfriend to prom decked out in a tuxedo? Fantastic! Written mostly from the perspective of her male best friend who feels slighted because she doesn’t return his interest in her? Less fantastic.
I am all for representations of platonic male-female friendship, which have been on a subtle rise ever since Harry and Hermione danced together in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1. I recently sent a friend of mine this .gif set from Teen Wolf, where eponymous teen wolf Scott and resident banshee Lydia hold hands to buoy her determination to use her newfound supernatural powers for good. Usually, though, I have to steal these moments from texts and willfully ignore the fact that if two characters of the opposite sex express any affection for each other in mainstream American media, they’re going to end up together. But featuring a lesbian protagonist and her male best friend eliminates that.
Except that Tessa is not the protagonist of her eponymous novel. I should have guessed from the cover copy, which ends by asking if Lucas will ever suck it up and support his best friend, but Fangirl’s cover copy asked if Cath would ever grow out of fandom, so I get used to ignoring that. Plus, the novel is written in alternating chapters from Lucas’ perspective and Tessa’s perspective, giving me more hope. But for a novel about a young lesbian fighting against her small town to go to prom, it’s awfully all about the straight boy.
In my film theory class in college, our professor taught us to examine the last five minutes of a film in order to understand its world view. In this light, Some Like It Hot, for example, has a radical world view because it ends with Osgood and Jerry staying together. The last “five minutes” of Tessa Masterson Will Go to Prom features Tessa vanishing into her own party, while Lucas, who saved the day by organizing the party, gets the girl. Tessa doesn’t even end the novel with a girlfriend; while she has one for the first half, they break up under the stress of the town protesting against a gay couple attending prom. I assumed this meant they would reunite spectacularly at the end or that Tessa would have a meet-cute at her own party, but she simply fades away. The last chapter of the book belongs to Lucas—Lucas, the kid who actually asks Tessa if they can watch porn together.
On one hand, this reminds me a bit of Will Grayson, Will Grayson, where one of the Wills, despite starting to date a pretty amazing girl, realizes that the most important person in the world to him is his best friend. The same could certainly apply to a lesbian woman and her male best friend. On the other hand, the majority of the slim representations of queer characters in young adult literature focus on queer young men. Girls like Tessa Masterson are needed on the young adult scene, but I would prefer to see them as the heroines of their own stories, instead of the motivation for somebody else.
Tessa Masterson Will Go to Prom has a few other problems. Continuity is a little shaky, with Tessa telling someone that it’s obvious she’s gay since she’s never dated anyone, but later remembering the two boys she has dated. And at one point, at the party that ends the novel, Lucas stares at the crowd trying to identify people along a gender binary, but is sudden sensitive to trans kids a few pages later. And its realism (the bulk of the novel concerns how Tessa’s family will survive if their business is boycotted to the point of closure) takes a hit when the party goes wildly over the top. Ultimately, though, I’m not left wishing it was tighter or more consistent—I wish it was Tessa’s story.
Bottom line: Tessa Masterson Will Go to Prom is the story of a lesbian teen who just wants to go prom with her girlfriend… told almost entirely through the lens of her straight male best friend who feels slighted when she doesn’t return his interest. Girls like Tessa are needed in young adult fiction, but I would prefer them to be the heroines of their own stories, not the motivation for someone else’s.
I rented this book from the public library.