'Done Dirt Cheap' And The Role Of Bad Girls In Young Adult Novels
“When girls stick together, they’re harder to pick off.” That single sentence encapsulates everything there is to love about the new young adult novel Done Dirt Cheap. In her debut novel, author Sarah Nicole Lemon, born and raised in the Appalachians, tells the story of two 18-year-old girls from Virginia who are thrust together by unusual circumstances. For those who habitually read contemporary young adult novels — and even those who don't — Done Dirt Cheap is a game-changer that offers readers an authentic, dynamic, and fully-formed female friendship.
So, what makes it so new and different? Yes, the novel stars two teenage girls, but there are plenty of examples of Strong Female Heroines™ in YA novels: Katniss, Tris, Hazel, etc. But when we read and write about young women, it’s important to think about the tropes and stories that they are placed into. It is also important to treat girls as whole instead of as warning tales, something Lemon does expertly.
In Done Dirt Cheap, Lemon presents heroines unlike any we've seen before. Here's why this book is so revolutionary:
1. It Destroys The Unlikable/Likable Binary
Now, think about your favorite female main character. Is she upper middle class and comfortable? Is she a princess, but the badass kind of princess that eschews feminine things? Is she a warrior with a cold heart who learns to love? Is she there for the hero to learn a valuable lesson in life? Most importantly, does she have girlfriends? And if she does have girlfriends, what kind of relationship does she have to other women?
Is she “not that kind of girl”?
In “The Girl Myth in YA (And Beyond),” Kelly Jensen writes, “Girls becomes [sic] hard to swallow when they force us to consider an alternative to being either likable or unlikable.” At first glance, the protagonists of Done Dirt Cheap —Tourmaline and Virginia — superficially fit the “likable" and “unlikable” binary. But almost instantly, the layers began to be peeled back.
Tourmaline has tried to be a “good girl.” She was the reason her mother was put in prison on drug charges. Her father is president of the Wardens, a biker club under investigation for suspected criminal activity. She dresses in feminine skirts and has a nice, church-going best friend and boyfriend.
But all of that changes when she meets Virginia.
Virginia is all kinds of beautiful and damaged. When she was 15, her mother “sold” Virginia's services to Hazard, a lawyer and drug dealer, to pay off her own debt. Virginia constantly reminds herself what she believes she’s worth — just under two thousand dollars. Now a low level pill dealer, Virginia needs to figure out her role in the dangerous underworld she's spent her adolescence navigating.
When these two girls come together, they hate each other and need each other at the same time. Virginia needs to get close to the Wardens because Hazard is set on dismantling the Wardens; and Tourmaline needs Virginia’s connections. Lemon avoids the trope of pitting women against each other, and instead she develops a friendship that is painful and honest.
2. It presents a dynamic example of female friendship.
There is no actual right way to write a relationship between two young girls. Tourmaline and Virginia’s friendship develops from necessity. Virginia’s assignment is to earn Tourmaline's trust and infiltrate the Wardens. Tourmaline believes that Virginia would be the kind of girl who knows how to smuggle medication into prison for her mom. It’s a give-and-take, and both girls have a lot to lose, but somehow a friendship forms from these less than ideal circumstances.
As these two young women navigate the challenges of their lives and teenage-dom, they fight and use each other, lie and love, smoke and drink. They find a place where they are intrinsically linked — come hell or high water.
3. Virginia and Tourmaline are allowed to be 'bad girls' while still being sympathetic.
In her essay “In Defense of Unlikable Women,” Kameron Hurley writes, “But the traits we love in many male heroes — their complexity, their confidence, their occasional bouts of selfish whim — become, in female heroes, marks of the dreaded ‘unlikable character.’” Virginia and Tourmaline exist in a toxically male space — and that's dangerous. Girls who make the wrong choices or exist for the sake of the male narrator often meet untimely ends — like Alaska Young in Looking for Alaska or Zelda Toth in Thanks for the Trouble. Too often, these girls become a catalyst for the male protagonists' learning experience. But Tourmaline and Virginia exist for themselves.
For a long time, Tourmaline struggles with convincing herself that her father and the Wardens live in the gray space of the law — but the good part of that gray space. Part of what makes her feel so lost is that she isn’t part of the Wardens, but it is still her world. After she begins a relationship with the older, forbidden Cash, she also starts the kind of rebellion she avoided as a "good girl." Along the way, she questions what it means to be "whole." The answer: steal your dad’s motorcycle and ride: “She sat there as a girl freed. A woman released. A woman without fear of men.”
Virginia also finds herself falling for a guy she shouldn’t be with. Ten years her senior and more emotionally broken than she could ever be, Jason is the second-in-command of the Wardens. Because of the age difference, it is a relationship handled with a sensitive and realistic attention to detail. You root for them, you ache for them, and you want them to survive. Jason and Cash represent a small change in the world Tourmaline and Virginia live in. A world of gray spaces and invisible rules. Jason and Cash, Tourmaline and Virginia—they all have to define the rules they will live by, and not the ones created of them.
Lemon includes these two romantic narratives, and sex scenes through a female gaze, prioritizing Tourmaline and Virginia’s emotional journeys. But the most powerful love story in Done Dirt Cheap is the one between Tourmaline and Virginia. Ride or die.