Ann Bannon’s pulp novel Odd Girl Out (the first of the famous Beebo Brinker series) is the first, and so far only, 1950s lesbian pulp novel I’ve read. I knew vaguely going into this that things didn’t usually work out so well for the lesbians in these books—publishers usually insisted on a distinct lack of happy endings, you know, in case someone thought they might be advancing a homosexual agenda! But I was trying to reserve my judgement until I’d actually read one of these pulp novels, and I naively got about a third of the way through Odd Girl Out thinking, wow, this love story is actually quite adorable and Bannon’s observations on the social conventions of 50s college life are actually quite fascinating. Of course, Bannon had to go and ruin it by making one of the girls eventually fall for the so-called superior charms of a man; but, I’d like to see if I can tease out something a bit more positive that I can take from this novel. Here goes!
Essentially, Odd Girl Out is the story of Laura, a sheltered young woman who has just started college; she’s intrigued by and then falls for her roommate, the tomboyish, confident older student Beth. The erotic tension in the early stages of Laura and Beth’s relationship is quite well done; I vividly remember the scene where they go to the movies together and shyly begin to hold hands. So cute! Bannon really nailed the excitement/terror of delirious young love that produces that ‘I think I might be sick but I’m really happy anyway’ feeling. In a way, the fact that Beth and Laura’s relationship is initially so sweet makes Beth moving onto Charlie—aptly described by Mfred in her review as “an odd combination of tender and caveman, having his way in the name of Good & Manly Decision-making whenever the plot requires it”—all the more brutal, but I’m willing to give Bannon some credit here. She does a great job showing us why Beth is so attractive, and I was actually surprised that it was her who ended up dating a man, and not Laura, because Beth is definitely more masculine; I’m guessing that allowing the more feminine Laura to embrace her queerness—as much as that’s possible in 1957—would have been revolutionary and unexpected for the time. You end up cheering her on at the end. I wanted to tell Laura as she head off to Greenwich Village by herself after being ditched by Beth at the last minute: “Don’t you worry about that traitor Beth, you’re going to find lots of cute dykes in NYC!”
The subplot involves Beth’s friend Emmy, who is kicked out of college for (gasp!) wearing a sexy costume that ‘accidentally’ reveals a bit too much at a party and then having pre-marital sex with her boyfriend whom the college forbad her from seeing. This story is actually quite illuminating. Can you believe that post-secondary institutions really had that kind of ridiculous control over female students? After Emmy is forced to leave school, her boyfriend Bud promises to marry her, but Bannon leaves a distinct amount of doubt as to whether Bud is really going to do anything of the sort. She makes it clear that Bud is privileged, able to continue school and to pursue his career as a musician while Emmy is sent home and punished. Emmy is caught in a double bind: she’s booted out of school for her relationship with a man, but then her only hope for redemption is marriage. So, Bannon is actually pointing out the flaws of heterosexual patriarchy, the very thing that Beth so happily accepts at the end of the novel. There aren’t any explicit links drawn between Beth and Emmy’s situations, and likely Bannon intended Charlie to epitomize ‘one of those few good men left in the world,’ but I couldn’t help but wonder whether Bannon wasn’t really slyly critiquing the ways that patriarchal societies, on the one hand, teach women to depend only on men and to use their sexuality to secure one, and, on the other, punish women for their so-called weakness and call them sluts for expressing their sexualities. In the end, the lesbian Laura is the only female character free of these restraints. Now that is something I—and I think other modern readers—can appreciate, despite this novel’s dated flaws.