31 Days of Stories 2021, Day 14: “Tits for Cigs” by Téa Mutonji

From Shut Up You’re Pretty

Shut Up You're Pretty by Téa Mutonji

“We’re not guys,” says Jolie, one of the central figures in Toronto writer Téa Mutonji’s biting story of nascent female sexuality. “We’re basically women.” The word “basically” does a lot of heavy lifting here. Jolie and her new friend, Loli, whose family has just immigrated to Toronto from Congo, are hanging out beside a convenience store, trying to entice older males to buy them a package of cigarettes. Jolie finally hits on a foolproof plan, telling one male passerby, “I’ll show you my boobs if you buy us cigarettes.” She follows up by telling the man that Loli will let him touch her breasts.

Jolie’s scheme, which lends Mutonji’s brief narrative its title, is an illustration of the girl’s dawning understanding of the effect her young body has on men and the way that can be exploited to get what she wants. More worldly than Loli, Jolie acts as a kind of Pygmalion of seduction, instructing the other girl on how to arch her back “[s]o that your boobies are up” and dress more provocatively to better attract the male gaze. “I have a plan” to score cigarettes, she tells Loli. “Do you trust me?”

It’s a loaded question. Loli has just met the other girl, who is sitting on the stoop of the Congolese immigrant family’s new home when they first arrive in town, “as though to check that the newcomers weren’t freaks.” When she first sees Loli, Jolie mistakes her for a boy, which would tend to indicate that the “boobies” she offers up to a passerby for fondling are not as fully developed as her own. This idea is reinforced when we are informed that Loli fled her Congo home disguised as a boy and using a boy’s passport. Loli explains that she is not confused about her sexuality, she merely prefers her hair short and finds her brother’s jeans comfortable. But her relative androgyny is something that Jolie works on erasing, the better to exploit their youthful femininity. Mutonji underscores this later in the story: “I was chubby in comparison to Jolie, but she explained to me that it was just baby fat. She’d wrap an elastic right underneath my breasts to bring them together.”

As the story’s first-person narrator, Loli is responsible for mythologizing her new friend in various ways. It is she who christens the white girl “Jolie” (as opposed to her birth name of Jolietta), after a song her mother used to sing back in Africa. “Jolie was in fact jolie,” we are told. “[L]ong blonde hair, defined nose, blue in her eyes, roses in each cheek, tall but not defiantly so.” She is also “fearless” and, in the context of the Scarborough neighbourhood of Galloway, where the two girls reside, “simply unattainable.” “To want a person like her was to want too much from life,” Loli says. “To have a person like her was to have everything and, perhaps, too soon.”

There is a note here of youthful innocence and also an acknowledgement of the way our culture requires girls to grow up too fast, especially as regards their burgeoning sexuality. Urban culture in the West is saturated with images of sex, from advertising to pornography – something that is made manifest in Mutonji’s story when the girls stumble across one of the sons of the local convenience store owners “masturbating to the women in the magazines.” They use this knowledge as leverage to get free stuff, but as Loli submits to being groped by the man who has bought them cigarettes, she imagines herself as one of the women from the magazines.

The language Loli uses to describe Jolie highlights the gap between her appearance and her actual life station. She is described as “a strange mixture between child and angel,” though Loli also recognizes in her “that rag-doll look that made her one of us – hard, used, and tired.” Loli is clearly too young to be so world weary: her experience as a refugee has instilled in her the kind of resiliency Jolie has been forced to develop as an attractive girl on the streets of an unforgiving city. That they appear “hard, used, and tired” before even reaching adulthood is a powerful condemnation of the ways our society treat young women, especially those from racialized and working class backgrounds.

Mutonji sets her story in the same area of Scarborough in which she grew up – a locale that is having a moment in the literary spotlight as a result of a group of writers that also includes Catherine Hernandez and David Chariandy. Loli describes the intersection at Lawrence and Galloway, where “low-income houses attached to the getting-by houses, attached to the getting-there houses,” and avers that the neighbourhood gives her the impression that her “life was changing, far more than it already had.”

Part of this education involves Jolie setting up the “tits for cigs” transaction, which exists at the confluence of capitalism and sex. This is something the girls are precocious enough to indulge, though their relative youth and inexperience lends the moment a creepy sheen. The anonymous male in the scene appears venal and predatory, grabbing a fistful of Loli’s breast almost immediately after asking the two girls why they aren’t in school.

“We are women!” Jolie shouts in the park after she and Loli run off with their newly acquired pack of smokes. Her bravado is evident and Loli is more than willing to play along. Mutonji, however, takes one more opportunity to shine a light on the complexity of her story’s scenario when, in the final lines, Jolie strips off her shirt and runs around the park, “her breasts moving like homemade Jell-O.” The image calls to mind childhood and puts the lie to the idea that the girls have in any way fully matured. “Tits for Cigs” refuses to condemn its central female characters, while also sharply critiquing the presumptions and expectations of the society in which they are forced to grow up.

31 Days of Stories 2021, Day 14: “Tits for Cigs” by Téa Mutonji