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Florida Women Are No Joke. I Should Know.

ORLANDO, Fla. — You could say I’m obsessive about Florida. I’m always talking about it. I write about it constantly. I think about it all day long. It bleeds into everything I do. I live here — I’ve lived here my entire life — and my whole family grew up here. I am steeped in the state. Currently we’re in the midst of hurricane season, a yearly occurrence that runs from June to November. As I started this piece, yet another hurricane was barreling toward the coast. I went to Publix and could barely find a parking space; all the newcomers and tourists were there buying batteries, water, bread. I walked along the frozen section and took advantage of the deals on chicken strips. What it means to live in Florida your whole life is that you get used to things.

I don’t find anything all that interesting about watching my dogs chase around a lizard that has crept inside my home. Yet when I post about it on the internet, people find it strange. “That’s very Florida,” someone replies. Is it really? What makes something quintessentially Central Florida? Is it the bizarre interactions between man and his environment? Or the so-called strangeness of its people, those Weird Florida and Florida Man moments that repeatedly crop up in the news? Does it have more to do with the sticky humidity that layers over everything like jam coating a child’s hands? Florida often gets lumped into one bulk sum in the public imagination: a smashing together of everything that makes up the peninsula, though anyone who lives here can tell you with authority that the Panhandle is not Miami is not the Keys is certainly not Orlando.

Recently, a wave of novels, memoirs and TV shows has set out to get the details and nuances right, especially where it concerns Florida women. In my debut novel, “Mostly Dead Things,” the protagonist, Jessa-Lynn Morton, works in taxidermy, at a family business based in Central Florida. The story concerns grief and loss and love, but also how death and birth feel intrinsically linked in the Sunshine State. Earlier this year came T Kira Madden’s memoir, “Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls,” which takes a specific look at young queer girlhood in Boca Raton. Last year, in the story collection “Florida,” Lauren Groff wrote about a Central Florida that focuses more deeply on Ocala and Gainesville, places that have a deep tradition of life lived in the natural environment. Jaquira Diaz’s “Ordinary Girls,” a memoir of growing up in Miami and Puerto Rico, drops this fall.

Jessa-Lynn, my protagonist, has much in common with the central characters of two TV series set very specifically in Central Florida. Pop TV’s comedy “Florida Girls” takes place in Clearwater. The Showtime drama “On Becoming a God in Central Florida” is set near Orlando, with many scenes taking place at a water park. Unlike much entertainment that has featured the state, these shows explore what it’s like to be blue collar or working just at the poverty line. The lead characters are women looking to make their way in an environment that is often hard, brutal and uncaring. These are women willing to dig deep and sacrifice in order to find success. But what success looks like to them varies wildly. Their similarities lie in how they manipulate their circumstances to get what they want.

Both shows dig into the heart of Florida. There is always that sun-drenched backdrop that takes over everything: that dewy, mildewed, strip-malled, occasionally dumpster-adjacent landscape that bleeds its sunsets over retention ponds and oceans alike. Central Florida is all creeping plant life, juicy and teeming, ready to suck up everything. It’s as alive as the people who populate it.

As a third generation Central Floridian, I watched these shows with a critical eye, ready to find things that didn’t ring true. There were blunders — the fact that on “Florida Girls” none of the leads ever seems to attend church, wild considering that Central Florida is the land of the mega church and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, or that a Floridian like Travis (Alexander Skarsgard) in “On Becoming a God” would ever think he could store cardboard boxes outside for longer than 24 hours before they crumbled into a pile of mushy gunk — but overall I found myself leaning into these Florida narratives, even when they felt boldly absurd.

Because aren’t we boldly absurd? A thing I’m always telling people about Florida writing is that I’ll stop doing it when I get tired of it, but it hasn’t happened yet. Florida might be a lot of things, but it’s never going to be boring.

Florida Girls,” available to stream on the Pop Now app, picks up the Weird Florida vibes and utilizes them for comedic value in a way that feels intrinsic to the area. This makes sense: The show’s creator and star, Laura Chinn, who plays Shelby, grew up in Clearwater and dropped out of a high school in Dunedin. Instead of avoiding those clichés about what it’s like to be tacky and Floridian, Chinn pushes even further into them, clocking four female high school dropouts who live in a trailer park together, working at a local beach bar for free booze. They steal. They pawn their things to make rent. As Shelby prepares to take an exam for a G.E.D., she’s always wondering if they want a better life, if they want to get out of Florida, like their friend Mandy did.

This is a legitimate question that many small-town Central Floridians often ask one another. It is a place that can be hard for people. There are problems with race, class divides and privilege. Staunch conservatism, born from our mega churches, makes those who identify as L.G.B.T.Q. feel unwelcome. In “Florida Girls,” the series utilizes the flamboyant, exasperating themes of Florida Man to dig at what is really at stake when people say they want to get out of Florida. Does it mean they want to leave or does it mean they’re really looking to escape the ways in which they have been portrayed?

I never think about getting out of Florida. Sometimes I worry that I don’t think about it; that I’m so marinated in the state and its culture that it is possibly affecting the way I’m able to see other people and myself. I’m tangled in the growth of vines; the ones that stretch across my sidewalk, snaring the insides of my air conditioning unit, climbing up the windows to my house. Other people grew up here and wrote about it, too. Just a few blocks away from my house, Zora Neale Hurston was raised in historic Eatonville, the first all-black town to incorporate in the country. While she is associated with the Harlem Renaissance, she was also a beautiful Florida writer whose books are seemingly on every Central Florida reading syllabus. The culture of a place embeds itself inside you. Florida, with its wild palm scrub, its palmetto bugs, its hills of fire ants and heaps of molehills, permeates the art that people create.

“On Becoming a God in Central Florida” also taps at ideas of Weird Florida, but focuses on a very particular point in history, when Central Florida was in the midst of a housing boom. Kirsten Dunst plays the role of Krystal Stubbs, a water park employee at Rebel Rapids — either a stand in for Wet ’n Wild or Water Mania, take your pick — with a panhandle accent so thick you’d swear she was from southern Georgia. The show fixates on what it’s like to become deeply involved in a pyramid scheme. In this case, FAM, which closely resembles the Amway craze in Central Florida in the early 1990s.

There are enough local nods to make you feel like you’re experiencing Central Florida up close and personal. Tourism, which has long driven our state economically, is bracketed by the wildlife that surrounds it. There are retention ponds and lakes and alligators butted up against people and businesses and homes. Consequences inevitably arise from interacting with that wildlife. There is violence. To see this paired alongside the placid, fabricated world of the water park (replete with its chlorinated pools and snack bars) feels incredibly Orlando.

At one pivotal moment in the first episode of “On Becoming,” Krystal leans into her husband and announces, “I don’t beg.” This, a pronouncement not only of her roots but of her future, felt quintessentially Central Florida. We might break ourselves trying to make it. We might make ourselves ugly in the act of trying to find and discover beauty. We might flounder in the swamps of our specific upbringing until we realize we are becoming the exact things we said we never wanted to become: our parents, our neighborhoods, Florida itself. But we don’t beg.

Watching these shows, I see a Florida I am intimately familiar with: ranch houses with crispy yards, bathrooms full of salmon pink tiles with mildew staining the caulk. Shag rugs. Tourist industries and business built on the backs of people who work there for minimum wage. In “On Becoming,” a FAM video features a beautiful long shot of the Lake Eola fountain, a staple of downtown Orlando. “Oh,” I yelled in my home, pointing at the TV. “There we are!” In “Florida Girls,” the bar is full of locals wearing flip flops and cargo shorts and swimsuit tops as bras. They shop for groceries in convenience stores. The sun beams down on all of it, harsh and exacting. People drink too much, they have sex with people they shouldn’t, they work hard or they don’t work at all and they struggle to make a place for themselves in the midst of it.

These female protagonists are looking for respect in ways that don’t necessarily fit with their lived experience. In one story in Groff’s “Florida,” two young girls scrabble to survive, left to fend for themselves on an uninhabited island. A section of Madden’s memoir talks very frankly about assault and its aftermath, focusing on what it means to move through trauma over the course of a life. Female characters in my novel deal directly with grief and learn in very different ways how to weather it together. Having children, owning a business, navigating problematic familial relationships, enduring loss: These women have been through tough times and have not just survived — they’ve thrived. It’s the thriving that matters here. It’s how Florida itself continues to exist. Hardy, sustainable despite the setbacks, unwilling to compromise on the things we want most.

Central Florida is the humidity that frizzes your hair. It’s the lizard that crawls inside your coffee mug. It’s the palm fronds waving spastically in the breeze right before the sky cracks open and floods the roads. The recent art that features Central Florida works to make place a valuable character. It’s the true star of the show.

Like I said, Florida is a lot of things, but it’s never going to be boring. When the hurricane is on it’s way, what do we do? We fill our bathtubs with water. We pull out candles and flashlights. We invite over our neighbors. We weather the storm. And then, together, we work to clean up the debris.

Kristen Arnett is the author of the novel “Mostly Dead Things.”

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