Sunday, May 20, 2007

Books for boys and books for girls

AVI posted this entry about a comment J.K. Rowling made about sexism in Narnia, and I responded so energetically that I ended up running out of room on the comments area. That's a moment you're supposed to stop, rethink, and rewrite, so of course I just copied the comment straight onto my site and kept going. If you've got time, make sure you read AVI's post and the comments before starting into mine. Actually, even if you don't have time, do it anyway. Otherwise this post will make no sense. In fact, reading The Chronicles of Narnia would also be a prerequisite to reading this post. So if you haven't done that, go do that now.

I'll admit that last bit is a little unnecessary. I would be very surprised if anyone who reads my posts has never read The Chronicles of Narnia. Very surprised indeed.

To get to it, though - young female characters in kid's books tend to go in two different directions. Some are the girls in boys' books, who sit idly by, either as a prize or a companion or a caretaker, or sometime as a distraction. They don't swing on birches across the river or adopt runaway dogs as heroic pets, they don't discover underground tunnels near the old warehouse or see shady characters wander into town on a hot afternoon. That sort of stuff is for the boys. Girls don't come along on those adventures.

Girls in girls' books don't come along on those adventures either. They find their own adventures in hidden crawlspaces in the attic or in the branches of the great old oak tree just over the hill from the school grounds. Sometimes boys come along on those adventures, but they're always pale, sissy boys who need to be loosened up, or wild boys who are in tune with nature, and would never try to change the verve or spunk of these girls. These girls are free and adventurous and untamed, and often afraid that marriage will one day tie them down and hold them back from all their free, untamed adventures, that it would make them become 'manageable.'

Eventually, as the girls in the books get older, the girls in them begin to feel that they must change their untamed nature in order to be married - I Capture the Castle; Catherine, Called Birdy; etc. Eventually, they realize that their untamed nature is a good thing, but they still must tone it down some, leave some of it behind, in order to actually move into adulthood. Boys in boys' book make this decision, too, but in boys' books it's as seen as "becoming a man" (a very good thing in the eyes of boys), whereas in girls' books, it's "putting childish things away" (a sad, bittersweet day).

In fact, it's not a jump to say that when girls put their wild, childish sides away in these books, is a loss of their virginal status - no longer are they the unfettered free spirit of their youth, but the responsible, burdened wives and mothers they tried so hard to avoid being.

Lewis never asks that of his female characters. Jill is never punished for her femininity - she loves the beautiful dress that she's given at Cair Paravel, but chooses smarter clothes to go adventuring in. She frolics and flirts with the giants holding them prisoner in their castle in order put them off their guard, but doesn't hesitate to dive into the bowels of the earth to go rescue the captured prince. And in the end, she isn't asked to be the love interest of the boy she adventured alongside, they're allowed to end the story partners and fast friends. Aravis rejects the frilly, perfumed life of a rich man's wife in order to go adventuring, but she never has to give it up in order to find happiness and get married. No compromise ever mars her untamed nature.

The girls in Narnia always end up following their own lot, and while they may sometimes become more maternal, or seem to be lacking a harder edge (it is Trumpkin and not Susan who shoots the attacking bear, as Susan is afraid that it might be a talking - or, good - bear), sometimes those instincts save the day (Jill doesn't kill Puzzle, the foolish donkey masquerading as Aslan, and in turn he becomes their close ally). The girls are too small to wear much of the armor, they are given quivers and daggers instead of swords and shields, but Lewis never asks them to be subservient to anyone - Lucy and Susan rule alongside Peter and Edmund, with a chain of command relating to age rather than sex; Polly is sent as an equal partner on Digory's journey, and it is to Jill that Aslan gives the responsibility of her and Eustace's quest. Whenever someone refers to their ideas as girlish or lacking in bravery, it's always when someone is about to do something phenomenally stupid and is unwilling to listen to reason.

Rowling can disagree with Lewis' statements on femininity all she wants, but he treats all his characters with a deep love and respect, most girls would die for the chance to be Lucy or Aravis. But no girl would ever want to become Cho Chang or Fleur Delacour. Even if they do get to wear lipstick.

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At May 21, 2007 8:26 AM, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

Wow. You really know your stuff. Great observations.

At May 21, 2007 11:13 AM, Blogger Ben said...

Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

At May 21, 2007 4:19 PM, Blogger Megan said...

Uh, what about Tonks, or Hermione, two strong younger women in the series. And as for treating all the characters with love and respect, the bad ones as well? There are stupid, bitchy girls who do bad things as well. Not just perfect little angels, who do what they're told, don't think and don't wear lipstick. Besides, Fleur, while beautiful, is also a strong and intelligent woman. I'd rather be her then any character from Narnia.

At May 21, 2007 6:22 PM, Blogger Christon said...

I still agree with Wyman. Tonks and Hermione, and maybe even Ginny (only in the later books), many of the women in Harry Potter do seem to each fit a particular steretype. In their own way, even Tonks and Hermione fit into certain stereotypes, just ones that aren't quite as negative. I mean, how often is it in modern books that we see the strong female character, who is smart and agressive, and yet is always portrayed as not quite attractive, except for when they really work on it (Anyone remember Hermione at the Winter Ball?). Isn't that sexist in its own way - why can't the strong female be beautiful and interested in make-up or whatever and look pretty. They aren't mutually exclusive. Now I haven't read Chronicles for a little over year, so my facts won't be as accurate as Wyman's, but I seem to remember Lucy eventually grew up and was very pretty, and did take care of herself, yet she was also strong and independent. Yes, maybe Lewis' views on women in battle might be a little antiquated, but they are still accurate description of the military today, and so long as musculature makes a difference in battles, I doubt things are gonna change. Finally, Fleur was only portrayed as strong and intelligent after Harry's interest in her faded. I mean, in Goblet of Fire, she spends a good chunk of her time acting helpless even though she made it into the tournament. If I remember correctly, she had the worst score out of all 4 contestants at the end. All that said, I think Rowling's depictions are fairly realistic because there are girls/women out there who fit the stereotypes she uses to a t, but there are also ones like Lewis' and if I ever have a daughter, I'd rather she used Lucy as a role model than even Hermione.

At May 22, 2007 1:38 AM, Blogger Wyman said...

Excellent. Christon got here first and made my exact argument for me.

It is the weakness of Rowling's feminine characters that they are either shallow and self-centered, or ugly duckling-types - the menfolks will never see their beauty because they are focused on books and hard work. Pick your stereotype.

That being said, I've always loved those ugly duckling characters - Ginny and Hermoine and Tonks. It's impossible not to like them.

At May 22, 2007 9:01 PM, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

I don't completely disagree with Megan's comment, and it spurred a second long post on female characters over at my own site:


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