According to some scholars, there had, for a long time, a gender bias in children’s books. Traditionally, boys were portrayed as “strong, adventurous, independent, and capable,” while girls tended to be “sweet, naive, conforming, and dependent.” Girls in books tended to be more passive and “acted upon” rather than the active seeker of solution and adventures. However, I could recall many female protagonists who possess all the positive and active characteristics: Charlotte (Charlotte’s Web,) Claudia (From the Mixed-up of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,) Meg (A Wrinkle in Time,) Cimorene (Dealing with Dragons,) Leslie (Bridge to Terabithia,), India Opal (Because of Winn-Dixie,) and Lyra (The Golden Compass.) This is just a start of a long list of names. I doubt not that young readers “need” these strong girls in their readings to form part of their world view without the traditional gender bias. Many newly published books for children continue this trend. (Lucky in The Higher Power of Lucky comes to mind.)
For a long time now, there has also been a group of girl protagonists that I might term “misunderstood.” The famous ones are Ramona (Ramona the Pest and other titles,) Gilly Hopkins (The Great Gilly Hopkins,) Harriet (Harriet the Spy). These girls are head-strong, actively seeking adventures, and (on the surface) do not care how others perceive them. (But as readers soon find out, they are all insecure and desire to be noticed, admired, and loved.) Out of this vine, there grew the current bunch of girls who are not only strong and adventuresome, but also couldn’t care less what others perceive them and how others might feel and react to their words and actions.
More and more female protagonists act rudely and selfishly and have been praised for their “pluckiness” and nonconformity. We see a mild case of witty snippishness in Mia (Princess Diaries,) and then there are the younger cast such as Junie B. Jones whose antics, unlike those of Ramona’s, are a lot more intentional and whose sarcastic descriptions of the others (children and adults alike) are beyond just a show of pluckiness or humor. Last year we saw a group of amazingly talented outcast girls in Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City. They sure are adventuresome and resourceful. No guys ever helped them with their mission. They are bonded over life-and-death situations, saving each other from great perils, and sharing secrets no one else could know. And yet, when they are with each other, sarcastic put-downs are uttered and thrown at each other relentlessly. These are not merely nonconforming, plucky girls: they are downright rude and nasty.
And, yet, it seems, the world celebrates them. “Kiki Strike celebrates the courage and daring of seemingly ordinary girls, and it will thrill those who long for adventure and excitement.” —School Library Journal and “This is a rallying cry for the ‘curious’ and an effective anthem of geek-girl power . . . All in all, an absurdly satisfying romp for disaffected smart girls.” —Kirkus Reviews
When did so many girl protagonists cross the line and went from being admirably courageous and confident to being mean-spirited and self-congratulatory in their total disregard of others? I always believe that literature does not exist to cultivate readers’ manners or to provide role models. A good storyteller should always aim at achieving a good story. It is true that these girls exist in real life (flinging insults at each other as a way to show intimacy and quick wit, much like their male counterparts) and that the world of stories should be wide-open and encompass all kinds. However, it is crucial that children’s book creators and their teams do not simply make up these characters to follow a trend since these are what children see and hear on a daily basis, both in their real life and on TV/in movies and seem to fit the market place.
I wish that more critics and readers are aware of this somewhat subtle but insidious shift in children’s literature heroines and continue to appreciate the “traditional” “strong, adventurous, independent, and capable” literary girls whom we admire and would love to be friends with after reading the last sentence of a tale.
4 responses to “A Thin Line”
Interesting post. To add another category, there are also the girls who use meanness and disinterestedness or sarcasm as a cover/defense mechanism, because they're hurting inside and that's the only way they know how to handle it. Melinda in Speak comes to mind, as does Alaska in Looking for Alaska. They're strong, but vulnerable and real, too – and, in Alaska's case, tragic.
Heather, I am in total agreement with you here. Yes, these I still consider under the umbrella of those who are emotionally courageous and plucky: their seeming nastiness (like Harriet and Gilly Hopkins) is a way to protect themselves and sometimes they come through and the need for such armor falls away, but of course, in Alaska's case, her inability to reconcile her own past sorrow and a hopeful future leads to her tragic end. These are people we actually care about, a lot. And if we have them as friends in real life, we will be by their sides each step of the way, and help them if we can.
Thank you so much for this post, I really enjoyed reading it. I look forward to your further thoughts on this subject!
I couldn't agree with you more. It drives me crazy to read books where none of the characters are likeable. I have gotten so much inspiration from the characters in my favorite books. They have helped shape who I am. I would like to think that my children (and the students I teach) will be equally inspired by the characters of the books they read.