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Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield, You are Tools of the Patriarchy

June 17, 2007

You know what sucks? Gender stereotypes. You know why? Because they help to preserve institutional biases that disproportionately affect women and, in turn, hurt society as a whole (now say that three times, fast). Add to this the fact that children tend to identify with characters in books of the same sex and the sad truth that gender stereotypes dominate children’s books (yes, even the picture books) and what do you get? Perpetuation of said stereotypes.

 

There is nothing that makes me cringe more than the idea that we are conditioning the next generation of kids to accept the inferior role we’ve been stuck with since Eve turned out to be an afterthought constructed from some bit of Adam that he didn’t really need (in case you were wondering, men and women have the same number of ribs). See, unless girls are shown the possibility that they too can be competent and active agents in the world (rather than just decoration or plot devices) they’re not going to question their unequal status. Wait, no. They’re not even going to be able to attribute feelings of discontent to the fundamental wrongness of the current system. If it feels bad, it must be hormones, because girls are just emotional.

 

I’m talking about changing the world for the better and I think a good place to start would be to promote children’s literature that subvert the traditional gender stereotypes of man-as-agent, woman-as-scenery. I mean just look at the most successful books in the history of publishing – the Harry Potter series. In the books, Hermione is repeatedly described as shrieking, squeaking, wailing, squealing and whimpering. Verbs that are not applied to any of the male characters in the book, I might add. In an essay about Harry Potter it is observed that, “[g]ender roles are stereotyped, with boys out for action and the one salient girl character forever urging caution” – this despite the fact that Hermione, of the three, possesses the richest store of magical knowledge. I mean in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets she was effectively taken out of the story the moment she imparted the vital information to the boys, who then got to go all action-hero and save the day. At this point I’m tempted to remind you that the person behind Harry Potter is herself a woman, but I’m not going to, because you knew that already.

 

Need more examples? How about how C.S. Lewis threw Susan out of Narnia for developing an interest in boys and make up (while Peter, Edmund and asexual Lucy get to return)?

 

Luckily for us, there are children’s books out there that do give female characters a fair shake. They include:



At this point, it would just be irresponsible for me to not point out the Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix. I will provide a full review of this trilogy sometime in the near future, but here’s a teaser: gender is not an issue in these books. Seriously. I guess that’s why it’s classed as a “fantasy”.For more academic discussions, plug “gender roles in children’s literature” into Google Scholar at http://scholar.google.com.

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6 comments

  1. Speaking of which, I’d love to read neil gaiman’s ‘the problem of susan’.


  2. I agree. It’s amazing to reread a lot of the books that I read originally as a child and to see the blatant sexism in so many of them.


  3. It’s weird, especially since Hermione is supposed to be based on Rowling herself. It’s a loose theory of mine that being naggy and bossy are really how Rowling perceives herself. Hence, she can’t make Hermione to be all that great, because it’s too much self-praise for Rowling.

    That said, The Cat in the Gymsuit is an awesome awesome book with great female characters. Can’t love Paula Danziger enough.


  4. Rowling has mentioned that Hermione is based loosely on herself. But my understanding has always been that she was based on how Rowling used to approach her school work, not a reflection on her personality. Besides, there’s self-praise on the on hand and making yourself out to epitomize gender stereotypes on the other.

    Want to hear about it from someone who’s really pissed about the characterization of Hermione? The poor formatting makes it hard to read, but here it is.


  5. […] tag somewhere, and couldn’t find it.  My apologies) at ProcrastinatioNation has a few things to say about the ones that afflict heroines in children’s […]


  6. I realize this post is already three years old, but I see this misinformation about Tales of Narnia repeated so many times. Susan was not ‘thrown out of Narnia’ for being interested in boys and make-up: she threw herself out of Narnia for ONLY being interested in boys and make up to the extent that she actually denied Narnia ever existed. She denied something about herself because she wanted to be more attractive to men; she gave up her own identity for men.



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