Weekend Wonderings

This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about gender and societal expectations.  It started with Vivian’s post, “Girl Power, At What Price?” at HipWriterMama.  In that post, Vivian wonders how the pressure to have, do, and be everything is affecting girls today.  It continued as I tried to sum up the first several chapters of Celia Rees’s Pirates! for my roommate, and I mused about how common it is to have a story where a wealthy girl loves a man below her station, but it rarely seems to go the other way.  It continued when I read Becky’s review of At the Sign of the Star.  Meg Moore, the main character in the book, dreams of a life where she can do more than just wifely tasks like sewing and mending.

All of this came to a head in my mind this morning, when I started thinking about what it means to be a woman, and especially what it means to be a strong woman.  I know I’m saying nothing new here, but it saddens me to think that roles that have been traditionally assigned to women are often rejected as “not enough.”  I don’t mean to say that people should settle for something in life that doesn’t satisfy them.  What I find disconcerting is that when women seek to take on traditionally male roles, they often explicitly devalue traditionally feminine roles in their speech and actions.  When some women suggest that managing households is an inferior task to being out in the world, I feel as though they aren’t really helping “the cause.”  I’m having trouble expressing myself well here.  I suppose what I’m getting at is that I feel women should choose the work that fulfills them most and that they find most valuable.

This brings me to this week’s question:
In what ways do children’s and young adult novels shape readers’ notions of gender roles?  How can and do they present more options, especially to girl readers, for how to spend a life?

I’m looking here for titles, trends, and examples of literature where girls get to choose who they are going to be, or that explore when and why they don’t get to choose who they are going to be.  We have resources like Jen Robinson’s 200 Cool Girls of Children’s Literature and readergirlz.  What else is out there?  What has shaped the women we are now, and what will shape the girls of the future?  What role does children’s and young adult literature play in affecting boys’ and men’s views of women?  How can we show girls the myriad of possibilities open to them without coloring their view of which possibilities are best?

What do you think?

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  1. My favorite classic novels that feature girls aren’t mainly about romance and marriage but about adventure, curiosity, intelligence and determination. Some examples: Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

    Let’s look at Anne Shirley. Yes, Anne does eventually fall in love with Gilbert, get married, and have children, but she also is a writer, a scholarship recepient, and a teacher. As a child, a teenager, and an adult, she fights for what she believes in and she defies people when they say she shouldn’t do this-or-that because she’s a girl. She’s bold and she’s strong.

    Also: I can’t imagine anyone better as Anne Shirley than Megan Follows in the Kevin Sullivan films.

    Here are some recent titles that discuss gender roles:
    What Happened to Lani Garver by Carol Plum-Ucci
    Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan
    The Realm of Possibilities by David Levithan
    M or F? by Lisa Papademetriou and Chris Tibbetts
    Far from Xanadu by Julie Anne Peters
    Luna by Julie Anne Peters
    Dairy Queen by Catherine Murdock

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you for taking the time to put together a feed for my livejournal. It was so kind and just so amazing. I so appreciate it!

    This is such a thought provoking post! Great question.

    The books that pop out right away in my mind are Megan Whalen Turner’s books in The Attolia series. You have queens who wage war, strategize for power, and have men bow down at their feet. Men pray to goddesses.

    There is also Bella At Midnight by Diane Stanley where young Bella braves quite a bit to warn Prince Julian of impending disaster.

    I’m also wondering whether books that are in the fantasy genre have more girls who are in untraditional roles of adventuress and heroine. ie. Lyra in The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman.

    As far as books with more of a modern day time period, I’m going to have to think about this for a bit.

    Thanks again!

  3. I adore Anne so much. I wish I could play her. I did try out for that new musical version – and though I kept checking online for quite some time after the audition, I never saw anything hinting that it had actually been performed.

  4. Re: the feed, it was no trouble! Took about three seconds. And now I can read you on my friends page, yay! It’s silly to keep up multiple journals when RSS makes it so you don’t have to. If you know anybody else who needs an LJ feed, send them my way. I don’t mind setting them up. (You can ask Little Willow. Whenever she finds a blog that doesn’t have one, I get it over here for her.)

    One of my favorite fantasy series, The Sword of Truth by Terry Goodkind (not kids lit, but it is fantasy) has an amazing woman called Kahlan Amnell who is a religious leader, diplomat, and field general all at once. I love her. Fantasy can go either way. Sometimes it is the worst for having a damsel in distress; sometimes you get a girl/woman who is more than a damsel in distress but the tone of the text is still vaguely patronizing; sometimes you get women like Kahlan who are brilliant and beautiful (and I mean that in terms of character, not just looks) and amazing.

    I think Dana Reinhardt achieves characterization of teenage girls brilliantly.

  5. I think every book read pours a philosophy or world view into our minds, whether we realize it or not. We learn much by absorbing in the words. I love to challenge teens to find the message within the work so that they can decide for themselves whether to accept or reject it.

    Girls have the advantage because they will read books with male protagonists. And they learn about males. Many guys are missing out on much by not reading books with female main characters. There they would find great girls to respect, and they would be challenged as well. Reading about gutsy girls would enable them to value and appreciate the true beauty and strength of women instead of what the media portrays.

  6. I think the comment about girl characters in fantasy is true. One of the reasons I’m drawn to certain fantasy books is because I join the girls as they go on adventures, take risks, overcome obstacles, and come into their own. I also have to admit that there was a shortage of strong girl protagonists in fantasy books when I was a kid, so I read the books and imagined I was the boy characters. Luckily girls don’t have to do that today.

  7. A readergirlz blogger

    A Northern Light is exactly about the struggle of gender.
    She has to stay and work on the farm because her brother ran away and her mother died of cancer. But she wants to be a teacher. Everyone expects her to marry the local cutie who has proposed, and will end up being a farmer.
    But she goes against her family because she knows education is the most important.
    She is even an important factor in figuring a murder at the hotel she works at to bring in money for the family.
    The book has a powerful scene where a woman gives birth. And how difficult it is in that time period. (Late 1800s.)

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