The growing number of brave, independent girls in children’s books don’t only provide positive role models for female readers – they also teach boys valuable lessons about the supposed ‘weaker’ sex.
Girls are weak. Girls are too sensitive. Girls always need help.
Hopefully, you’re not nodding your head in agreement right now. (Because of course, none of the above is true!) But it is a fact that, even in 2016, much of our popular culture still presents the feminine sex in a patronizingly poor light.
By far the worst offender is the movie industry. Women star in fewer movies, have less to do in them, are paid less and tend to disappear altogether once they reach a certain age. (Unless they’re Meryl Streep). Basically, Hollywood is one big boy’s club.
TV doesn’t fare much better. Most big stars of the small screen are male. And every day, hours of commercials show women fretting over laundry products and vacuum cleaners, while men cruise around in the latest high-octane cars.
Perhaps the worst thing about this scenario is that little girls and boys absorb such distorted messages and grow up believing in them. From kindergarten up, the same clichés are reinforced – boys are tough and commanding, whereas girls are passive and a bit ‘sissy’.
But there is hope: Slowly, things are changing for the better. And encouragingly, one of the sharpest pioneers for social change so far has been children’s literature.
Looking for an opinionated, sassy female character who’s recognizably human and whose interests range far beyond the usual clichés of boys, bitchiness and clothes? Don’t go see a movie. Turn the TV off. Instead, just open a kid’s book.
The modern girl-as-hero renaissance has been very prominent in young fiction in recent years. Much has deservedly been written about how a parade of earthy, believable characters have provided a positive example to young girls.
But here’s an equally important point: Just think what an impact these books are also having on boys.
After all, reassuring female readers about how fabulous they are is only half the battle. If the boys are still clinging to old ideas about ‘girlie girls’ and the weaker sex, then any progress will be limited.
That’s what’s so fabulous about the recent generation of barn-storming, big hit books, such as The Hunger Games and the Harry Potter series. These books simultaneously do two things:
1. They feature strong, brave female characters.
2. They appeal to boys as much as girls.
Of course, the legions of boys greedily turning the pages aren’t thinking about gender roles – they’re just enjoying an awesome story! – but the positive messages still sink in all the same.
(And think about it: How many boys must both have a secret crush on and be a tiny bit scared of Katniss Everdeen? That’s progress, surely.)
Ultimately, the ‘crossover’ heroines are doing so much more than defeating wizards or fighting tyranny. They’re also changing the perceptions of millions of young boys about who girls really are and what they can achieve.
Weak and needy
To gauge the importance of recent developments, just think back to how things used to be.
Remember the classic fairy tale formula most of us were raised with? The poor serving girl looking for a husband, the damsel in distress, the pretty thing locked in a castle and waiting for a brave knight to save her.
If you’re a woman in your thirties or older, you doubtless grew up with such stories. While still at a young and impressionable age, you had the message reinforced that girls are subservient, weak and needy.
(Incidentally, that’s why stories that up-end such nonsensical stereotypes – think of the literally kick-ass Princess in the Shrek movies – are so refreshing and funny.)
Slowly, things are unquestionably getting better. Chapter by chapter, story by story, modern children’s book authors are dragging readers’ perceptions of gender roles into the 21st century.
The reason this is such good news is because major social change is always generational. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Take a (fairly) recent example: the civil rights movement in the Sixties. Of course, nobody thinks hard-line racists back then suddenly become enlightened overnight (sometimes they didn’t at all), and yet the world around them changed anyway.
That’s because the next generation grew up in an evolving social landscape where the old beliefs started to seem outdated. Gradually, the tectonic plates shifted. Progress happened.
And that’s exactly what is happening now. Increasingly, young girls aren’t buying the ‘helpless me’ narrative.
Today’s 12-year-old girl, obsessed with brave, feisty, much-cleverer-than-the-boys Hermione Granger from Harry Potter, would laugh at the very idea of a plaintive Princess locked in a castle and waiting for some knight to come save her.
If that story were re-written today, the Princess would pick the door-lock herself, kick the guard down the stairs and be coolly waiting for the knight when he finally turned up.
“Dude,’ she’d say. “You’re late.”
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