Done looking for the critics ’cause they’re everywhere
They don’t like my jeans, they don’t get my hair
Strange ourselves and we do it all the time
Why do we do that? Why do I do that? Why do I do that?
-P!nk, “F**kin’ Perfect”
While working on this post (originally it was just going to be one post, WHOOPS), I emailed my mom and asked her what books she read with female protagonists growing up. My mom was (and is) a great reader, and got in trouble as a kid for reading when she was supposed to be napping. So what was she reading under the covers when she was our age? What were the heroines like, pre-1970 and the Womens’ Rights movement? She wrote back:
The first book that always comes to mind is the “Girl of the Limberlost,” by Gene Stratton Porter (here‘s a nice review of her work by Janet Malcolm from the New York Review of Books [snip]. I was entranced by the butterflies, and the tales of the swamps and plants (and terrified of the quicksand), and was just as eager to be one of the prettily-clad girls as the heroine was. I thought I would read the book to Regina and you, but when I picked it up in the mid-1980s and started re-reading it, I was horrified. Janet Malcolm doesn’t mention racism in the earlier books, but that was one of the things that struck me, even in Girl of the Limberlost. I finally decided that no matter how much I had liked the books (and entirely missed the bad parts, which tells you something about the milieu in which I was immersed), I wouldn’t be reading them to my kids.
… I sneaked a copy of “Gone with the Wind” out of the high school library when I was in seventh grade, and kept it in my locker at school so that [the blogger’s grandmother] wouldn’t know I was reading it. It was on her “Absolutely Forbidden” list.
… Nancy Drew, and Cherry Ames (a nurse, I believe during WWII?) — those were our heroines. We read everything in the series that was in the library, (really the only source of books in my childhood). They were just as sex-free (sort of) as the Girl of the Limberlost, and just as adventurous, always poking their noses into things that were wrong, and by cleverness and pure hearted-ness, making them right. There might have been other girl adventure heroines, but those were the two who were most important. Among them, girl of the Limberlost was closest to my heart because she was poor and didn’t dress nicely (due to her mother’s frugality), and loved butterflies.
I personally have read none of these books. The defining heroines of my childhood included the American Girls, particularly pioneering Kirsten, spunky Felicity, courageous Addy, and clever Samantha; Madeleine L’Engle’s Meg Murry; Diane Duane’s Nita Callahan; Patricia C. Wrede’s Cimorene and cross-dressing Kim Merrill; Donald J. Sobol’s Sally Kimball; Tamora Pierce’s Alanna of Trebond. All well-written, interesting characters, and awesome role models for a young girl.
If there was one common thread through all these girls I was reading about, I’d say it was their love of learning and education. They were almost unanimously the kind of nerdy kids who would never be popular in a typical high school (well, less so the American Girls, I guess, who usually had bigger problems than high school cliques). A lot of them eschewed typical signifiers of femininity: Meg Murry wore thick glasses, just like me, and was more comfortable with a math textbook than a makeup brush, and Nita Callahan got beat up for being brainy and considered the library a perfect hiding place from bullies — a strategy I adopted in high school for a while to avoid unpleasant people — and Cimorene worked with her hands to do hard work rather than embroidery, and Sally Kimball was just straight up badass.
They were pretty much all Me’s, in other words, rather than Other Girls.
And I have a strong suspicion that this is because Madeleine L’Engle and Diane Duane and Patricia C. Wrede grew up with a lot of the same books and icons my mother did: with Nancy Drews who could shoot and drive and investigate, but were also lauded for their cooking and fashion sense, with Ozmas who were unfailingly compassionate and gentle, with Susan and Lucy Pevensies who were told that “battles are ugly when women fight.” They grew up in a changing landscape where the feminine ideal of a happy mother and housewife was being supplanted, sometimes slowly and sometimes violently, by the idea of women working outside the home (again — always worth remembering that WWII was an era of women working in factories and offices and everywhere else) and being equally able to do anything a man could do. So the heroines these women wrote were ones who rejected early 20th century ideas of what it is to be a girl.
And those are the heroines today’s crop of YA authors grew up reading. And to us, it seemed self-evident that the best heroines are smart and read books and don’t wear makeup — because I think for a hell of a lot of us, that was who we felt like as teens. We saw ourselves in these books, and when we grew up and started writing, we wrote what we knew: spunky, smart girls who often reject femininity. Bella Swan. Clarissa Fray. Katniss Everdeen. Annabeth Chase.
I want to say again: there is nothing wrong with this trope. There is nothing inherently wrong with the Brainy Brunette as heroine. There’s nothing wrong with the Kim Merrills and Alannas of the literary world, who take on explicitly masculine roles. There’s nothing wrong with Taylor Swift’s On the Bleachers, or Cady Heron.
What’s wrong is when we start saying that that is the only right way to be. When we start saying that something’s inherently wrong with Cimorene’s sisters because they’re dainty and don’t like rough work; that there’s something inherently wrong with Taylor Swift’s Cheer Captain because she wears short skirts; that there’s something inherently wrong with Susan Pevensie because she likes nylons and boys; that there’s something inherently wrong with Nancy Drew because she’s kind and gentle.
And again, let me be very very clear: I don’t think that’s the message Patricia C. Wrede or Diane Duane or Tamora Pierce or anyone else sets out to send explicitly. The Me vs. Other Girls dichotomy is one that we’ve had written deeply on our psyches, though, and it’s easy to accept it as true if we aren’t careful. It’s one we’ll read into media if we’re not careful; it’s one we’ll write into our stories if we’re not conscious.
Like, do you watch Game of Thrones? I love the variety of women portrayed on that show. But there are a lot of people out there who hate the feminine, passive Sansa Stark, while cheering for cross-dressing, ass-kicking Arya Stark. Both characters are very young, both have been violently orphaned, both are attempting to negotiate incredibly dangerous, hostile environments — but because one is wearing dresses and using “feminine” tactics like guile, like yielding, like politics, she gets accused of being selfish and weak and stupid, and the other who wears trousers and uses “masculine” tactics like fighting with a sword and cold-bloodedly arranging the murder of dozens of guards in order to escape a prison camp is lauded as badass and strong and smart. (Like, seriously, Arya is scary, guys.) The show itself isn’t trying to tell you that Arya is inherently better than Sansa — if you switched their positions, both of them would probably be screwed because Sansa wouldn’t know how to physically defend herself and Arya would just murder a bunch of dudes and get killed in the process — but the fanbase will try to tell you that she is.
Because we think Me is worth more than the Other Girl.
So what’s to be done?
(I swear I’m wrapping this thing up.)
Write girls. Write so many girls. Write girls who are brunette and love books and also heavy metal and paint their nails green because they think it’s pretty. Write girls who are blonde and read Cosmo and also like marine biology and other girls. Write black girls and Indian girls and Korean girls and Pakistani girls and Athabascan girls. Write girls with swords and girls with potions. Write more Hermione Grangers and more Tiffany Achings and more Primrose Everdeens and more Keladrys and more Gwendolyn and Janet Chants. Write variety.
And try — TRY — not to let the other girls in the story be the villains just for their girliness. Or for their lack of girliness, for that matter! Let them be the Cerseis and Umbridges of the literary world, the villains who do terrible things and happen to be female, not who are terrible things because they are female.
More than anything, I think, the way to combat the Me vs. Other Girls mindset is to remind teenage girls that their value lies not in how they dress or what music they listen to or how much makeup they do or don’t wear. Their value is in them: in the completely unique way they move through the world, in the talents they bring to the table, in their brains and their hearts and their hands.
So it seems to me, anyway.