Guest post: class, gender, and YA lit

“not a pretty girl” was a ton of fun to write, and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the discussions it’s started about gender, gender roles, and gender presentation. But I have to acknowledge it was a pretty narrowly focused series: gender intersects with class, race, sexuality, and physical and mental ability in all kinds of ways that I didn’t get into. So to start getting into that kind of intersectionality, I’m pleased to host this response from Teri Carns ( on gender, class, and the books she grew up reading.

One thing embedded in my generation, and my mother’s and her mother’s, and so on back was social class. It’s a mix of ancestry, education, origins, ethnicity (there’s arguably no scientific basis for the term “race,” so I avoid it), manners, and social skills. Every woman I grew up with on both sides of the family was exquisitely attuned to social class, and expectations for one’s life (I originally wrote “goals,” but women didn’t have goals, they had roles).

Ideals, most behavior, and almost all interactions with other people were governed by its considerations. Who you ate with, what you ate, what you wore, how you spoke, where you went, how you celebrated holidays, what you studied, who you believed, and where you sat in church — everything was filtered through social class.

Social class was implicit and explicit in the books too. Those distinctions between the butterfly girl and the other dainty, pretty girls in Girl of the Limberlost were distinctions of class. They could be erased by proper dress, the right lunch tin, the right hairdo — but only in the books. In real life, it was a lot harder to change them.

Nancy Drew had a well-off father (I think he was a lawyer) and her mother was sadly, dead, so she had plenty of freedom. Her father had so much money that Nancy had her own sleek little roadster, and always dressed “smartly” (i.e., fashionably, but with impeccable taste). You could aspire to be as clever and brave as Nancy Drew, but unless you had enough money, you could never have her freedom or her car.

As you hinted in your blog, social class was organically linked to ethnicity as well. There were certain kids who I brought home to play once, when in grade school, and who were not invited back. Mostly it was because of class, in my perception even then, although the reason was likely phrased as they weren’t “good influences.” For at least one, it was probably ethnicity. In college, I dated a Hawaiian guy briefly; a close relative scolded me, saying that “no decent boy would ever ask me out again.” (He found another girl friend soon after that, and ditched me. Oh well.)

For my generation, social class has lost some of its hold. Many more people went to college. Women had vastly more opportunities, and many fewer barriers. I’m old enough to have been turned down for bank loans explicitly because of my sex despite having a good job; and young enough to have succeeded in structuring a professional life despite many barriers. The revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s, the lowering of the ethnic barriers so that intermarriage was possible, gay rights, and all of the other changes also have reduced the importance of social class in many ways.

But many of the markers remain, especially in more homogeneous places than Anchorage. Sororities, country clubs, yacht clubs, racquet clubs, Junior Leagues, some churches, gated communities, all enforce or embody social distinctions. The boards of some of the bigger non-profits here [in Alaska] require you to pay your $4,000 (or whatever it is) up front; that approach is another way of limiting one’s associations to people of means.

At the other end of the spectrum, the people who drink at the Pioneer Bar downtown, or eat at Lucky Wishbone may still count among their numbers a few pioneers with some wealth, but they’re dying out. Most of the people who shop at WalMart are not on the boards of well-off non-profits. Costco is a lot more egalitarian. The fact that Costco exists and so many people go there is another indication of the lessening effects of social class.

Women, in my view, tend to be the gatekeepers for matters of class. It’s useful and interesting to tease them apart to see them more clearly.  Thanks for doing such a great job of that with the YA heroines of today.

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