Stories fit for feminists – adventurous heroines
“I hate being a girl. I won’t be. I don’t like doing the things that girls do. I like doing the things that boys do.”
So sounds the tomboys’ muster call down the ages, here courtesy of George (neé Georgina) of The Famous Five. Enid Blyton was banned from my childhood home (not sure whether my mother’s objections were socio-political or literary; must ask), but those words might as well have been tattooed on my pre-teen sword arm.
What are these things that boys do? Sieving my memories, I’d say FIGHT and (hopefully, after a setback or two) WIN. But my younger self was missing a trick. Girls, and I cannot stress this enough, do not need to be proto-boys to wrestle with the Big Bad.
And here’s the literary evidence (PG/12-rated; sex we’ll save for another time)—
1. Girls can be too busy adventuring to reflect on their gender
My love for Swallows and Amazons is manifold, but perhaps what I like best is that nobody makes a big deal about Nancy and Peggy being girls. Here’s their entrance, close-hauled against a south-westerly wind—
“There are two boys in her,” said Titty.
“Girls,” said John, who had the telescope.
That’s all. No “OMIGOD two girls in a boat. Won’t it like literally sink or turn pink?” None of that. Just due respect for their seamanship.
2. Girls, pace Disney, can dress appropriately
Nancy and Peggy wear red knitted caps and blue knickerbockers. Dido Twite (thanks to @Bookywookydooda for the tip-off – Joan Aiken’s Blackhearts in Battersea and Nightbirds on Nantucket were new to me), fished out of the sea by a whaler, adopts “nankeen breeches, a shirt, a monkey-jacket, red drawers, Falmouth stockings, and a pair of leather brogans”. Even The Famous Five’s much maligned Anne says she can’t wait for the holidays so she can wear jeans again …
3. Girls can handle a weapon
The bit I always remembered best from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was Father Christmas handing out presents. Sword and shield for Peter, bow and horn for Susan, and magic potion and a dagger for Lucy. Never mind that he immediately tries to suck the fun out of it—
FC: For you also are not to be in the battle.
Lucy: Why, sir? … I think I could be brave enough?
FC: Battles are ugly when women fight.
Lucy, sensibly, takes the gifts and dispenses with the advice: and by The Horse and His Boy, she’s the Narnian artillery commander. Take that Santa, you stuffy old patriarch.
Even the diminutive Sophie in Roald Dahl’s The BFG rams a brooch pin into the giant Fleshlumpeater’s ankle, so saving the day. And don’t get me started on Éowyn squaring up to the Lord of the Nazgûl in the (admittedly not-so-feminist) Lord of the Rings…
4. Girls know why they are fighting
Our favourite heroes fight for other people – not their own deathless glory. Who would you rather have won – Hector, who cuddles his baby boy on the walls of Troy, or the sociopath Achilles?
That’s why Katniss in The Hunger Games is such a good heroine – she’s embedded in a dense network of relationships (sister, mother, (potential) lovers, community) which give her strength, and strengthen our love for her. Even her fighting chops are the result of a childhood spent hunting to feed her family.
5. Girls supplement brawn with brain
Bringing a cool head to the fight is a female trait with a pedigree going back to Athena (and forwards to that goddess’s lovechild Annabeth Chase in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series), with Hermione Granger (Harry Potter passim) the best known incarnation. (Although I was disappointed to discover on re-reading that she only really makes friends with Harry and Ron after they save her from a troll.) But for a girl who actually gets the title role to herself, try the Oksa Pollock series by Anne Plichota and Cendrine Wolf.
6. Girls know when it’s time to lay down their arms
The best heroine in this bracket is Lyra Belacqua in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. I have to resist crouching over my daughter’s bed, muttering a chapter a night into her ear as she sleeps.
What most struck me by the end (quite apart the sensitive, yet candid handling of her transition from girl to young woman) was Lyra’s ability to imagine a life more ordinary, life at school, and to make her peace with that. Here she is imagining the girls she’ll meet—
“They might be cleverer than she was, or more sophisticated, and they were sure to know a lot more than she did about all the things that were important to girls their age … She thought: they don’t know it yet, but they’re going to be my friends.”
A similar sentiment prevails at the end of Neil Gaiman’s fabulous chiller Coraline. After Coraline has outsmarted the godawful button-eyed people—
“There was nothing left about school that could scare her anymore.”
And not to be scared of school is, after all, why I read books so many books in the first place …
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Next time, I’m planning to go back in time to books that Millicent Fawcett herself might have known, an excuse for me to pass my idle (ha-ha-haaa) hours over the Christmas holidays re-acquainting myself with Bobbie Waterbury, Sara Crewe, Jo March and co. Other suggestions gratefully received.
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