The limits of a list

In response to the current national dialogue on media and products for girls, New York Times writer Lisa Belkin generated a list of books with strong female role models.

On her blog, pigtailpals, Melissa Wardy points out that Belkin’s suggestions are dominated by princesses; better strong than weak ones, but what about the radical idea of books about girls with no princesses in them at all? Wardy says, “can we PLEASE not LIMIT femininity to princesses, even the kind that scrape their knees?” Check out Wardy’s book recs here.

I agree with Wardy and have a similar argument about the so-called brave princesses in modern movies. These girls make elaborate shows of independence, refusing to marry the guy they’re supposed to, but marriage is still the basis of entire plotlines– rebellion within the safest possible framework. Yawn! Boys in movies get to go off and have adventures. Why can’t girls do that too? This is a fantasy world, after all. If girls are this limited in dreamland, what does that say about their options in reality?

But here’s the challenge: as I rate books and media, there are many great books, but I often have issues with them, even the best ones! Maybe this is because behavior, once rewarded, is hard to kick. When I wrote critically in school, found and analyzed the ‘flaw,’ I got an A. Or maybe, being cranky and critical is my own personality flaw. Or maybe the problem is just that books are personal. When you start reading one, you enter into a relationship with it. There are few ‘perfect’ books and media for everyone (except maybe Hayao Miyazaki)

For example, I absolutely love C. S. Lewis and the whole Narnia series. I love it so much, I named my first daughter Lucy after the protagonist in the books. But the Jesus stuff in Lewis can be distracting. Also, Susan, the older sister, stops believing in Narnia when she hits puberty, starting to only to care about boys. This transition does not happen to the males in the book.

I named my second daughter Alice after you know who. I love this book, but Lewis Carroll, as we all know, had his issues with girls. As far as I can tell, his pathology doesn’t seep into the book or does it?

I love Harriet the Spy, but Harriet treats her friends so badly that parts of the book were difficult to read to my kid. She’s never experienced that level of negative social interaction; Harriet called her friends names my daughter didn’t even know (and now does) and there are also a bunch of class issues in the book. Harriet is super rich, she has a cook who she treats badly and a nanny who she treats badly, though at least the nanny can stick up herself.

Right after Harriet, we read Danny the Champion of the World who is so poor in contrast to Harriet. He lives in a one room house with his dad. No mom in this book.  The author, Roald Dahl is probably my favorite kids writer, his writing is so good, but he has very few girl characters in his books. When he does have them, like The Witches, a funny and brilliant book, the story can be outright misogynistic.  Still, I’d rather read Roald Dahl than a badly written fairy series that’s all about girls.

The point is: books are personal and that lists, by nature, are limited. The most important thing is that our kids are reading and to have an open dialogue with them about whatever that book is. Remember, the goal is to teach her to think critically so she can get straight As and then grow up to complain about everything just like her mom.

6 thoughts on “The limits of a list

  1. Thanks so much for linking my book list in your post. I love your blog and have been a long time reader.

    My apparel and gift company,, is all about having NO limits to girlhood. At Pigtail Pals our designs reflect the dreams and imginations of our daughters – pilots, doctors, pirates, and dinosaurs….we’re out to show that girls are very much indeed smart, daring, and adventurous!

    Thanks for always writing such thought-provoking posts. I absolutely love your reviews of all things girly! Keep up the amazing work, and hopefully we can collaborate in the future!

    🙂 Melissa

    • Melissa,

      I have an idea for collaboration. Can you send me a msg on FB and I will email you back? I tried to look you up but wasn’t successful, nor was I with emailing through your site.


  2. When you mention Roald Dahl, you have chosen to over look Matilda, who overcomes her parents expectations of what a girl should be, and Sophie in the BFG who helps save the world from giants. Neither of whom is a princess. To brand Roald Dahl a misogynist is just ridiculous- witches are traditionally female characters and this happens to be the subject of the novel. There is a good witch and his grandmother who are portrayed as positive influences. Next you’ll brand him a misanthrope because he is rude about Mr and Mrs Twit…. There are plenty of stories about strong, independant women who aren’t just looking for love, marriage or their handsome prince… it just looks to me like your NYC journalist hasn’t read them. That to me says more about her than the choices in fiction which are out there for girls.

    • Siobhan,

      You are right, Matilda is great! I have not read the BFG, but I’m not looking for strong, supporting girls, but girls in center stage, title characters.

      The Witches is misogynistic. The Witches are evil and only women are witches. This is repeated throughout the book. It’s well done, well written, and hilarious, but this book is impossible to read without thinking about evil women.

      Thanks for your comments.

  3. I hear ya.

    Blame the females who go to movies. They’d like to see “Titanic” thirty times in a row (“We’re out of bread, I’ll be back in 3½ hours”), but think of “Tomb Raider” as something they just tolerate so their boyfriends can look at Angelina Jolie’s ass.

    Frankly, I think this is where you admit that men and women have different fantasies and respond to different things. Should we stop to ponder the magnitude of differential between profitability of the Tomb Raider (film only) franchise, versus the Titanic franchise? Not before we get ready to deal with big, big quotients…

  4. “How many movies are there about boys where their struggle for independence is all based on not marrying the girl his mother picks out for him instead of focusing on having adventures? Yawn!”

    Put that way, hilarious and clear…-ly sad. Couldn’t agree more.

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