Brains v. Babies (But Only in Books)

I’ve read many a classic in my time, but if you give me a choice, I’ll almost always pick up a children’s book.  Yes, of course there’s plenty of rubbish marketed at the 8-12 set (or good books wrapped in rubbish covers – I’m looking at you, copy of Mr. Popper’s Penguins with Jim Carrey’s mug on the front!) but there’s a long history of really excellent reading as well.  One of the reasons I love children’s literature is the impact it has; without us realizing it, the books we read as children shape the way we think about the world.  This is good if you read good books like A Wrinkle in Time or The Wednesday Wars, but can also be problematic.

As Push of Pikes’ resident female, I’d specifically like to address a common problem in girls’ books.  For quite some time, feminists have been pushing for strong female characters to act as role models for their girl readers.  Since I consider myself a half-feminist, I’m all for this; weak and sappy heroines bore me.  However, we’ve swung too far in the opposite direction.  See, girls’ books nowadays tend to fall into one of two categories: either they’re romances of some sort, or the female main character goes on an emotional journey to realize that true adventure comes from a career, and marriage is for lesser beings.  This dichotomy is not only dull and cliched, but not actually useful to girls and young women.  It leaves us with either the dangerous idea that all we’re destined to do is marry, effectively ending out lives when we get that ring, or that to be truly independent and interesting we have to choose to foreswear the idea altogether.

Frankly, this idea kind of ticks me off.  I don’t appreciate being presented with only two options: bimbo or loveless.  As a well-educated woman, I believe I can have both a brain and a baby, and would like to have this belief reflected in at least some of the books I read.  Such a plot would not only be original, but it would also more accurately reflect the real world, in which women often combine the two.

I think we can go further, though; there are plenty of books that allow their heroines the best of both worlds.  (Little Women, one of our first children’s novels and certainly one of the most influential, is an excellent example.)  Recently, after reading a particularly egregious example of “marriage is for girls who aren’t interested in anything better”, I threw the book aside and told my sisters, “Just once, I’d like to read a book where a strong, smart girl decides that what she needs to be happy and fulfilled is to get married and have a ton of babies.”

Because isn’t that what feminism ought to be about, anyway?  The point isn’t giving women less choice about their futures, but giving them a point at all.  Difficult as it is for modern women, these days we’re allowed both careers and families if we want them.  Why not take it a step further and allow us families sans careers if that’s what we choose?  Pendulums will swing, but eventually they have to stop and rest in the middle.

No one will actually say (I don’t think) that only stupid women become homemakers.  But the unfortunate lack of fictional role models, imbibing young girls with the belief that they can never be smart AND stay-at-home, certainly gives off that impression.  It’s a pity, really.   I know that I would be less than what I am if my highly intelligent mother hadn’t poured her energy into me.

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  1. Alica:

    Great post! Would you mind listing a few books/movies that exemplify these two basic plots?

    -Stephen

    • Books that are romances of some sort are a dime a dozen, whether they’re obvious about it or not. I believe the Twilight series falls squarely and obviously into this category, though Fernando might like to nuance that for me. Gussied up fairy-tale books are this too. Title-wise, I’m not as sure about these; books that look that ridiculous I generally side-step all together. Movies are easier since we have a whole genre based off this idea (romantic comedies), but the idea kind of worms its way through other genres as well, particularly in action movies. One of the most ridiculous examples is Uhura in the new Star Trek, who starts off the movie smart and sassy but ends doing nothing but kissing Spock. I hope they give her a better role in the next movie.

      I know about “marriage is for losers” stories more because they often occur in historical fiction, which makes it easy for the female leads to go on the necessary journey as they push against the status quo. I just read one recommended by a Newbery winning-author called “Mable Riley: A Reliable Record of Humdrum Peril and Romance” which, while a ridiculous title, at least promises something more interesting than what actually happens in the book. Actually, any suffragette book (and there are a lot of them!) moves along this path. On a lesser note, main character girls are often given boy-crazy best friends; the otherwise balanced books by Joan Bauer fall into this trap. I can’t think of any movies off the top of my head that exemplify this plot. I don’t really like movies as a rule and if I’m going to watch one, it usually isn’t one that reflects the world as it really is.

      In truth, though, I find it far more entertaining and useful to read either “boy books”, or books with male main characters that are directed at both. We’re also, happily, getting more books with female main characters that are for both boys and girls, which don’t deal with this dilemma at all; the 2010 Newbery “When You Reach Me” would be an example of this development.

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