The Good Girl Blues

When I was thinking about Anne of Green
Gables, it slid me back on to a mental track I've been around a few
times without ever finding a comfortable resolution. To wit: so many of
the girl-centered books of my youth were appealing because of their
heroines. I'm thinking of the classic ones, Laura Ingalls, Meg (from A
Wrinkle in Time), the girl from The Diamond in the Window (why can't I
remember her name? Is it Jane?), Anne Shirley (though I didn't love
her). And what gets to me is that seemingly inevitably, these girls end
their books or series by being somewhat…tamed. They all—or almost
all—are engaged or married or with a boyfriend, dropping into the world around them without a ripple. They go from chafing
against the restraints imposed on them to exemplifying them (this is
especially true of Laura, I think).

Maybe this goes back to
thinking about subtext, because as I kid this didn't bother me, or at
least, the only way I experienced it was as a sort of lessening of
interest (these Happy Golden Years? Who wants to read a story about a
well-behaved nice-looking adult?).

But as I pour
this stuff into my own scruffy, interesting, sometimes-defiant
daughters' ears, it worries me. It's bad enough that there's all the racism and
sexism of times (we hope) gone by in there, but this message, the idea of "Don't worry, honey. You'll fit in eventually." Because that ends up being the point, somehow. I mean, I know how desperately I wanted to hear something like that when I was a kid, that there was hope and eventually I would fit in and figure it all out—the baldness of it just gets
to me.

I suppose that just having a boyfriend and living within the bounds of society doesn't necessarily make a
character into a different person. And it's true, too, that story arc
has its own powerful demands for change and resolution, for order out
of chaos. It's just that the relentlessness of the push, through so
many books, across so much time. We spend so much time—I know I
do—almost inadvertently telling our daughters to be nice, to be good, and
it's just a bit creepy that all these best-loved books (and I do love
them, truly) are whispering the same thing in their small unsuspecting
ears.

It's a real shock when a book bucks this storyline. When I read My
Brilliant Career I remember gasping at the ending; and when I watched
Mary Tyler Moore say no to the guy who asked her to marry him (yes, it's TV, but still), I was
horrified at her refusal, as only a kid raised on a particular trajectory can be.

To be
clear, it's not just the pairing off of the girls, it's their being
wrapped into the corsets and petticoats (whether real or metaphorical)
of societal demands, and leaving any resistance to this back at the
more fun beginning of the book. I love these books, I do, but they scare me.

16 thoughts on “The Good Girl Blues

  1. I agree with what you’re saying, although I tend to think that archetypes are probably present in all different forms in children’s literature as well. There’s all the gruesomeness of Grimm’s fairy tales (granted, women are either helpless and beautiful or ugly and powerful) and then there are the Greek and Roman myths (lots of powerful women there!). I do think that children will be exposed to all matter of things, anyway, and that these stereotypes, while insidious, probably aren’t as powerful as they might have been when we (at least I) were girls. I believe that age-old things in those stories are what bind them to girls. I’ve just shot off my thoughts but thanks for getting me thinking about stuff…

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  2. I agree with you. That frightens me too. And unfortunately, a lot of the time the alternative (at least in picture books) is where the girl tells the boy she formerly liked to buzz off at the end (Paperbag Princess et al). It concerns me that there is the box you described and the “boys suck” box and I don’t find a lot that doesn’t fit into one of those two.

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  3. Maybe I’m too locked in to the extremes, but what else is there? Laura, after all, had an actual life to lead and did so AND wrote all about her extraordinary childhood. That’s pretty extraordinary to me. And Meg didn’t turn out too badly; after all her angst about her beautiful and brilliant mother, she moved in to that role, balancing it in her own way and raising her own spunky girl, Polly. I think she stayed true to herself and her dreams and just moved her family to a place where they wouldn’t have the same struggles she did. But yes, it would be nice to spend some more time in the land between the boyfriend and the kissoff.

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  4. I’m with MemeGRL. These comings of age were very appealing to me as a kid, not boring. We do of course need young role models in the middle ground, turning into something between the Little Missus and the Girls Rule! girl, but these books do have to end sometime (unless the heroine never grows up, a la Nancy Drew).
    The true fact is that most people, male and female, have a strong urge to grow up, mate, procreate, and, well, settle down. I have no problem with the portrayal of that in children’s books, particularly if (as in Meg’s case, or Laura’s) they do so without losing their individuality, the science career, the writing, whatevs. It was comforting to me as a kid, I loved the ends where the girls grew up and were stable and happy and no longer struggling to fit in (as I was).

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  5. Oh, see, I think what happened to Meg was quite shocking, and apparently Madeleine L’Engle did, too; Max Horne implies this in A House Like a Lotus, and M L’E was going to write a book about Meg as an adult, or so she said (please, universe, let there be a manuscript of this somewhere). I think Meg must have had dreams MUCH bigger than helping Calvin with the math.
    It’s Eleanor in The Diamond in the Window, and I never did understand why she rejected her possible exciting career futures in favor of the future as a mother of many in the mirror sequence… I was sad about that then and I’m sad about it now. (Note: I’m 30 and I don’t have any kids, so.)
    But Laura… I never felt like Laura totally got lost in grown-upness. She acquiesced, because really throughout the series Laura is an extremely obedient daughter. But I always get the feeling that she feels chafed. (And she speaks specifically to how stifling corsets are.)
    Have your girls read the Melendys yet? I know they never grow up VERY old, but those are two pretty girls who have a lot more on their minds than settling down.

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  6. Yes to the Melendy’s- Randy especially. I hear what you are saying about the “good girl” transformation, that is kind of what I thought about Caddie Woodlawn. Try the newish title, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate- the author seems to present another alternative for the “doesn’t quite fit the mold” Calpurnia. I liked it a lot.

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  7. It is so incredible to me that gender stereotypes slip into everything, even when it seems like there is an alternate message, it circles around. I really have never thought much about the gender messages in books like A Wrinkle in Time. I just loved reading them. Could it be possible that because Meg was so strong and single minded that Calvin conformed for her? It has been a while since I read the book, so this may be way off base. But, I hope that this ending may be feasible.

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  8. I so understand this frustration and worry. But I hope that my daughter will learn by reading more – much more – and not be contented to let a story stop with a “happily ever after”. I don’t feel as if I grew up and eventually fitted in. So, I do my best to own my faults and insecurities – when my daughter tells me “Mom, you’re so weird”, I smile because I have to take it as a compliment. Some of us never do “fit in”. The more I read, the more I’m reassured that stories aren’t necessarily meant to show us how we should live, but rather how many different ways we could live.

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  9. I think people over-emphasize the impact of media on girls. As a child I read the whole “girly” cannon you describe (along with a huge range of others), played with Barbies, watched FAR too much tv (according to today’s standards, but not as much as many of my friends were), ate non-organic food, and idolized the Disney princesses.
    I still turned out with a Master’s Degree, a volunteer job at Planned Parenthood, and very feminist politics.
    The thing is, none of this exists in a vacuum, and as adults we place far more ephasis on things than the kids do.
    I mean, I ran around for YEARS singing like a virgin without any knowledge of what a virgin was, what the song was about, or what the writhing in the bridal gown on MTV meant. Or the scene in Dirty Dancing where they said “Penny’s in Trouble”—I was 17 before I realized it meant she had a back alley abortion and was hemmoraghing. I just cared that it meant that Baby got to dance.
    I think as parents we need to calm down and stop overreading into what our kids are reading…

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  10. I’m struggling with my response a bit because, in one way, I totally get your point, although it honestly never occurred to me until now. In another way, then and now, I found the message of these books very reassuring. (Although–caveat–I only remember them in very general ways, so now I want to go back and reread them with this perspective in mind.) I think it’s possible to still be a weirdo and fit in, somehow. That’s been my life, you know? A perpetual tug-of-war between being an unconventional person, in so many ways, and liking that, a lot of the time, versus wanting some of those conventional things for myself. To fit in, a life partner, kids. It’s a battle for me to this day. And I think there are good reasons to want some of those conventional successes for ourselves.
    But there’s a difference between showing how someone who doesn’t fit the gender mold can still be successful and happy and even kind of conventional, and making those things happen by forcing the weirdo to fit the mold after all. That’s what I think generally, but between my poor memory of the exact plotlines and my fuzzy thinking tonight, I can’t pin it down better than that.
    Really loved this thought-provoking entry.

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  11. What a great conversation. And after reading all your thoughts, the thing I keep thinking about is how hard is must be, as a writer, to feel like you’re offering any options to girls (or any readers, but girls in this context) that are not trite. There is the “don’t worry, because you’ll fit in someday” ending, which often involves the marriage or boyfriend, the traditional happy ever after. Then there’s the “forget it, boys are all bad anyway so all you have is your girlfriends” and the slightly different “all you have is yourself” version. And then there’s the new favorite, “don’t talk about boys at all, because what really matters is you and your girls” storyline.
    When told well, they all have good messages. There is a version of the “girlfriends” that makes me want to retch, such as “Barbie and the Three Musketeers,” and then there are stories like Judy Blume’s that really explore girls’ relationships in meaningful ways. I’m sure it’s true with all the different versions of the “girl coming of age story.” But it’s so hard to find stories that don’t feel forced or pandering or just somehow distasteful. I never thought about it with “A Wrinkle in Time” and that’s yet another reason to go back and reread it (it keeps coming up lately in everything I read; must be a sign). But it certainly makes me feel more critical of all the stories I expose my kids to.

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  12. I’ve been mulling over this post for some time now. It’s an interesting observation, with many equally interesting comments. I think c is onto something when she writes that parents shouldn’t overreact to what their children are reading. I can’t say that I’m scared of these books and their implied subtext of how girls ought to behave.There’s subtext everywhere if you look for it – but there’s not good literature everywhere, and I think the good literature trumps the message. After all, the ideas of how a girl ought to behave or what she should do to be happy are always subject to change. What we consider proper behaviour now for a young girl might be laughed at in 50 years time, not to mention a hundred. Whether a book subtly implies that happiness lies within marriage, for instance, well, a lot of other books/media/people in the world teaches me (and hopefully my children) the opposite. I’ll read these books again for the fun of revisiting Anne and Laura, even if I’ll raise an eyebrow during the reading when an (to my mind)antique idea of what a girl should be like surfaces.
    Hmm, difficult to express myself properly in English… Much easier in Norwegian:)

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  13. A further thought, if it helps…
    My senior year in college I took a literature course that focused on women’s literature through the ages, mostly because they were reading Jane Eyre, and I knew I’d never get to it if it weren’t assigned. Plus, it was a freshman course, and I had a senior thesis to write, so it should be pretty easy.
    Flash forward to the discussion in the class…
    My professor is on and on and on about the mirror and the symbolism of the mirror and blah blah blah MIRROR (SHUT UP ABOUT THE MIRROR).
    I, being a senior, and not overly impressed by her PhD, nor cowed like a first semester freshman, as a history major disagree loudly and at length about how it’s all ABOUT CLASS and RACE…AND CLASS and SOCIAL NORMS and….
    The argument went on for a good 15 minutes of the class and basically ended in a draw.
    The lesson I learned from that, and what I didn’t articulate quite as well as I had wanted to before is that you find the subtext you want to find. The English professor? She didn’t see the class conflict and historical placement of the novel in the way I did because I was trained as a historian. Me? I didn’t see the metaphor of the mirror because I wasn’t trained to look at the world like that.
    To turn it towards the novels…the girls aren’t going to see messages they’re not looking for. I didn’t see biblical metaphor when I read Narnia, although I can’t help but almost throw up from it when I’ve re-read the books as an adult because now I’m trained to look for subtext like that. I missed all the masturbation in “Are you there god it’s me margaret” because I didn’t know waht it was, so I let it go.
    Messages about marriage or society are there, but they are not the only messages that the girls are getting. Nor are they particularly bad messages. Marriage isn’t a horrible thing. Having kids isn’t a death march (although I might disagree after a bad night of teething).
    But there are also great books like HERO (which is about a gay superhero who’s scared to come out and ostracized when he’s outed) and Tango makes three that send the message that being gay, or that gay families are okay and normal too.
    There are books like that classic “The Paperbag Princess” where the girl doesn’t marry the guy.
    If they lived in a vaccuum and only ever read Anne of Green Gables, sure, they might think that…but they don’t. Their understanding of the world around them and the books they read will change over time.

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  14. I always thought Laura was a toughie and never minded that she got married at the end, given she was more than a match for Almanzo. Meg and Eleanor on the other hand. . . when I reread Diamond in the Window in later life it did sort of depress me. As a kid, I noticed the advnentures much more.

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  15. But there’s what we notice, and then there’s what we absorb. I do think almost everything around us supports a particular way of “being” that is perhaps not what we want our daughters to have to deal with. But I also agree with an above commenter, I wouldn’t want my kids to just be “special snowflakes”; my wish would be for them to retain their sense of self but basically fit in, too.
    I, too, am a feminist, college educated, with a career, with a somewhat unconventional life; but I think it would be foolish to try to claim that these books, which I absolutely internalized when I was a child, did not have a deep effect on my psyche. I’m not sorry I’m the person I am today, I don’t think any of us can or should live without some angst, but when I began to come out of the closet–just as one example of the ways that I am “different” from the ideal–I felt deep sadness about not having the future I thought I was intended to have; and I went looking for myself in books and didn’t find much, and that situation isn’t as different now vs. fifteen years ago as some people think.
    While as I said above I always admired Laura and felt she stayed true to herself as much as could be expected, The First Four Years is an unhappy book and ends on a particularly unhappy note. Calpurnia Tate, too, ends with frustration, in my opinion. Where are the women who grow up and are functional and happy but still themselves? Would Betsy’s Wedding be as satisfying if we didn’t have the evidence that she did, indeed, eventually become a successful writer? Why, oh why, did Madeleine L’Engle make those choices about Meg’s character?

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  16. “But there’s what we notice, and then there’s what we absorb.”
    Indeed. A lot of this depends on what you’re looking for, as another commenter said. When I read AGG with my kids, it won’t be with an eye to “this is how girls should behave” but “this is how _people_ should behave.” Be kind. Be grateful. Be loyal to your friends. Cultivate imagination, and value it as a tool than can help you develop empathy towards people with whom you have nothing in common. Love beauty.
    These attributes made Anne a good mother, and if she had chosen to pursue a career as a writer, they would have made her really good at that, too.
    Part of what I’m trying to say here is that not every choice an admirable character makes needs to be fraught with ought. Anne makes the choices she does because that’s who she is. At least, that’s how I read her. If you think the life she ends up choosing rings false or inauthentic, then yeah, that’s no good.

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