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On Strong Heroines and Girly Girls

My older girl (age 6) is now at a point where we’re reading real chapter books together. Literally together, actually–she reads 1 paragraph per page. But anyway, as you might expect, I LOVE this part of our time together. I (obviously) love reading, love a good story, and getting to share books with my girl that I remember loving when I was her age is just amazing and so much fun. I have, however, noticed a kind of interesting trend about the girl main-characters of many of the books we read together–one that the more I think about it, the more I find it a bit troubling.

We tend to read a lot of historical fiction and fantasy (just my girl’s personal preference) and I’ve noticed something about the heroines: by overwhelming majority, they tend to be ‘tomboy’ type characters. Actually, I kind of hate that term, but I can’t off the top of my head think of a better one to describe the kind of character I mean. In what is starting to feel like a vast majority of the children’s books I find, the main character (if she’s a girl) is the kind of girl who shuns all things ‘girly’ and wants to do ‘boy’ things. If it’s historical fiction, she often rebels against a female authority figure (mother, grandmother, aunt) who wants her to wear pretty dresses and learn to cook and sew. She digs for worms in the dirt, wants to be a horse trainer, a sea captain . . . If it’s a fantasy book, she learns to hunt with a bow and arrow and fight with a sword . . .

And not that there’s anything wrong with any of those choices– and in many ways, I appreciate these sorts of characters and books, I really do. They’re an excellent chance for me to talk to my daughter about how the opportunities available to women have changed over the course of history–how so many career options that were once all but impossible for a girl to consider are now absolutely available. But . . . I have to say, in regards to the kind of stories we’re telling (or reading) I also think it’s possible to swing too far the other way.

Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I am ALL FOR girls and women having the opportunity to pursue their passions, regardless of traditionally labeled gender roles. Heaven help anyone in authority who ever tells either of my daughters within my hearing that they can’t pursue a certain career path simply because they are girls. That is a huge part of the reason I choose to homeschool: I want my children (girls and boys–that is, if I ever have any boys) to be free to discover their interests and passions and run with them. If my girls want to be astronauts or horse trainers or sea captains, I’ll cheer them on all the way. But what if my daughters passionately want to be fashion designers . . . ballerinas . . . heck, makeup artists? Can’t they still be brave and interesting and strong women?

I guess the question I’m asking is: all these books with the heroines who shun all things usually considered feminine and embrace goals usually associated with the male– read enough of them, and don’t you start to kind of get the impression that what our culture is really collectively suggesting is that in order to be brave . . . interesting . . . worthy of carrying a story and being a heroine . . . a girl needs to essentially act more like a boy? Again, it’s not that I have any problem at all with girls wielding swords or driving trucks or shunning all things pink and sparkly if that’s what they want. But why does it have to be portrayed as an either/or? Can’t a girl love earthworms and sparkly pink nail polish at the same time? Can’t she be athletic and strong and still wear dresses when she wants to?

My oldest has always been a very athletic kid. She got a bike from her grandparents for her 5th birthday, and literally within a week she was riding without training wheels and (with no push from anyone except her own firecracker self) accompanying her father on 6 mile rides. Crazy athletic, that’s just how she is. But she also loves to wear dresses and twirly skirts–it’s rare I can convince her to wear anything else–which doesn’t work especially well on a bike. Her solution is to wear bike shorts UNDER her twirly dresses, and have me rubber-band the skirt of the dress up behind her so that it will stay out of the way of the pedals and spokes. Which is awesome–it’s one of my absolute favorite images of my girl that I’ll remember forever about the age she is now: seeing her roll in, flushed and healthy from a long bike ride, with her rubber-banded skirt streaming out behind her like a frilly pink raccoon’s tail. My favorite part, though, is that to her, nothing about that is anything extraordinary. No one has ever told her she can’t be both girly and athletic. No one has ever suggested that she can’t love pink dresses and still be strong. So to her, there’s not conflict there at all.

My hope for both my daughters is that they grow up into a world that agrees.

This entry was posted Wednesday, January 9th, 2013 at 1:57 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

3 Responses to “On Strong Heroines and Girly Girls”

  1. Sarah Woodbury Says:
    January 9th, 2013 at 2:50 pm

    What a great post, Anna! I hope that for your girls too! You are absolutely right about stories these days. I think Bella ought to be the heroine of your next book. Show them how it’s done :)

  2. Linda Poitevin Says:
    January 28th, 2013 at 11:43 am

    A wonderful post, Anna, and I truly believe that daughters like yours (and mine) will turn the world into exactly that. My three are all grown now, all pursue “non-traditional” activities, and all embrace their feminine side, too. And I’m cheering them on every step of the way. :)

  3. Karen Says:
    January 29th, 2013 at 8:00 pm

    My favorite image of my daughter was when she was about 4 years old wearing a tiara and sparkly red shoes sitting in the middle of my garden digging for worms with her fingers.

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"...Anna Elliott has fashioned a worthy addition to the Arthurian and Trystan and Isolde cycles... This Isolde steps out from myth to become a living, breathing woman and one whose journey is heroic." -- Margaret George, author of Helen of Troy

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