August 28, 2005

Impervious: Female Characters Who Don't Care What Anybody Thinks

According to the 1991 study "Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America," released by the American Association of University Women (and reviewed in this morning's Chronicle by Chron staff writer Reyhan Harmanci), girls seem to lose their confidence, headstrong individuality and verve - scholastically and socially - by high school. It's a lemming mentality gone wildly askew: girls dying for individuality in a cookie-cutter world have their wild hares subdued by every fashion magazine, every loudly hawked trend, every Tiger Beat "you-must-want-THIS-hunk-or-else-what-do-YOU-know-about-cute-guys;" the phrase 'dare to be different' takes on a reality previously unforeseen in every air-brushed, perfected glossy cinematic paen to the Teen American Dream.

Even literary girls don't seem to go the distance to high school. Harmanci brings up Anne of Green Gables, who goes from being an engagingly flight girl to a staid miss of Avonlea in one short book. I also think of the Tommie books of my childhood, where a young girl goes from trying to concoct freckle juice and hanging upside down from a corral fence for hours to becoming a nurse and imagining herself ministering selflessly to the poor and unwashed of every land. Though the Little House t.v. series depicts a still startlingly abrasive Laura, the novels show a far different girl. Of course, using these books as examples, one must consider the time period; nowadays there are fewer bildungsromans, the German term for novels which track the growth and formation of a characters. The aim of many of these stories was some kind of moral strengthening - and apparently it's morally strengthening to no longer be irrepressible, madcap and charming. (In theory that's called 'maturity.') In that light, one ever tells the story of the grown-up Eloise at the Plaza Hotel. Would she still be defying her elders and insouciantly observing the life all around her? Would she still think she was the smartest girl, ever? Would that be believable, or even readable? Unlike Harmanci, I wish there had been a Ramona Quimby, Age 18. Maybe she would have had a better idea on how to take a college by storm.

Reviewing her favorite impervious heroine, Harmanci brings out Richard Peck's Blossom Culp series. Now, we all know my weakness for that particular old gentleman, (he spoke to me twice at a Conference, so I think he walks on water even more now), so I am ready to concede that yes, Peck is the author of all things genius. While I love Blossom's ready wit and unquenchable penchant for nonsense and mayhem (how many other 14-year-old psychics - who've missed the gift of Second Sight but can spot it in others does one run across??), it struck me as somewhat ironic that a male writer writing was the one to write the ultimately unflappable YA heroine. I think at least few women have penned some memorable characters - such as:

Ginny Weasley. I can't hope to figure out the intricacies of the British school system, but I think this girl is in high school now, and she's getting smarter and stronger. Well done, J.K. Of course, the whole book series is not entitled Ginny Weasley...but... maybe next round?

Now, here's one for whom there's not only a single book but... um, seventeen, by last count: the Alice books by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, win my overwhelming applause. Readers have experienced Alice since the sixth grade (including two or three prequel Alice novels, now), and as a high school student, she is dating, observing homosexuality, weighing in on the question of oral sex, and still her usual weird self, for the most part. She's growing, and changing, and still...Alice.

It bugs me, a little, that I can't think of a few more strong female characters transitioning positively from elementary school to junior high, or from junior high to high school off the cuff. Can you? The AAUW study told us that subtle things undermined girls' belief in themselves, including things like teachers calling on them more in class, etc. Maybe one of the contributing factors is that there aren't more books about consistently headstrong successful girls becoming women? What do you think?

1 comment:

a. fortis said...

I very much agree about the Alice books--she's strong-willed and plucky and very sympathetic, and has had to find her own way through the various sets of problems that life has thrown at her, big and small. I've really enjoyed that series. Alice, to me, is sort of an heir to the great and irrepressible Ramona Quimby.