Friday, April 27, 2012

Books for "strong" girls

Okay I spend too much time on the internet. In the last few days I have seen all these reading lists: “Books for Strong Girls”. I’m serious there are so many reading lists titled around this. Now, I don’t like the word choice or the idea.I do not understand this obsession with controlling what little girls read. I realize that the people who made the lists and read the lists have the best of intentions. But... well, here is my counter argument. I'm not attacking anyone, I'm just explaining why I don't agree with this idea.

I would argue we should have both, examples of strong women and weak woman so they can evaluate the contrast. Anna Karenina was one of the best books I read (parts of, I plan to finish someday) for me to understand the importance of healthy relationships. Well, guess what, this is a book full of dysfunctional relationships. I didn’t read it and think “I want my life to be like that” I read it and thought “I love this character. But she has made horrible choices and is dragging people she loves with her. I will NEVER make choices like that.” 

 The idea that we have to choose books that are “strong girl” book suggests we don’t believe our girls will be strong unless they are force fed a steady diet of “strong girl food”. In other words I believe a strong girl can read a book where the protagonist makes a horrible, weak choice and see that it is a horrible weak choice.  I don’t think she will read a book about a girl who makes a mistake and thinks to herself “I want to be just like this. I am just a stupid little girl and can’t see the difference between a plot point and something I am supposed to model my life after. I don’t know any better because I haven’t been shown enough strong girl examples.” 

I think that there are different definitions of strength. I for one seriously don’t like the Bronte’s work. I think Jane Eyre is annoying and Mr. Rochester talks like a pedophile.  But, if I ever had a little girl, I would be fine with her reading this book. Why? Because it still has a protagonist who makes her own choices—even if she is (in my opinion) stupid and her choices lead to worse and worse situations.
Furthermore the movement that we need to feed our little girls “strong girl stuff” insinuates that they are weak by nature and must be MADE strong. What this movement is essentially saying is “The feminist revolution never happened. Your little girl is by nature stupid and weak, you have to control her very carefully or she will fall back on this nature.”

We don’t know what books and stories will do for different people. I LOVE the story Ballet Shoes, which is technically a stupid story about three little girls whose dreams come true. But—when I was little and I read this I realized these girls got their dreams because they fought for them. Because they never stopped practicing. I also, as I got older realized the little girl that was most like me became very unpleasant. I realized it wasn’t acceptable to sacrifice your character for success. These were things I needed as child. But the story is simple and would probably be considered stupid by most critics. 

I also have a deep love for Arthurian Legends. The traditional line is that these medieval stories are bad for little girls because the lead woman is manipulative and unfaithful. Okay. The more I read this legend the more I understood this woman; the more I appreciated that I was so grateful to be born in a time where I wasn’t the property of my dad and husband. I realized that, in my interpretation, Guinevere wasn’t weak. She was strong. She made brave, rash choices; even when everyone around her had tried to suffocate the ability to make her own choices out of her. I would never have sat and thought about these issues if someone had taken the story away from me.

 What we read does influence us. I know this is true. But we are influenced on a personal level. Reading is such an introspective, soul searching process that I don’t think it’s really anyone else's business what we read. 

*Naturally, there should be some control and consideration if you are a parent. You don’t want your kids reading anything strewn with sleaze. But I would say that if they are reading at all then nine times out of ten you are okay. 


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  2. I think what the creators of these "strong girl" lists are trying to convey is the idea that there are actually deceptively pleasing female characters with little to no standards, and weak morale: the books specifically aimed at pre-teens and teenage girls with protagonists that ache to fit in with the "popular" crowds, or defy those they should respect as a sign of individuality and healthy rebellion; books like the Gossip Girl, or Private series. The female protagonists in these series never seem to be happy without a rich, good looking man on their arm and ultimate power in their prestigious high schools, which they obtain through backbiting, trickery, and cruel jokes. These are petty, inconsequential goals.

    Each book you mentioned in your blog post feature, in my opinion, strong, individual female protagonists fighting an uphill battle in a society that think of them as lesser beings. Just BEING a woman in those times signified strength (being a woman in ANY time signifies strength, one could argue). Too often, people seem to associate weakness with love. A woman putting love as a definitive and influential reason for making certain choices has been, and is still, constantly looked down upon. Women can be strong, and still choose to put her love for someone else first when making choices the influence her life.

    When you say a girl can be shown a "weak" character that makes poor decisions and learn from it, there is some truth in that. But, you can't always expect girls know the right and wrong decisions immediately (like how you mentioned your love for the Ballet Shoe series. You didn't realize until you were older the benefits of such books). Feeding girls a little bit of the weak so they know what weakness is, is like giving girls a little bit of meth so they know what meth can do. By feeding girls strength, they can learn weakness through the absence OF it, like they can learn of meth through it's absence, also.

    However, your initial argument still does ring with some truth: you can learn from other people's mistakes, and books are probably the safest places to learn from mistakes. But, the only way a girl will RECOGNIZE that it IS a mistake, is if it is plainly and accurately described as such. In all the books you mentioned, mistakes were plainly and accurately shown and described as mistakes; there was no debate as to what they were. I think, perhaps, what those "strong girl" list-makers are objecting to are the female protagonists whose decisions are inherently mistakes, but aren't described as such. How, then, will a child learn what is right, and what is not?

    This was a great post, and it really made me think. Thanks for writing down your thoughts! I enjoyed them!

    1. You raise several good points. My main idea is that I hate that despite all the progress in equality we have made over the years people feel this need to micromanage little girls into their idea of strength. As you brought up being a woman in history wasn't easy. I don't think the Brontes were constantly being instructed on how to be strong women. That stuff wasn't on the agenda for them. But they all figured it out for themselves and shook the literary world anyway... (that is not to say Brontes didn't have other messages pushed at them)

  3. I agree completely. While I absolutely support fiction with 'strong' women--which is entertaining, exciting, and every bit as important as fiction with 'strong' men--I'm tired of seeing softer stories vilified.

    There is nothing wrong with the classic femininity. The fact that a woman CAN become a firefighter, a weapons expert, or the president does not mean she HAS to. If what a person--male or female--wants out of life is to get married and raise a family, more power to them.

    Men don't HAVE to be hardcore musclemania juggernauts. Women don't HAVE to be delicate dandies with perfect hair. It's important to have examples of all the options, though. And assuming that someone will be molded into something less than they could be otherwise is silly, and, frankly, an insult to the ideas of free will and personal identity.

    Great post, my dear.

    1. Yes, in fact most women in history who were "strong" women were pretty feminine. But lot's weren't. They were strong because they were themselves, not because of someone else's check list of strength. This isn't to say we shouldn't share ideas or good books. It's just that, strength is a personal thing. So I feel the principles should be taught and strength will come.