In this issue of BfK Margaret Meek discusses Ways of Being Male, a collection of essays on how masculinity is depicted in children’s fiction and film and to what extent that depiction reflects changing views of masculinity in society. But what about the depiction of femininity?
As we know, for generations it was the experience of girls which lacked cultural validation. At her mother’s knee a girl learnt that her job was to channel her creativity into making things right for others and to manage her own wishes and desires by sublimating them. And what girls felt, experienced and saw was denied, distorted or not put into words at all.
The changing views of femininity in society after femininism have resulted in changes in the depiction of fictional heroines. One recent example is Jennifer Donnelly’s splendid novel, A Gathering Light, a perceptive portrait of a girl at the beginning of the last century who fights against the compliance expected of her – despite witnessing the ostracism of her feminist teacher who is threatened with committal to a mental institution for such subordination. Like Ms Donnelly, many writers for young readers today, whether they write historical novels or novels with a contemporary setting, validate femaleness in their fictions in ways that would hitherto have been unthinkable.
But if feminism has allowed girls to be different and to have separate desires, it has also allowed us to recognise that girls can be aggressive. And if girls can be aggressive, perhaps we can also allow that boys can be fragile. In the real world many are – there has been a dramatic increase in suicides among teenage males, the topic of Anne Fine’s recent novel, Up on Cloud Nine. Again in real life, it is boys who are known to miss out on education about sex and relationships. That such vital information still isn’t seen as ‘boys’ stuff’ ignores boys’ needs. Is their fiction any better? After reading the reductionistic relating of Melvin Burgess’s Doing It, I am tempted to say no. Fortunately there are other novels for teens which reflect the fact that boys as much as girls seek to have relationships.
A Gathering Light is published by Bloomsbury, Up on Cloud Nine by Doubleday and Doing It by Andersen Press.