Two generations ago young readers and cinemagoers recognised heroes and heroines by their conformity to traditional conventions of appearance – their clothes – and the actions and demeanour that established the differences between them. The impact of feminism on the gendered contexts of childhood is the subject of a collection of essays edited by John Stephens. Margaret Meek explores.
Heroes used to be assertive, singular, detached, given to facing danger and saving the world. They were tough cowboys and successful pilots, not always law-abiding. Conventional heroines were softhearted, insightful, manipulative, shy, except when they imitated their brothers. The perceived wisdom about young readers’ text preferences was that girls would read stories with heroes, Biggles for example, but boys disdained heroines, even girls like Worrals. They preferred, we are told, the heroic figures of popular cultures; Tarzan in his early appearances.
In the intervening years, feminism, one of the most highly charged, ‘huge commonalities of an age’ (1), changed, amongst other things, the gendered contexts of childhood. These included the representations of boys and girls in books and films. (I date this from the appearance of the Disney version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.) Perceptions of what counted as normal masculinity and femininity have changed not only in the appearance of boys and girls, but also in the ‘normative’ ways of looking at them. Nevertheless, the strenuous influence and power of cultural conventions about manhood may be more likely to confirm traditional masculinity than to change it. ‘When it comes to what it means to be a man, boys are less likely to listen to their mothers and librarians than to other boys and older male figures’. (2)
Reading against yourself
Anne Fine’s revisionist tale, Bill’s New Frock, exemplifies a particular paradox. The readers’ gaze is directed to what happens when Bill appears in school wearing a frock. He is occupying a female space, so he is looked at as female. He discovers what girls’ experiences, including bullying, are like. But, at the end of ‘the most horrible, frustrating day of his life’, the author emphasizes his relief when he ‘pulled on a pair of jeans and a shirt’, that he was ‘definitely a boy’. His empathy for girls was convincing, but temporary. The implied audience for the story is clearly male. Girls still have to read the story ‘against themselves’. Or rather, new masculinities need new readings.
In Ways of Being Male: representing masculinities in children’s literature and film the editor, John Stephens, has brought together a group of authors from different but related academic disciplines: literary, historical, psychoanalytic, sociological and filmic to explore how modern boys are expected to ‘read themselves’ in stories and films made especially for them. (How they do it is a different matter, but there are some response examples too.) A common agreement is that ‘as long as people are categorized using a crude and essentially binary system which sorts on the basis of sex and sexuality, the sense of the self as unknowable and unstable will continue to impede the formation and performance of identity.’ (3)
In Stephens’ view, these papers ‘fill a gap in critical and analytic discourses in studies of children’s literature’ which have ‘seemed surprisingly slow to generate a body of discussion drawing conceptually on the discourses dealing with masculinities in literary and cultural theory more generally, while at the same time maintaining a clear grasp on the more specific ontological and social issues pertaining to textual representations created for the young, such as the thematic dominance within the literature of social issues and character development’. (4) This is the kind of academic language used to refocus ideas where these things are discussed but the ideas would fare as well in other places seriously devoted to reading and interpretation of books for the young.
The New Age Boy
Stephens’ argument, that modern young readers need books that take account of current world views of gender, and the fact that masculinity has emerged increasingly as an issue, is illustrated clearly by his reading of Gene Kemp’s The Wacky World of Wesley Baker (1996), a book for the pre-teens. The hero wants to be a writer rather than an athlete. This will bring about a serious change in the relation of father and son. Stephens again: ‘Wesley casts off the wimp label and his father releases him from his Old Age Male expectations and instead encourages him to develop as a New Age Boy.’ In the New Age language he has ‘reshaped his subjectivity’. (Note, one of his teachers ‘insists that creative imagination is a female attribute’.) Stephens then goes on to explore Terry Pratchett’s Only You Can Save Mankind (1993) and James Moloney’s Swashbuckler (1993). The conclusion is, the New Age Boy ‘fashions the self’.
The focal issue in most of these essays is that masculinity and femininity are not simply neutral. Instead, these attributes are historical, social and cultural constructions of their time and place. Thus gender is an aspect of the ways stories are told, and the way a reader is invited to view the world the author or filmmaker has created. So now that masculine subjectivities include some of the characteristics once claimed for women only, we have to ‘picture’ males as heroes of a different kind.
Think of Raymond Briggs’ The Man. The hero is a diminutive, virile, hairy male who gives a boy who takes care of him imperative commands. Anthony Browne in The Big Baby pictures a comparable situation. In exploring pictures of males, Kerry Mallan is careful to point out that when picture books let children see the world in certain ways, ‘the images also have the capacity to perpetuate stereotypes as well as to promote non-conformity resistance and alternatives’. (5) This is part of Robyn McCallum’s essay on Masculinity as Social Semiotic.
Reviews should be more than offering samples to taste, and every essay in this collection offers a reward for close reading of the argument. I have taken most things from the ingredients rather than the recipe, but I praise this book for widening current readings of books for the young. I read with particular interest the comparison of Norwegian and Australian young adult fiction, where the ‘tentative conclusion’ of the authors is that, in both literatures, male and female authors seem to thematize masculinity differently, with the different perspective reproduced in basically the same way in each literature. New subjectivities do indeed need new readings. I take note of makeovers, cross-dressings (with Shakespeare as my guide), and I am relieved to know that ‘gender remains a primary mark of identity’. My interest in Harry Potter is roused and extended in time for the next volume, and my concern is alerted to the fact that that children’s literature may be ‘unintentionally but implicitly homophobic’. I have thought about queer theory and a queer ‘aesthetic or sensibility’. I think I have come far since The Paper Bag Princess (6), not a moment too soon.
The reference to Bill’s New Frock is from Beverley Pennell’s essay ‘Redeeming Masculinity at the End of the Second Millennium’, p.55
(1) From Peter Hollindale. (1988) Ideology and the Children’s Book, Woodchester, Glos. The Thimble Press.
(2) Perry Nodelman, ‘Making Boys Appear’, p.12
(3) Kimberley Reynolds, ‘Come Lads and Ladetts’, p.110
(4) James Stephens, Preface, p.x
(5) Kerry Mallan, ‘Picturing the Male’, p.35
(6) The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko (Hippo 1982) was an early ‘feminist’ picture book where the princess saves the prince from a dragon and they ‘didn’t get married’.
Ways of Being Male: representing masculinities in children’s literature and film, edited by John Stephens, is published by Routledge, New York and London 2002, 0 415 93861 9, £65.00 hbk.
Margaret Meek is Emeritus Reader at the University of London Institute of Education.