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The Fiction, The Fantasy


new internationalist
issue 240 - February 1993

Simply... Girls - the fiction, the fantasy

The way in which girls are portrayed says a lot about how particular societies view girlhood and how they expect girls to behave. It also says something about girls' own wishes, dreams and fantasies. You might think the portrayal of girls would vary greatly from one culture to the next. You might be wrong...

The universal Cinderella
In traditional stories, folk or fairy, boys get the active roles. It does not matter where the stories originate - the Ganges river basin, the Transylvanian woods, or the vales of England. Girls either get support roles or they are princesses, often becoming 'princessified' during the story. Of course, this doesn't happen if they are ugly or have large feet; nor if they lack respect for their elders. Long fair hair and smilingly dutiful behaviour - spinning, sweeping, running errands - are preconditions of 'princessification'. Permanent marital happiness in luxurious surroundings is the reward. The degree to which these stories appear with the same basic ingredients in different cultures is a testament to how universal has been the value system surrounding girlhood.

Heroes and amazons
Girls dressed as boys, performing heroic deeds, are a rare but recognizable 'girl hero' category. The best-known is Joan of Arc who at 17 led the French army to victory against the British in 1429. 'Voices' of saints had told her to put the 'right' prince on the throne. This link with the immortal helped condone her ungirlish behaviour: she constantly argued with her betters, even the prince in question. When the British caught her, they found her voices and apparent transsexuality unacceptable and burnt her as a witch. As often happens when females do well in male roles, rumour long held that Joan was not a proper girl at all and she was not canonized until 1920. There have been other girls-as-boys in the warrior tradition: for example gun-slinging 'Calamity Jane' - real name Martha Bank - of the late nineteenth-century US 'Wild West'.

Amoral Alice
In most cultures keepers of the childish mind long upheld that stories told to a child must have a moral purpose. In the oral African tradition, where animals predominate the tortoise is cunning (and often female), the leopard strong (inevitably male), the snake evil (either), and all get their just deserts. In Britain, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland was the first children's book to throw such ideas down the rabbit-hole. 'It has no moral and does not teach anything', remarked a contemporary in astonishment. Alice's adventures are unconnected to merit or misbehaviour and Carroll even uses his own nonsensical conventions to mock the moral tale. The Duchess of Wonderland pursues morals in absurd places: 'Tut, tut, child!' she tells Alice, 'Everything's got a moral, if only you can find it!' Many modem commentators on children's literature echo her: 'Everything's got a gender conditioner, if only you can find it.'

Doing and daring
In African, Arabian and Amerindian stories, many heroic deeds belong to the hunting and monster-slaying department. The footprints of girls are very rare here. If they appear at all, girls mind the hearth, prepare the potions, sing songs, and run errands. In the West girls have long been claiming to be 'as good as boys any day', even in feats of derring-do. When the Girl Guides were set up in 1910 they adopted - somewhat scandalously - almost the same syllabus as the Boy Scouts and called their handbook: How Girls can help the Empire. Their real-life heroes included women such as aviator Amy Johnson who flew solo to Australia in 1930. Interestingly, Amy Johnson's earliest ambition, at the age of three, was to be a queen - not, you will note, a princess. Amy Johnson

Saintly sisters
The devotional self-sacrificial role of saint - unlike that of priest - has never been denied to girls. Saint Teresa of Avila first gave herself to God when she set out to seek martyrdom in Morocco at the age of six. Mother Teresa of Calcutta took her vows at the age of 12. Bernadette of Lourdes saw her Lady and found her spring at 14. Among earlier, less famous holy girls Saint Lucy, Saint Etheldreda, Saint Dorothy - there is a common theme of refusing to marry. This led to martyrdom or, later, to the preferable alternative of a nunnery. Nuns are often projected as princesses - smiling, dutiful, gentle, good who reject the mortal prince, becoming instead 'brides of Christ' and ending up in a similar state of perpetual felicity but in much less comfortable surroundings.

The educated ms
Originally education for girls helped them fill their roles as subservient women more efficiently. As the scope for girls' improvement widened, a few managed careers as writers: Jane Austen began only just beyond girlhood, as did the Bronte sisters. Then came girls' literature: Little Women, The Girl's Own Paper. In a class by itself is The Diary of Anne Frank; Anne's fate puts her in the girl saint or hero class. Once it was accepted that girls had the same intellectual capacity as boys, the call was for equality. In time this ushered in new images of a determinedly gender-free - or cross-gender - childhood. Prize-winning books in the North now have titles like Bill's New Frock and The Karate Princess. In the South, most stories are still in the Mustapha and the Princess and Ogilo and the Hippo mould. But from Namibia comes Mandi's Wheels about a girl with a car...

Sources: The Oxford companion to Children's Literature, by Humphrey Carpenfer and Mari Prichard. The African Books Collective. The George McBean collection of children's illustrations.

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