Friday, December 19, 2008

How to Talk to Girls

I'll admit, a little part of me is jealous of child authors. Why did no one pluck my creative writing gems from the obscurity of a Langwarrin primary school classroom, send them to HarperCollins and put me on the talk show circuit to exploit my precocity? Perhaps because it would have been an unlikely phenomenon in the '80s to place a child author through the publicity mill and because no such array of marketing opportunities exists in Australia. And also possibly because my writing was not extraordinary. In fact, the writing and ideas of each and every eight-year-old cannot fail to be ordinary, comparatively speaking. Mary Shelley began writing Frankenstein at 18, but it's a hard stretch to think of titles of literary note or longevity first begun when the writer was eight. But what the pre-teen writer can be is cute in book publicity. Cue Alex Greven.

His guide to primary school romancing apparently began as a school project, but it has now taken him to the bestseller lists. The book currently sites inside the Top 200 titles sold on Well done to him for his success, but watching the promotional video from the publisher incited a disturbed twinge from my conscience, as he appears rather coached (in the bizarro Bindi Irwin way). I'm sure that he devised most of the book, but I wonder if the unintentionally comedic elements have been inserted by adults during the publication process? Or are we dealing with a special episode of "Kids Says the Darndest Things" dedicated to one child? Did he really offer the bracketed comment about sugar to the following advice?

"The right thing to do when you have a crush is:
Never show off too much
Don’t be silly and goofy
Control your hyperness (cut down on sugar if you need to)
Make sure you have good friends who won’t try to take the girl you like."

While I can only too well remember the awkwardness and pain of first crushes and rejections, the casting of the whole process as boys learning the magical secret to "winning" girls grates a little on this grizzling, overanalytic feminist:

"If you do get a girl to like you, that is victory.
Winning victory is a dream for most boys, but it is very rare.
What does it take to win victory?
Read on and find out!"

Now I know Alex is only eight and hasn't single-handedly propagated this idea, but can we lose the idea that a woman is there to be won? Sure, comb your hair and wear your best size 6 pants to increase your chances in the dating stakes, but is there not an element of medieval village conqeuring to this idea that girls are there to be "won". Will we see a book from a girl author about how to "win" the right guy? Of course, there is a fixation on appearing attractive so as to achieve the same for girls, but I don't know that the language of "victory" would ever come to the fore should a little girl ever submit a school project on the topic.

Alex remarks on the status of gender power: "You also have to be aware that girls win most of the arguments and have most of the power. If you know that now, things might be easier." Best enjoy wielding all that power on the slippery dip and monkey bars now girls, as you'll have disappointment ahead when you learn that the "king of the castle" in political and corporate terms is almost invariably a king.

Alex now has another book title out called "How to Talk to Moms", so he's got the gamut of women in a young boy's life covered. The question is, has HarperCollins got every opportunity to milk this little boy of every inch of his cuteness before, like Macauley Culkin, he starts aging and disturbs the bejesus out of everyone for resembling a malformed version of his former baby-faced self.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Purity is Back...Alright

Purity is perhaps less welcome back today than even the Backstreet Boys. It is possibly as welcome as the return of New Kids on the Block. That said, NKOTB actually does have a new album out, inventively called The Block, and apparently thirtysomething women have been turning up to their concerts in screaming droves, reliving their teenage idolisation of the first superstar "boy band". But I digress.

Those au fait with contemporary children's literature will have heard of a little series called Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. I currently have the three or four Bible's worth of paper stacked at home awaiting some holiday reading, thanks to my lovely colleague Kris. Now the religious comparison there is not without reason. Today's Age is running a story about virginity being "back" in vogue, combining a few real-world examples of young people who will "save themselves" for marriage (sourced from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) and invoking Meyer's vampire quartet of novels for girls as indicative of a turn back to purity after decades of sex obsession because of vampire Edward's refusal to have sex before marriage.

The article takes an intriguing turn when we hear from a "counsellor" who did not even kiss her husband prior to marriage: "Julieanne Laird, a counsellor with the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students at Melbourne University, waited until marriage before having sex. To avoid temptation, she and her husband didn't even kiss until they were engaged; pledging not to kiss or even to dance with a man other than one's father or brother is not uncommon among the more devout pledgers." Wait a minute. We hear from an eighteen-year-old man who pledges to save himself for marriage in this article, but is there any obligation on males not to even dance with another woman other than his mother or sister?

While I'm certain that Twilight and a small number of religious groups exhibiting conservative tendencies with regard to girls' sexuality are not indicative of a radical societal shift toward abstinence, both of these examples seem to allocate males with a responsibility for controlling girls' developing sexuality, even through relatively benign milestones such as school dances.

Now I gave this post a silly title because I was thinking of a Backstreet Boys' song, but I now realise I can relate these things, as boy bands show the need for girls to gradually channel their emerging sexual feelings somewhere. Even if it is by putting it into plastering their walls with posters of men pretending to be boys. To place "promise rings" on the fingers of young girls before they've even had a chance to work through the confusing trauma of teenage desire seems a recipe for certain divorce when "the one" just doesn't live up to the marketing.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin

I am behind the times somewhat. But specialising in children's literature written more than a century ago will do that to you. While marking student essays this past semester, I found that many had chosen to write about what sounded like a fascinating book, Gabrielle Zevin's Elsewhere (2006). The premise of a passageway to life after death being a kind of cruise ship minus the Salmonella-infused buffet proved too intriguing to pass up.

And the first two-thirds of the book did impress me for the sheer originality of the concept of an afterlife in which people age backwards until, upon their eventual reversion to babyhood, they can once again return to life on Earth. The captain of the ship that the protagonist, Liz, takes to Elsewhere, is aged only six or seven, but with the sum total of his years in life and and in Elsewhere, he's got more experience than any sea captain who ever sailed.

The essence of the plot is Liz's struggle to adjust to her premature death aged only fifteen and then to accept how little time she will have in Elsewhere as a teenager given that she is not ageing backward from her twilight years as most of its residents are. All of the wonderful potential to engage with ideas of life experience and reincarnation are lost to a degree when a romance plot slowly overtakes these ideas. While the complexities of the world of Elsewhere never entirely disappear, I was disappointed that they were subordinated to a standard romance plot.

That said, this opinion is coming from the position of an adult reader who read plenty of teen romance at the age of about eleven or twelve. I don't think I even realised that this was the category of novels I was reading (and I never sought them out in the way that Harlequin Mills and Boon readers covet their titles), but I certainly wasn't leafing through literary classics in the summer holidays. So perhaps Zevin is adequately catering to her intended readership. This almost-thirty was hoping for a resolution that suggested that on-Earth love would transcend time and death, but to say more would spoil the plot. And for Zevin to write my closure to the novel would have seen the book filed in an area of the library where "young" is not a prefix to "adult".

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

American Teen movie

While it's due out on DVD in the US within weeks, the documentary film American Teen has just opened in Australian cinemas. What grabbed me instantly about the preview was the way in which the categories they slotted each of the teens into reminded me of the John Hughes' classic The Breakfast Club. Little did I know how intentional this was. The film poster entirely replicates the promotional image from the '80s film. Some would say it parodies the original poster, but I'm not sure how much parody is happening in this documentary. It seems like the "jock", "nerd", "princess" and "arty outsider" archetypes are being played out in reality. I am keen to see it, though. I need to know if the Ally Sheedy of the 21st century will need to be made-over with a lacy headband, lashings of mascara and a smudge of pink lipstick to finally get a boyfriend.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Girl Crusoes

The next side-project I'm hoping to have time to work on is about "Girl Crusoes". That is, fictional girls who become stranded on islands who must seek out their own food, construct shelter, and battle or placate "the natives". There's a new film called Nim's Island based on a novel by an Australian author I believe that tells a contemporary version of this sort of tale-- the blurb I read mentions communication via a laptop, so things have moved on from the Gilligan's Island coconuts. I'm finding quite a few nineteenth century examples, though. I'm not sure of the date of this American dime novel, but I'd love to be able to take a look at the actual story of the rifle-toting girl on the cover of this edition of Brave and Bold.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Childhood in Edwardian Fiction

December 5 is but a few weeks away, and it is a momentous occasion because my first book chapter will be available to clutch in physical form. The book is a collection of articles on Edwardian children's fiction and the article is a gripping account of Angela Brazil's school stories (gripping for the few people who care, perhaps). While I am looking forward to being included in academic databases when a few journal articles appear next year, there is something to be said about your writing being "on Amazon". That said, there is a lot of total crud to be found on Amazon. But I will be revelling amongst all that crud, as part of that miasma of millions of real, published titles.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Protecting their Virginity: Saving Girls from Sex

Bad Blogger! What more need be said.

I have, however, been buying a phenomenal amount of Girl Guide and Girl Scout memorabilia via eBay. I have a Girl Scout holy card, complete with Mary showing the girls the way, an original Girl Guide belt (complete with many dangly attachments for hooking useful objects on to), '50s Americana calendars, magazines, a Finnish Girl Guide book of games, and even an old Brownie felt hat with a stencilled-on pixie. It's been amazing to discover the collectable side of the movement. I bought a gigantic book of around 500 pages related to collecting Girl Scout memorabilia. I had to stop myself with the Girl Scout doll collecting book. There is such a thing as too tangential.

Now, prompting the first post back after an unjustified absence is the new Australian federal government television campaign to prevent binge drinking. I'm not sure why the subject of drinking and girls continues to provoke me. The start of it would perhaps be the differing treatment of genders in this regard.

The new ads, one of which can be seen here , rightfully remind young people not to plunge themselves through glass coffee tables after one too many Breezers, end up in brawls or run the risk of injury near the roads as pedestrians. The focus for boys is avoiding fights and physically dangerous situations such as being struck by a car. The suggested danger for girls, however, lies in the likelihood of having sexual intercourse that might later be "regretted". An image shown in the clip with the ambulance officer voiceover depicts a couple being photographed post- an intimate act in the shubbery. The gent in this scene is hastily zipping up his fly, while the girl, whom he is leaning over, is wearing a very short skirt, and is hunched over with her arms folded as if protecting herself.

The text from the newspaper article about the ads reads: "A teenage girl gets drunk and has sex, regretting it immediately. A teenage boy sneaks booze from his parents and is killed after stumbling on to a road while drunk." The wording implies that boys are active. The boy "sneaks" the booze from his parents. The girl "gets" drunk in the same passive way one might "get" the flu.

Could we imagine reversed scenarios? Would an advertisement ever warn a boy that he may regret drunken sex? While of course there are reasons for girls and women to remain aware of their surroundings and safety when drinking, these ads still seem to suggest that the greatest threat to girls is the loss of their virginity, while for boys it is a grand achievement, or at least something that could never be emotionally scarring. For a girl, it must be "special" or she will regret it "immediately". Why doesn't it have to be "special" for boys too?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

"Heelarious" High Heels for Baby Girls

"Your little one will look fabulous in these soft crib shoes designed to look like high heels! "

Do we laugh or cry at this new range of baby shoes designed to imitate adult high heels? Of course, it's made clear on the designers' website that the "shoes", brand named "Heelarious", are effectively soft booties that cannot be walked on. Which is a relief because I'm not sure childcare centres have Imelda Marcos shelving available for filing all these heels away at nap-time.

The shoes do come with a disclaimer, though: "WARNING: May cause extreme smiling and hysterical laughter when in use." Needless to say there has been necessary outrage (and here) about whether these "heelarious" shoes are perhaps not as innocently amusing as their creators make out. The shoes come in a range of colours: black, hot-pink or animal print. The look being sought with this choice of colours and patterns is clearly a sexualised, adult one, which is then being promoted as a source of humour. Why anyone would care to make their own baby girl the subject of this "joke" is beyond me. Worst of all, the shoes appear to actually be selling well, with the website taking wholesale orders and a gigantic list of stockists. And can we even imagine what the creators will conjure up when they say they are planning a product for boys?

I wonder if boys will derive as much benefit from their product as girls purportedly will do. A reporter on the US Today show felt there was a career move to be had by wearing the baby heels: "Little girls can get a jump start on their strut and be top-models-in-training before they leave the crib.” Let's hope there was some tongue planted in that cheek.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Book review: What's Happening to Our Girls?

Maggie Hamilton, What’s Happening to Our Girls? Camberwell, Vic., Penguin, 2008.

Maggie Hamilton’s recent book promises to explain why girls today are developing “too soon”. The ostensible answer is that they are being sexualised and inducted into consumer culture from the moment that they can focus their eyes on their first Barbie doll. One thing Hamilton fails to explain is how this process differs from the way in which popular media and ubiquitous technology impact upon boys. Most frustratingly, her book has no semblance of historical perspective. We are told that these changes have happened “in a few short years”. How, then, are we to explain the dramatic difference between today’s girls and girls of prior generations? Or perhaps we could ask ourselves what was life like for girls in the past who married and had children in their teens as the norm or who were sent to work in factories prior to puberty? When Hamilton asserts that girls “are being forced to grow up faster than ever before”, “ever before” seems to discount any period in culture prior to fifty years ago.

There are a number of specific gripes I had about the book that mostly related to a lack of analysis of research material. Hamilton notes that marketing for Barbies used to be aimed at girls aged 6 to 8 but that they are now “purchased for toddlers up”. This is a purely anecdotal example, but my friends and I had Barbie dolls prior to school-age in the 1980s. It does not seem particularly unusual for Barbie dolls to be bought for pre-school girls in comparison with previous decades. Hamilton also glosses over Barbie’s origins as what she terms “a sexy German cartoon figure” (16). Yet she attributes major significance to Bratz dolls, who are deemed to wear raunchy clothing and whorish make-up, in the sexualisation of girls. A serious consideration of the role of dolls in sexualising young girls would need to take greater account of the Bild Lilli doll (the inspiration for Barbie) and its origins as a sexy doll marketed (and priced) for adult consumption. The comment included from a kindergarten teacher that observed that girls “no longer play mother” because Bratz dolls have transformed play to include girls “becoming” the doll ignores a long history of girls playing with fashion dolls (of which Barbie is a long-produced exemplar). Juliette Peers' study of the history of the doll would have been an illuminating place for Hamilton to see how the fashion doll changed play with “baby” dolls more than a century ago.

As a non-academic study, perhaps this lack of critical analysis can be forgiven, but a number of unconsidered statements cannot. On the subject of violence among girls, Hamilton argues that “[f]or at-risk girls, the kinds of heroines found in such movies at Charlie’s Angels and Million Dollar Baby are like role models.” The heroine of Million Dollar Baby (played by Hilary Swank) becomes crippled because of her determination to participate in the male-dominated sport of boxing. Her trainer turns off her life-support system to spare her a lifetime of staring at the ceiling, as she tragically can no longer move or speak. It is hard to imagine how anyone could feel that this film might promote violence among at-risk girls. The simple representation of a girl participating in a violent sport does not necessarily glorify it.

The worst of these offences, however, relates to Hamilton’s discussion of “rainbow parties” in which girls supposedly perform oral sex on boys at parties while wearing different shades of lipstick. Boys purportedly obtained a "rainbow" of lipstick colours on their penises after these free-loving parties. A quick Google search would have reminded Hamilton that information found online should not be taken as fact without some further investigation. The rainbow party seems to be little more than a moral panic or urban legend and should not be listed as symptomatic of contemporary girls' sexual degradation.

Nevertheless, there are some positive aspects to Hamilton’s book. She draws attention to some worrying statistics including one study that suggest that 11 year-olds today score on average two to three years lower on cognitive tests than children fifteen years ago. She also wisely attributes some blame for shopping-obsessed girls to mothers themselves (amongst the hyperbole about five-year-olds with shopping addictions). The book also considers the suicides of Victorian teenagers Stephanie Gestler and Jodie Gater in 2007 with some degree of complexity. Rather than entirely blaming the emo subculture, Hamilton concedes that there were other factors involved in their decisions to end their lives. Nevertheless, there is still a simplistic suggestion that parents should learn about subcultures to “understand what their daughters may be battling with or trying to express”, as if subcultural involvement is a necessary indicator of suicidal or anti-social tendencies.

In sum, Hamilton's work is admirable for the amount of research time spent with girls and those who work with girls. What is lacking, unfortunately, is a critical eye for judging this material and for contrasting it with how girls have been positioned historically and even internationally. As the book's common refrain "local figures are hard to come by" indicates, Hamilton has sought out a grab-bag of worrying statistics sourced from different countries and pertaining to girls of various socio-economic groups. The picture we derive from this scattered information cannot be coherent with no framing context to show us how today's girls are socialised differently to boys or how a Bratz loving, Britney-woshipping tween is different to a girl of twenty or even a hundred years ago.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Girls Gone Tame at the Dolly Awards

The headline reads "Girls' Wild Night at Teen Awards". It is a Sydney Morning Herald story about the Dolly magazine Teen Choice Awards, which were held last night to honour the most popular entertainers for its teen girl readers. I am imagining a rampage. Fuelled by the caffeine of sponsor-provided Pepsi Light (watch your figures, girls!), the exclusively female audience invaded the stage, molested "Pin-up boy of the week" and girlhandled the fragile-looking one from The Veronicas.
When I see the words "wild" and "girl", I also can't help but think of the popular US phenomenon of "Girls Gone Wild" DVDs in which college girls on spring break flash their breasts at the camera and dabble in girl-on-girl erotica. Arrested Development parodied this aptly with its alternate series, Girls With Low Self-Esteem
Anyway, I am about to let you down severely here. This, according to the first line of the article, is what happened at the awards ceremony: "THE crowd screamed like teenage girls at the Dolly Teen Choice Awards last night, reserving some of their loudest cheers for a young actress with an impressive pedigree." The crowd --of teenage girls-- screamed like ... teenage girls. Let's leave the profundity of that statement aside. Is this necessarily "wild" behaviour? Girls have been screaming at events since The Beatles. Possibly they even did so for particularly attractive lute players in Medieval times. My goodness, if all a girl has to do be wild is "scream" and "cheer", what makes a "domesticated" girl? A silent one?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Olympic Girl Singer "Flawed" in Appearance

Today brings us the news of a Chinese Milli Vanilli scenario. "The girl in the red dress", Lin Miaoke, actually mimed the song “I Sing for My Motherland” at the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony to a recording of the voice of another girl, Yang Peiyi. If we revisit our repressed memories of the spandex-panted Milli Vanilli, the group was comprised of two fit, attractive young men who lacked abilities in the vocal department but were the media front for significantly less-marketable (yet talented) R&B singers.

The difference in this instance is that there was no commercial imperative to relegate the authentic singer to the background of the event. While not “right”, it was understandable that pop music sold to teenagers had to come in an attractive package that could be featured in magazines, included on fold-out posters and salivated over in video clips. Now we are witness to a scenario where it is in the “national interest” for the child performer of a song to be perfectly attractive.

If China could have found its own Nicky Webster, who was considered to have the right combination of voice and appearance for the Sydney opening ceremony, we’d not be commenting on the need for beauty to accompany talent in another area. We could also think of other examples relating to the Olympics to confirm that this is not a peculiarity of Chinese attitudes toward girls and women. Remember the Australian swimmer Petria Thomas and how her endorsements paled in comparison with “more attractive” athletes such as Susie O’Neill, who was admittedly more successful when they were competitors, and Samantha Riley.

The specifics of the choice of the “right” girl in Beijing make some telling points about how we think of girls. Reports suggest that initially a ten-year-old girl had been chosen to perform the song. She was ditched for being “too old”. Yet at seven, our real singer, Yang was evidently too young. One of the key reasons she was not deemed attractive enough to sing in person was because of her “uneven” teeth. Most children go through the same process whereby their baby teeth fall out and adult teeth grow through at an uneven rate until they settle several years later. China did not want a “cute” child with endearing uneven pearly whites, but a child who had the features almost of a woman (in terms of adult teeth), but was still supremely youthful in appearance. Like girlish porridge, ten was too old, seven too young, but nine was just right. 

The girl chosen for her appearance also necessarily had feminine long hair in comparison with Yang’s shorter but practical (and cute) bob. Lin also seems to have more of a wide-eyed look which may not only be about a marker of innocence but privileging of a slightly western visual aesthetic.

Intriguingly, we’ve not had a boy fulfil the role of singer and representative of national identity at an Olympic opening ceremony in recent times from what I can recall (although a boy springs to mind for the Melbourne Commonwealth Games in 2006). Would we value a boy for the qualities of his voice alone? Is it only girls who must look good while they excel at singing and swimming?

While there is some suggestion that Lin did not know it was not her own voice on the recording that was played at the ceremony (both girls purportedly sound "similar", but not similar enough it seems), her media comments about the event are telling. She was delighted with the performance because "I felt so beautiful in my red dress". Like consumers who demand perfect red, shiny apples that turn out to have little flavour, we seem to be applying visual standards over substance in how we think of girls too.

Daring Books for Girls (And Boys)

Behold the long-awaited image of a shelf in the children's section of Foyle's Books in London. Apart from the famous "Daring" and "Dangerous" books are pocket versions and numerous other imitations.
I have received a sponsorship from the University of Melbourne's Writing Centre for Scholars and Researchers to write a popular history of the Girl Guides, so I hope the popularity of these nostalgic books is a strong reflection of reader interest in girls and adventure. As my PhD only considered the origins of the Girl Guides, I'm currently delighting in looking at all the strange and unusual material I can find in Melbourne's libraries on the Guides. The sheer wealth of material is staggering. There's everything from local association recipe books to a handwritten journal of a Guide's trip to an international camp in the 1920s, complete with her own photographs of the event pasted in. My favourite photograph so far is from a newspaper and was reprinted in a Guiding magazine. It shows a warehouse in Queensland full of boxes upon boxes of Girl Guide biscuits. There is a woman and a man sitting atop the boxes enjoying a cup of coffee and eating a biscuit. Yet placed somewhat inappropriately amidst all the Guide biscuit boxes are several cartons of XXXX beer.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Fairy and Princess Indulgence: When Wishes Shouldn't Come True

Monica Dux, a fine former Melbourne Uni-ite, has written a piece in today's Age about the madness that is the pre-school girl obsession with fairies and princesses. Called "Girls Can't Thrive in a Puff of Pink" she muses on why fairy princesses abound at every pre-school turn. As she points out, there's certainly nothing wrong with young girls who genuinely covet pink frippery breaking it out for special occasions or dress-ups, but why do we see so many fairy princesses tagging along for the weekly grocery shop? It's not like the lone boy who insisted on going along to Safeway in his Spiderman pyjamas, there are fairy-ballerina-princesses, complete with wands, at every suburban Westfield Shoppingtown at this moment.

As the poor baby above, weighed down by an oversized crown that she doesn't seem to particularly want there, suggests, this trend perhaps is a reflection of parental attitudes to femininity rather than the children themselves. If girls do begin to desire wings and tiaras, it seems that it is often because we have told them that they should. This is not a new cultural effect, as we've been through the "why are girls given toy ironing boards and kitchenettes while boys get power tools and earthmovers" discussion many times before. I wonder if the fairy and princess obsession is borne out of parental consideration of their child as unique. There is a well-known tendency in children's literature for child protagonists to discover that they are "special". A heroine (or hero)'s uninteresting regulation parents prove not to be her own and the story reveals that she actually has royal lineage or a special magical quality. Just think of Harry Potter discovering that he is really a wizard and can escape (at least for most of the year) dull (and abusive) suburban life with the Dursleys.

Many children have the fantasy that they are just biding time with an ordinary Mum and Dad before their supernatural or magical parents make themselves known. Are the parents of these little princesses and fairies enacting a slightly different form of this typically childhood fantasy? One in which their daughter is actually a princess. A real princess can't be displayed in public in a tracksuit, but must be shown off in a highly feminine, impractical-for-toddlers outfit.

I visited Disneyland Paris last month and was surprised to see so many little girls making their visit to the park dressed in Disney Princess dress-up gowns. Perhaps it was one occasion where a little indulgence would not be inappropriate but I wonder how far the fantasy is indulged and for whose benefit. I can hear the mums of my mother's generation saying "don't be ridiculous" if their girls demanded to go to the shops in a fairy costume. I can't help but thinking it's parenting style rather than girls themselves that are primarily responsible for fairy rings sprouting across suburbia.

As a footnote, the child in the top-right photo is part of a kind of anti-princess photoshoot.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

What's Happening to Our Girls? Same as Always?

I promise to be a good blogger. After three weeks overseas, I am returning to regular posting. I have been buried in Girl Guide books for the past week, but set out this evening to find something contemporary to discuss in my "first-post-back".

I must start out by saying that I find it problematic when people make judgements of books that they have not yet read. I am about to do something of the sort, but am aware it must be more of a comment on the way that this newly published book is being marketed. I will save the review of the substance of Maggie Hamilton's What's Happening to Our Girls for when the book arrives in my mailbox.

Hamilton conducted two years of interviews with teachers, medical professionals and girls themselves in order to "get an insider's view on what girls are experiencing at present, from birth to the teenage years." Professor Ghassan Hage, at a university seminar a month ago, spoke about undertaking years of research, publishing his conclusions in the newspaper and the resultant frustration of someone who has thought about the topic for five minutes saying simply "I disagree". I don't wish to deny the work Hamilton has done here, nor that her research was rather extensive and may support her conclusions. However, some of the promotional information for this book seems to draw on long-held beliefs about controlling the behaviour of women, rather than reflecting any startling new trend. While there are undeniably issues of concern to do with the commercialisation of childhood, the prevalence of eating disorders and sexual abuse, I cannot agree with the statement that "in a few short years our girls have become vulnerable."

The first question posed on the Penguin publishing website for the book asks "Why are girls as young as five years old concerned about their looks and addicted to shopping?" Is this statement projecting some naive version of childhood on today's young girls? From the point at which we can recognise what is considered attractive in our culture, we begin to compare ourselves to others.

As a five-year-old, I knew that my short brown hair was not subject to the same admiration as the long, swinging ponytail of a light-blonde classmate. Why did I feel the need to wear my best dress (bought for a ball) to the opening of a "house" my grade one class had built out of egg cartons? The suggestion in this statement that very young girls have only just begun to be aware of their outward appearance and how it compares to that of others seems to nostalgically recall that girlhood was once a period of innocent, carefree days (untainted by the gendering affects of our culture) climbing trees and collecting tadpoles. The very first magazines for girls published in the UK in the 1880s project a strong concern with maintaining the attractiveness of the body and fashion.

And I must ask if it is even possible for a five-year-old with no income and mode of transportation to have a shopping "addiction". Perhaps a vain parent who wishes to treat their child as an extension of their designer identity, but an "addiction" seems a strong term to use. Incessant nagging does not an addiction make.

The next question the book seeks to answer concerns the twin evils of sex and alcohol: "Why are they having sex and binge-drinking so young, responding to chat-room predators, and bullying their peers via email and text messages?" I must read the book to discover what "so young" translates as. The overall cast of this sentence is that girls are victims more than ever before, and are persecuting one another to a greater extent.

Is teen sex a new phenomenon, or just one that is not as concealed as it once might have been? Can we compare the age at which girls were married in the past and look at the age at which sex is now deemed acceptable (rather than something to be concerned about) in light of changing historical perceptions? This statement is concerned about girls having sex at all. It's perhaps a well-worn point, but the political and media attention devoted to girls having sex and drinking alcohol as a tragedy, compared with the low-volume of comment on these issues as they relate to boys, reveals that when young people drink and have sex it is only considered problematic as it relates to girls. The mere act of girls drinking is troublesome. They don't even need to drive while smashed or get in a fist fight for it to be enough to enact a new law dissuading them from drinking sweet, fizzy alcoholic drinks.

The point about chat-room predators seems a little bizarre in that it seeks to find an answer for the actions of criminals in the behaviour of children. We may as well ask why children used to sometimes fall prey to men who offered them a bag of lollies if they got into their car. Are we blaming girls themselves for the adult creeps who lie to girls online for sexual gratification?

Finally, is an alteration in the media used for bullying indicative of a shocking increase in its prevalence among girls specifically? If email and text messages had been a method for victimising those at the bottom of the high school scrapheap in the past, would they would have been invoked with just as much hierarchical glee as embarassing notes on lockers, vicious rumours and practical jokes? And what about the use to which boys are putting their camera phones? Remember the girl who was sexually assaulted, urinated on and then subjected to a video of the incident being uploaded to YouTube?

One of the key claims of the promotional book blurb is that girls "are being forced to grow up faster than ever before." Faster than girls who once became wives before puberty? Faster than pre-teen girls who were compelled to work as soon as they were able to help support their families little more than a century ago (and still today outside the affluence of the West)? Faster than girls who grew up during World Wars and the Depression?

I'm pleased to see a study of how culture works to the detriment of girls being published by a major publishing house, and will read it keenly and post again afterward. The publicity for What's Happening to Our Girls? nevertheless presents a nostalgic view of girlhood in the past as devoid of sex, drugs and torment about appearing appropriately feminine.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Everything Old is New Again: "Daring Book for Girls" Imitators

I’ve been in London for the past week and was surprised to see that the Daring Book for Girls (the afterthought girls’ version of The Dangerous Book for Boys) seems to have spawned countless imitators. When I return home I will upload a photograph I took of an entire three-level shelf of the children’s section in Foyle’s Books dedicated to these nostalgic books that seem to borrow their covers from late-Victorian books and magazines like The Girl’s (and Boy's) Own Paper. In addition to the UK version of the original US edition of the Daring Book (which looked substantially different in content), was The Glorious Book for Girls. While I had heard of this one, I was amazed to see the numerous smaller, derivative books. A search on Amazon reveals there is even a new book in this style pertaining to dogs.

What surprised me most was seeing that The Girl’s Empire, a publication from the turn of the century, has been reprinted in a new edition (2007). There seems to be phenomenal interest in nostalgic books about childhood. An entire book display at Fortnum and Mason (perhaps not a real reflection of what is being read by children) devoted to boys’ books included Camping for Boys and numerous other titles that took material for children’s books and magazines from between fifty and one hundred years ago.

I’m presuming it’s well-meaning adults buying these titles for children, or even, perhaps, for themselves. Nevertheless, I'm keen to make more of this upsurge in interest when I return home. I'm hoping there's not just a simple answer like that this is cheap, out-of-copyright fare to reprint.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Bindi Irwin's 10th Birthday: The Jungle "Girl" (for how long?)

There are more signs of something wrong in the marketing of Bindi Irwin as a commodity than the mere presence of snowflakes in an advertisement for a winter event in sunny Queensland. Bindi has taken on a major role in promoting Australia Zoo, recorded her own television program and launched a clothing line since the death of her father, Steve. There is no doubting that she's popular. She has won a Logie award for Best New Talent. Last week, she even beat out the voice of Elmo for a Daytime Emmy for the most oustanding performer in a children's series for her work in Bindi the Jungle Girl.

Whether Bindi is being exploited has been the subject of some public discussion in the past year. The questions and complications surrounding children in the entertainment industry are surely the same whether a child is a film star, musical prodigy or next-in-line to a native zoo throne. It was other things that got me musing on the subject of Bindi, though. She was purportedly named after the Aboriginal word for "little girl". However, as a Queenslander in my childhood, that term just means prickly-thing-that-grows-in-the-grass-in-summer-and-gets-embedded-in-your-bare-feet. Anyway, as I said, it was other things.

The most significant was walking past her line of children's clothing in a department store. The second, while frivolous, still baffles me. So I'd best deal with that first. The crimped hair. To take the style of a '90s comedian: what's with that? I had no idea whether I'd missed the revival of crimping among children (I still have my '80s crimper, mind you), or whether she was sadly behind the times.

The naivete of crimped-hair-Bindi appears to have disappeared, however, with the arrival of an Emmy and the marketing of her clothing line. The recently-launched line includes ranges named "Urban Cowboy", "Warrior" ["incorporating naive graphics, bright colours and a grunge mix of '70s and '90s meets modern vintage"], "Green is the New Black" and "Jungle Safari". Among the environmental calls to arms printed on a number of the shirts is one that is a little troubling. It reads: "Crikey... What an Adventure".

The use of this definitive phrase seems to suggest the way in which Bindi is standing in as a de-facto Steve Irwin in order to ensure the continuation of the "brand" which her father created. While her mother, Terri, has taken on a significant role in promoting Australia Zoo and ensuring the legacy of Steve and continuation of his good works, she cannot, with her American heritage, be a credible image of "Australianess". Bindi's young sibling, Bob, has been spared this role by virtue of his limited linguistic skill, but we can be assured if he were older than Bindi that he would have been the child in this role--a young double for his father and measure for the continued sale of the idealised, broad-accented Aussie bloke.

While Bindi is often shown with snakes around her neck and a story even circulated that she would venture to swim with the same stingray that killed her father, it will be interesting to see whether she is permitted to wrestle crocs as she enters adulthood or whether she will remain in the safe space of song-and-dance edutainment videos, spreading her message of animal conservation. Bindi is presented as a "wildlife warrior", but the word "princess" often accompanies this phrase in Australia Zoo promotional material. There's even a photograph of her wearing a princess crown on the website. Is she just warming this throne for the ascension of baby Bob?

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Age-Banding Children's Books

I had not heard of the plan in the UK to "age band" books for children until today. It seems that the protests of children's book authors are now really starting to ramp up, with no less a luminary than Philip Pullman leading the charge. Or at least leading the online petition. The list of signatories to the petition also includes Quentin Blake, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. But how can the opinions of the likes of these authors and illustrators be considered important when we have marketing statistics to weigh them against. Apparently, the Children's Book Group of the Publishers' Association found that 86% of "consumers" favoured some form of age guidance.

The "No to Age Banding" petition states the case against age-banding so eloquently and logically that it is no use my competing with it. Nevertheless, I cannot help but want to add that the very suggestion of putting books in age-appropriate categories like this, which would necessarily dissuade some child readers, is consumerism gone mad. There are already age indicators on books for children learning to read, picture books, or titles available through school bookclubs, but we don't need to tell parents or children themselves at what age they should read Harry Potter, or the His Dark Materials trilogy, or even Jane Eyre.

If all children acquired reading skills at a standard pace then we could set a universal Western course of study that began with The Cat in the Hat and ended with Are You There God, It's Me Margaret? The reading ability and interests of children are better reflected by their individual maturity and development rather than the arbitrary application of age appropriate banding.

One online comment blamed "helicopter parents", and I thought that was a great explanation for the responses of the "consumers" in the Publishers' Association survey. Is it too hard to know your child enough to know what book they might be ready to read? Couldn't you try out a public library if you're still not sure? Test 'em out on a few free titles and then make your buying decisions from there. How about talking with them and finding out what books they've enjoyed at school? Even take a peek in their library bag and see what they chose when they had to pick something in class?

At the base of this, however, seems to be some kind of parental fear of children being exposed to "age-inappropriate" content. A novel is not a computer game or a film. The imagery generated by a book stems from the child's own mind and imagination and can only be triggered if they possess the literary ability and knowledge in order to create it. As such, it's quite hard, I believe, for a child to read anything that will cause any lasting damage, whereas an age-inappropriate film or game could scare the hell out of a child at night for months afterward because the imagery is external and out of their control. This is within the realm of children's books, of course. I'm not talking about leaving American Psycho or Tropic of Capricorn around with copies of Lemony Snicket.

And perhaps we can entirely phase out interaction with booksellers and librarians if all literature comes in a neatly branded package that tells us who should be reading it and when?

As a precocious child reader, I find this proposal as upsetting as Mr Pullman does. And thankfully he has enough sway with his publisher to be able to demand that age-banding does not appear on his own books. Only a hundred years ago children would read many of the same canonical novels that are confined to university literary studies courses today. The last thing we need is to tell voracious child readers that they can't read particular novels because they must only read books someone in a marketing department deems acceptable for their age-group.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Inquiring Minds Want to Know

The Australian Senate is currently conducting an Inquiry into the sexualisation of children "in the contemporary media environment". Environment seems to be one of those tiresome weasel words. Why not just "contemporary media"?

Beyond any controversial exploration of why we fail to recognise the sexuality of adolescents (and even slightly younger children), it's first interesting to see that the term children has been used. The second term of reference for the inquiry is to:

"review the evidence on the short- and long-term effects of viewing or buying sexualising and objectifying images and products and their influence on cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, sexuality, attitudes and beliefs."

Surely we would be hard-pressed to find that many sexualising and objectifying images of boys or men in the popular media. What we're really looking at in the main is the premature sexualisation of girls and the prolific use of images of girls and women in the media and resultant effects on both girls and boys.

The Corporate Paedophilia report produced by the Australia Institute in late 2006 has informed much of the debate on this issue. The three sources of sexualisation defined is this report are: images of children dressed and posed in adult clothing; media targeted at children which advertises products and promotes sexual behaviours; and material intended for adults but accessible to children. Professor Catherine Lumby and Dr Kath Albury's submission very convincingly dispels conservative fears regarding the second point.

Most magazines targeted at children, Lumby and Albury argue, are inherently non-sexual, contrary to the Corporate Paedophilia report, which reads sexualisation into everything from girls gazing downward in photographs to being shown holding "adult looking handbags". Much like the controversy over Bill Henson's photographs, not every naked girl or clothed girl reclining on a couch is intended to excite the viewer sexually.

Where things become stickier, however, is with magazines intended for teenagers, such as Dolly and Girlfriend but which are read by younger girls. Newspaper reports suggest that so-called "tweens" are set to be discouraged from reading these magazines: warning stickers will advise that the content is only suitable for over fifteens. I'd be interested to know how other women recall their own teen magazine reading experiences. From my recollection, magazines such as Dolly were key reading material from around the age of 11 to 15.
Beyond that, there was a process of graduation to Cosmopolitan and other women's magazines as ponderings about whether to use pads or tampons--a favourite topic in Dolly--became irrelevant to girls who had been menstruating for five years. I was blessed with my period at the age of ten. I wanted to read about what was happening to me and the other girls around me, not be directed toward a magazine about Barbie or other "tween" magazines. As much as people like to emphasise their nature as children, many ten and eleven year old girls' bodies are technically ready to bear their own children. Why argue they are too young to read about what this means for them?

The function of magazines like Dolly is to satisfy the curiosity of girls confronting puberty and the initial pressure or desire to perform sexual activities. Do we really want such magazines to go the way of formal school sex education? It's a world of cliches: too little too late; closing the gate after the horse has bolted; I could go on. Information, no matter how informally presented, never sexualised those who weren't already sexual.

A Senator was concerned that these magazines cover topics such as whether oral sex can be performed when a girl wears braces. Let us all close our minds and pretend that no teens of braces-wearing age kiss, engage in oral sex or actually have intercourse. Many girls are already engaging in sex by the age of fifteen. If we prevent them from any exposure to information concerning sex (intended for a girl readership) prior to this, are we "protecting" them or rendering them ignorant and even more vulnerable.
Girls who are ready to know will seek these magazines out, while those who are not ready are likely to continue playing with dolls. We need to allow the choice for those girls who are emotionally and developmentally ready to read accessible information about sex without allowing adult prudery about teenage sexuality to intrude.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Controlling What Girls Drink

The past few weeks have seen two contrasting stories relating to girls drinking. First, was the story of the Olsen twins' coffee being "spiked" with full-cream milk by a Starbucks barista. (Barista: perhaps we could invite a similarly important-sounding term for sandwich hands, or has Subway already done that with its "sandwich artist".) Regardless of the truth of the story or not, it sat in the top five most-viewed articles on The Age website for almost a week. And "story" is perhaps being a little generous, as the article was comprised of about five sentences. One of which was a denial from the Olsen's publicist. A web search reveals dozens of sites that also picked up the story, including Madison magazine who were "inclined to believe that [the publicist's denial] judging by the twins' still-slim frames."

Which is more astonishing? That thousands of Australian readers considered the Olsen twins unknowing consumption of full-cream milk to be among the five most important stories of the week or that a magazine promoted the idea that if Mary-Kate and Ashley had been sipping on the odd bit of regular milk in their coffees that they'd now be migrating from Antarctica with all the other whales. At the heart of both responses is a cruel fascination with the weight of young women. Of course, it's certainly not up to cafe staff to be determining their customers' caloric intake, but in any event the story is most likely a fabrication. The flimsy premise itself doesn't matter quite so much as the strong interest in monitoring the twins' weight. If they were to start downing a few thickshakes, what would the next crop of stories be headlined?

The second issue is related to so-called "alcopops". Whether it's a watermelon flavoured Bacardi Breezer or a Midori Illusion in a bottle, the recent tax hike on pre-mixed spirits imposed by the Australian federal government seemingly has its basis in controlling the drinking of young girls. The clear intent of the tax was to discourage youth drinking, but the alcohol consumption of "teenage girls" was particularly flagged by Prime Minister Rudd. Statistics quoted suggested that 78% of girls prefer them to any other drink, but so too did 74% of boys. Nevermind that it is predominantly young men who are drink driving and bashing one another about when drunk, we must get these fizzy, alcoholic confections away from our girls. They've "gone wild". Yes, there was a newspaper article called "Girls Gone Wild" about the subject of alcohol in the past month. Strangely, it also chose to discuss criminality and the greater population of women in prisons today. This is not to say that youth binge-drinking is not a problem. Nevertheless, the reasoning behind this targeting of girls' drinking seems grounded in a double-standard that does not wish to see girls' losing their faculties and assaulting their bodies. Why aren't the same concerns directed at the drinking of boys? And then the outcry too over "blokes" suffering because the price of their Jim Beam and Coke tinnies also rose. So the drinking of young women is out of control and must be curbed by a tax hike, but we must spare a thought for men who'll now have to pay more. Why are men more legitimately entitled to drink alcohol without monitoring than women? Aren't the health implications the same for all (of course taking into account women's lesser tolerance for alcohol and pregnancy concerns)?

What girls, and girls only, do or do not drink should not be a topic of national and international discussion.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Productless Girls are Pornographic

The controversy surrounding a photographic exhibition by an Australian artist has revealed a disturbing aspect of the way girls are regarded in contemporary culture. Bill Henson is renowned internationally for his photography, and is particularly known for his images of adolescent bodies. This is not the first time that he has exhibited work that features "children" unclothed. Yet this is the first time that the idea of obscenity charges have been raised and whipped the nation into a tut-tutting frenzy. It is also the first time that an Australian Prime Minister has seen fit to make judgement on where the line between art and pornography is drawn. Kevin Rudd did not simply suggest that we must tread carefully when exhibiting images of underage girls, but declared that the photographs in Henson's present--and now censored-- exhibition are "revolting".

Henson's current works are not new in their subject matter. What then has provoked this random outrage? Is it perhaps our own guilt at the overt sexualisation of girls projecting sex into every naked image we see? I heard discussion on talkback radio last week that called for footage of babies and toddlers scampering about on lambswool rugs in TV advertisements for nappies to be scrapped because paedophiles could find the content arousing. If every nude image of a child is viewed from within a context of paedophilic fear then we inadvertantly sexualise children ourselves. Of course the internet has allowed the worldwide trade of paedophilic images, to the horror of us all, but we adopt indiscriminate moral outrage and paranoia in return. This may be entirely understandable if it was not for the competing, accepted representation of highly sexualised girls and young women in men's magazines, pornography and advertising generally.

On the one hand, we can find dozens of DVDs and magazines in chain sexshops with titles like Barely Legal that play up the youth of the girls featured for the excitement of what we would define as "normal" heterosexual men, but when an artist features a non-sexualised naked girl in the context of an exhibition we culturally define it as paedophilic fodder. A girl bending over in a schoolgirl's uniform displaying her genitalia is an accepted, although X-rated, cultural norm. A naked girl's body when photographed for display in a gallery, however, is "un-Australian" according to Australia's opposition leader, Dr Brendan Nelson. Does a year or two difference in a girl's age really explain why sexy "barely legal" girls are ok, but a basic artistic nude is not? Perhaps we need to invest in some strategically-placed fig leaves?

Friday, May 23, 2008

Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer

If food is the sex of children's literature, then Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer: A Golden Treasury of Classic Treats is the equivalent of the Kama Sutra. My childhood favourite lands at the top of Enid Blyton's Faraway Tree were the ones that provided an unending supply of edible delights. Anything was possible. Even Connie's sardine-flavoured ice-cream.

This forthcoming book by Jane Brocket promises to bring us recipes to recreate our favourite treats from the pages of children's literature. The focus is on early twentieth century novels, so we'll be spared an ingredient's list for Bertie Bott's earwax flavoured jelly beans. However, on a disturbing tangent, prompted by the last sentence's assertion, I have just discovered that Jelly Belly has manufactured beans to correspond with the Bott's brand represented in the Harry Potter books. Would you prefer vomit or earthworm flavour?

A Centennial Guide to Serving Queen and Country (and Biscuit Sales)

The first rule of being a Brownie Guide was never to admit that you were a Brownie Guide. This was the norm in my 1980s childhood, when the Brownie uniform for pre-teen girls comprised a fetching combination of a brown dress and yellow roll-neck skivvy. As much as I enjoyed skipping around a toadstool, crafting forest animals from worse-for-wear pantyhose stuffed with newspaper and completing tasks to increase the number of badges that could be stitched to my uniform, I was nevertheless aware that outside the Guide and Scout realm and its accompanying mythology, such pursuits would fuel several years of school-bus ridicule. The strongest recollection I have of this rule occurred when our Brown Owls informed us that to celebrate Guiding we would be permitted to proudly wear our uniforms to our respective schools. A lone girl from another Brownie pack arrived at my primary school on this day wearing the uniform, replete with embroidered badges for such accomplishments as baking and water safety. She spent the day deflecting scatological jokes and lurking in inconspicuous regions of the playground. Other closet Brownies knew that the last thing that we would do would be to admit that we too were Lullagullas, Tintookies and Woorails in our spare time. But, on reflection, who were we concealing our membership from? Guides Australia estimates that one million Australian women are current or former Guides.

It is now one hundred years since Lieutenant General Robert Baden-Powell of the British Army sparked the world’s largest youth movements. In May 1908, Baden-Powell, renowned for his military smarts in the Boer War (1899-1902), published a book entitled Scouting for Boys, compiled from pamphlets he issued from January of the same year. Far from being a potentially embarrassing pastime to conceal from friends, for girls joining the movement was initially something of a rebellious act of which many an Edwardian mother disapproved. Baden-Powell had little intention of creating an equivalent organisation for girls, but an unintended consequence of the publication of his book was that girls as well as boys, in countries as distant as Australia and New Zealand, used it as a manual to direct their own “Scout” activities. While the Guiding movement was officially created in 1910, how can we fail to commemorate the plucky girls who independently set about “Scouting” with Baden-Powell’s book in hand?

Some six thousand girls had registered as “Scouts” when Baden-Powell staged a large rally for his emerging contingent of boys at London’s The Crystal Palace in September 1909. From the swift notation afterwards declaring that girls would be shifted to their own organisation, we only imagine to Baden-Powell’s reaction to the sight of patrols of “Girl Scouts” marching up to the rally of boys while wearing Scout hats and wielding staves. How could he toughen the nation’s youth and rebuild England’s military might with girls along for the ride?

Baden-Powell was nevertheless supportive of a separate organisation for girls. In response to the pressing demands of willing girl participants, he created a new movement, with a different purpose and name. Symbolic of its adaptation for girls, the animal names given to Scouting patrols, for instance, were replaced with genteel variants like “Violets”, “Fuchsias”, and “Bluebells”. Not all of the former Scouts accepted these changes without complaint. The official history of the Guides notes the thoughts of one of the first Girl Scouts of the 1st Mayfair Troop: “When Guides first started, we refused to join them, for having been Peewits and Kangaroos, we thought it was a great come down to become White Roses and Lilies-of-the-Valley!” The floral fascination did not end there: Brownie Guides were originally called “Rosebuds” in 1914. (Sadly, the Brownie name was unceremoniously excluded from Australian Guiding in the mid-1990s but lives on internationally. Girl Guiding UK claims that one in three eight-year-old British girls today is a Brownie).

There was not a Girl Guide biscuit or toadstool in sight in Baden-Powell’s original vision of Guiding. In his early suggestions for the scheme, drafted with his younger sister, Agnes, Baden-Powell remarks that girls might be instructed to build the character of the nation: “in hospital nursing, cooking, home nursing, ambulance work; and… in chivalry, patriotism, courage, Christianity, and so on…without necessarily making her a rough tomboy”. Yet despite the best efforts of Agnes, who Baden-Powell entrusted with the running of the Guides in its early years, because of its outdoor focus, it was difficult to break the perception that Guiding encouraged boyish behaviour. The Girl’s Realm magazine from 1909 points to the concerns that some parents held about the Guiding’s outdoor activities making for “rough-and-ready” and “somewhat gypsy-like” girls.

Bowerbirds that children are, earning competency badges was central to both Scouting and Guiding from the start. Some of the first Guide badges were identical to those that boys could attempt (first aid, cook, cyclist, electrician, pioneer, and signaller), while other domestic and nursing badges were introduced for Guides (laundress, matron, needlewoman, sick nurse and child-nurse). But this does not mean that Guides were encouraged merely to darn socks and wipe runny noses: it was also possible for them to gain a badge for their skills in rifle shooting.

Both the Scouts and Guides were formed amidst fears of the decline of the British Empire, which was popularly referred to as “the empire on which the sun never sets” for its global reach. The first Guide Handbook, reflecting the need to defend British territory and boost colonial populations, includes chapters on finding and tending to the injured, life on the frontier and patriotism. The hospital component of Guiding was grounded in domestic tasks such as washing, disinfecting, dusting and arranging a larder, but also extended to dressing wounds. Robert Baden-Powell’s biographer, Tim Jeal, mockingly describes the hospital activities of the Guides: “for the sake of future wounded Territorials, Guides were obliged to bandage and re-bandage each other repeatedly. They also had to spend hours practicing bathing babies (large dolls doing duty for the genuine article).”

But at the outbreak of World War I, it was nursing that proved the mettle of 40,000 Guides (half the membership of the Scouts at the same time) and subsequently dramatically boosted its popularity for girls and its ongoing acceptance. The bandaging and re-bandaging that they had been performing on each other was applied during the War as Girl Guides assisted the Red Cross, St John’s Ambulance, relief committees, the Soldiers and Sailors Help Society, cooked and sewed for hospitals, and cared for the children of working mothers.

The organisation initially formed in part to transform “the girls of the factories and of the alleys of our great cities” had earned universal acceptability in the practical application of its training. The first handbook alone should have been enough to sway those with any doubt as to Guiding’s altruistic core. It is crammed with tales of girls conducting rescues: children are winched from the bottom of a well, poison is sucked from wounds inflicted by a mad dog, pupils are freed from a blazing schoolhouse and even drowning boys are dragged ashore. And don’t think that these adventures were daintily depicted. Sometimes rescue was rough for girls. Another story of a girl’s bravery in the face of pyromania sees the heroine lose an arm to an exploding lamp.

Robert Baden-Powell’s much younger wife Olave (she was 23 and he was a sprightly 55 when they married in 1912) gradually assumed more involvement in Guiding after he resumed administrate control from Agnes in 1915, and in 1918 she became “Chief Guide of England”. The historical imperial motivations behind many Scout and Guide activities soon dissipated. The sense of tracking, knot-tying and camp cooking as preparation for life in distant lands faded with the power of the British Empire. The Guide Promise to serve “Queen and country”, however, still remains in place in Australia. My own Brownie hut was adorned with a framed—almost unrecognisably youthful—photograph of Queen Elizabeth II, which held little significance for us as children even in the 1980s.

I now carry a travel pack of tissues and a mobile instead of always toting a hanky and 30 cents to make a call at a phone box, but the central tenet of Guiding, to “Be prepared”, has remained in place for almost a century and lives on, almost without thought, in millions of women worldwide who were once Girl Guides.