Monday, December 29, 2014

The ‘death’ of J. K. Rowling: Why it doesn’t matter what she has to say about Harry Potter

The invisible diversity of Harry Potter: Joya Wu/Flickr         
Who owns a story? When an author writes a book, are the words on the page the definitive version of the plot and characters? Does what the author have to say outside the world of the book have the power to add to the meaning of the book itself?

Youth Project poster shared by J.K Rowling
In response to a question from a Jewish fan, J.K. Rowling recently explained on Twitter that the Harry Potter series includes a Jewish wizard, Anthony Goldstein. Goldstein’s name is recorded in an early notebook in which Rowling listed the original forty students whom she imagined attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Within the series, however, he only appears as a minor character in the fifth and sixth novels.

Within the same Twitter question-and-answer session, Rowling also “revealed” that the school was similarly diverse in its inclusion of gay and lesbian students. She shared an image created by a Canadian LGBTQ organisation that reads, “If Harry Potter taught us anything, it’s that no one should live in a closet.”

Both Jewish and LGBTQ news sites have reported these brief comments by Rowling in positive terms. The Harry Potter series, which totals some 4,000 pages in US editions, did not give millions of readers any clear sense that Hogwarts was home to Jewish or gay and lesbian students. However, Rowling’s declarations on Twitter are not only newsworthy, but a cause for pride.

Similar feelings of celebration were evident when Rowling announced in 2007 that she had “always thought of [beloved headmaster Albus] Dumbledore as gay”. Likewise, very few people had gathered from the books themselves that Dumbledore was homosexual. Although subsequently his penchant for “plum velvet” and high-heeled boots were interpreted as clues to his sexual orientation.

With both of these announcements, some fans have also questioned whether these extra-textual announcements carry any weight. If it was not possible for readers to detect that a character was gay or Jewish then how could they possibly be considered as positive signs of increasing representation and inclusion of minority groups in popular culture?

Admittedly, there is an argument that attempts to depict a character as being of a particular race, sexuality or religion could appear tokenistic. Should Rowling, for example, have made more of Anthony Goldstein’s Jewish identity by mentioning his observance of Hanukkah, or need for kosher meals at banquets in the Hogwart’s Great Hall?

Nevertheless, depicting a character like Dumbledore as having fallen in love with a man as a matter of course could have done much to present gay and lesbian relationships as unremarkable. In an imagined world in which the supernatural is possible and the limitations of reality are few – something for which the books have been criticised by religious extremists – it speaks volumes that a gay relationship cannot be represented to the degree where it is discernable.

The Harry Potter series has had worldwide influence Hung Chieh/Tsai/Flickr  
To figure out to what degree Rowling’s comments should influence our interpretation of the highest-selling book series in history, we can turn to a standard idea within literary criticism.

In his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author”, French literary critic and theorist Roland Barthes challenged the traditional practice of analysing literature by focusing on the motivations and biography of a work’s author. Barthes argues that looking to the author for a text’s explanation not only limits it to a single meaning, but also denies the influence of other texts (intertextuality) and the responses of the reader in producing meaning.

Indeed, Barthes famously suggests that individual readers produce their own, different interpretations of the same texts, dismantling the idea of the author as the creator of a text’s definitive meaning. As Barthes describes the process of removing the author as the explanation of a text, “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author”.

Barthes and Michel Foucault, among others, contributed to changes in the study of literature under the umbrella of the poststructuralist movement. Scholars abandoned the search for a work’s “true meaning” – as imparted by the author – to marshalling a variety of critical approaches relating to gender, sexuality, and class, for example, to expose the shifting meanings of a given text.

When we study literature today, we are not interested in answering what we think an author truly “meant”, but what readers understand it to mean. We examine the words within a book, their interaction with other stories in all kinds of media, and their reflection of and influence upon the world in which they have been written.

If we approach Rowling’s Twitter comments armed with Barthes, we can say that what she “always thought” of a particular character, or whether she always imagined gay and lesbian students at Hogwarts are irrelevant to how we interpret the Harry Potter series.

Though the final Potter book was published in 2007, Rowling seems eager to retain an influence on how we understand her books by revealing ostensibly new information about her characters. Whether these character points were announced to readers via Twitter or alluded to within the Potter books, however, the meanings that we as a diverse international community of readers wish to take from them trump Rowling’s intentions as an author.

The Conversation
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Barbie for Boys? The Gendered Tyranny of the Toy Store

“I didn’t encourage my daughter to play with Barbie dolls and dress up in flouncy fairy costumes, but she just gravitated toward them.”

When confronted with the idea that gendered marketing and stereotypes have a substantial impact on children’s play, many parents make claims such as this that suggest that girls have an innate predisposition to acquire pink, glittery toys.

Not only do many parents deny that gender stereotypes shape what kinds of toys children feel allowed to play with, but so too does our Prime Minister. On hearing of the No Gender December campaign, which encourages people to consider what kinds of toys they are buying in the lead-up to Christmas, Tony Abbott dismissed it as “political correctness”. We must, he argued, “let boys be boys, let girls be girls”.

No Gender December, and similar campaigns such as Let Toys Be Toys, nevertheless suggest that the gender stereotyping of toys restricts children’s creativity and development. They also argue that the separation of toys for girls and boys contributes to gender inequality by marking off certain pursuits, careers, and tasks as unsuitable for one gender or the other.

Letting children “be” boys or girls implies that there is a natural set of likes and dislikes for each gender that are unaffected by the culture in which we live. Behind this view is the sense that toy preferences are rooted in biology, such that only girls are drawn toward baby dolls because they are driven to nurture, while boys will be attracted toward active toys such as guns.

There are several problems with this viewpoint. First, to take one type of toy as an example, very young boys seem equally attracted to dolls. Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender refers to a study that measures young children’s reactions to dolls, finding that boys only begin to reject dolls around the age at which they can be taught that dolls are intended only for girls.

If we were able to create an environment in which limiting cultural views about gender were not presented to children through the media, advertising, or enforced by their peers or parents, then in all likelihood many boys would continue to show an interest in dolls beyond infancy, as some still do regardless of these factors. That would truly be letting “boys be boys”.

Indeed, such an attempt to counter the effects of gender segregation in toy stores is already in progress in Sweden.

In 2012, Top Toy, the franchise holder for Toys R Us in Sweden, produced a catalogue with a girl shown deftly working a Nerf gun, a small boy cradling a baby doll, and both a boy and girl playing with a doll’s house. International media reports about the catalogue reacted along predictable lines, suggesting that gendered separation of toys mirrored children’s natural preferences and that the concept of gender neutrality was bizarre and artificial.

Nevertheless, Toys R Us Sweden has only continued to move towards gender neutrality in its stores, with the physical layout being transformed such that typically masculine and feminine toys are intermingled throughout the aisles.

Second, these supposedly “natural” preferences for particular kinds of toys or colours shift according to what our culture believes appropriate for children and what the toy industry finds profitable.
We know, for example, that the “pinkification” of girls’ toys is a relatively recent phenomenon, in part motivated by a desire to improve sales by rendering the most innocuous of toys unusable by siblings of different sexes.

Similarly, where Lego was once imagined as a relatively unisex toy that encouraged creativity and developed fine motor skills, in recent years a separate line intended for girls, which involves less freedom to construct, has become a bestseller.

We place great strength in the idea that the kinds of toys that children play with helps to determine the kind of adults they will become, especially in terms of how appropriately masculine or feminine they will be. Even children know enough to act as “gender police” if a boy or girl attempts to play with a toy outside the accepted items for his or her gender.

The No Gender December campaign notes that:
It’s 2014 – women mow lawns and men push prams but while we’ve moved on, many toy companies haven’t.
Yet some of the main markers of gender inequality refuse to budge in countries including Australia. The majority of housework and childcare is still performed by women, even as more women are in paid employment than ever before. High-paying industries and senior positions within most fields remain dominated by male employees, while feminised occupations, involving caring or working with children, remain low paying.

The segregation of toy aisles is a reflection of a society in which gender inequality is normalised and children are taught to understand that the disparity between male and female social roles is inescapably natural.

While making it easier for girls who want to romp adventurously to do so and for boys who want to show an interest in clothing to play with Barbie won’t single-handedly correct gender inequality, it will help to minimise the internalising of gendered limitations during childhood. It also won’t stop girls being girls or boys being boys.

The Conversation
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Monday, September 1, 2014

'Offensiveness' and children’s books: censoring ‘slut’ from a Roald Dahl classic

A collection of Roald Dahl books

I’m fixated on scanning Aldi’s general merchandise offerings in its weekly catalogue. From big-screen TVs to tortilla warmers, Aldi will place almost any consumer good haphazardly in the middle of its grocery aisles.

Last week, the supermarket’s decision to stock Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes drew the book to the attention of at least one shopper who was perturbed by its use of the word “slut”. Aldi responded to a Facebook complaint by removing the title from sale.

The book of six poems, which parody fairy tales, was first published in 1982. Like most of the Dahl canon, it has remained in-print and popular with child readers ever since.

In the poem that prompted the complaint, the Prince says to Cinderella: “Who is this dirty slut? Off with her nut.” The book delights in gruesomeness (decapitated heads roll across the floor, and cannibalism features), violence (Red Riding Hood packs heat), and irreverent humour.

As the title warns, the book inserts all things “revolting” into stories that we’ve come to associate with happy endings, for an audience whom we believe to be innocent and vulnerable.

Though Aldi acted to prevent potential parental backlash, the reaction to the removal of Dahl’s book has been overwhelmingly negative. Over 90% of respondents in a Fairfax media poll believe Aldi acted wrongly, and there have even been calls for a boycott of the supermarket.

Many parents are concerned by inappropriate products being marketed toward minors, as when youth-oriented jewellery outlet Diva was criticised for selling a Playboy range of jewellery in 2011. However, adults also don’t like the cultural touchstones of their own childhoods being tampered with.

When original 1970s episodes of Sesame Street were released on DVD in 2007, they were sold with an adults-only warning label indicating that they “may not suit the needs of today’s pre-school child”. Adults who had been raised on a Cookie Monster who did not know the meaning of a “sometimes” food were offended that their childhood viewing could be considered harmful.
1940s children’s magazines containing stories by Enid Blyton 
Enid Blyton books, most of which were originally published between 1930 and 1960, have been subject to frequent revisions.

Golliwog characters were removed from editions of the Noddy series in the 1980s. References to the titular character and Big Ears sleeping in the same bed have also been expurgated. In the mid-1990s, the Faraway Tree books saw the spank-happy schoolteacher Dame Slap sanitised into Dame Snap, and characters Dick and Fanny can no longer prompt sniggering fits as Rick and Frannie.

As with the complaints about the use of “slut” in Dahl’s rhyme, many people mocked the notion that Blyton’s simply written and ubiquitous childhood books could suddenly be regarded as offensive or inappropriate.

Indeed, when it comes to children’s books, almost any form of content could be considered unsuitable to somebody, somewhere in the world.

Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, for example, appears on the American Library’s Association’s list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000. The novel is at number 56 on the list and reported complaints, to school boards in particular, are as numerous as they are bizarre. James and the Giant Peach has been challenged because of its depiction of magic, use of the word “ass”, references to tobacco and alcohol, and for alleged promotion of communism.

As we view children’s books as having an educative role, it makes sense that we want them to be in accord with the values of our time and place. In the present moment, we are particularly attuned to screening out racism and sexism that was the historical norm in periods in which authors like Blyton and Dahl wrote.

The first edition of Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) depicted the Oompa-Loompas as black pygmies from Africa who work for a meagre wage of cacao beans while happily chanting.
Subsequent criticism and debate in the 1970s lead Dahl to sympathise with those who found the characterisation offensive. In the second edition of 1973, the Oompa-Loompas were rewritten as dwarves with “rosy-white” skin from Loompaland. (The orange-skinned, green-haired monstrosities of the film came in between in 1971.)

Dahl’s response suggests that it is not unreasonable to change small aspects of creative works in light of shifting social norms. However, we also have to be mindful that the concepts of offence and unsuitability for children potentially have no bounds.

If millions of parents have read a deliberately grotesque and provocative book like Revolting Rhymes with their children over the course of three decades, should the offence of a handful of adults limit the sale of the book, or even prompt the removal of the word “slut”? Or is it time that a word that is typically used to demean women no longer passes as acceptable in a poem for children?

Whether or not we believe that we should reclaim “slut” from its negative connotations, and regardless of any concern as to whether children will understand the word to mean slovenly or sexually promiscuous, it is troubling when isolated claims of offence have the power to remove a book from sale from any retailer.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Actually, women, you do need feminism

The following article was originally published at
The Conversation and was republished at the Washington Post and New Statesman.

Australian university campuses last week marked Bluestocking Week, a celebration that remembers the first women who entered English universities in the late 19th century.

Women in lecture halls were pioneering. Yet these trailblazers couldn’t sit exams or expect to graduate with an actual degree. Newnham College for women at Cambridge University was established in 1871, but it was not until 1948 that women could hold a full Cambridge degree.

This is merely one area of discrimination that restricted what women could do with their lives. The reality of how little choice women had only a century ago is nevertheless absent in contemporary manifestations of anti-feminism, such as “Women Against Feminism”.

The phenomenon began on Tumblr, with women taking photographs of themselves holding signs that explain their reasons for opposing feminism. The site has been online since July 2013, but it’s only in the last month that it’s really started to generate heat online. Women’s statements range from claims that men are now the true victims of discrimination, to homophobic categorisations of feminists as “man-haters” and “lesbians”.

Any social justice movement with a long history and diverse adherents will exhibit contradictions and problematic ideas. However, Women Against Feminism is not only ahistorical, but fundamentally misreads the nature of feminism and the current status of women.

Let’s work through some of the common assumptions made in these anti-feminist declarations.
(1) “Men and women already have equal rights where I live.”
It is indeed true that in many Western nations women enjoy formal equality, but substantive equality remains elusive. Any of these rights also has the potential to be revoked at any time. Abortion rights, in particular, are continually challenged and overturned. We cannot simply say that feminism has done its work and that women will enjoy the rights and freedoms it has helped to achieve indefinitely.

Also, people regularly travel and migrate. Things might be better “where you live”, but what if you want to go somewhere where women aren’t allowed to drive, gain an education, or report a rape?

(2) “I was raised to be an independent woman not a victim of anything.”
Prior to feminist activism, it would have been impossible for most women to be “independent”, regardless of their parents' intentions. At various points in history, women couldn’t inherit property, work outside the home, learn to read, or even walk down the street unaccompanied. The efforts of generations of feminists helped to give women a say in government, the right to be educated, and social and sexual freedoms.

An independent woman would want to pursue any path in life that she wishes. She’s the kind of woman who would speak up when informed that her job has been made redundant because she’s pregnant, or who would get angry when told that she can’t walk home alone because otherwise she’d be inviting sexual assault. Independence and refusal to be a victim are feminist qualities.

(3) “I am an abomination to feminists” (because I am a stay-at-home mother).
Many Women Against Feminism believe that feminism opposes women’s work at home and denigrates those who don’t pursue careers. Historically, most women had no choice but to remain within the home and care for their children. Until as late as 1966, Australian women had to resign from the public service as soon as they married.

Feminism has always sought rights for women as mothers. Early Australian feminists, for example, campaigned for the government to provide an income to all mothers to recognise that parenting was the equivalent of a job and that it benefited the country. Feminism did challenge the expectation that women have no vocation of her own and be solely focused on cleaning and cooking for her family. This does not mean that feminism derides women who choose to focus on raising children and maintain a traditional division of labour. Though feminists would argue that the reverse situation, in which a male partner cares for the home and children, should be equally possible.

(4) “Men have rights too.”
As the vast majority of the world’s government and business leaders and holders of its wealth, it’s bizarre to suggest that men now lack social and political power. Women Against Feminism, however, often propose that men’s rights have been eroded because they usually have less access to their children after separation or divorce.

The continuing perception in courts and the general community that women are better suited to raise children, while men are better equipped to be in the workforce, is not a “right” that women enjoy. In dozens of ways, this belief restricts and hampers women’s rights and capacity to earn. The one drawback that affects men is the only one that anti-feminists mention.

(5) “I don’t need feminism because…
It is impossible to extricate yourself from collective rights relating to gender, race, or sexuality. Unless you wish to withdraw from society, you will both benefit and suffer from political and social changes to what women can and cannot do. You may not want to need feminism, but you will benefit from its continued work toward maintaining basic rights and eliminating the kinds of sexism that cannot be legislated against regardless. It’s very easy for Women Against Feminism to declare that they don’t need feminism using the voice and powers that feminism made possible and which it continues to fight for.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Reading Children's Literature is Not Embarrassing

Kevin Dooley/Flickr
This post was published in my Conversation column on 17 June.

When the Harry Potter series became a global phenomenon, adult editions were published that replaced the brightly illustrated covers with dignified photographs of inanimate objects on a black background.

Publishers presumed there was a need to cater to adults who wanted to read a fantasy series about a boy wizard, but who didn’t want fellow train commuters to judge them as juvenile or unintelligent.

A recent Slate article suggests that adults should be embarrassed to read books marketed as young adult fiction. Regardless of the problems with the suggestion that any kind of reading should be embarrassing, why should the intended age of a book’s readership determine whether reading it is “shameful”?

For one, just how do we distinguish between books for young people and books for adults? Many popular classics for young adult readers, such as J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, were originally written for adult audiences. While canonical works in their own right, including Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, have attracted young readers since their publication in the Victorian era.

Children’s literature evolved to fulfil didactic aims. John Newbery, a pioneering publisher of children’s books in the early 18th century, aimed to provide “instruction with delight” in the books he published. (He’s responsible for Goody Two-Shoes.)

 Education was seen as integral to reading as a leisure activity for children. The concession to entertainment or “delight” was relatively recent. Much early children’s literature is tedious to the modern reader because of its moral and educative focus.

 From the “golden age” of children’s literature in the second half of the 19th century, didacticism decreased and the boundary between books for adults and books for children became permeable. Books – and plays, such as J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan – often satisfied a dual audience of children and adults.

Is Lewis Carroll "embarrassing"?

While Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was originally presented by Lewis Carroll to 12-year-old Alice Liddell as a gift, on publication it found a lasting audience with both adults and children.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Kidnapped were first published in Young Folks magazine and were seen as “boy’s books”. Yet both Henry James and Arthur Conan Doyle published reviews or commentary on both novels, in a way that the dismissal of children’s books would probably preclude today.

 In 1905, two of Mark Twain’s novels were challenged as inappropriate for child library patrons. In response, Twain claimed that he wrote “Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for adults exclusively”. Yet he pointed out that the unexpurgated Bible should also be removed from the children’s room lest it “soil” young minds, mocking the very notion of shielding children from literature that features characters “no better than Solomon, David, Satan”.

If a book “for adults exclusively” is a faintly ridiculous concept, then so too is a book “for children exclusively”. Adults are the authors of children’s books and quite often they write to please and entertain adults too. The possibility of a dual audience is readily accepted in successful children’s animated films in which jokes and references that only adult viewers would understand punctuate the storyline.

Adults are now buying young adult fiction in such great numbers that the primary readership for these books might not actually be young people. Yet at the same time as adults are reading The Fault in Our Stars, Twilight and The Hunger Games, there remains incredulity at the idea that young people and adults can both be entertained and satisfied by the same book.

Instead there is guilt associated with reading children’s literature. This shaming is baseless when literature for young people that is well-written and intellectually challenging, such as the work of Philip Pullman and Sonya Hartnett, is dismissed wholesale. Yet cliched, formulaic and poorly written “adult” fiction does not carry the same weight of embarrassment.

Arguments against adults reading children’s or young adult titles often present life as an opportunity to absorb a limited number of books, with time spent on “lesser” literature destroying the chance to read Proust or defiantly finish Ulysses. Yet this claim about time being wasted in reading children’s books is infrequently applied to popular bestsellers such as Fifty Shades of Grey or The Da Vinci Code.

The truth is that a sophisticated reader will want to sample the most compelling, imaginative and lasting books of the past and the present. Some of these will be difficult and full of complex allusions. Others will be pleasurable genre fiction that follow a predictable, but satisfying, formula.

But there should always be a place for Alice, Peter, Dorothy, Anne, Holden, Katniss, and the March sisters alongside them.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Valuing our Treasured Print History in the Era of the ‘Bookless’ Library

I wrote the following piece for The Conversation in response to the successful campaign to ensure that the Mitchell Library at the State Library of New South Wales remained a place for books and research, rather than coffee sipping and web surfing.

I was asked to be a guest on Talking Point on ABC Overnights to ponder the future of libraries in the digital age. Part of my conversation with Rod Quinn is available on Soundcloud. 

Today we eagerly embrace new technology for fear of being left behind. A toddler with an iPad in hand is a welcome sign of a child learning to succeed in a digital world.

Remainders of the pre-digital age, including libraries, are adjusting to new expectations about how we source information. Websites, databases, digitised resources and ebooks are now necessities for research and pleasure, much like the printed books that were once the essence of libraries.

The changing face of the library

While many local libraries aim to strike a balance between community events, providing computer and internet access, and maintaining collections of books and other media, the concept of the bookless library is becoming a reality.

Last year, San Antonio’s BiblioTech became the first American digital public library. It is stocked with computers and tablets that can be borrowed in order to read ebooks. A number of school libraries within Australia and internationally are also beginning to dump their entire collections of printed books in favour of “virtual resource centres”.

Yet when the move toward libraries as spaces for people to tap into free WiFi and engage in group discussions reaches our major research libraries, the arguments in favour of minimising the centrality of books do not hold up to public scrutiny.

Not all library users want to go digital

After a significant campaign, including an online petition with more than 10,000 signatures, representatives of the State Library of New South Wales recently agreed to abandon their plans to convert the historic Mitchell Library reading room into a space devoid of books, librarians and researchers.

The State Librarian Dr Alex Byrne had explained that the idea was to open the Mitchell Library to the “public” in a new way. The public response, lead by more than 200 authors, journalists and artists, nevertheless suggests that many Australians do not want state libraries to sacrifice books and research facilities for generic spaces to relax, sip coffee and browse the internet.

State libraries have a special purpose as legal deposit libraries. Every book, newspaper, pamphlet, leaflet, musical composition, map, chart, or plan published in each Australian state must be lodged with a state library. The comprehensiveness of state library collections is without parallel.

Legal deposit libraries are invaluable because we often do not know what kinds of information will be important to researchers, historians and the community in the future. The role of state libraries as custodians of our printed history is only becoming more critical. A disturbing number of public and university libraries and archives are discarding and destroying segments of their collections.

Digitisation has made a sizeable number of books and magazines freely available online. But the gleeful abandonment of printed books and periodicals, bolstered by the idea that everything is at our digital fingertips, remains problematic.

The perils of digitisation

Nicholson Baker’s book Double Fold describes how in the 1990s the British Library decided to sell or pulp its hard copies of international newspapers dated after 1850. The look and feel of the original broadsheets, and detail of the illustrations, some of which were printed in colour, were lost in the black and white microfilm reels that replaced them.

We have discovered that microfilms with blurred sections and missing or faded text are no substitute for the originals that research libraries discarded during the 20th century in order to reclaim shelf space. Moreover, we are now unable to digitise materials with today’s technology that have already been sold off or destroyed.

As with microfilm, it is also possible we will encounter difficulties with digitised versions of our print history in the future. We already know that computer technology becomes obsolete rapidly. We have no real sense of how digitised texts will be stored, managed or shared in future decades, let alone centuries.

Much digitisation is being performed by private companies operated for profit. In the future, do we want the only copies of rare and important books and periodicals to be controlled by businesses rather than public libraries that are free for all?

State libraries are the only places we can count on to safely store and provide access to the breadth of Australia’s collective print and music publishing past and present, from ephemeral advertising to old school textbooks. Physical collections are vital to ensure that millions of pieces of Australia’s literary and cultural history will remain preserved for anyone to discover.

Those who lead the campaign for the Mitchell Library to remain focused on books and research would not deny that libraries must adapt to changing needs for information. Yet it is loss to us all if libraries downplay the continuing importance of collections of Australia’s printed history.

Maintaining the accessibility of our shared cultural archive into the future must always be prioritised.

Friday, April 25, 2014

The History of Gendered Children's Books ... And Their Segregating Present

Includes "Gulliver", "Robin Hood" and
"Robinson Crusoe"
Scholars of children’s literature are accustomed to defending the field on the odd occasion when introduced to someone who jokes about how frivolous and pointless it must be as an area of research. Yet when an article appears in the media which suggests that children’s books should be altered to ensure that they are more inclusive of all children, it inevitably provokes the interest of tens and even hundreds of thousands of readers. For something supposedly trivial, children’s books seem to be of great personal significance to a large number of people.

Last month, Katy Guest, literary editor at the Independent on Sunday, announced that the paper would no longer review “gender-specific children’s books”. This didn’t mean that books like Anne of Green Gables or Harry Potter would be barred from review. Guest made specific reference to the recent rash of books that segregate boys and girls and don’t leave open the possibility that girls might be interested in pursuits that are stereotypical for boys and that boys might also want to read about what are considered girls’ interests. These are not simply books with boy or girl protagonists, but the type of books that are colour coded in pink or blue and which are often published in pairs, such as Usborne’s Illustrated Classics for Boys (“stories of action, adventure”) and Usborne’s Illustrated Stories for Girls (“stories about mermaids, fairies, princesses and dolls”).
Includes "Heidi", "The Wizard of Oz" and
"The Secret Garden"
Around 200,000 people read Guest’s original article and responses were so numerous that she was compelled to prepare a list of answers to the most common expressions of outrage. The article offered support to the Let Books Be Books campaign, which is part of a broader push to end gender segregation among children’s toys.

I also agree that girls and boys should be encouraged to choose from every kind of story imaginable. But, then, a lot of my research concentrates on books and magazines that were published specifically for girls during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Don’t I actually like the concept of books written and published for girls? And if girls’ and boys’ books have been around for so long, then what’s wrong with these recent books targeted at one gender?

The History of Gendered Children's Books and Magazines
A Little Pretty Pocket-Book (1744)
The earliest illustrated children’s books published in Britain by John Newbery in the mid eighteenth century, such as A Little Pretty Pocket Book (1744), were intended for both boys and girls. The book’s subtitle indicates that it was "Intended for the Amusement of Little Master Tommy and Pretty Miss Polly". Children were just beginning to be recognised as a distinct readership, separate from that of adults, as evidenced by the debut of The Children’s Magazine in 1800. Previously children who were fortunate enough to be able to read would usually only be catered to through children’s pages in family magazines, religious tracts, catechisms, primers and chapbook adaptations and abridgements of popular novels like Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels.
Little Folks (1871-1933)
Most nineteenth century magazines for young children, such as Aunt Judy’s Magazine, Little Folks, Chatterbox and Kind Words for Boys and Girls, were aimed at both boys and girls. Concerns about properly gendered behaviours were not marked for young children. For instance, small boys often sported their hair long and wore dresses until the age of breeching (usually after a boy turned four and before he was eight). Young children could then be treated as a relatively undistinguished mass in books and magazines.

In the eighteenth century, adolescence was generally incorporated within the concept of childhood. Yet in the late nineteenth century, girlhood emerged as a distinct phase of development separate from that of early childhood, which, as I've mentioned, tended to encompass both sexes. Consequently, as children grew older, it became common to encourage them to read books and magazines specifically written for boys or girls. New, niche publications targeted at boys and girls flourished in this period due to reduced printing costs and rapidly increasing literacy rates. 

From Newbery’s first books, young people’s reading was understood as having the purpose of combining “instruction with delight”. As expectations for men and women with regard to education, work and family were so starkly different, the instruction girls and boys required as they approached adulthood came to be  understood as needing to diverge. For instance, in 1879 the Religious Tract Society began publication of the long-running Boys’ Own Paper and followed with the even more popular Girls’ Own Paper from 1880.

Girl's Own Paper (1880-1956)
Men and women were also understood as different kinds of readers, with women more likely to be characterised as wasting time reading frivolous material, such as novels. As a result, girls’ publications, such as the Girl’s Own, were especially conscious of presenting appropriately moral stories that encouraged girls to be dutiful and self-sacrificial. Edward Salmon, a nineteenth century commentator, put it this way: Girls’ literature is intended to “build up” women, as boys’ literature is meant to “build up” men. Books for each gender, according to Salmon, have very different purposes:
"If in choosing the books that boys shall read it is necessary to remember that we are choosing mental food for the future chiefs of a great race, it is equally important not to forget in choosing books for girls that we are choosing mental food for the future wives and mothers of that race."  
Salmon knew that Victorian girls often read boys’ books and periodicals as well, but did not disapprove of their covert reading. Even adults of the era were aware that exciting adventure stories, which were reserved for boys' publications, held appeal for girl readers whose stories were often loaded with moral lessons and were confined to domestic settings. This tendency continues today in that children's novels with boy protagonists are often assumed to appeal to all young readers but girl protagonists are generally thought to only appeal to girls. (Although recent Young Adult fiction with girl protagonists, such as Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games and Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, is widely read by both sexes.)

Gendered Books Today
Pink mania for girls
What does all this mean for the debate about gender-specific children’s books? In her original article, Guest speculates that part of the reason for the contemporary push for segregating toys and books along gender lines is sheer greed from manufacturers “forcing parents to buy twice as much stuff”. At their core, however, children’s books, films and television exist to achieve much the same things as John Newbery charged his illustrated children’s books with in the eighteenth century. Our culture produces targeted books, films and television to entertain children, but also to socialise (or “instruct”) them in the prevailing views of how to behave, what kinds of people are valued, and what kinds of people they should seek to become as adults.

In the nineteenth century, very young children were seen as occupying a comparatively genderless stage of life. As a result, the books and magazines that were written for them tended to see young girls and boys as capable of enjoying the same things and requiring the same kinds of didactic messages about how children should behave. It was only when children grew older that enforcing gendered expectations became crucially important and necessitated that books and magazines be tailored to girl or boy readerships.

As the Pink Stinks and Let Toys Be Toys campaigns attest, the past two decades has seen increasing gender stereotyping of children’s toys, even for very young children. We seem to be even more anxious about children remaining within very narrow sets of expectations of what they should grow up to do as men and women. This comes despite progressive attempts in the 1970s, driven by second-wave feminism, to encourage children to play and dress in ways that weren’t highly gendered. In her research on Sears’ toy catalogues, Elizabeth Sweet found that in the mid 1970s “very few toys were explicitly marketed according to gender, and nearly 70 percent showed no markings of gender whatsoever. In the 1970s, toy ads often defied gender stereotypes by showing girls building and playing airplane captain, and boys cooking in the kitchen.”
Stereotype breaking toy catalogue from Sweden's Leklust
And yet now that women are highly educated and the majority of mothers are also in the workforce, toys and books specifically aimed at girls are focused more than ever on the tasks of looking pretty and domestic duties such as cooking and cleaning. The hypergendering of both children’s books and toys looks more like part of an ongoing backlash against feminism in which limiting stereotypes (both old and new inventions like the sparkly, tulle fairy princess) for both boys and girls serve to restore a neat, predictable gendered order. As families negotiate the difficulties of raising children with two parents at work and situations in which women might out-earn their male partners, a return to clear-cut gender divides is something that seems culturally reassuring and comfortable. After all, without our willingness to embrace the gender divide in children’s toys and media, corporations and marketers would have no one to sell their pink, glittery vacuum cleaners to.   

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Case for Henry Handel Richardson's The Getting of Wisdom

Image: State Library of Victoria
This piece was originally published at The Conversation as part of the site's "The case for" series on Australian books.

From David Copperfield to Holden Caulfield, most canonical coming-of-age novels depict boys becoming men. Jane Eyre’s traumatic journey to adulthood is considered a female version of the Bildungsroman, or novel of development. Yet books about girls are most commonly seen as only weighty enough for girls themselves to read.

Henry Handel Richardson’s The Getting of Wisdom is remarkable because it is one of few novels about a girl’s maturation that has come to be understood as a “classic” and also because it is ultimately a girls’ school story. HG Wells, who described the protagonist Laura Tweedle Rambotham as “an adorable little beast”, considered the book to be the best school story he’d ever read.

But was Wells paying Richardson a great compliment? The genre of school stories is maligned and rarely considered as literature. The school story is often seen as originating with Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), but actually has a significantly longer history, providing moral instruction to girls from the mid-18th century.

Henry Handel Richardson
Set in the 1890s, but published in 1910, The Getting of Wisdom defiantly flouts the conventions of the British girls’ school story that were established by the first decades of the 20th century. Typically, a “new girl” confronts a school community in which she does not fit; after many trials she conforms to the system of rules among peers and teachers and is finally accepted. The once unruly or misunderstood girl caps off her first year with a victory for the school in a tennis tournament, or by acing her exams.

When Richardson, a female writer who wrote under a man’s name, transports a new girl from the country to the Ladies’ College in Melbourne, she sets about undermining the very concepts of unity, friendship, honesty, and diligence on which girls’ school stories depend.

Laura learns little from her own mistreatment at the hands of others. After her tumultuous introduction to the College, Laura rejoices “in barbarian fashion” when another new girl, the daughter of a millionaire squatter, is similarly snubbed by other students.

Her crimes are many. Torn between a desire to belong and ambivalence about several of the girls around her, Laura concocts an enthralling tale about the happily married curate’s romantic interest in her. Desperate not to devastate her widowed mother, who has laboured and sacrificed to fund her daughter’s education, Laura seizes the opportunity to stuff a history book down her dress and cheat in one of her final exams.

Her punishments are few. While Laura is ostracised after her most flamboyant lie, there are no lingering consequences for her deceptions. She enters school at the age of 12 as a “square peg” and leaves after several years without her edges having been rounded in the slightest.

Sydney schoolgirls of the 1890s
At the novel’s outset, Laura’s mother cautions that schooling heralds the end of childhood and that Laura must now “learn to behave in a modest and womanly way”. Girls of the period were socialised into traditional feminine expectations of marriage and motherhood.

But, as critic Sally Mitchell shows in her book The New Girl, some Victorian and Edwardian fiction presents girlhood as a liminal state that brings with it freedom from gendered restrictions. There are many things that a girl can get away with without being seen as unfeminine that a woman cannot.

The novel encourages the reader to value Laura’s minor acts of rebellion, such as when she refuses to eat an apple foisted upon her by a condescending woman during her first journey to school. Laura subsequently hurls the despised apple out of a train carriage toward a telegraph post.
Likewise, her lack of interest in boys a not represented as a failing. When the attractive Bob is unexpectedly “gone” on Laura, she is irritated that she now has to “fish for him” and fails at her feeble attempts at flirtation. A number of the older girls have men waiting for them to finish school and have already “reached the goal” of womanhood that seems strange and distant to Laura.

Australia’s most celebrated literary girl rebel, Sybylla Melvyn in Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career (1901), flees expectations of marriage to follow her writing dreams. Laura remains too young to receive marriage proposals, but Richardson briefly reveals that the end of girlhood can promptly close off the excitement of a future of seemingly infinite possibilities. Laura’s friend M.P. aspires to take several degrees, but soon after leaving school she has returned to her home town, is married, and has been “forced to adjust the rate of her progress to the steps of halting little feet”.

The Getting of Wisdom grants Laura, like Sybylla, an ambiguous ending. The reader does not witness the death of girlhood freedoms, but watches Laura run without care, as she departs school for the final time, down a straight path and then around a bend, out of sight.

We know little about her future, other than that “even for the squarest peg, the right hole may ultimately be found”.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

“For the Sake of the School”: The History of the Girls’ School Story

Frontispiece of The Governess (1749):
The girls have their
covetous eyes on the apples
A few months ago, Routledge published a six-volume anthology set of girls’ school stories that I prepared with Kristine Moruzi. The books aims to represent the history of the genre from 1749 to 1929, by setting some of the most notable and popular examples alongside lesser known, but interesting or unusual stories. We also wanted to show that girls’ school stories were not purely a British phenomenon, even though some people have argued that American stories don’t quite fit the British model and despite Australian novels being almost entirely ignored.

We began with an extract from Sarah Fielding’s The Governess; or, The Little Female Academy (1749), which is usually accepted as the first girls’ school story. It’s painfully didactic to the modern reader, and try as I might, I couldn’t make it to the end of the novel. I just did not care that the girls were selfish in each wanting to take the largest apple out of a pile offered by a kind teacher. Frankly, they seemed quite deprived and they'd no doubt worked up a hunger learning all about their character flaws.

Nevertheless, Fielding is writing in a period in which the moral value of children’s literature was a crucial consideration. The Governess was published more than a century before Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s School Days (1857), which is rightfully described as a watershed moment in the history of school stories. Yet the critical emphasis upon Tom Brown, rather than an earlier girls' example like The Governess, also reveals the way in which boys’ school stories have overshadowed girls' books.

Education itself was a different beast in the eighteenth century. Only a small proportion of girls had the benefit of education at home with a governess or at an expensive boarding school. And the education they received was vastly different to that of boys, with a focus on womanly accomplishments like painting and embroidery.

As a result, school stories in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were not radical in their attitudes towards women’s education, but encouraged religious faith and moral values such as honesty. During the nineteenth century, the quantity of amusement and humour in girls’ school stories increased, generating fun-loving character types such as the “madcap”. Yet didacticism, particularly with respect to honourable behaviour, remained important.

The genre flourished after major shifts in girls’ and women’s education, notably the beginning of formalised girls’ schooling in the 1850s, the foundation of women’s colleges in the 1860s, and the Elementary Education Act of 1870, which introduced state-funded education for all children up to the age of 12. It is no surprise that the golden age of the girls’ school story begins in the 1880s, a time in which more British girls than ever before are literate and the experience of schooling has become an almost universal one.

A later edition of Meade's 1886 novel
It is from this point onward that the celebratory “world of girls” (as L.T. Meade titled her novel of 1886) defines the girls’ school story. Protagonists are now adventurous, heroic and athletic, with sports firmly embedded in rhetoric about every girl striving for the sake of the school. As the stories reproduced in the anthology show, plots varied from girls uncovering a German spy (“Vic and the Refugee” (1916) and an untameable Irish girl who knocks a boy out with a punch (Meade’s Wild Kitty [1897]) to more traditional examples of feminine self sacrifice, as in Juliana Horatia Ewing’s Six to Sixteen (1875)  in which two girls nurse their sick friend each evening.

Many British writers of girls’ school stories were prolific, which helps to explain their marginalisation and denigration. Once series set in the same girls’ school became common in the early twentieth century, a number of writers could be counted on to produce a new title almost every year; this meant that a girl could continue to follow her favourite characters as she grew up. Elinor Brent-Dyer’s the Chalet School is the most exceptional case, with more than 60 books in the series published between 1925 and 1970.
Empire Annual (1909)

If you scour second-hand stalls at markets or fairs, you’ll inevitably find girls’ annuals among the piles of books.  Annuals were evidently massively popular and a key way in which many girls read school stories, yet there is little record of their circulation figures, or even precise years of publication in some cases. As we note in the anthology, some annuals were circulated around the British Empire, sometimes with a different cover for the Australian and Canadian markets.

The ready availability of British school novels and annuals around the empire  meant that locally authored school fiction was comparatively uncommon. We uncovered only a handful of Canadian girls’ school stories, for instance. (American stories would have also been readily available in Canada.)

Louise Mack's Teens (1897)
Yet Australia has a significant school story tradition beginning just before the turn of the twentieth century with Margaret Parker’s For the Sake of a Friend (1896) and Louise Mack’s Teens: A Story of Australian Schoolgirls (1897). Australian authored school series, however, did not emerge as in Britain and the United States.

Jessie Graham Flower [Josephine Chase] wrote
several US school and college series.
This title is from 1911. 
Uniquely, many American series followed girls from high school through to their college years. Josephine Chase’s Grace Harlowe books, for example, include “The High School Girls Series” (four books published in 1910 and 1911) and “The College Girls Series” (seven volumes published between 1914 and 1917). The publishers of these American series commonly released several books in the one year—four of the Grace Harlowe college books were published in 1914— indicating an aim to capitalise on interest quickly before girl readers grew up, rather than spreading out volumes at yearly intervals and building an enduring following.

The United States also produced a greater amount of women’s college fiction, which became popular from the 1890s, as an increasing number of women began attending university. Britain only produced a small number of college novels in comparison, and by the 1920s, when women university students had become unexceptional, the genre faded while the school story continued to capture girls’ interest.

Though the concept of girls receiving a formal education had once been controversial, the school story genre is fairly consistently apolitical across the period we explored. We included a few examples of stories that discussed women’s suffrage and careers, but largely the girls’ school story champions the concept of girls learning without emphasising what might happen to them once their school years have drawn to a close. In this way, as Sally Mitchell points out, the girls’ boarding school story in its most popular manifestation between 1880 and 1930 is often more of an escapist fantasy than any kind of mirror of the real lives of actual historical schoolgirls.