Lectitans question of the week is a very interesting one: In what ways do children's and young adult novels shape readers' notions of gender roles? How can and do they present more options, especially to girl readers, for how to spend a life? They go on to add, "I'm looking here for titles, trends, and examples of literature where girls get to choose who they are going to be, or that explore when and why they don't get to choose who they are going to be" and "What has shaped the women we are now, and what will shape the girls of the future? What role does children's and young adult literature play in affecting boys' and men's views of women? How can we show girls the myriad of possibilities open to them without coloring their view of which possibilities are best?"
The questions are thought-provoking, but the answers aren't always easy to put into words. Which female characters have influenced me personally? I'd have to say LauraIngalls Wilder and Anne Shirley. The Little House books were a big part of my life in elementary school. I wanted to be Laura Ingalls Wilder. I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to be a wife. I wanted to be a mother. I wanted to be a writer. I didn't just want one of those roles, I wanted them all. In the books, Laura didn't want to be a teacher. Not really. She took on that role out of necessity. It's been a while since I've read the books, so someone correct me if I'm wrong, but I think Mary was the one who wanted to teach. That teaching was something Laura did because the family needed money. She was also in part living Mary's dreams for her. Just like she was always Mary's eyes. How she had to soak up so much more of life so she could share with her sister the beauty and depth of the world. But the tv show, teaching was her dream. It was something she was passionate about. So I'm not sure which influenced me more--the books or the show--but Laura Ingalls Wilder was definitely a part of my life. Anne Shirley was another character that made a big impact on me. Again, she wanted more out of life. Here was a girl with a big mouth. She had thoughts. She had opinions. She was so lovably stubborn. She was curious. She was spirited. She was adventurous. She was just so unique. And like Laura Ingalls Wilder...there was an emphasis on teaching and writing. (Although I can't remember if the movies added the emphasis on writing, or if it is in the books as well. If I'm getting it wrong, please let me know.) The traditional roles were there in the later books--she was a wife and mother--but she never quite outgrew her personality. She controlled her temper better, but she never lost herself either. Another female character that I think has in one way or other shaped the culture is Scarlett O'Hara. In some ways, it is easy to see Scarlett as a girl who definitely wanted society to change. She hated the fact that society dictated what women could or could not do. She was smart. She was good at numbers. She was good at business. She wanted a career. She didn't want to be a traditional homemaker. She didn't want a passel of brats to take care of. She didn't have a nurturing bone in her body. So while she liked to put on the mask of feminitity and helplessness to have men fall all over her, she was very independant, very capable. She knew how to work a room to her advantage. She knew how to manipulate both men and women to get what she wanted. She was in no way admirable. She was full of flaws. But there is a certain spirit about her that is appealing.
I think children's literature is important. I think it has come a long way from where it started. Elsie Dinsmore? Yuck. I'd take Ramona, Junie B. or Clementine any day. It would be very interesting to read a book or two from each decade (beginning in the nineteenth century) to see what changes have occurred. I think there have always been a few role models like Jo March that do stick out from the norm.
One of my recent favorite books with a strong heroine is NOBODY'S PRINCESS by Esther Friesner. Runaway Princess by Kate Coombs is another. Enjoyed Just Ella by Margaret Peterson Haddix. I'm sure I could think of plenty if I really sat down and thought about it.
As far as gender roles go, the thing that annoys me most about some fiction (and about some people in real life) is the portrayal of young teen girls that are so desperately seeking a boyfriend that that is the only way they define themselves. They define their worth by their status. If a boy likes me, I must be special. If I don't have a boyfriend, there must be something wrong with me. So they are always in-between relationships. It's never just okay to be by themselves. They have this need to be part of a couple at all times. To feel inadequate otherwise. Not a good picture, in my opinion. You have to know yourself; you have to love yourself; and you can never define yourself solely in terms of another person.