By Lauren Ferguson
The birth of children’s literature is a fairly modern development, beginning in the Victorian age with Lewis Carroll’s female-centric Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Women, such as the ever-curious Alice, have been in children’s literature from the genre’s very creation, but these women, much like women of any other literary genre, are often pigeonholed into tired tropes, such as the nurse, the matriarch, or the princess. This issue becomes especially problematic when presenting these one sided characters as ‘normal’ in children’s literature, with adolescents imbibing these characters as accurate representations of womanhood.
The Chronicles of Narnia, one of the best-known pieces of children’s literature in the modern age, features two female protagonists, Lucy and Susan Pensive. However, Lewis’ novels, specifically The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, tend to rely on well-worn tropes to depict the young women. Lucy Pensive, the youngest of the four children, is given a rather matronly role throughout the novel, as she is given a dagger, but also healing powers by Father Christmas. Her sister, Susan, is given a weapon as well, a bow and arrow, but also a horn that when blown will always bring help. Their brother, Peter, is simply given a sword. Although it is noble for Lewis to present these females characters with weapons, they are not free from the stereotypical role of the healer. Towards the end of the novel, when the children are given titles, Susan becomes the “gentle,” while her brother gets titled “magnificent.” Although gentility is an admirable trait, it is important to be critical of its usage within the context of Susan’s character. The strong focus on only genteel qualities ascribes to her the trope of the female motherly nurse. Susan and Lucy’s characters are surprisingly single-layered, especially for a saga of such length. It would seem they would be allowed room to grow, but instead they are mere face-value characters that can best be summed up in a word: gentle.
In juxtaposition with C.S. Lewis’s series is Phillip Pullman’s trilogy known collectively as His Dark Materials. Pullman’s apostate saga is a direct reaction to the very Christian Narnia series in more than just theology. Pullman is known for his dislike of the saga, referring to C.S. Lewis’ work as “monumentally disparaging of women” and “evil”. His reaction to The Chronicles of Narnia’s one-sided female characters comes in the form of His Dark Material’s main character, Lyra Silvertounge. Lyra is fierce, animal-like, and the hero of her story. She rescues her friends and fights against evil with a vast intelligence. Lyra – although not forced into any female standards, and despite the fact that she displays tomboyish traits – is proud of her gender. Lyra is simply a young child, and Pullman treats her character as such, devoid of sexuality or hyper-femininity. The character of Lyra is, in part, a reaction against the females in children’s literature who remain demure, kind, or powerless, such as Lucy or Susan. The problem with The Chronicles of Narnia is not that it portrays feminine women; it is that it portrays flat female characters, and Pullman’s Lyra is the antithesis to this. Lyra, although not a perfect character, is many things: feminine, bold, stubborn, and intelligent, thus displaying to young readers the varied nature of being human.
When examining these works, it is important to recognize and critique the fact that both of these female characters were written by men, proving that sex does not excuse patriarchal structures when writing about women. However, women have proven to be able to write characters free of gender roles or tropes as well. For example, J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, wrote one of the most recognizable female figures of children’s literature, Hermione Granger. Hermione is “the brightest witch of her age,” not afraid to punch out a foolish Malfoy, and yet doesn’t deny herself femininity when she dresses up for the Yule Ball. She’s a fully realized character, not just an archetype. Similarly is Judy Blume, the author who fearlessly discussed menstruation, religion, and female adolescence through the 12-year-old character Margaret Simon in her book Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Margaret doesn’t hide from her female adolescence; in fact, she discusses it in great detail in order to be informative to the reader. Margaret taught me, and thousands of pre-pubescent girls a message that many missed growing up in a conservative society: that bodily changes and femininity are not a bad thing. Like many young women, my representations of womanhood often came straight from the literature I was reading.
Lyra, Hermione, and Margaret were all heroines that I looked to for guidance during my childhood. Lyra’s boldness, Hermione’s determination, and Margaret’s femininity were all things that shaped my thoughts and actions, as I was becoming a woman. Children are so impressionable, which is why it is imperative to present them with inspirational and well-rounded figures. Young female readers are going to read these works as we once did growing up and believe that what they see is the correct way to act. In some cases this is a good thing. We want girls to become varied and fully realized women, like Hermione or Lyra; but a problem arises when girls think that the greatest thing that they can become is “gentle.” There’s nothing wrong with being a gentle woman, but there is a problem with being only a gentle woman. Be critical of female characters: let us not become hollow copies of the same old trope. Let our young girls have role models who represent healthy, and most importantly, real women.