Tuesday, 12 October 2010
Time Travel Tuesday: Feminism and The Famous Five
Occasionally, however, we disagreed. There were books I wanted to read that my mother did not approve of. And while she'd never outright ban me from reading these books, she would make her opinion known. Mainly through The Art of Eye-Rolling, but in extreme cases there would also be... Scornful Remarks. And that was often enough to put me off.
Enid Blyton books most definitely qualified as an extreme case. According to my mother, no Enid Blyton book was worthy of my time. Famous Five books went one step further. They had (and I quote) 'negative gender stereotypes', and I got the distinct impression that I shouldn't want to read them.
Alas, I did want to. Some of my friends had vast Famous Five collections, and I liked a collection more than anything. I'd pick them up in the library and think, maybe I could just try one. Not wanting my mum to think I had lousy taste in reading material, I'd put one in the middle of my stack of loans and hope she didn't notice. Then I'd read them out of sight, relishing the old-fashioned adventure of it all. Sure, they were formulaic, and the main girl character Anne was a total sap, but I loved the fact that the children in these stories had so much freedom. I mean, they could go sailing by themselves and sleep on an island all night and that was just fine. They had the space and time to get into adventures, whereas kids of my generation were so closely guarded that there was absolutely zero chance of us stumbling across shipwrecked gold.
Having reread the very first Famous Five book, Five On A Treasure Island (no prizes for guessing the premise there), I'm not so sure I agree with my mum's stance on this series. Yes, it's dated. Yes, it was written at a time when gender roles were pretty strictly prescribed - and there's evidence of that throughout the book. Anne is every bit as sappy as I remembered, and that's generally attributed to the fact that she's a girl and therefore not as brave / strong / cunning as the other characters. Boo! When tomboy Georgina doesn't like a decision that her mother has made (to sell the treasure island of the title, which she apparently owns) her father points out that his wife is 'guided' by him. Since there's no explanation of why that would be the case, I can only assume that it's because he's the man, and therefore the only one capable of making business decisions. And yes, I find that obnoxious.
However, there's another way of looking at this issue. This book was written in 1942, and Blyton's characters reflect the attitudes of the day. Of course they do. And I have no doubt that in seventy years time readers will be balking at some of the attitudes displayed in current children's fiction. But would we want those readers to miss out on all the good that is in these books? I don't think so.
As I reread Five On A Treasure Island, I was surprised to find myself relating to George as something of a feminist icon. She's eleven years old. At a time when boys are boys and girls are considered feeble, she doesn't identify as female. She refuses to answer to the name Georgina, wears her hair short, enjoys climbing and swiming and sailing, and fiercely wishes she were a boy. She recognises that her society doesn't credit girls with possessing the traits she has, so she's taken the only alternative path and become a tomboy. She comes from a world where girls don't have the freedom to be what she wants to be, and she stays true to herself the only way she knows how. While my personal belief is that we should all just forget about gender identity and be the person we want to be, George doesn't have that option. However, by behaving like her world's idea of a 'boy', she becomes a subversive character. She redefines what being a girl is, and she gives the female reader something different to identify with.
George actually kinda rocks.
So you see, while my mum has been an amazing role model, I think she was wrong on this one. She raised me to believe that I could be a girl and be whatever else I wanted. That I could be clever and independent and that I could achieve anything I wanted to. But what she didn't realise is that the sense of self-belief she gave me could not be shaken by a book.
Verdict: Five On A Treasure Island is a classic. It's fun and exciting and there's a beguiling innocence to it that I can't help but like. While it's undeniably dated, I think that with guidance, young readers can find a way round that. It's all about context, folks.