We are delighted and honoured to announce that the GLARE project will cooperate with the award-winning children’s writer Robin Stevens. Robin has generously granted us access to the world of Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong, her famous detectives. We are very much looking forward to working with Robin. In this blog post, Robin highlights the cultural power of stories that give children role models to aspire to.
Robin Stevens is the author of a series of children’s mystery books featuring two girl detectives Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong. Robin’s first book ‘Murder Most Unladylike’ won ‘The Waterstones Children’s Book Prize’ in 2015. Her newest book, ‘A Spoonful of Murder’, is out in the UK and Ireland now, and the Detective Society’s next adventure will be published in October 2018.
“As a writer of stories for children, as well as a child who grew up consuming stories, I am delighted that my books have become part of GLARE’s research into gendered language.
There are plenty of wonderful female characters in the children’s literature canon. In the mystery genre alone (my favourite as a child, and the one I write in as an adult), there’s the feisty, flashily-dressed Nancy Drew, tomboy George from the Famous Five, Philip Pullman’s fearless Sally Lockhart, best witch of her generation Hermione Granger, and discerning Claudia from The Mixed Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler.
But, and this is something I was always conscious of as a child, and notice even more as an adult: for each clever, fearless, funny literary heroine, there are usually two or three heroes. The Hardy Boys; Julian and Dick and Timmy the dog; the male members of the Secret Seven (who sometimes went on adventures without the girls in their club); Harry and Ron; Claudia’s three brothers. Girls are hopelessly, helplessly outnumbered in books, and very often, brilliant as they are, they are only given the role of the sidekick in a male character’s story. Hermione is literally extraordinary, but it’s her job to help the rather less obviously marvellous Harry triumph over his enemies.
Girls in children’s literature have it tough: they have to fight so hard to be special, to be noticed, to be recognised, to be just like the boys – but by that metric, their battle is always unwinnable. They’ll always be a bit slower, a bit less tough, a bit less … masculine. They’ll always just be girls.
This is not to say that children’s books don’t celebrate girlhood, or feature funny, brave, heroic female characters – of course they do. All of the girls I mentioned earlier in this blog post were my heroes growing up, and their very existence was inspirational for me. Nor do I believe that to be masculine is intrinsically better than to be feminine, or even that ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are anything more than societal constructs.
But it’s interesting to count the number of times the characters in a book skew male. It’s interesting to notice how many stories about a group of children have only one girl, as though femaleness is a character trait. It’s interesting to realise how many female characters in children’s stories celebrate their stereotypically masculine characteristics (aggression, athleticism, bravery) and are ashamed of their stereotypically feminine characteristics (gentleness, friendliness, squeamishness).
I am delighted that GLARE is highlighting a fact that I have known at a visceral level for a long time: there are more male protagonists than female in children’s books, and where girls appear they often have very different parts to play than boys. Boys are (usually, not always) exhorted to be brave, bold, clever, adventurous, while girls (again, often but not always) have two options: good or bad. Good girls are nice, polite, kind, and bad girls are rowdy, hoydenish, mean. It is important that we see that the problem exists in order to begin to fix it.
Because stories matter. They have immense cultural power, and the stories we consume as a society deeply affect us. They help us understand our response to unbearably frightening events (witness the Dumbledore’s Army signs at anti-Trump rallies in America, or the three-fingered Mockingjay salutes that Thai campaigners used during pro-democracy rallies in 2014). They can sometimes literally be a matter of life and death (just look at the awful spate of copycat suicides that followed the original publication of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther). Stories show us how to shape our lives – they become part of our humanity at the deepest and most profound level.
And this is the reason that we have to think hard about what stories we are telling ourselves. We should worry that, as GLARE’s research is helping show, we hold one half of humanity up higher in our cultural estimations than the other half. We should be concerned that we are giving our women fewer role models, fewer heroes, fewer words. This is a problem that is fixable, and worth fixing – not by any single person or group, but by all of us, working together to acknowledge the issue and beginning to teach ourselves to tell new stories.”
At GLARE, we are very pleased that Robin is supporting our research that aims to raise awareness of how stories shape our lives and especially how gender is conceptualised in children’s books. As Robin states: “We should worry that … we hold one half of humanity up higher in our cultural estimations than the other half”. Our world is not black and white though and neither are fictional characters. So it is all the more important to become aware of stereotypical language use – that if often unconscious – but perpetuates the division of the world in terms of gender.
As Robin’s blog post highlights, phrases that make comparisons between boys and girls can be particularly harmful. We are repeatedly reminded that boys and girls act and look differently – ‘like a boy’ or ‘like a girl’. But, what do we mean when we say ‘like a boy’? We have checked the phrase in the Oxford Children’s Corpus (Children’s Dictionaries, Education Division, Oxford University Press) and in 31% of cases it refers to the appearance of fictional characters – in most cases to hair. The phrase ‘look like a boy’ is a typical example. It assumes shared knowledge of what looking like a boy means. In 26% of cases, the phrase refers to adults behaving ‘like a boy’ – laughing, whistling, or enjoying their holidays. In 31% of its occurrences, the phrase refers to girls looking or behaving like boys, and this is often not approved of – very often a girl’s hair is seen as too short but we also find cases like ‘running like a boy’, which show that running, or a particular way of running, is the norm for boys only.
There are also even more explicit examples, in e.g. David Miller’s ‘Leopard’s Claw’ (2010), which has three child protagonists – two boys and one girl (the same pattern as in Harry Potter as Robin observes in her blog post) – we learn that “Uncle … teaches me to hunt like a boy, not to stay at home like a girl”. The phrase obviously also works the other way round: ‘like a girl’ is about as frequent as ‘like a boy’. Many of its occurrences are concerned with looks as well. But we also get phrases like blushed / cried / screamed / weeping / whimper like a girl.
GLARE aims to show that it matters how we use language and how we use stories to familiarise children with the norms of society. Children need role models so they are empowered to change imbalances in society. As Robin points out, the problem is fixable but we need to work together to understand the issues so that we can begin “to teach ourselves to tell new stories”. It is a fantastic step into this direction that Robin agreed to work together with us. Thank you, Robin.
Please cite this blog as follows: Stevens, R. (2018, 1 June). Robin Stevens for GLARE: Because Stories Matter [Blog post]. Retrieved from: https://blog.bham.ac.uk/glareproject/2018/06/01/robin-stevens-for-glare-because-stories-matter/