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Where are all the female creation myths?

The masculine, heroic adventure story in the tradition of Odysseus has ‘only’ been dominant for the last 3000 years. Before then, myth was often about ‘origin’ — where did we come from? Who made us? Since women are the creators of life, it followed that the heroes of such myths were originally female. But where are all these original creation myths?

The female body follows the lunar cycle, which is closely associated with the idea of death and rebirth (waning and waxing moon). The cardinal function of the female body is reproduction. The female myths, describing female initiation, are aimed at repetition, rebirth, the eternal life cycle. Actually, very few genuine female myths exist in written–male, civilised, “symbolic” (Lacan)–form, due to many reasons. Connected with essential life mysteries such as menstruation and birth (both involving bloody), female myths are more secret and sacred than male myths. They have mostly existed in oral form, as esoteric rituals. In Western civilisation, they have been suppressed and muted by the dominant male culture. We can only discover traces and remnants of them, in the figures of the Progenitrix, the witch, the chthonic goddess.

— Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

Short Story Study: The Chaste Clarissa

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STORY

A twice-divorced philanderer holidays where he has always holidayed, on Martha’s Vineyard. On the ferry he meets for the first time a beautiful young woman who has recently married into a bird-watching, rock-collecting family of average Joes, but her husband won’t be joining Clarissa on the island, so our viewpoint character decides immediately that she shall be his next conquest. He sets up a plan to make this happen.

SETTING

Place

Vineyard Haven is a community within the town of Tisbury on Martha’s Vineyard in Dukes County, Massachusetts, United States.

Tisbury

Time

Published in 1952, this is a story set in the same time. This was The Decade of the Housewife, an era which we still tend to idealise, forgetting perhaps, the problems described by Betty Friedan and others.

Milieu

As usual in Cheever’s stories thus far, ‘The Chaste Clarissa’ is a story about upper-class people with upper-class issues. We have holiday homes and housemaids and copious amounts of spare time. Whatever else was going on in the world is irrelevant to these characters, underscored by the fact that this is set on a literal island.

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Is there a double standard when it comes to evaluating “chick flicks” compared to male-oriented action and war films? According to one critic, we incorrectly assign more value to the drama of male bonding than we do to the female bonding portrayed in such films as Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood.  […]  The deeper issue here is not whether “chick flicks” are devalued, but rather how you dramatize family life. Action and war films have it easy; they show life and death situations. Nobody mentions that the vast majority of the audience will never encounter these situations.

– John Truby on the film Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

“Women are shamed for having desire for anything – for food, for sex, for anything. We’re asked to only be the object for other people’s desire. There’s nothing that directing is about more than desire. It’s like, ‘I want to see this. I want to see it with this person. I want to change it. I want to change it again.’ It’s like directing is female desire over and over again, and film is the capturing of human emotions and somehow men were able to swindle us into believing that that is their specialty. All they told us our whole life is we’re too emotional to do any real jobs, yet they’ve taken the most emotional job, which is art making about human emotions and said we’re not capable of it.

– Jill Soloway calls for a matriarchal revolution: There is a “state of emergency when it comes to the female voice”

Bear in mind that most protagonists in Hollywood and in stories generally are male. Also bear in mind that a good protagonist must start with psychological and moral weakness, closely followed by desire. As John Truby says: ‘A story doesn’t become interesting to the audience until the desire comes into play…Desire is the driving force in the story.’

If characters must have desire in order to be interesting and, as Jill Soloway has noticed, women aren’t permitted desire in the dominant culture, it follows that any female characters are likely to be less interesting than male characters, relegated to supporting roles and turned into objects.

But it’s rare to see any film, much less a PG-13 one for broad audiences, present a woman as a sex object as blatant as Lady Lisa, a fantasy who falls into a man’s arms without so much as a word

from review of Pixels in Vanity Fair. Pixels was released in 2015.

Short Story Study: The Great Chain Of Being by Kim Edwards

You may recognise the author’s name from her bestselling The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, which was first published 8 years later in 2005.

WHAT THE STORY IS ABOUT

A girl feels overlooked because her important father gives names of significant family members to each of her siblings except to her. She tries in vain to win his attention and affection, but unfortunately, she only wins attention by trying to smother the baby twins which have lead to a long, worrisome labour for their mother. Eshlaini’s father then names her after his own mother, which is no compliment whatsoever. When Eshlaini comes of age, the father turns away all of her suitors, because like his own mother, this daughter Eshlaini must care for him in his old age. Continue reading

Smile, baby! You’re on the cover of a picture book.

[L]ike the smiling image of the girl on the title page of Mr. Rabbit, pictures often imply through signifying gestures that the victims of our gaze are willing victims. We all know that we should “smile for the camera”–show a facial gesture that signifies pleasure to those who will eventually see the picture, and who will view it with a relentless attention that would cause us to stop smiling and feel abused if we experienced it in reality. The covers of many picture books ape such photographs and show their main character in a sort of introductory portrait that implies an acquiescence in the right of viewers to observe and to enjoy what they see. There are also, of course, many picture books whose covers show their protagonists simply getting on with the business at hand, whatever that business may be. But interestingly, those who smile and invite the gaze of viewers are most often female, the others usually male.

– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

Smiling Girls

As Nodelman points out, it’s easy to find illustrations of smiling girls in passive, portrait position. When both a boy and girl are depicted, it’s the girl who is more likely to be aware of the imaginary camera. Note that even The Little Match Girl smiles. Anyone who has read that story knows that the reader should perhaps be forewarned; this story is no smiling matter!

CinderellaThe Up And Down BookBaby's ChristmasWildLittle LuluGood Bye TonsilsThe Little Match GirlRed Riding Hood LadybirdLittle Red Riding HoodAlice In WonderlandThe Christmas ABCFun To Cook BookPepper Plays NurseLucy and Tom's ChristmasPhoebe and the Hot Water Bottles

Some Smiling Boys

The boy on the swing is aware of the camera but he is at least doing something (showing off). The boy in front of Baby’s House is proud and prancing about. The red-haired boy looking coyly at the camera is in more typically feminine pose. It’s no accident that he is doing something more typically feminine.

The Up And Down BookBaby's HouseThe New Baby

Smiling Group Portraits

It’s hard to get everyone in a group smiling at the same time, especially when doing something else at the same time, but not if that portrait happens to be an illustration:

The JetsonsLittle VersesHansel and Gretel

 

Smiling Creatures from Dr Seuss

Dr Seuss was a fan of the portrait-style smile on a front cover. This makes sense, because the inner stories were presented much like a pantomime, with ridiculous goings-on which seem designed to delight a young audience.

If I Ran The ZooGreen Eggs And HamCat In The HatFox In Socks

 

Other Smiling Creatures

If you’re hunting for smiling-at-the-camera male characters gracing the fronts of picture books, it’s a bit easier to find males smiling who are not human.

Frosty The SnowmanThe Monster At The End Of This BookPuss In BootsSomething ElseWordsChatterly Squirrel

Hell, I’m Not Smiling

Though these are obviously posed, portrait-type illustrations, in which the painted child is in front of an imaginary camera, these children are not actually smiling. Indeed, the twins look exceptionally creepy to a modern audience, though it wasn’t so long ago that nobody smiled for cameras; portrait-sitting was a solemn and expensive event.

My KittenMy PuppyMy Teddy BearThe TwinsWe Like Kindergarten

See also: Nudity In Picturebooks

Short Story Study: The Company Of Wolves by Angela Carter

When I ask Gaiman who his favourite fairy tale character is, he says he fell in love with Red Riding Hood when reading Carter. … in order to interpret Gaiman’s taste, you need to know that Carter’s take on the tale was “The Company of Wolves”, an ornately told story in which the heroine makes a relatively late appearance in a savage, sexual world, not a small child skipping along a path but a daring pubescent girl who strips naked, laughs in the face of danger and sleeps with the wolf – rendering him post–coitally “tender” – in her dead grandmother’s bed.

Interview between Gaby Wood and Neil Gaiman, The Telegraph

The Bloody Chamber and Other Adult Tales

 

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Sex In Teenage Literature

The prevalence of ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’ in young adult literature and schoolyard banter is enough to make a feminist mother weep. Our daughters learn early the same sexually oppressive messages that we learnt: that female sexuality is a prize to be given to (or taken by) a man.

Daily Life

 

These are notes from the Kid You Not Podcast, Episode 10 as well as my own notes.

 

You won’t find men’s genitalia in quality literature.

A Librarian

 

***CONTAINS PLOT SPOILERS***

 

THE HISTORY OF SEX IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Laura Ingalls Wilder, who wrote the semi-autobiographical Little House series with her daughter Mary from the 1930s, had a real life which wasn’t quite the fairytale depicted in the stories or in the Disney miniseries. Laura Ingalls married “Manly” Wilder at the age of 15. Manly was at the time 25. This age difference and the marriage of a bride so young was common and acceptable in that time and place, but by the 1930s had become a taboo subject in a feel-good story for children. The real age difference was therefore never mentioned.

Would this age difference be acceptable in a book for children today? We see in kidlit what is considered acceptable at time of publication, with an extra tendency to sit on the conservative, didactic side of acceptable.

For more on Laura Ingalls Wilder, listen to Stuff You Missed In History Class Episode December 23, 2013.

 

THE INFLUENCE OF JUDY BLUME

Judy Blume’s Forever (1975) revolutionised the way sex was portrayed in teenage literature. The striking thing about Forever is how clinical and de-eroticised the sex actually is. There really is nothing titillating about it, despite how much it was banned at the time. First you seek advice by going to the clinic like a good girl… The female is assumed to take sole responsibility to take birth control. Although this ideology is very much of its time, this book provides a sensitive treatment of sex, and helped quite a lot of young women worried about the hygenics and practicalities of the sex. Even though sex is much more a part of YA literature these days, it’s still hard to find stories which address young girls’ concerns in such a practical manner rather than the emotional side.

Also, the idea that health of the family is the female’s responsibility has hardly gone away. You can find daily examples of advertisements, for health food, for dentists, for glasses, which are aimed at women. Just this morning I had a newsletter in my inbox advertising a (dodgy) app which helps to ‘educate mothers’ about health for the sake of our families:

caring-is-for-mothers

RETRIBUTIONAL REPRESENTATIONS OF SEX IN MODERN YA NOVELS

Sex is no longer a taboo subject and is therefore more common. But it is never, even today, something that just happens; it’s almost always a key aspect of the plot and there are always consequences. If the sex is reckless then invariably the female protagonist has a pregnancy scare or ends up pregnant. Despite the fact that now it is more common to depict protagonists having sex, it has not become normalised.

An example of this kind of morality occurs in a subplot of Numbers by Rachel Ward. The male character dies, then lo and behold, the female character is pregnant. [I’ve noticed a lot of war stories contain this plot. The male has to go off to war, and it’s discovered that the woman left at home is going to have his, or someone else’s baby.] Sex cannot pass by unnoticed.

In Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman, the two main characters who are deeply in love have sex. The boy dies; the girl gets pregnant.

In Twilight Bella and Edward get married, have sex, and Bella dies (sort of).  Again, huge consequences. In Twilight, the absence of sex is the sex. [The Erotics Of Abstinence.]

With the notable exception of the Twilight Series, the culture has moved on from the idea that sex must only happen within marriage, but hasn’t moved all that much further; sex is still something you do only within a loving, secure relationship. You must think carefully and deeply about birth control first.

 

In the literature of antiquity, sex is almost a last resort for the expression of love, and it seldom ends well. It’s the classic pitfall of the Old Testament.

Paris Review

TITILLATION OR VOYEURISM?

Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma is about incestuous sex between a brother and sister. In this case the brother ends up dead. Contemporary teen culture has no trouble with eroticism. This story provides more than simply titillation, instead putting the reader in the situation of a voyeur. That’s one of the main differences between the seventies and now.

 

WHERE ARE THE BOOKS ABOUT THE TEENAGE MALE SEXUAL EXPERIENCE?

Most experiences of sex in YA novels are female experiences. There’s the notable exception such as Melvin Burgess’s Doing It, but that was precisely so notorious because no other book before had presented sex from the perspective of a teenage boy. As erotic and explicit and pornographic as this book is, it’s still incredibly didactic: “This is not the way you treat girls.”

A large amount of teen readers are girls. There is an alternative for learning about sex as a teenager: The Internet, magazines. But perhaps it is not the ‘good girl’s option’ to look to other types of media. There is something more wholesome-feeling about reading a novel compared to watching a film, say.

 

SEX IN THE WORK OF ROBERT CORMIER: A DIFFERENT FUNCTION

In Robert Cormier’s Fade presents all forms of deviation: incest, rape, prostitution, voyeurism, in an incredibly harsh and provocative way which truly questions the intrusion of sex in the lives of teenagers. This book provides no solace or emotional understanding.

 

THE FEMINISATION OF SEX IN YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE

Depending on your ideology, whether we like or not, to some extent the sex in YA literature is gendered. A lot of the most commercial fiction seems to have the aim of tucking its girl readers into particular feminine roles — sexual and gender roles. For example, in YA fiction that appeals to girls, sex is emotional. [Girls are often passive, too, waiting for boys to ask them out, not learning about themselves.]

 

 

THE CULT OF VIRGINITY

The Gossip Girl series has been described as Sex In The City for modern teenagers. Although there is sex, it is littered with consequences and always for the girl. The character Blair spends the entire first novel gearing up to have sex with her boyfriend, who she has been seeing for two years.

 

(For more on the Gossip Girl series, series such as this have been criticised by Naomi Wolf. This paper further delves into the role of these books and the impact they may/may not have on teenage girls.)

 

A book of short stories called Losing It, written by many prominent different children’s authors, write about lots of different ways of losing virginity. So many books revolve the plot around two people having sex and one of them is a virgin. Losing virginity is like a gate through the door into adulthood. Virginity is a strong symbolic obstacle.

Losing It Keith Gray

 

PREGNANCY AS REPURCUSSION

Malorie Blackman’s Boys Don’t Cry is a rare example of a story about teen pregnancy that is not all about the girl. He doesn’t know his former girlfriend has had a baby when she turns up one day and leaves him with their baby.

 

The books featured above are the Big Books about sex and teens, and there are almost certainly lesser known books which take a more mature [less didactic, more naturalistic] view of teenage sex.

 

LGBTQ SEX

Sex in YA fiction is heteronormative and has only just started to branch out into stories about other sexualities.

See the paper Creating Realms of Possibilities from Dail and Leonard

Also Would You Want To Read That? Using book passes to open up secondary classrooms to LGBTQ Young Adult literature from Emily S. Meixner

And Creating A Space for YAL With LGBT Content In Our Personal Reading from Katherine Mason

Connecting LGBT To Others Through Problem Novels from Hayn and Hazlett

10 Of The Best Teenage Novels With Gay and Lesbian Characters from Books For Keeps

 

 TEENAGE EROTICA

 

House Of Holes has been recommended in major publications as a good example of erotica for a teenage audience. Erotica, of course, is a different thing from ‘the odd sex scene that crops up in typical YA’.

the good news is that there is nothing inHouse of Holes that we wouldn’t want our youth to read. Indeed it is exactly the sort of filth that you would want them to read first (if you don’t mind exposing them to something so decidedly heterosexual).

In the traditional sex talk, parents don’t say much about pleasure—presumably neither party wants to get into details. But wouldn’t it be nice for parents to have a way to convey our highest ideals on the subject? House of Holes will introduce impressionable readers to many interesting sexual possibilities without a whisper of stereotype or slur.

The New York Review Of Books

 

RELATED

What’s Going On Inside Of Me? Emergent female sexuality and identity formation in young adult literature, by Evelyn Baldwin

Emily Maguire is an Australian author, including of YA novels such as Taming The Beast. In this article she explains what it was like to be a teenager, sex-drive-wise.

 

 

Ideology In Children’s Literature

One of the fundamental changes in critical thinking and teaching over the past twenty years has been the acceptance that ideology is not a separate concept ‘carried by’ texts, but that all texts are inevitably infused by ideology. This has been particularly difficult to accept in the world of children’s literature, which is still widely assumed to be ‘innocent’ of concerns of gender, race, power, and so on — or to carry transparently manipulative messages.

– Peter Hunt

The following are notes from Episode 9 of the Kid You Not Podcast, and from the book Language and Ideology In Children’s Literature by John Stephenswith extra insertions from me. If you’ve ever wondered what exactly is meant by ‘ideology’ and have come across words like ‘hegemonic’ without really understanding what the words mean, the Kid You Not podcast is a great way to spend 25 minutes. It’s clear and concise.

 

DEFINITION OF IDEOLOGY

From a literary criticism perspective, all texts, especially fictional texts, are imbued with ideological content. This can refer to a system of values/beliefs/fears/world views, which are all linked to concepts of power. These values and beliefs will be distilled within language, whether through the words/images on the page or the words and images that are not there. [See: Where Are The People Of Colour In Picture Books?] Even picture books aimed at very young children can be ideologically charged. Sometimes ideology is transparent, because we’re bathed in it and therefore don’t even see it.

No text, and therefore no children’s book, is devoid of ideology. This isn’t necessarily a terrible thing. Ideology isn’t necessarily in reference to Nazi or communist propaganda. It might simply be an ideology of capitalism. While extremist groups have historically leaned on children’s literature to share their beliefs with impressionable audiences, but this is not what’s generally meant by ideology. Generally, ideology refers to children’s books at one end of the spectrum: Books designed to teach children something or deal with a specific problem. But every book has an implicit ideology, and it is this kind of book which tends to be the more powerful vehicle for an ideology, because it is invisible and therefore there exists the implication that things are simply ‘so’.

The more covert the social practice in narrative, the more a text demands a reader who knows how to interpret a fiction. This demand is itself an ideological assumption.

 

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Children Aren’t Hipsters

Many people think that the merchandising for the princesses depends on their popularity level, but that’s not entirely true. Children aren’t hipsters. They don’t have the means or interest into digging into who isn’t the “mainstream favorite” Princess. They’re not going to like something or even recognize it unless we show it to them.

Feminist Disney

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