In stories as in real life girls and boys are held to different standards. How does this play out in children’s literature?
There was a little girla poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead.
And when she was good
She was very good indeed
But when she was bad
She was horrid!
Contrary to popular belief, the above is not a Mother Goose rhyme but a poem. However, I remember its inclusion — slightly modified — in a book of nursery rhymes from my own childhood.
When I recently ordered the box set of Judy Moody by Megan McDonald for my daughter I was reminded of that rather awful poem, and I wouldn’t mind betting the series illustrator has been inspired by Longfellow, because the curl on the forehead is an enduring feature of Judy Moody’s character design.
‘Good girls must be very, very good or else they are horrid, whereas boys behaving badly are seen to be merely displaying masculine traits’, writes Carolyn Daniel in Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature. While acknowledging that things have changed since the Victorian era, ‘giving way to a generally more therapeutic style, much contemporary fiction still reinforces traditional stereotypical gender roles.’
There is another nursery rhyme from the early 1800s that epitomises our view of what boys and girls are made of — with gender essentialist neurosexism working in both direction:
What are little boys made of?
Snips and snails, and puppy dogs tails
That’s what little boys are made of !”
What are little girls made of?
“Sugar and spice and all things nice
That’s what little girls are made of!
At first glance this poem seems to have been written in a way that favours girls and makes girls’ lives easier. Instead, this poem is terrible for girls (as well as for non-‘boyish’ boys), because as Daniel describes:
There is a sociocultural leniency toward the bad behaviour of boys. Boys are, after all, made of slugs and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails, and they are culturally expected to be naughty, to get dirty, to wriggle and not be able to sit still, to not make rude noises, to fight and swear. And for this they are judged to be “just being a boy” or “a real boy”, one who will grow into a real man. Concomitantly girls must be good. And, in order to become good girls they must be carefully controlled and constantly monitored.
- What if Peta Rabbit were a girl and her brothers Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail were the good little bunnies who stayed at home?
- Is there a female version of Winnie-the-pooh, who is obsessed over excessive and sweet food in a humorous way rather than as a slight on her character?
- Would John Moody work as a concept (rather than Judy Moody)? Is there a male equivalent in children’s literature? There are plenty of mischievous boys, but what about ‘moody’ ones, allegorically named as such, because their emotions are such an important part of their character? (Johnny Cranky, Sam the Surly etc.?)
- Is stereotypical bad behaviour in girl characters e.g. preening and asking for things she shouldn’t have and talking rudely to (and about) others, perceived as worse than stereotypically boy behaviour e.g. standing up for oneself by using physical violence and threats?
Australian writer John Marsden did write a picture book about a naughty girl. It’s called Millie. Have you heard of it? If not, there may be a reason for that; it hasn’t found longterm resonance.
Storytellers are often told to give their characters moral shortcomings (ie. a way in which they treat others badly). It’s worth considering as we write our character (and form opinions on other people’s fictional characters) whether we are holding the girl characters to higher standards of likeability.