March 15, 2011

Feminist Fantasy Picture Books

        I am a feminist.  Now, "feminist" is a word, like many religious and political words, to which all sorts of people ascribe all sorts of different meanings, some of them practically contradictory.  When I say that I'm a feminist I simply mean that I believe males and females are equally valuable, deserve equal human rights, and should be equally permitted to pursue their own particular talents and skills, whatever they may be.  In the 1970's and 80's when I was a girl with a fascination with traditional fairy tales it was easy to start hungering for interesting, active, strong, intelligent female characters - and luckily huge crops of these soon appeared, both in bringing lesser known traditional tales to the fore and in writing new ones.  This is one of those areas in which I think that juvenile fantasy helped to save the world: it may be easier for society to accept unconventional heroes in fantasy tales.  Indeed, many of the early fantasy authors, including George MacDonald, Lewis Carroll, and L. Frank Baum, presented us with feisty, adventuresome, resourceful girls before it was expected that girls could be feisty, adventuresome, and resourceful in real life.  (More about this here.)  But today I'm only going to concentrate on picture books.  Here are a few of the feminist fantasy tales I've found most interesting.

    The Dragon and the Doctor, by Barbara Danish. This is an oddity.  The story itself is extremely weak - indeed, the entire book, published by Feminist Press in 1971, seems to exist for no reason other than to state the existence of a female doctor with a male nurse.  However, it is pleasantly silly, and the dragon's plaintive cry of "Berkshmert" was a welcome addition to my family's vocabulary when I was a child.  [Note: I just discovered that they came out with a new edition in 1995 which apparently makes the doctor black and adds a lesbian couple with a daughter to the mix.  I haven't seen it, so I have no idea whether the actual story's been improved at all.]

    Brave Margaret, by Robert San Souci, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport.  A traditional Irish tale in which the punch line is "What fools we are for thinking it must be a man who slays that great, dirty giant!"

    Vassilisa the Wise, by Josepha Sherman, illustrated by Daniel San Souci.  The hero of this traditional Russian folk tale is a kick-butt woman who can do everything -- and has to, to save her loving and faithful but not so resourceful husband.

     Goddesses: A World of Myth and Magic, by Burliegh Mutén, illustrated by Rebecca Guay.  Personally, I'm not into the front flap's claim that it will "release the goddess energy that is latent in every one" of us females, and I sure wouldn't want my daughter T to emulate the sort of behavior most of these goddesses seem to get up to - and that's even with the book's most positive possible interpretation of the myths!  Still, it's an interesting reference book, representing mythology from all around the world, and it's beautiful, with gorgeous illustrations and borders.

     The Princess Knight, by Cornelia Funke, illustrated by Kerstin Meyer.  Perhaps nothing radically new, this is nevertheless a nice version of the tomboy who proves herself, with a sensible resolution after her father offers her hand in marriage to the winner of a tournament.  I like the way the illustrations scroll along the pages like a modern Bayeux tapestry.

     Not One Damsel in Distress: World Folktales for Strong Girls, retold by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Susan Guevara.  This isn't really so much a picture book, having only one full illustration for each of the thirteen stories, but I count it here because it isn't a chapter novel, either.  As for the stories, I like some more than others.  My least favorites are the ones in which women act just like stereotypical male heroes - which is to say they're stupid, stubborn, obsessed with pointless honor, and convinced that everything will work out fine if they just hit harder.  I admit that there's a value to representing women of all types, and there's no reason some girls can't be brawny fighting machines… but for my taste I'd rather see more boy heroes who are not like that, instead of more girl heroes who are.  That said, this is a nice collection of stories from all different cultures, showing both the variety and the universality of heroic girls.  My favorites are probably "Bradamante" and "The Pirate Princess."

     Also, several of the picture books listed here have strong female heroes, too.

        Now here we are in 2011, and books with an explicit emphasis on strong girls seem almost pointless.  It isn't that strong female characters are no longer needed, it's just that we've reached the stage where the fact that our hero is a girl doesn't need to be the point.  P and T both take it completely for granted that a story's hero could equally be a boy or a girl.  As far as they're concerned, the idea that a girl might not be capable of all the same adventures as a boy is nothing more than a curiosity of ancient history.  Which is exactly as it should be.  I'm lucky to be raising my children in a time and place where they can take equality of the sexes for granted.  Now if only we can bring this vision out of the realm of fantasy and apply it to our entire world.  After all, that's the real magic of fantasy.

[Pictures: Dancing with Animals, wood block print by AEGN, 1999.]


Pax said...

Unfortunately, not all of us even in the US of A live "in a time and place where they can take equality of the sexes for granted." So I unite with your fervent hope that "we can bring this vision out of the realm of fantasy and apply it to our entire world." Was it 1975 that the UN named International Women's Year, and 1976-1985 that the UN declared to be the UN Decade of Women? We still have a way to go. My hope lies with today's youth.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

The world undoubtedly has a long way to go to achieve equality, and there are places where things are pretty dismal. But I do still believe that the more we can hold up the vision, the more the vision will gradually become reality.

Charlotte (MotherOwl) said...

You forgot Tolkien: But I am no man!
I'm a humanist (I need to invent a word here - this one is taken), in that I believe in equal rigths for everyone, but I also believe in not being force fed sterotypes turned upside down like your female doctor - male nurse story. That kind of makes me feel sick inside.