March 24, 2015

Alice, Irene, and Dorothy

        March being Women’s History Month, I thought I’d mention once again fantasy as a place where female characters have always had a chance to shine.  I think it’s remarkable that many of the earliest classic fantasy books for children feature strong, adventuresome, feisty girls as protagonists.  In an era when women had few legal rights, had to struggle to participate in higher education or non-menial jobs, were relegated to the home, and were supposed to be pure angels of heavenly light while being too weak and feeble-minded to take part in any important affairs, (male) writers of juvenile fantasy were portraying interesting, active, heroic girls who made a difference.
        Beginning with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1865, we see a girl who is feisty, strong-willed, and definitely neither passive nor angelic.  Perhaps the secret here was that Lewis Carroll was basing his character not on a fictional ideal but on a real child, so that Alice has both the virtues and the flaws of an actual child rather than a stereotype.  (More on Alice in a previous post.)  Whatever the reason, we’re presented with a girl who goes on an adventure, asks questions, stands up for herself, and tries to make sense of her own world rather than just accepting everything she’s told.  She even stands up to a dictator and her corrupt court at the end.
        By contrast, Irene in George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, 1872, is definitely an idealized character.  She’s always good, always determined to do her duty, always tries to be obedient.  It is sometimes popular these days to reject “being good” as a goal for girls (“Well-behaved women seldom make history”) but I think there’s a very important distinction to be made here.  Irene is obedient, but she’s obedient to a higher cause.  When true goodness requires her to break rules, she does so bravely and without hesitation.  She apologizes to her nurse for causing difficulties, and then staunchly goes out and does what she feels she needs to do.  Girls (and boys, of course) shouldn’t be taught that “being good” is bad.  Rather, they should be taught that being good isn’t the same as being passive or submissive, or never rocking the boat.  Irene is sweet, gentle, and selfless, but no one can doubt her strength, courage, enterprise, or leadership.  MacDonald also includes in many of his stories Wise Women: ancient women who are the representatives of true goodness, wisdom, and strength.  Let’s not get too smug about our modern representations of fighting teen girls when we compare how old women are usually portrayed nowadays with MacDonald’s beautiful goddess-like figures.  (A little more on George MacDonald in a previous post.)
        And finally, Dorothy from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900.  Dorothy is noted for her common sense, practical kindness and problem-solving, adventuresome spirit, and pluckiness.  She speaks truth to power when she can, and makes the best of bad situations when she has to.  As a feminist I see no cause for complaint.  Not that Baum is uniformly a beacon of PC progressiveness, of course; the case of General Jinjur is particularly cringe-worthy.  My point here, though, is that even in a fictional world that was undoubtedly a product of its time our hero is a girl of admirable spirit who doesn’t let others define her or force her into narrowness or passivity.
        The last of the four most famous and enduring juvenile fantasy novels from the dawn of the genre is Peter Pan, first written by J.M. Barrie as a play in 1904 and then published as a novel in 1911.  Peter Pan stands in stark contrast to the others.  All of Barrie’s female characters represent male-defined stereotypes of different archetypal roles for women, and all his female characters exist merely to gratify in their various ways the juvenile male ego of Peter Pan.  No more than one might expect of something written over a hundred years ago, you might say, which is what makes it all the more remarkable that the others are so much more enlightened.  Indeed, this is yet more evidence for the role of juvenile fantasy in making the world a better place.  I’m not an expert on the literature of this period over all, so I’m sure there’s quite a variety of different portrayals of girls and women, but I’m guessing that the “realistic” fiction of the era wasn’t presenting nearly so many girls going on so many adventures, or being so self-directed.  So here in Women’s History Month it’s worth giving some thanks to the authors in the history of juvenile fantasy who gave us the stories of such admirably adventuresome girls.  (Fantasy picture books with strong female leads in a previous post here.)

[Pictures: Alice, wood block print by George A. Walker, 2011 (Image from the Globe and Mail);
Dorothy melts the Wicked Witch of the West, wood block print by Michael McCurdy, 1999 (Image from Living, Libraries and [Dead] Languages).]

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