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Sunday, 21 April 2013

Danger of the single story

SOMETIMES (most of the time) it’s probably wiser to resist commenting on Facebook posts.

In the last week or two there have been posts, written by two Facebook friends, about women who admit to regretting having children. You can imagine the responses, including to my comments saying that I can relate to such feelings. It’s just not the done thing to admit that parenthood may not be the smartest choice you’ve made.

We go on about how it’s OK to make mistakes, but heaven forbid that the mistakes should be baby-shaped. I may be wrong but it also feels like that it’s especially shocking if a woman says that she’s doesn’t like being or doesn’t want to be a mother.

Why, she might as well be admitting to infanticide.

Why am I bringing this up in a column about books for children and teens? It’s because I think books play a part in shaping the way society views girls and the women they grow up to be. For girls, it’s hard to avoid the traditional stereotypes of women as mothers and wives.

Look, even kick-ass Katniss in The Hunger Games Trilogy ends up with a partner and a child. And most of my favourite fictional female characters become wives, or at very least, fall in love by the final page of their stories.

Now I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with falling in love, marrying and having children, but I am saying that authors should portray alternative routes to a happy and fulfilled life. I’m trying hard to think of fictional heroines who skip happily into the sunset, alone and joyful, but right now I can only think of Tove Jansson’s Little My, Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking, and two nannies: Mary Poppins, the titular character from P.L. Travers’ books, and Nurse Matilda from the trilogy by Christianna Brand.

All four are decidedly unconventional females, but My and Pippi are just children, while Mary and Matilda, although unmarried and childless, are still given the traditionally female role of care-giver.

Even my beloved harum scarum Jo March (from Little Women) becomes totally domesticated, marrying an older man (in Good Wives), running a school and playing mother to a whole brood of children (in Little Men and Jo’s Boys) and committing the unforgivable sin of keeping an ex-student and her niece, Bess, apart because she feels the working-class lad is not a suitable match for the prissy young lady.

There is Nan, a young girl in Little Men, who remains unmarried and goes to medical school, but characters like her are rare and don’t get much space on the page.

New fiction continues to be full of female characters who spend a great deal of time wondering when their prince will come. Codename Verity is a recent exception, but the girls in that book seemed more interested in one another than in men. It’s as if lesbians are the only women who might safely avoid being married with children.

In fact, as I’ve mentioned earlier, young women who don’t desire motherhood and marriage are often viewed as freaks. It’s unlikely the authors of young adult and children’s fiction think this way, but they are, by and large, products of a world still very much fixed in its ideas of gender and gender roles. Also, romance (and sex) sells.

The problem is, of course, what Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie calls the “danger of the single story”: if just one version of something – a people, a culture, a religion, etc – is portrayed then it soon becomes the only version that is believed and accepted and taken for granted as the truth. The “danger of the single story” is that it creates and reinforces stereotypes.

So, in terms of describing what girls want, it just supports the already firm belief that we are naturally maternal creatures who crave the love of a good man (or any man, really) and the cosy feeling of a child at our breast ... or simply being asked to the prom and being kissed by the time we’re 16.

I’ve just thought of a female character who resists the conventions of marriage and motherhood to go to university: Mattie Gorkey from Jennifer Donelly’s A Gathering Light is more interested in reading than dating. For Mattie, words are the key to a new life and to freedom. I wish there were more female characters like Mattie.

Also, more female characters who have more interesting things to think about than romance; female characters who grow up and don’t get married and are happy; female characters who choose to be childless and never regret it. These women exist, we know they do, they just need to appear more in books, that’s all.

Tots to Teens

>Daphne Lee is a writer, editor, book reviewer and teacher. She runs a Facebook group, called The Places You Will Go, for lovers of all kinds of literature. Write to her at

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