Her coat, her boots, even fingernails seem to be dirt-magnets. She comes home from school in her mis-matched clothes (picked out by her self of course), with her face flushed and her ponytails crooked or falling out. And I have to stop myself from obsessing. Most of the time I fail, bemoaning, “Why is your coat dirty again?” “Yuck, go wash your hands,” or “Those boots are NOT getting into my car!”
The funny thing is, she’s not a particularly sporty girl — not someone who would be called (if you use this sort of anachronism) a ‘tomboy.’ Rather, she happens to go to a school where children are allowed to be children. Where she builds fairy houses out of moss and sticks at recess, brews ‘witches potions’ out of mud and leaves, run around and does cartwheels. These are all things I believe are good, and important for both girls and boys. And when my son comes home in the same filthy state, my first reaction is to say “Well, looks like you’ve been playing hard.” Yet, my instinctual reaction is not always the same for my daughter.
So, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our cultural expectations for girls to be clean. Not just clean, but prim, proper, quiet, well behaved and well presented. And I’m realizing it’s part and parcel of the ‘pinkification’ of girlhood – what Peggy Orenstein wrote about in her book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie Girl Culture. Now, don’t get me wrong, as a pediatrician/mom/writer, I’m certainly not recommending we don’t wash hands before meals or skip showers. But there is already such a psychological pressure on young girls to interact with the world and present their bodies in certain ways — ways that have to do with cultural expectations for female sexuality, not a hearty, healthy and body-loving girlhood (or womanhood!). These expectations of perfection aren’t just unrealistic, they’re potentially damaging of self esteem and psychological as well as physical well being, as Courtney E. Martin asserts in her groundbreaking Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women.
Yet, there is a cultural pushback happening. Consider that in 2012 Maine eighth grader Julia Bluhm circulated a petition asking Seventeen Magazine to stop Photoshopping and airbrushing images of models, arguing that photographs of perfect skin, hair, and rail thin bodies were unhealthy for young people’s self-esteem. Her petition gained national media attention, and even inspired a protest in front of Seventeen’s offices. Pro-body image websites like Adios, Barbie urge young women to join the ‘body loving revolution.’ Other sites including Princess-Free Zone and A Mighty Girl do everything from posting parenting articles, to making lists of ‘independent princesses’ in media and books, to selling empowering clothing, including superhero undies, for ‘smart, confident and courageous’ girls.
And of course, there’s always the world of middle grade books! I mean, who can forget the fantabulous role model of Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking, the ultimate brave-hearted, strong, adventurous, horizontal braided, mis-matched stocking wearing middle grade heroine? Part of Pippi’s appeal (and Lindgren’s ‘before her time’ genius), in fact, is her ability to shirk feminine conventions, arm-wrestle grown men, rescue animals, climb roofs and out-smart dastardly pirates.
Or what about Beverly Cleary’s Ramona the Pest? A protagonist whose raw-egg-on-the-head and rainboot wearing antics earned her the love of generations of readers. I think it’s noteworthy that Ramona, not her rather perfect sister Beezus, is the engine that drives the ‘Ramona and Beezus’ books. We love Ramona not because she’s perfect, but because she’s spunky — in the end we love her because she loves herself.
In more recent books of this genre, both Sarah Pennypacker’s Clementine series and the Marty McGuire books by Kate Messner feature strong girl protagonists not afraid to do a few cartwheels or get some dirt under their nails. Need to get glue out of your hair (and don’t mind getting a new, erm, haircut)? Need to figure out how to get frogs out of the pond at recess? These are your girls.
Or what about a muddy and mighty heroine who puts her spunkiness to professional use? Look no further than the acrobatic daredevil Kate Wetherall of Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society. Not only is this protagonist brilliant and brave, but she always carries a bucket full of items useful for any kid spy — like glue, nylon rope, a slingshot and a spyglass disguised as a cheap kaleidoscope.
These neither pink nor perfect heroines give an alternate narrative of girlhood for young readers negotiating their way through the maze of princesses and pinkness. I’m not saying that princesses are necessarily bad – hey, I have a pretty spunky princess in my current work in progress, and I know lots of fellow writers who are using and subverting notions of ‘princesses’ and ‘perfection.’ Yet, in the wider culture, the association remains. Although Disney has made attempts to re-brand the notion of ‘princess’ as one of self-sufficiency, not helplessness and passivity, the fact remains that we’ve begun to substitute the word ‘princess’ for ‘girl’ in our culture and I’m not sure that this is healthy for either girls or boys, for either parents or children. I’m not saying that I really want either my son or daughter tracking mud through my newly cleaned kitchen, but in the end — I do want them both to be happy with and healthy in their bodies. And know their bodies belong to them — not a broader consumer-driven culture. Anyway, thinking we can always be perfect is not only impossible and limiting, it’s a major drag! (Just ask Ramona or Pippi or Clementine!)
So, dear readers, what do you think? The last time I asked you to suggest some of your favorite girl-driven fantasy novels, you came up with a breathtaking list.
Who are your favorite muddy and mighty middle grade girl protagonists?
Sayantani DasGupta is not a princess, and far from perfect. Besides writing fiction for middle-grade kids, and teaching about issues of narrative and social justice to graduate students, she also writes for Adios, Barbie (www.adiosbarbie.com). She likes to think about the connection between stories, activism, and justice, and is trying to learn from her children to love being muddy. She thanks her wonderful colleagues at From the Mixed Up Files for their helpful suggestions of books for this essay!