Sunday, March 18, 2007

Tripping over Tropes and Pinning down Patterns

Roger Sutton kicked off an interesting discussion this past Friday about tropes in children's books, in particular, the common theme of girls disguising themselves as boys. The comments there are pretty interesting and I encourage you to check them out.

Meanwhile, this set off my own thinking on two topics I've wanted to post on for a while. Before I launch into them, let me preface briefly by saying that my undergrad thesis and graduate work were both centered around late-19th and early-20th century North American girls books. In other words, I only looked at books written between 1865 and 1935, all by female authors, all with female protagonists. So any generalizations I make are only meant to apply to those books.

Forgive me if the language is a little academic -- I had to quote myself a lot from papers and such. Just for fun, I threw a few questions at the bottom of each section, in case you want to respond.

1. Violence in children's books
In April, 1995, I presented at a conference on Violence with my thoughts on violence in girls' books. My paper, "Crazy Ladies and Dirty Old Men in Turn-of-the-Century Adolescent Fiction," considered the contradiction between the conservative world of children's literature and depictions of violence and serious threat scattered through the literature. I went on to offer my thoughts on the possible value of writing violence into stories for children.
Throughout these books, young girls are violently injured, narrowly escape gruesome deaths, and are threatened with sexual assault. The dangers plainly manifest in these books overturn the "protected" status of the child's territory. Furthermore, threats of violence, injury and rape are positioned as rite-of-passage events through which the young heroines achieve maturity....

In the twenty girls' stories which make up the core of my studies, there are 3 beatings, 2 near drownings, 2 terrible illnesses, several deaths, a few encounters with ferocious animals, 2 blindings, several cripplings, and several threats of sexual assault. All told, it's a violent and dangerous world for these young girls.

The violence, I proposed, served a few purposes in the story:
  • Taming the tomboy or wild child and making her softer
  • Showing the girl as a possible victim, and distinguishing her in that way from boys
  • Marking a loss of innocence right at the start of adolescence
Here are the scenes I used to illustrate my points:

Magic for Marigold - Marigold's imprisonment in Mrs. Delagarde's house
Five Little Peppers and How they Grew - Phronsie and the hurdy-gurdy man
Emily Climbs - Emily trapped in the church with Mad Mr. Morrison
A Girl of the Limberlost - Elnora spied on at night by man outside her window

My concluding question was about how child readers absorb and understand the violence that's depicted in all these books. My answer -- that children take such things in stride. They "have been nurtured ... into a world of danger and distress" and in fact these books "allow child readers to explore violence without experiencing it."


Is violence (or danger and distress, if you prefer) still prevalent in today's books for girls?

Is it a rite of passage mechanism, or just a good plot device?

Are girls treated differently than boys in terms of violence and danger in children's books?

2. All those other patterns!
One of the commenters on Roger's post asks (paraphrased), "What about the dead mother trope?" Good question.

In my undergraduate thesis (1990), I suggested there was a clear pattern to heroine formation in girls' books. I reviewed dozens and dozens of books, and focused in on the development of 20 different girl protagonists.

Here were many of the patterns I evaluated:

No mother
No father
Motherly neighbor
Taken in by relatives
Stifling foster parent
Writing heroine
Musical heroine
Gypsy heroine
Ineffective mother
Bad mother
Good mother
Punishment of heroine (deus ex machina)
Punishment of heroine (mother)
Heroine in nature
Heroine in fantasy life
Heroine with money
Heroine in poverty
Identification with literature
Stain on birth
Community of women
Heroine rewarded
Heroine as motherly
Nature as mother
Text as mother
Heroine not pretty
Love with older man
Male control
Death scene

In the end, I concluded:
The eight dominant patterns of the heroine's development are: 1) so-so appearance; 2) obstacles; 3) domestic life; 4) artistic life; 5) no good mother; 6) absent father; 7) substitute mother; and 8) community of females.

In order to be a heroine in the girls' book of this time, a girl needed all 8 of those patterns to exist in her story. The combination of these elements developed a girl with enough freedom (no interference from parents) to explore her ambitions and enough supervision (support from a substitute mother and a community of females) to ensure her proper training in the more traditional roles of women. Thus ensuring she would end up with the independent success and even financial independence that she wants, and that she would still get the guy.
Courageous and respectful, imaginative and yet practical, independent and romantic -- she moves easily in the worlds of Nature, Society, and Home, knowledgeable and powerful in each, and forms her life as a combination....


How did the patterns change in girls' books after this time period?

What patterns are still prevalent?

What are the boys' patterns?

1 comment:

Jen Robinson said...

I don't really have any answers, but this is fascinating stuff! Certainly some of the heroine patterns are still present, though perhaps more in books for young adults than for children. Lots of so-so appearances, bad mothers, and absent fathers. I don't think we see the community of females thing quite as much...