Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Red-Headed Heroines and the Child Feminist

Culturally, red-headed women are generally cast as troublemakers, with "a temper to match her hair" (as Rachel Lynde of Anne of Green Gables would say), overly emotional, easily aroused, sexually adventurous, and generally harder to dominate. The simple quality of having red hair "explains" behavior that was, or is, otherwise unacceptable for a woman. As a result of this stereotype, many red-heads in literature are proto-feminist or feminist heroines, even in the case of children's literature. In many ways, my own identification with these heroines (though I myself do not have red hair) was crucial to my development as a feminist.

The most obvious example for me is certainly Anne Shirley, a character that was so real to me as a child that I talked of her as though she had really lived and I had really known her. Though today I identify more strongly with Emily, growing up with Anne had an immeasurable impact on my development as a feminist, as I believe it must have on many, many young women. Anne is highly sensitive about her red hair and she identifies it as the external signifier of her difference and unwantedness as an orphan, but she is not a character who wallows for very long. Anne is ambitious, willful, and secure in her intelligence. Anne's feminism isn't overt, but it is quite radical. She is motivated by her personal ambitions - to become a great writer and to thereby gain success and independence - rather than by an assumption that marriage must be her ultimate goal because she is female, which certainly is the attitude of her friends Diana, Jane, and Ruby. Her professional ambition, her insistence on her own integrity and adherence to her own moral values, her thoughtful engagement with others, and most especially her active, rather than passive, choice to enter a romantic liaison - all these qualities make her a feminist heroine.

But even before I was able to tackle lengthy chapter books, red-headed heroines were already present, challenging norms and refusing to conform to the standards laid out for women. Barbara Cooney's gorgeous, National Book Award-winning picture book, Miss Rumphius, narrated the life of Miss Alice Rumphius, a woman who wished above everything to make the world a more beautiful place and found her calling in planting lupine wherever she went. The book has a certain wistful, delicate quality that is never compromised by the unusual politics of the story. Miss Rumphius is a marvelous character - a woman who travels the world by herself and is engrossed in her own pursuits and interests, utterly self-sufficient throughout her life. She achieves what she set out to do and, most importantly, relies on herself to do it. I was also very impressed by a stunningly gorgeous picture book, Young Guinevere, by Robert D. San Souci and Jarmichael Henterly. The book's illustrations, with their vivid jewel tones, clearly influenced by medieval tapestries, are extraordinarily evocative and create an imaginative space wherein a young girl can experience adventures of a sort usually reserved for boys, acting in their imaginations as young knights. This red-headed Guinevere, in San Souci's recounting, explores the forests by herself, encountering the beasts of myth (including my personal favorite, the Questing Beast) and protecting herself with her skill with bow and arrow. In this imagining, Guinevere is a strong surrogate for young women, displacing the patriarchal politics of Arthurian legends with an active and independent engagement in the outdoor world. Her story is not about her status as a marriage object or queen-to-be, but rather her moral and emotional growth as an individual.

Children's chapter books also have many examples of strong red-headed heroines. The one that immediately comes to mind is Astrid Lindgren's supernaturally strong and extremely subversive Pippi Longstocking. When Pippi is told she "suffers from freckles," she replies, "I don't suffer from them. I love them. Good morning," providing every little girl with the correct response to anyone who would comment on the perceived imperfections of her body. Pippi's physical strength (she can effortlessly lift her pet horse) grants her a direct power over both the adults and children around her; this sort of strength is normally reserved for adult male heroes, like Hercules or Paul Bunyan. Pippi, on the other hand, is only nine years old. Tommy and Annika, Pippi's pals, are equally submissive towards her, following her lead on every adventure and trusting that she will see them through. Pippi appeals to children because she effortlessly controls adults, both physically and psychologically (robbers would be well advised not to try to rob the Villa Villekula), and she appeals to women because she triumphs over the dictum that women should be self-effacing and passive. In some ways, Pippi is the female counterpart to Peter Pan, but unlike Peter Pan, she is no tyrant and her power is used for fun and protection. Peter Pan lives in a world dominated by the fear of adulthood; Pippi is fearless.

Another wonderful children's book heroine is Caddie Woodlawn, the tomboy heroine of Carol Ryrie Brink's historical novel. Set in Wisconsin during the Civil War, Caddie Woodlawn follows the frontier adventures of its child heroine, from her friendship with Indian John and her subsequent attempt to protect her Native American friends from the violence of the white settlers to the heartbreakingly long journey of her beloved pet, Nero. Caddie exists in a world in which violence and death are never far away and yet she has a great capacity for fun and friendship and has little difficulty, particularly when she is younger, defying sexist conventions that would restrict that capacity. Her emotional strength is bolstered by the physical health that she cultivates and by her determination to act of her own volition.

The fantasy genre is rarely the most welcoming to feminist heroines, though that has slowly begun to change, and that is at least partly due to its roots in older literary traditions, like the medieval romance, the static conventions of which posited that a woman was a passive idol to be worshiped and adored, served through chivalric deeds, but without either agency or self-determination. A striking exception is found in Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles, the heroine of which, Eilonwy, is unabashedly testy when she wants to be, loyal and brave, and a strong fighter in the resistance against Arawn Death Lord and his minions born from the Black Cauldron. She is both smarter and more powerful than Taran, the hapless hero and protagonist of the series, and although in The Castle of Llyr, she takes on the role of a damsel in distress, the plot complicates the usual paradigms by playing with the concepts of magic power and moral power. She's also an enchantress.

And speaking of women who practice magic, one can't write about the red-heads of children's literature without talking about the Weasleys and, in particular, Ginny Weasley. J. K. Rowling can be credited in her Harry Potter series with only mundane alterations to prevailing gender norms, but nevertheless the series has quite a few powerful female characters: one thinks of Hermione of course, Professor McGonagall, and, on the other side, Bellatrix Lestrange. Ginny's superficial role in the books is as Harry's love interest, a role that overwhelmed her character in the films, but she has a good deal more complexity. For one thing, Ginny is an athlete, once again highlighting physical strength as an indication of a strong, often stubborn character. In a series that emphasizes the bond of friendship above almost every other relationship, Ginny is a strong and loyal friend and much more open than Harry or Ron to friendships with classmates in other Hogwarts houses. She's also an accomplished practitioner of the Bat Bogey Hex, which she deploys several times in defense of her friends, and her talent in magic attracts the attention of Slughorn, a professor who delights in cultivating relationships with students who promise to be rich, powerful, or famous.

Though many feminist heroines in children's literature are not red-heads - one thinks of Jo March from Little Women or Mickle from Lloyd Alexander's Westmark trilogy - authors are able to deploy the stereotypical character of the red-headed woman to subvert and undermine patriarchal politics and thus provide young girls (and boys, for that matter) with role models that don't conform to restrictive gender standards. These are women and girls who do not choose "to be divinely beautiful, dazzlingly clever, or angelically good," as Anne Shirley says - they are themselves, for better and for worse, and they know that that is precisely who they ought to be.

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