With Our Skirts Still Caught in the Briars

The Lack of True Female Role Models in the Subversive Gardens of Children’s Fantasy

an essay

In the scholarly realm of children’s literature, there stand, at the forefront, two opposing lines of argument.  In the first, scholars such as Jacqueline Rose argue that there is no such thing as true children’s literature, as all novels for children are written by adults, and in such, no literary child is truly a child, but instead the adults’ idea of what and how a child should be.  In her book The Case of Peter Pan, or The Impossibility of Children’s Literature, Rose explains, “to say that the child is inside the book – children’s books are after all as often as not about children – is to fall straight into a trap…. children’s fiction builds an image of the child inside the book, it does so in order to secure the child who is outside the book, the one who does not come so easily within its grasp” (Rose 2); in other words, adults use the world of children’s literature to grapple with the world of children that they can no longer understand.  While parents and teachers might view the little boys and girls inhabiting the shelves of the children’s section at the local library or Barnes and Noble as role-models for their children, teaching them the proper values and roles necessary as they grow up, the critics of the works see it differently.  Rose accuses children’s literature as “set[ting] up the child as an outsider to its own process, then aim[ing], unashamedly, to take the child” (Rose 2).

Children’s novelist and literary critic, Alison Lurie, stands at the opposite end of the spectrum, but she does agree with Jacqueline Rose, in a way.  In an article published in the New York Times discussing the thesis behind her essay collection Don’t Tell The Grown-ups: Subversive Children’s Literature, Lurie discusses the books that she said teachers and librarians directed children to: “The great majority, [which] told me what grown-ups had decided I ought to know or believe about the world…. They [the children reading] learned to be hardworking, responsible, and practical; to stay on the track and be content with their lot in life.  They learned, in other words, to be more like respectable grown-ups” (Lurie). However, Lurie differs from Rose in that she says these books are the ones that are forgotten; they don’t endure from generation to generation, but instead are re-written again and again.  Lurie turns her argument away from Rose’s when she turns to those children’s novels that have endured through the decades, the “sacred texts of childhood, whose authors had not forgotten what it is like to be a child” (Lurie).  According to Lurie, these works, which have remained popular, recommend, “even celebrate – day dreaming, disobedience, answering back, running away from home, and concealing one’s private thoughts and feelings from the unsympathetic grown-ups.  They over- turn adult pretensions and make fun of adult institutions…. In a word, they are subversive” (Lurie).

If all enduring children’s novels are considered subversive, then fantasy stories of renown, especially those in which children enter secondary, fantastical worlds, would be the most subversive of all; after all, it is the books of imagination, such those by J.M. Barrie, Lewis Carroll, E. Nesbit, C.S. Lewis, and L. Frank Baum, that continue to find homes upon our children’s shelves decades after their publications.  Amy Billone points to the “dreamscapes” as being worlds in which fantasy and reality “completely reverse roles” (Billone 179), which can be taken to mean that, in children’s fantasy worlds such as Wonderland and Neverland are the realms in which the rules of the adult world are satirized or drop away entirely, depending on the work.  Most often, adults are non-existent within these realms, thus removing their ruling, but when they are, they are often portrayed as ridiculous and petty, and the children end up being the logical thinkers of the world.  Newcastle University Reader M.O. Grenby presents a theory as to why this might be, claiming that these fantasy worlds are “created for the benefit” of the children, and wait in standby for the arrival or return of the young protagonists, who most often become their rulers or saviors (Grenby 159), with the adults being absent, or their subjects.

I can agree that with this course of thought for a while, but when I look further into the dreamscapes and secondary realms that Grenby and Billone describe, Lurie’s argument falls short.  While she and Jacqueline Rose both turn their focus on female characters such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice and Peter Pan’s Wendy, both seem to overlook the difference in the treatment of boys and girls.  In my reading, I found that while these enduring works of entering fantasy world seemed to promote subversiveness, they may allow the girls to play for a while, but eventually expect the girls to step into the engendered roles of mother, teacher, and submissive figure.  What’s more, while boys, such as Peter Pan and Bridge to Terabithia’s Jesse are allowed to remain in their secondary worlds, the girls must almost always leave, whether by choice or by force.

The biggest problem with this is that child protagonists, especially those in the enduring fantasy classics, are role models for their readers.  Psychologists Carol Lynn Martin and Diane Ruble comment in their article “Children’s Search for Gender Cues” that children are “actively searching for ways to find meaning in and make sense of the social world that surrounds them, and they do so by using the gender cues provided by society to help them interpret what they see and hear” (Martin and Ruble 67).  Martin and Ruble point more to the cues picked up from adults in real life, but the characters encountered in books would have influence on children as well.  Marcia Lieberman provides one such example of this in her essay “Some Day My Prince Will Come”, in which she discusses the way in which little girls are taught, through fairy tales such as Cinderella, to be not merely passive, but

victims and even martyrs as well…. ‘Cinderella’ and the other stories of this type show children that the girl who is singled out for rejection and bad treatment, and who submits to her lot, weeping but never running away, has a special compensatory destiny ahead of her…. The child who dreams of being Cinderella dreams perforce not only of being chosen and elevated by a prince, but also of being a glamorous sufferer or victim.  (Lieberman 194)

If culture teaches little girls to play with dolls and learn to sew instead of playing in the dirt, as Martin and Ruble suggest, and fairy tale princesses teach them to be the submissive victims awaiting their prince charming and happily ever after, then what kind of lesson or message are the fantasy novels they read giving them?  What kind of women are authors “grooming” by teaching these little girls that while boys are encouraged to follow their own path, be it towards heroism or not, girls can not fight or be the hero, but instead must be little-mother, the responsible young woman, or leave?

Take, for example, Katherine Paterson’s 1977 novel Bridge to Terabithia, a novel considered both controversial and paramount for its dealing with religion and death so close to the protagonist.  In the book, Leslie Burke and Jess Aarons create the world of Terabithia for themselves.  Leslie is not what would be described as a proper girl in normal view.  When Leslie Burke first appears, she is described as having “jaggedy brown hair cut close to its face and wore one of those blue undershirt-like tops with faded jeans cut off above the knees.  [Jesse] couldn’t tell whether it was girl or a boy…. She even had one of those dumb names that could go either way” (Paterson 18).  From the first appearance on, Leslie continues to defy the typical gender roles.  When all the students show up for the first day of school in their Sunday best, she arrives in the same undershirt and cutoffs and sneakers (19).  Leslie beats all the boys in the yearly running races, which the leader, Gary, protests has never had girls in before (26).

Leslie challenges the norms of the adult world even more through her atheist beliefs.  She questions Jess on the use of a god who was cruel enough to make his son die for the sake of the “vile sinners”, before proclaiming that she doesn’t believe the bible, to which Jess’ sister, May Belle, anxiously responds “What if you die? …. God’ll damn you to hell when you die” (84-5).  Her girl/boy androgyny challenges the gender roles, but her atheism challenges the very heart of the people and points fun at the fast held belief in who is worthy of entering heaven.  As she speaks her opinion to anyone who will listen, she would most likely partake in the subversive act of “talking back”, should an adult overhear and intervene.  Even today, many “Christian” reviewers (I use quotations because, in my mind, this is not true Christian behavior) refuse to look at Leslie as any sort of role model for their daughters; regardless of the challenges she poses to separate spheres of genders.  John Simmons summarized their negative reviews in the question “How could a kid get to be so good without Jesus? Their [Christian reviewers] answer: She couldn’t. Their conclusion: Bad role model.” (Simmons 21).

In terms of the fantasy world, it is actually Leslie who creates the land and rules of Terabithia for Jess, proclaiming, “we need a place, just for us.  It would be so secret that we would never tell anyone in the whole world about it… a whole secret country, and you and I would be the rulers of it…. It could be a magic country like Narnia, and the only way you can get in is by swinging across on this enchanted rope” (38-9).  Leslie even names their land “Terabithia”, and loans Jess her copy of the Narnia books, telling him to learn all the rules and things that “went into a magic kingdom – how the animals and the trees must be protected and how a ruler must behave” (40).  However, while Leslie is queen of Terabithia, and protector of the inhabitants, she is by no means a nurturing, motherly queen.  Instead, in their adventures in the world, as well as in the real world of rural Virginia, Leslie stood as the fearless, undaunted one as they faced battles with school yard bullies and savage enemies of Terabithia, and taunts.   Instead nurturing the puppy Prince Terrien into a proper prince as a mothering queen would, she laughs at his puppy antics and dubs him instead P.T., the court jester.

Even though Leslie is the founder and queen of Terabithia, the author doesn’t allow her to enter into the country alone.  When Jess is away and unable to accompany her, she braves the high tide of the creek she had taunted him over, and attempts swing on the magic rope into Terabithia.  This time, she doesn’t make it. This time, the rope broke.  In going alone, Leslie is denied entrance into Terabithia.  What’s more, although she was the one of the two who could swim, Leslie drowns.   In this is shown the disconnection of subversive encouragement and Leslie’s femininity.  In challenging the adults’ value of gender roles through her androgynous style, her refusal to behave in a feminine manner, and her donning of the boy’s role of Lone Ranger adventurer, the author leaves Leslie with no way into her world of Terabithia and no place in the primary world.  Later, Jess will build the bridge that allows his “girly” little sister, May Belle, to enter Terabithia after him.  It is horrible to see the socially coded message hidden behind this celebrated text.  Jess, as a boy, may come and go and change the rules as he pleases without being cast out of Terabithia, but Leslie, as a girl, is held to different standards and not allowed the same privileges.  Along those same lines, May Belle may enter Leslie and Jess’s kingdom because she is a proper, “God-fearing” little girl who will grow up into a proper young woman.  The final line in the novel points out the difference between May Belle and Leslie and their differing fates, as Jess whispers to his sister, “there’s a rumor going around that the beautiful girl arriving today might be the queen they’ve been waiting for” (Paterson 128).  It is almost as though Paterson is saying that May Belle may be the real queen of Terabithia because she is a beautiful girl, as opposed to the androgynous Leslie.  This is the very idea that Lieberman takes offense to in her article, arguing that “since the heroines are chosen for their beauty, not for anything they do, they seem to exist passively… they wait, are chosen, and are rewarded” (Lieberman 189), and therefore a character such as Leslie could never be more than a false heroine.  If this is the case, then wouldn’t any little girl choose May Belle over Leslie, seeing through the cues the writer gives, over a opinioned, challenging tomboy of a girl who will never reap the rewards in the way a pretty and proper girl like May Belle would.

May Belle, does however, stand in the same position as Peter and Wendy’s Wendy Darling at the end of Paterson’s novel.  May Belle is six years old, and Wendy can be assumed to be about the same, since Wendy exclaims that Peter Pan “ ‘is just my size.’ She meant that he was her size in both mind and body” (Barrie 12) and Peter “had all his first teeth” (16).  May Belle Aarons, like Wendy, may be able to play in the fantasy world for a while, but in the end, “Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end” (1).  May Belle plays the little mother to her Barbie dolls; Patterson illustrates this, writing “she was a good kid…. Dress[ing] and undress[ing] her Barbie at least thirty times” (Paterson 80).  Likewise, in J.M. Barrie’s 1911 classic Peter and Wendy, the young Wendy takes this to the next level, stepping into the role of mother to the Lost Boys.  Even Peter, whom she sees herself as equal to, looks to her with thoughts like “those of a devoted son” (159).

Looking at Neverland from afar, it could be, and probably is, any child’s wildest dream.  If ever there were a world that fulfills Grenby’s theory of the dreamscape as at the benefit of the child, Neverland is that world.  Barrie describes Neverland as “always more or less an island” but goes on to say that each child’s Neverland “var[ies] a good deal.  John’s, for instance, had a lagoon with flamingoes flying over it… while Michael, who was very small, had a flamingo with lagoons flying over it…. On these magic shores children at play are forever beaching their coracles” (9-10).  However, while Peter, Michael, John, and the lost boys are all able to play out those wild, rough and tumble dreams, hunting Indians and fighting pirates, Wendy is relegated to the preverbal kitchen from the beginning.  In her “Grown-ups Guide to Children’s Fantasy Literature, titled Quests and Kingdoms, K.V. Johansen criticizes the beloved children’s novel as being “decidedly lacking when it comes to Wendy’s involvement [in Neverland]” (Johansen 78).  What Johansen goes on to say is appalling, especially when considering the fact that, other than the barely present Tiger Lily and the crass and miniscule Tinker Bell, Wendy is the only female character available to readers: “Acting as mother to the boys is the most her imagination is allowed to aspire to, aside from her pet wolf, which has a couple of brief mentions and no actual presence in the story” (Johansen 78).  Even in the culminating battle between the children and the crew of pirates, and thus the ultimate moment of the children’s play and imagination, “Wendy, of course, had stood by taking no part in the fight, though watching Peter with glistening eyes; but now that all was over she became prominent again”, praising the boys and listening to their victorious recounting before wiping away the grime of battle and tucking them into the pirates’ bunks for the night. (Barrie 231).

What’s more, even though Wendy is everything society expects her to be, even in the magical realms of a world to which adults have no entry (other than the lawless and social-code-ignorant pirates), she still cannot stay in Neverland, but instead must return to London to grow up.  Barrie doesn’t even allow Wendy to want to stay in Neverland, instead leaving her looking forward to returning home and having only the possibility of short visits and spring cleanings with Peter, explaining to the readers that “you need not be sorry for her. She was one of the kind that likes to grow up.  In the end she grew up of her own free will a day quicker than other girls”  (257).  In the end, generations following Wendy would too fly to Neverland, take care of Peter for a time, and then return home and become adults.  The message to readers: childhood is fleeting, for little girls must grow up.  The further message: chores, such as spring-cleaning, are where girls ought to find their enjoyment.  There is nothing subversive about this.

Even Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,  which Alison Lurie points to as one of the “sacred texts” of subversive childhood, is not truly subversive. But then, neither is its protagonist the adults’ idealized child that Jacqueline Rose would call her.  Lewis Carroll’s legendary character, Alice, is the voice of logic in an otherwise nonsensical world, where crying babies turn into pigs with no notice to those around, and answerless questions such as “why is a raven like a writing desk” abound  (Carroll 60), which would indeed set Alice as the adult in a child’s landscape.  More often than this, however, are the author’s actions, through Alice, which overthrow the framework of adult teachings throughout the novel.  Almost as soon as she enters Wonderland, Alice begins to think differently than the adults had taught her.  In trying to remember the thought process instilled by the adults, Alice finds herself lost, searching for a logical line of thought:

four times five is twelve, and four times six is thirteen, and four times seven is—oh dear! I shall never get to twenty at that rate! However, the Multiplication Table doesn’t signify: let’s try Geography.  London is the capital of Paris, and Paris is the capital of Rome, and Rome—no, THAT’S all wrong, I’m certain! …. I’ll try and say “How doth the little—”‘ and she crossed her hands on her lap as if she were saying lessons, and began to repeat it, but…the words did not come the same as they used to do.   (18-9)

The cake and liquid that Alice eats and drinks, causing her to grow and shrink at different times throughout the novel, also challenges the adult norms of children being smaller in stature than the grown-ups, as well as grown-up logic of cause and effect.

However, as much as Carroll’s world challenges the code and rules of the adult, Alice herself spends the majority of the novel not being subversive.  Although she began her adventures by running away from her lessons, she spends most of her time in Wonderland trying to find the adult logic and to find her way back home again, instead of embracing the childishness and nonsense of the fantasy world.  It is only at the very end when Alice steps into the subversive role, when she challenges the rulings of the Queen of Hearts:

“Sentence first—verdict afterwards.” [said the Queen]

“Stuff and nonsense!” said Alice loudly. “The idea of having sentence first!”

“Hold your tongue!” said the Queen, turning purple.

“I won’t…. Who cares for you?” said Alice…. “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!”


Immediately after posing a challenge to the Queen, who was, of course, the highest official of Wonderland featured in the book, Alice is startled awake by her sister, forced to leave Wonderland without any choice or say.  In the few final paragraphs following, the narration turns to Alice’s sister, who “she pictured to herself how this same little sister of hers would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood” (110). From the way I understand this “sacred text”, while critics might look at Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as subversive in its play with the idea and ideals of adults, the character of Alice herself is not really subversive.  Instead, the young Alice, like Leslie or Wendy, is allowed to play in this dreamscape for a short amount of time, but must leave the moment her presence offers too much of a challenge and it is time for her to grow up.

Critics such as Walter de La Mare consider Alice to be the reflection of Victorian values,  “a tribute… not only to her author but to Victorian childhood!  Capable, modest, demure, sedate, they are the words a little out of fashion nowadays; but Alice alone would redeem them all” (La Mare 59).  In the same way, Hermione Granger, one of the protagonist’s best friends in J.K. Rowling’s twenty-first century Harry Potter series, could be considered the product and reflection of her own generation.  Hermione is described by Rowling as being a “strong female character” saved by the writer’s own feminist conscience (Winfrey) throughout the course of the series.  However, the “brilliant” Hermione Granger is nowhere near the subversive hero that Harry Potter becomes.  Take for example, the sixth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.  Throughout the book, Harry uses lies to get what he wants; a trait Lurie encourages in subversive characters.  He excels in potions, besting even Hermione, passing the tricks and answers taken straight from the Half Blood Prince’s old marked up copy of the text- book off as his own.  In chapter fourteen, he wins the quidditch match by lying about slipping best friend, Ron Weasley, the good luck serum, therefore tricked Ron into playing better than his best (Rowling 299).  When Hermione tries to lie to get information about Malfoy’s dealings with the shop keeper of Borgin and Burkes, however, Rowling portrays her as a horrible liar, and indeed, she is unable to get any information at all (Rowling 126-7).

While the boys of the text, Harry and even their arch rival Draco Malfoy, make their own power and influence through their own knowledge and ability, even if it is through deceit and disregard for the professors’ regulations, it is a different case.  Hermione is brilliant, yes, but in truth she is nothing more than a practiced parrot of encyclopedias, textbooks, and lecturing professors; much of her influence on Harry and Ron, and their success in their adventures, are due to her memorization of “Hogwarts, A History”.   Her power comes from her ability to remember and repeat, and in doing so, she becomes the parroted voice of the adult authoritative figures.  This is what allows Hermione to stay in the wizarding world, and this is what sets Hermione apart from Alice and Leslie, and at the same time apart from Wendy and May Belle Aarons as well.  Hermione Granger may be the third part in the trouble-seeking trio that is Harry, Ron, and Hermione, but unlike the boys, she never crosses the line between righteous and truly subversive without just cause.  In book one, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Hermione is the one to figure out all of the trials guarding the stone, but only Harry goes on to break through them all, fight Voldemort, and save the day.  In book two, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Hermione again figures out the mystery of the basilisk, and yet it is again Harry who enters the chamber and returns the hero.  This list goes on from book to book.

In book five, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Hermione does try to diminish the authority of the dreadful Professor Umbridge, but her plan backfires when the centaurs turn on her and Harry, too, and they must be saved by a giant, who is notably a male (Rowling 755-9). Hermione is at her strongest when she is the good, trust-worthy one of the three, playing teacher and mother to the two boys, taking care of them while Ron remains clueless and Harry works to save the wizarding world one school year at a time.  It is not until the seventh and final book that Hermione truly breaks through, but not away, from her engendered role.  While she is still taking care of Harry and Ron, she is finally also becoming part of the resistance against Voldemort’s forces, and is finally able to participate in the battles without having to hide (as in Harry Potter and the Prizoner of Azkaban) or being knocked unconscious and consequentially knocked to the sidelines (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix).

However, even in this success, it is important to point out that Hermione Granger is only able to have this role in battle and still remain in the wizarding world afterwards because after the war, a new regime will begin and the rules will be re-written, as the entire government structure of the Ministry of Magic was destroyed and must be rebuilt at the end.  Had the world and the rules remained the same, Hermione could have easily followed the path of Alice, or more likely Leslie, given author Rowling’s inclination towards killing off her much loved characters in the seventh book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  While some readers latch on to Hermione as a role model when they’ve outgrown fairy tales (Adler 12), poor Hermione doesn’t entirely appear the proper figure for children to take their cues from.  While she does influence young girls to dedicate themselves to their studies, and here I am including myself, as I remember wanting to be Hermione Granger.  Upon a closer study, Rowling’s “feminist” character teaches these girls that it is okay to never be more than second in command, and to be the brains to the boys’ brawn, rather than championing their own battles.  Hermione is the rule abider that keeps the rule breaker out of trouble, and is only a subversively driven character when the governing body has begun to deteriorate and right must be restored.

Although Hermione is a modern girl in a much more modern work of children’s fantasy, she is still expected to fill a certain role.  She may stay in the magical world of wizards and witches, Hogwarts and Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, but only because it is a different world than the one she entered seven years before.  Had Alice or Wendy waited for a changed dreamscape, they too might have stayed.  Had Leslie waited a few decades to be born, then perhaps the expectations place upon her might have been less and allowed her to live, at least in her own kingdom.  Regardless, I’m still waiting for the fantasy tale I can present to my future daughter that will leave her with no expectations than simply to play and be free.

Works Cited

Adler, Bill, ed. Kids’ Letters to Harry Potter from Around the World. New York: Carroll, 2011.

Barrie, James Matthew. Peter and Wendy. Ed. Chris Curnow, Lindy Walsh and Martin Pettit. Project Gutenburg EBook, 2008.

Billone, Amy Christine. “The Boy Who Lived: From Carroll’s Alice and Barrie’s Peter Pan to Rowling’s Harry Potter.” Children’s Literature 32 (2004): 178-202.

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. London: Penguin Classics, 1998.

Grenby, M. O. “Fantasy.” Children’s Literaure: A Edinburgh Critical Guide. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009. 144-169.

Johansen, K. V. “Before the War.” Quests and Kingdoms: A Grown-Up’s Goide to Children’s Fantasy Literature. Sackville: Sybertooth, Inc., 2005. 54-68.

Lurie, Alison. “A Child’s Garden of Subversion.” The New York Times on the Web 25 February 1990.

La Mare, Walter de. “On the Alice Books.” Phillips, Robert, ed. Aspects of Alice, Lewis Carroll’s Dream child as seen through the Critics Looking Glasses 1865-1971. London: Lowe & Brydone Ltd., 1932.

Lieberman, Marcia K. “‘Some Day My Prince Will Come’: Female Acculturation through the Fairy Tale.” Zipes, Jack. Don’t Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England. New York City: Routledge, Chapman, and Hall, Inc., 1989. 185-200.

Martin, Carol Lynn and Diane Ruble. “Children’s Search for Gender Cues: Cognative Perspectives on Gender Development.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 13.2 (2004): 67-70.

Paterson, Katherine. Bridge to Terabithia. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1977.

Simmons, John. “A Bridge Too Far – But Why?” The ALAN Review 25.2 (1998): 21-22.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic Inc., 1999.

—. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York: Scholastic Inc., 2007.

—. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic Inc., 2005.

—. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic Inc., 2003.

—. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. New York: Scholastic Inc., 1999.

—. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Scholastic Inc., 1997.

Rose, Jacqueline. The Case of Peter Pan, or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction. Basingstoke: MacMillan, 1984.

Winfrey, Oprah. J.K. Rowling’s Books That Made A Difference. O, The Oprah Magazine, January 2001.