On the way to school this morning, I was getting my daily dose of godless liberalism (aka NPR). John Lasseter, creative director of Disney and Pixar, was being interviewed. One of the questions was something along the lines of “will there ever be a Disney movie with a female lead who isn’t a princess.” And then he did a lot of back-pedalling about how even though the past few movies(Tangled, Brave, The Princess and the Frog, Frozen) have all featured princesses they are nonetheless very strong characters. None of them are waiting around for a prince. And it made me think that while I like this feisty kick-butt kind of girl, why do we feel the the need to make female characters so strong. Or why do we define “strong” in terms of physical strength or a feisty attitude?
I can’t answer these questions because I don’t know. And I don’t want this to be all about gender and feminism. I will just say that I am glad I grew up playing with barbie dolls, baby dolls, American girl dolls, paper dolls (are we seeing a pattern here?), and I’m just fine now. No one would ever have called me a tomboy. I could probably count on one hand the number of scraped knees I had as a child. I cried so hard when I was forced to learn how to ride a bike, as I accused my father of trying to make me a boy whilst I only wanted to an artist perambulating to and fro on her own two feet.
I don’t think I was a weak girl, though. I distinctly remember my mom walking me through conflicts with friends (although not that many), drilling into me the importance of making sure “no one was left out,” and sticking up for people. In my adult life, I have needed moral courage far more than I have needed physical courage, and I suspect this is true for most adults. Moral courage is not nearly as entertaining to watch, though.
Which leads me to Cranford. Everything leads me to Cranford eventually. The book by Elizabeth Gaskell is excellent, and the BBC miniseries is probably the best miniseries. The town of Cranford is mostly inhabited by spinsters. And at the beginning they strike you as dull, gossipy, shallow, and judgmental. But then the stories unfold. And such gentle, sweet stories they are. The women of Cranford are still silly (pajamas on the cow, dosing a cat with a laxative to retrieve lace the cat had eaten), but the first line of the book and of the series was predictive “In the first place, Cranford is in the possession of the Amazons.” None of their acts of bravery amount to much to an outsider: Miss Jenkyns accompanies Jessie Brown in processing behind her father’s/sister’s (book and series are slightly different) coffin on the way to the funeral; the women all conspire to give whatever they have secretly (even if it is next to nothing) to ensure that their friend Miss Matty has enough to live on; Miss Matty honors a bad five pound notes; Miss Matty sets up a tea shop in the front room to earn a living…this little list could go on and on. I may have strayed a bit from my point, indulging in my love for Cranford, but my point is is that these women were all strong and courageous. Even though the mere rumor of a burglar sends them into a tizzy for weeks, they all rise to the occasion when needed. And I cry in just about every episode/chapter because these women are so good to one another.
I am glad that we have Katniss Everdeen, I really am. But let’s not forget that we still need Betsy and Tacy and Anne Shirley and the women of Cranford because they too are courageous even if they don’t have much skill with a bow and arrow. I have girls in my class who are tomboys, and I have girls in my class that are girly-girls. I think girls who play sports are great (I was a very reluctant member of many sports teams as a child), and I think that the more opportunities we give our girls the better off they will be. But girlier girls possess strength too, even if they’re not sassy ninjas. I have a great class of girls, but it’s my “girliest” girl that I routinely see looking after the odd ducks on the playground, or lending a pencil, or sharing a snack with a neighbor who forgot hers. I suppose, I would hate to see my beloved Disney princesses replaced by “strong” female characters if strong has to mean violent or “just as tough as the boys.”
So here’s to little girls in all their complex glory. I feel very privileged to worked with three classes of girls who were funny, sassy, tender, vulnerable, and strong. And thinking about all this makes me want to be a much better role model for my current and future classes. And I have no idea how to model strength and kindness, grit and vulnerability…all while dressing impeccably…