"...When we are embraced, for who we are Do you not see? We shall gleam like the stars in the night Genders, colors, nations too Leave them sitting in old church pews Philosophers, doctors, engineers of creation We shall be side by side, working with you So smile and behold the new golden age Suras must die, in the deserts of past sage Sisters of the sun, the gods, and the wind The old men of the past must rescind Glories are coming, so rejoice and behold Equality is the greatest story a woman ever told..."
Femininity. It’s a concept molded and stigmatized and skewed and paradoxically ignored by literature time and time again. Growing up, the books I read instructed me on the ways I should reflect this social construction…and implicitly shamed me in the ways I never measured up to it.
It’s first accentuated through fairtytales and princesses who are well-mannered, who wear flowing dresses, and who find their greatest validation through the brave princes that rescue them from certain peril. I can recall my home library when I was seven years old— teeming with these tales. This was my first taste of how literature conditioned my view of what it means to be a female, to be feminine. They were beautiful. They were respectful and proper. They wore pink and purple and crimson. They sought after their beloved princes, were enraptured by the notion that all would be right in the world once they found true love. I remember resting my head against my father’s chest on the couch, listening to his narration bring these stories to life, kindling the fire inside of me that longed to be like Ariel and Aurora and Snow White— that longed to matter.
The literature I read not only taught me about society’s version of femininity. It also limited me to it. I still remember my first book fair in the second grade. I remember the vibrant catalog that was handed out to every student— the exciting images of stories that had all of us eagerly waiting with marker in hand, ready to avidly circle the book choices we would end up begging our parents to purchase for us. Though I did not realize it at the time, there was a distinctly evident binary within the pages of the catalog. My eyes covered every inch of the bright yellow paper, surveying books I knew were inherently girly, implicitly for me, and those that were not. My red pen wavered over a superhero comic book in the section labeled “For Him: Fiction” and then continued on. I bought a Judy Moody book instead.
Kerry Mason from the Letterbox Library campaign claims that “children’s own book choices are being limited by publishers’ gendered marketing campaigns”. What a staggering notion— that the developing literacy of children, my own relationship with literacy development, has been conditioned and constrained by the bounds of gender and the binary obligations that gender entails.
But it certainly does not stop there. This damaging schema followed me into middle school where I began to read series and magazines about the glories of womanhood. These texts consumed the minds of my friends and me. They introduced pressures I had not yet known, insecurities I had not yet been burdened with. And with every read, I began to understand where the supposed identity of a woman resides.
One afternoon the summer before my freshman year of high school, I found myself flipping through the pages of a Cosmopolitan Magazine issue with a picture of a very seductive Olivia Wilde plastered on the cover. The headline read “50 Ways To Seduce A Man”. I was shocked by the title but felt an implicit obligation to educate myself on the ways in which I should learn to please the opposite sex. Never mind the fact that I had never kissed a boy, much less had been sexually active with one.
As time progressed, the glass ceiling of the literary world made itself evident to me in the ways that my gender was systematically ignored in text. In high school, literacy acquisition brought me to the classics— Shakespeare, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway. Through these timeless works, I developed a newfound perception about literature: that which is considered noteworthy is probably written by a man. There were token exceptions like To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, though they were few and far between. However, an even more painstaking reality was the vast dearth of female protagonists present in classic literature. Acclaimed novelist and women’s advocate Nicola Griffith conducted a study stretching the past 15 years which documented the gender disparity in major award-winning literature— like the Pulitzer, the National Book Award, and the Hugo Award. Across six major prizes for exceptional literature, 89 total books were awarded— representing both men and women authors quite well. However, out of all 89 noteworthy texts, only 15 of them focused on females as the main protagonist. Instead, public school curriculum chooses characters like Piggy and Jack from Lord of the Flies, Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, and Winston Smith from 1984 to articulate those who are worthy of analysis and reflection. This allowed me to see not only how my femininity should be portrayed but also when it was appropriate to portray it.
Even still my relationship with literature progresses, and so does my zeal for a broader depiction of women within it. I am encouraged and motivated by the steps my generation is taking towards fluidity and inclusivity of gender expression, and I can only hope that this will be evident in the literature to come. As a future educator, I desire to create a curriculum that in some way inspires necessary commentary about women and the construct of femininity. As a future mother, I demand that my daughter’s perception of herself never be stunted or damaged by the books she reads. As a human being, I render my own story and the stories of many others as a testament to the work that needs to be done and a call to action that begins with us.