Okay, so, yes, there’s that weird rhyme about girls are sugar and spice and everything nice while boys are frogs and snakes or whatever, which would be rude if it made any sense. But children’s literature in general isn’t too terribly unfriendly to loud little girls (loud little white girls, anyway; that’s another post). We have Ramona Quimby (ahem), Junie B. Jones, Pippi Longstocking, hell, even Little Women killed off docile little Beth instead of everyone’s favorite, Jo—-and there are so many more (would love to add to this list in a separate post: leave a comment here or on Facebook if you have one!). Misbehaving little girls are some of our favorite underdogs, and we should never underestimate the American middle-class loyalty to a good underdog: we don’t love people who do everything right and use the correct fork; we love those who struggle, and who toss the stupid forks aside and go their own way.
Yet despite the fact that our favorite little girls in books are those who make trouble, we are still really weird about how little girls should look and behave in real life: social media teems with images of their poor teeny newborn heads weighed down with giant bows; frilly, fragile dresses fill store aisles; images of tranquil sunsets with captions about daughters and mothers being best friends circulate on Facebook. And, in real life, high-energy little girls—-little girls that are more spice than sugar, with loud voices and dirty faces and a tendency to shove—-have far fewer fans than Junie B. (See, for example, 2014’s insights about “bossy.”)
This conundrum raises a central question for some scholars of popular or mainstream fiction (and by “some scholars” I guess I mostly mean me, a year ago): why do we so often love books that champion certain anti-authority behaviors, even as we continue to uphold the very authorities our beloved heroes rebel against? I mean, culture is just folks doing stuff, right? If we love stories about loud, defiant, sassy little girls so much, why don’t we love actual loud, defiant, sassy little girls more?
Let’s start with one such book, and see what we can figure out:
Dr. V’s take:
Bella has very good intentions and a very, very loud voice. She doesn’t mean to be rude when she leaps over other children’s heads to the front of the line; she’s just excited and she forgets her manners. She doesn’t mean to interrupt her teachers and fellow pupils; she just gets really engrossed in the subject matter and can’t contain herself.
Bella’s character is extremely sympathetic, and somehow seems three-dimensional despite the story’s concision. I liked Bella! I felt for her teacher, and the students who were annoyed by her—-good lord, who among us who have spent time with 8-ish-year-old kids hasn’t been driven out of our minds by their shoutyness?—-but I liked Bella all the same. I understood why the other kids felt she was “ruining” their trip to the museum, but I still wanted to reach into the pages and give her a hug when they said as much to her—-Tatjana Mai-Wyss’s illustrations of broken-spirited Bella are beautifully heartbreaking—-and say, “It’s ok. I understand. It’s good to be excited, and I like you the way you are.”
I so looked forward to her big redemptive moment, which was sure to come, right?
Well, sort of. The redemptive moment definitely comes, but it’s a pretty significant letdown. You see, Bella is so distraught she gets on the wrong bus. When she realizes this, she…yells that she’s on the wrong bus. With her loud voice. And this is good, I guess? Yay, Bella? We like you now that you felt terrible about yourself all through the book but saved yourself from a personal inconvenience? ….Oh.
You see, Booming Bella can make us sympathize with a loud, kind of obnoxious, little girl. It can endear her to us, because we have had lots of practice loving on loud fictional little girls. But in the end, it just doesn’t know what to do with her; to it’s credit, it doesn’t try to silence Bella, but it also can’t quite make her loudness okay in a way that rings true. Because by the end of our beloved loud girls’ stories we tend to see them married to Almanzo Wilder, or quieter in manner if not in spirit (Anne Shirley, anyone?).
It’s possible that we actually don’t like loud little girls—-we just like little girls for whom it was difficult to learn to be quiet.
But what would happen if Bella just decided she didn’t give a damn about the volume of her voice? What if, instead, the other kids learned from her about how to get hype about museums? What if the teacher and tour guide learned how to appreciate a little girl who is pumped about learning about science and art? What if, in the end, Bella learned some combination of the value of consideration for others’ ears and also the power of a well-placed fuck you? (The basic sentiment. Don’t swear in children’s books.)
If we must include morals in every single children’s story—-and it’s not a terrible idea, since the little buggers are going to learn from stories anyway even if we’re not thoughtful about what we want the lessons to be—-that would be a new one. I wouldn’t mind seeing someone give it a try.