The Gold Bikini Is Not The Point: My Girlhood Heroes

Dear Blog,

It is supposedly some kind of conventional wisdom that girls will read books about boys but boys won’t read books about girls. I have no idea if this is true, but it is probably partly or sometimes true and we can all guess at what the reasons for this might be. For now, my four year old counts Pippi Longstocking and Mulan and Merida among his heroes. I hope that as he gets older, he’ll continue to like stories about girls as long as I am putting good ones in front of him. I guess we’ll see.

The boys-snubbing-“girl”-stuff is something most of us don’t want to be true, but here is my true confession: I have always preferred stories about girls, particularly when I was one. This is less true as I get older but even now, if I list my favorite authors, the majority are women, and if I list my favorite characters, they are almost exclusively so. I don’t mean to sound anti-boy, and especially now that I have sons I think I ought to broaden my horizons, but this is just how it has played out so far.

Pippi Longstocking was one of the first characters that I fell head over heels in love with. It wasn’t the stories, which I barely remember. It was Pippi herself. The stories were just the scaffolding she clambered around on. Here was a girl unlike any other: totally independent, eccentric, unflappable, and preternaturally strong. Like generations of girls, I insisted on trying to sleep with my feet on the pillow and my head under the covers, wore mismatched socks and spray-painted red braids for Halloween, and sat around in kindergarten wishing I had a horse (and was strong enough to carry it). Pippi was pure wish fulfillment for a kid like me.

I hated anxious, mousy girls in stories, probably because I kind of was one. I liked the mouthy oddballs. I wanted to be Anne of Green Gables, and then I wanted to be Harriet the Spy. The Prydain Chronicles were all about Eilonwy for me. The only straight-up superhero story I remember reading back then was a ridiculous French series called Fantomette, about a pretty superhero with one fat friend and one thin friend. It was stupid and appalling in many ways and the only reason I can think of for why I devoured them the way I did was that Fantomette was a girl with superpowers, and I was hungry for stories about powerful girls.

When I was in primary school, my favorite toys were the three different Princess Leia action figures we had. Princess Leia might have been the only woman with more than three lines in the entire early Star Wars trilogy, but she was enough for me and remained a great hero all through my youth. She was the star, this brave revolutionary facing down Darth Vader in the opening scenes, not whiny, confused Luke or blustering Han Solo. Yes, they put her in a gold bikini in the third movie, but what mattered to me was that she came to rescue the man she loved, strangled Jabba with her own chains, and went on to lead the rebels to victory. There is plenty to be said about the gold bikini, I guess, and plenty has been said, but when I was seven years old, the gold bikini was totally beside the point.

I also had a thing for tomboys, which was often the way a “strong” girl was presented when I was a kid. George from the Famous Five was my favorite, though I’m a bit depressed by that now. I loved the Arthur Ransome books mainly because of ferocious, swaggering Captain Nancy of the Amazons. I wanted my girls brave and loud, while I shrank to almost nothing in the back of the class, striving for invisibility.

As an adult I have a particular weakness for sharp-edged, complicated, dissatisfied, badly behaved characters in books and on the screen, but I still find myself most drawn to the female characters. Exceptions abound, of course, and I won’t bother listing all my favorite male characters here except to say that yes, I do have some. Still, I often think, when I hear that boys don’t like “girl” books, that they are probably just reading the wrong books, and this might be true for me as well. So I’ll close with a request for recommendations. Movies, TV, books of any genre for any age. Tell me your favorite male characters.

Yours, still-sort-of-longing-to-be-Pippi,

Catherine

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