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A Purloined Girlhood, Part 1a: Wild At Heart

I saw “Where the Wild Things Are” this weekend, ducks. (One of the advantages of living in the Great American Metropolis is that movies tend to hang around a surprising length of time.)

I saw it because of Spike Jonze, and because I am just old enough to have grown up in the Golden Age of Maurice Sendak — that hazy, golden late afternoon in America when Sesame Street had become established, the children raised by Dr. Spock were raising their own children, and Sendak and Shel Silverstein dominated the bookcases of every “with it” parent. (I was too young to say things like “with it,” of course, but I had teenaged cousins, and was vaguely aware of things like The Disco… we are talking about that point in history when The Captain and Teneille had their own TV show, people.) It was an age brought to you by CTW.

I don’t want to talk too much about the movie, which is as good as you’ve heard, and as bad as you’ve heard — the inventiveness and bravura surrealism (Jonze’s trademark) dazzle and enchant (I was not the only one crying when Max left the island), and the other issues — the long-winded expansion of a child’s fable into a full-length movie, the natteringly irritating Dave Eggers-scripted personality complexes of each of the monsters, the scary issues of colonialism and kyriarchy — are pushed under the rug in a big lump that you can’t help but notice.

I’d rather talk about something else.

We talk about–we feminists and we women people and not-women people who nonetheless care about the women people — about the idea of the male as the default human being, about the stories — just about all of them, in any genre — being about male people with female characters serving as adjuncts or plot points or Things To Fight About. We talk about it, but I lived through it (not of my own choosing, understand, but there you have it). I was raised in the expectation that I would grow up into that world. And I alone am survived to tell thee. (Well, not alone. And why the hell am I quoting Melville in a piece about women?)

Growing up with that expectation — that I, too, would become a human being and not a woman–meant that it was easy for me to put myself, in my imagination, wherever I wanted to be, because The Stories All Looked Like Me. Or to put it another way–wait…let me demonstrate instead. Let’s take a look at our text:

Such a simple tale? Did you catch the wonderful, in media res opening line? “The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another…” Takes me back, that does.

Let’s try an exercise.

Close your eyes, picture that opening, and then think about what it would look like if it read “The night Maxine wore her wolf suit…”

A little harder to picture, yes? Or even harder to picture Maxine sailing to the island of the Wild Things, and being made their Queen, and then calling for a Wild Rumpus? Are girls even allowed to have a rumpus, even in children’s books, even if it was a quiet rumpus in the corner where everybody was invited?

I mean, could Maxine even tame the Wild Things with the magic trick of staring into their yellow eyes without blinking? And then order them about? Wouldn’t she end up getting this advice instead?

Explain to your daughter that when she asks for things in a demanding way, the other girls will not want to play with her. Help her to learn how to rephrase what she wants in a nicer tone, like “May I play with you?” She needs to learn to ask and not demand. When she exhibits demanding behavior at home, ask her to rephrase what she wants.

(Incidentally, doing a search on Bossy Girls turned out to be one of my more… depressing… internet voyages of recent note.)

Sure, nobody wanted me to bite people or run around telling everyone what to do. But I was allowed to imagine myself as Max (imagining myself as Maxine at that age was something I feared to do), free to sail to distant lands and subdue strange beasts and rule over them as king. And never, ever, be expected to ask politely for the Wild Things to not eat me.

Now, maybe it’s because I’m still infected by the soporifics of my Where the Sidewalk Ends childhood, but I don’t think that this is as big a problem in the book — which is so spare and carefully chiseled that only the very whisper of a story remains. But it did strike me in the movie, which by expanding the story and giving it flesh, gave it boy flesh and put it solidly in the genre of boy’s stories, the lone boy who goes off on adventures and — stop me if you’ve heard this before — finds girls who are either an inscrutable background menace or a mother-surrogate. It’s the difference between parable and fable, I guess — but fables are still meant to instruct, and I can’t help but feel the lessons are different between the two versions.

Of course, if the movie had been about Maxine, you would have had a fanboy whine rivaling the idea of making Captain Pike a woman. And nobody would read it, or at least not boys. And certainly not if it had been written by Maureen Sendak.

31 Comments

  1. ozymandias wrote:

    I think this is my first time commenting, but I’ve been reading for the past couple months.

    Perhaps it’s due to a difference in eras (I’m a child of the Nineties), but I remember a lot of girls’ adventure stories. Tamora Pierce, for instance, or the Young Wizards series, or nearly anything by Meg Cabot.

    Admittedly, they were for an older audience and Meg Cabot in particular tended to be doused in eye-searing amounts of pink, but it’s still interesting.

    Wednesday, January 20, 2010 at 1:53 pm | Permalink
  2. Rebecca wrote:

    Thanks for this. I walked out of the theater feeling totally disconnected from the original story (which I loved), and it took me a long time to put my finger on the reason. Even when I figured it out, the best I could do to articulate the feeling was “this story is for boys now??” Your explanation was much more insightful.

    Wednesday, January 20, 2010 at 3:06 pm | Permalink
  3. eloriane wrote:

    I don’t think Tamora Pierce and Maurice Sendak are particularly comparable. The decade in between their average reading ages is an important one. I, too, read Tamora Pierce growing up, and in fact read almost no books with boys in them after I got my own library card– but I learned to read with Maurice Sendak, Doctor Seuss, and Richard Scarry; the very first stories I ever read were about boys conquering the world. And that can’t be undone just by reading different books later.

    Wednesday, January 20, 2010 at 3:47 pm | Permalink
  4. emjaybee wrote:

    Yes, yes. It’s very conflicting; I’m raising a boy and he loves Sendak as I do, but it’s bittersweet for me that there are no girls in Wild Things or Night Kitchen, his favorites. There are girls in Seuss, but they don’t do much, generally speaking.

    I read him books with female protagonists as much as possible, and his dad cooks, blahblah equalitycakes, and that’s great, but children’s literature and toys are still deeply conservative and stuck on gender roles. Even PBS has trouble, though they’re getting better at having female main characters who aren’t necessarily pink. (WordGirl: awesome).

    So the world’s a little better than when we were kids in some ways, but there’s still a lot of conditioning out there that is left to fight.

    Wednesday, January 20, 2010 at 4:05 pm | Permalink
  5. Vee wrote:

    I’m from the land of Pippi Longstocking, for which I count myself lucky. It’s a girl, and she’s strong, and she’s unconventional, and her father is a pirate king! She is, I believe, read by both boys and girls. My other childhood heroine was Ronia, the robber’s daughter who practices not being scared by doing all the things her father warned her about, like scrambling around on the mountain perilously close to the waterfall and chasing the wild horses. They were good characters to grow up with.

    Wednesday, January 20, 2010 at 4:29 pm | Permalink
  6. V. wrote:

    It is perhaps ironic that today I saw one of those “Where is he now?” articles about the children who starred in The Neverending Story, a movie I saw when I was nine. Because, although in my imagination Atreyu is still a girl*, the actor who played Atreyu was male in 1984 and is male today, happy as a clam doing something other than saving the universe.

    *Not only does the movie refer to Atreyu in all-male pronouns, and dress Atreyu in an open shirt not generally considered appropriate for a girl not far from adolescence, the name “Atreyu” is supposed to mean “Son of all.” (Mumble mumble book-canon mumble.) And yet somehow I wished/believed that Atreyu was an athletic, horse-riding girl like me, and so she became. In my head anyway, and for a long time.

    So that’s one (childish, generative) way of getting around the default-male lens. We’re in ur boy-books, transforming ur dudes into gurlz.

    Wednesday, January 20, 2010 at 6:11 pm | Permalink
  7. Orestes wrote:

    This. Is something I noticed years and years ago, in the days before I was Not A Feminist, in the days when I was a girl who liked boy-things, and to be a girl who liked boy-things you had to act like a boy and think girl things were icky. To my 6 or 7 year old mind boys had all the fun and were therefore better, and this was reinforced (or more likely, caused by) seemingly everything around me. When I was young I loved video games, specifically fighting games like Street Fighter. There were two female characters. Both were fast but weak, were designed with skimpy outfits and were usually crap to play with. When a fighting game called Dead or Alive was released, which included a feature where you could choose whether the female character’s breasts bounced realistically or not (this was marketed as a unique selling point and sadly I am not making this up) I realised that games were Boy Town, and I could not live in Boy Town, for I had body parts that could be manipulated for titilation and cheap lulz.
    But then I turned out to be a lesbian! So it was all cool after all. After all, I too appreciated the boobs. And the primary way that one appreciates boobs in our enlightened post-feminist era is to watch them bouncing up and down comically in a video game you enjoy with your friends. Ha ha, they’re hitting her in the chin! Hurrah, I am still a member of Boy Town! Looks like my lady parts didn’t barr me access after all.
    I’ve learned a lot since then. I get the feeling that this way of thinking was a logical course after prolonged exposure to a world where it’s max not maxine, where the only female characters you see in cartoons, books, video games and films growing up are confined within a small set of roles (caretaker, love interest, “eye candy”) whereas for men, who are more often and enthusiastically represented, there are so fewer limits. (See Enid Blyton’s Famous 5, featuring timid, mousey Anne and George, who cuts her hair short, won’t let anyone call her Georgina and gets to go adventuring with the boys.) The message for me was simple. Surrender. defect to Dudesonia. “You’re so cool. You’re just like one of the guys! By which we mean that girls, to us, are usually seen in sexual or amusing ways, are to be looked down upon-even though we LOVE women, I mean, my sister is a chick, you know? But to be a female but also a friend is unthinkable as women, silly irrational women, are incapable of being our equals. Welcome to Dudesonia! We make rape and period jokes here, and you will laugh, because they are just so HILAIRIOUS and you’re not like those other chicks so you won’t get offended.”

    Life outside Dudesonia can be depressing, to be honest. You have the double whammy of seeing thousands of shitty things around you that you never saw before and also smacking yourself on the head and thinking “i was a fucking idiot. For so long.” But when you see how utterly gross it looks from the outside, and is, and has been for generations of not only women but every marginalised group, including gays-a fact that sailed way over my fucking head, you can’t go back. You don’t want to.

    Wednesday, January 20, 2010 at 6:43 pm | Permalink
  8. C.L. Minou wrote:

    @VEE: I thought about Pippi Longstocking, but I think I only read one of those books once, which is kind of surprising given my reading habits back then.

    I did however think about Anne of Green Gables, and how from the very first page the story is about the domestication of a wild outdoors into proper feminine indoors, but I’ll save that for another time. (Seriously: look at the first couple of pages, and you can’t miss it.)

    @V: It wasn’t, however, guaranteed that Atreyu would have grown up to be male, I can assure you ;)

    In my own not-quite-ended story, I sometimes find myself rewriting my past unintentionally–remembering something, and also having to remind myself, oh yeah, I wasn’t a woman yet then. But that will wait for another post as well :)

    Wednesday, January 20, 2010 at 7:20 pm | Permalink
  9. Adrianna wrote:

    Ah, god, Tamora Pierce. I love her. I wrote her fan mail and she responded!
    LOL
    Anyway, yes, I agree that the stories we learn to read with are stories that affect us in a profound way.
    This is why I gave up writing for awhile…it saddened me that I so desperately wanted women in my stories, varieties of women, the kind of women I read about in the tender pre-teen years, but that I would make ZERO money doing it.
    Now I don’t give a hot-damn, because I’ve got a day-job that pays the bills and I can write what ever I want and no one has to read or even buy it.
    I had a wandering point here…
    Yes. I agree with you. Male is not neutral. We need female narratives for our young children (not just the girls either…boys I believe could benefit from seeing inside girls minds and realizing that their brains and hearts work the same ways)

    Wednesday, January 20, 2010 at 9:19 pm | Permalink
  10. Carly wrote:

    I’m a kindergarten teacher, and I read my group a book call ‘the midnight gang’ and it’s a group of babies that sneak out at night time and go on adventures and come back in the morning back to their cots, as though nothing had happened. The leader of the group is a girl and one of the boys in my group asked “shouldn’t that be a boy?” and so I asked him “why?” and he couldn’t really answer why. It was a perfect illustration of what you are talking about. This child found it strange that the leader of adventuring should be a girl!

    Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 12:06 am | Permalink
  11. HelenB wrote:

    I guess I was lucky: when I think back to the picture books I read (and was read) as a child, it’s the female heroines who stand out for me. Girls like Caroline in Boss for a week who is allowed to be bossy, and girls like Jane in Jane and the dragon who dresses and a knight and rescues the prince. As I got older I read an awful lot of stories about princesses who did karate or drove tractors, but also enjoyed stories about girls who got married and became domestics. The most vivid of my childhood heroines had more than ten children and still managed to have the occasional adventure as well as darn her husband’s socks.

    The problem, to me, is that many of the “classics” are, well, old. They’re beautifully written and have such honest and “living” characters that they’re still enjoyable today, but they very much have prescribed roles for boy and girls. And, of course, rightly or wrongly the idea persists that girls will be interested in stories about boys, but boys will never be interested in stories about girls. So while Where the wild things are can be enjoyed by everyone, parents are perhaps less likely to buy their sons The tiger that came to tea.

    Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 1:54 am | Permalink
  12. Agnes wrote:

    I’m totally undecided on whether I’ll ever have children or not, but I think, if I do, maybe I’ll read those stories out loud to them with female pronouns.

    Friends of mine were given “The Little Train That Could” for their baby, and I was pleasantly surprised to reread it and see that the train is a “she.” I don’t know if this is a reprint, or if it was always this way.

    Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 8:32 am | Permalink
  13. Nila wrote:

    I grew up with Robert Munsch, and even had his read-along cassette tapes (he’s a terrific storyteller, and used to bring the house down when he visited my local library and elementary school). The Paper Bag Princess ends with Elizabeth telling the stuck-up prince that he’s not worth her time and going off to find her own happiness by herself! What’s nice, too, is that a lot of the stories are just about strange things that happen, with no definite lesson learned, and the protagonists are always young kids.

    Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 9:18 am | Permalink
  14. gatecrewgirl wrote:

    @VEE: My mother read me every single Pippi Longstocking book. Numerous times. For that I am eternally grateful. (And I always thought Annika was totally lame)

    @NILA: My mother played Robert Munsch tapes for my brother and I in the car ALL the time. Best storyteller ever. The subway one in the kid’s room was definitely my favorite.

    I remember when I was about 10 or 11 asking my mother (who I did not realize until much later did her best to feed me the best children’s and young adult literature for a strong female she could possibly find in the early 80s) why there were no stories about girls who came on a white horse with a sword and saved the day.

    I don’t remember what she responded with, but she gave me a copy of The Blue Sword a few days later.

    Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 11:17 am | Permalink
  15. FreshPeaches wrote:

    It’s a song, not a storybook, but have you heard “Jennifer’s Rabbit” by Tom Paxton? It’s an adventure-story song he wrote starring his then-young daughter that kind of has a similar vibe to WTWTA.

    Here are the lyrics: http://www.mydfz.com/Paxton/lyrics/jr.htm

    And here he is singing it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UlnVRWD7vVY

    Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 11:20 am | Permalink
  16. Steph wrote:

    I spy a children’s book niche not adequately filled. (hmmmmmm!)

    Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 12:44 pm | Permalink
  17. trifling wrote:

    I loved Pippi Longstocking when I was a kid – I completely wanted to be her. I still do really.

    The part about what kind of advice Maxine would have got led me to Google:
    “bossy boy” –> 6,410 hits
    “bossy girl” –> 79,000 hits

    I’d never thought about it till now, but I don’t think I have ever heard “bossy” applied to a male.

    Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 12:55 pm | Permalink
  18. Betty wrote:

    This may be just a little older than the target audience for Where the Wild Things Are, but Roald Dahl is a great one for excellent girl adventurers- Matilda, Sophie from The BFG, the little girl from The Magic Finger- they get about as much face time in Dahl’s books as the boys do, and they’re at least as clever and wry and adorable, if not moreso.

    Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time is an excellent one also. I guess as you get more into young adult there are a lot more female protagonists– I’m realizing as I write this that these aren’t really picture books. Problematic.

    Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 1:21 pm | Permalink
  19. kristyn wrote:

    Due to this very reason — let’s just go ahead and call it Sexism — I’ve always felt like I had a purloined girlhood too. And I was born female.

    I always wanted to do what I pleased. Dresses were okay in my mind, but so were blue jeans and getting dirty. Being sweet and demure was all right, but sometimes I wanted to yell and run.
    As everyone else here has noted, there were no books for someone like me. So I grew up identifying with male characters, and then the adults said I had gender dysphoria.

    I didn’t understand. I didn’t WANT to be a ”boy” any more than I WANT to be a ”girl.” It was just hard to see myself as ”girl”, and act accordingly, when all of the ”girl” options fell short of my expectations. It’s hard to feel content sewing — although I have always liked sewing — and cooking when you want to be out training horses, climbing trees, and hitching rides in boxcars.

    Maybe all human beings are just a little bit more gender-balanced than the doctors like to tell us. Maybe we all have purloined girl- and boyhoods — I feel that each one of us has one of each.
    It seems like culture sets every single person up to fail, and possibly fail to the point of self-hatred, self-harm, even self-destruction, by creating false dualisms and then reinforcing them using every facet of everything we see every day.

    Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 5:20 pm | Permalink
  20. gatecrewgirl wrote:

    @Kristyn: you just articulated what I couldn’t. I couldn’t agree more.

    Thursday, January 21, 2010 at 9:34 pm | Permalink
  21. Danielle wrote:

    BUT THIS HAPPENS TO BOYS SOMETIMES TOO

    Oh, wait; that’s not the point.

    Friday, January 22, 2010 at 7:37 am | Permalink
  22. Nancy wrote:

    I’ve been lurking for a while, but never commented. I felt I should since no one mentioned Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series. There is a very long children’s series with a strong female protagonist. It’s been years since I’ve read the series, but Ramona’s general unabashed oddness and stubbornness stuck with me. I realize this a book for slightly older children, but I definitely read this soon after I came across Where the Wild Things Are.

    Friday, January 22, 2010 at 6:45 pm | Permalink
  23. Eliza wrote:

    I am the mother of a five-year-old daughter. We actually rewrote Where the Wild Things Are for her back when she was two. We replaced all the Maxes with Mayas and did a custom print. She is surprised to find that some versions of the book talk about a boy named Max.

    Saturday, January 23, 2010 at 2:51 am | Permalink
  24. Canomia wrote:

    One of my very favorite books as a kid was The I Was So Mad I Could Have Spit Book, or I think that’s what the english version was called. It was about a girl, a very very angry girl and it was for smal children with almost no text at all and I loved it.

    And one more thing. Astrid Lindgren did more than Pippi Longstocking. She was a pretty cool lady writing about lots of cool adventourus ladies. The ones I read and loved were about;

    Pippi – The strong girl who lives alone does whatever she wants all the time
    Madicken – A upper class girl who jumps of rooftops and gets in fights and stuff
    Ronya – the rebell girl who won’t be a Robber like her father
    Tjorven – The outspoken chubby kid who goes on adventures with the older kids and pretty much leads the adventures most of the time.
    Lotta on troublemaker street – The younger sister who gets in troble all the time and does crazy stuff like stealing a grown ups bike and riding it down a hill.

    They are all about girls who do what they want and are who they are even though it doesn’t fit the norm.

    Saturday, January 23, 2010 at 1:20 pm | Permalink
  25. al_zorra wrote:

    Eloise?

    Love, C,

    Saturday, January 23, 2010 at 2:17 pm | Permalink
  26. C.L. Minou wrote:

    @ORESTES: your comment was amazing, and maybe we should talk, lady? ‘Cause I think we might have some meetings of minds.

    @EVERYONE: thank you for the many cool book ideas–I have a niece who devours books and these sound like just the thing she could use.

    Even so, what interested me was how the original–whose charm tends to outweigh its conventional gender roles–was transformed into Just Another Boys Story on screen. (Or worse, Just Another Boys Story For Dudes Who Used To Be Boys, And Maybe Still Wanna Be.)

    And I’m still not sure that many girls in books would be written as fierce enough to tame the wild things like Max did. (Or have a rumpus.) But I’m no expert.

    @Eliza: That is awesome and you made my day :)

    Saturday, January 23, 2010 at 9:46 pm | Permalink
  27. Kat wrote:

    I actually loved the movie and was happy that there were female wild things.

    It excited me that the main relationship being explored was a brother/sister relationship.

    It excited me that KW was important and complex and female.

    Sunday, January 24, 2010 at 5:10 pm | Permalink
  28. Alecto wrote:

    Not so far out of childhood myself-okay, I’m 21, but I have a very large collection of children’s books due to my mother and godmother being book-obsessed and my learning to read at four. And I reread books somewhat obsessively.

    I read Astrid Lindgren a LOT-I’m part Swedish, so my grandmother used to buy them for me; I actually quite liked Enid Blyton as a child, especially the Malory Towers series for some reason, maybe because it was all about girls. In a very English and upper-to-middle-class way.
    I haven’t read these in a very long time, but I remember Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series as being very enjoyable when I was a child. There’s probably some problematic stuff-they were written in the 1930s-but I remember them as having six main characters, four girls, two boys, sailing around on lakes and having adventures.

    I was also horse-obsessed as a child-I haven’t even sat on a horse since I was eleven or so, but I’m still fond of my hundreds (I am unfortunately not exaggerating the number) of horse/animal related books; mainly female characters, horse/dog obsessed, and they were always working towards a goal (usually winning a prize or starting a pony club, but I digress). But I haven’t read most of these since I was a child; I pick one up from time to time and read it, but most of these books are so familiar that I don’t notice the problems, so I have no idea if they’re good/bad. They felt good in any case. I’m afraid most of them are pre-WWII though. There’s also Harriet the Spy, and now I’m out of ideas.

    Tuesday, January 26, 2010 at 7:52 am | Permalink
  29. Fnord Prefect wrote:

    How about the litle black cat Jenny Linsky? Jenny is not ass-kicking like Pippi–in fact she is rather shy. She needs a lot of encouragement before she attempts to join the cat club. But she resonates with this shy kid *because* of her shyness, and because her shyness is not debilitating. She evaluates risks, she goes on adventures, she lets herself be vulnerable, she is richer for it. If Pippi is my wish-fulfillment ass-kicking self (a preteen Hothead Paisan), Jenny is my day-to-day actual self.

    @V.#6–I did the same thing to Taran in Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series. I loved those books, but no way was I going to imagine myself as Elionwy.

    Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 3:47 pm | Permalink
  30. kristinc wrote:

    “I’d never thought about it till now, but I don’t think I have ever heard “bossy” applied to a male.”

    Well, of course. Males are bossES. Only women can be bossY. Kind of like how truthy-NESS is different from truth.

    Ugh.

    Last year when I was picking my kid up from school I witnessed some little girl, maybe first grade, being browbeaten by her teacher and mom together FOR BEING STUBBORN.

    Mom: How did today go?

    Teacher: She was stubborn today.

    (They both look disapprovingly down at the kid.)

    Kid: I wasn’t stubborn!

    (The disapproving looks intensify and she shrinks.)

    It was heartbreaking. I really had to wrestle myself to keep from interrupting and telling that poor kid how great it was that she could stick to her guns, because that’s how you get things done.

    Thursday, January 28, 2010 at 10:20 am | Permalink
  31. ssg wrote:

    “where the wild things are” was one of my favorite books as a child, but one of Maurice Sendak’s other books was even more beloved and it did have a girl as the protagonist: “Outside Over There.” It was about a girl whose baby sister is kidnapped by goblins and she rescues her.

    Wednesday, February 17, 2010 at 6:47 pm | Permalink