Redirection - Feminism revisited - Theory and critical approaches - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches


10. Feminism revisited


Lissa Paul




The second wave of feminism began in the late 1960s when a whole generation of white, well-educated ‘baby-boomer’ women found that they were still relegated to making the coffee and stuffing envelopes. They were still excluded from the dominant discourses. The consciousness-raising groups of the 1970s began as a means of mobilising collective voices in order to gain inclusion. The right to be included: that became a basic tenet of feminist theory. So feminist theory changed to become increasingly inclusive: the feminist studies of the 1970s grew into gender studies in the 1980s. In the 1990s another change happened as feminist criticism evolved into gender studies - and ultimately become aligned with postcolonial and cultural studies. Feminist critics relocated into the emerging disciplines. Critics such as Gayatri Spivak, Trinh T. Minh-ha (1989), and bell hooks (1992), recognising the similarities between political power plays and gender power plays, have helped feminist criticism shed its Eurocentric, middle-class look. English critics are also tentatively moving outside their own linguistic and cultural borders, listening to other critics and scholars. For Anglophone scholars, access to the work being done in non-English-speaking countries is still limited. But there are signs that attempts are being made to gain access to both other literatures and other critics - and their views on the influence of feminism. In Germany, the International Youth Library in Munich is significant. It was founded after the Second World War by Jella Lepman - who was also responsible for the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY). There are essays on feminist theory and children’s literature in Jugendkultur im Adoleszenzroman, edited by Hans-Heino Ewers (1994). And there are publications (of various cross-cultural stripes) coming out of children’s literature research institutes in several countries, including the Centre for Children’s Literature in Denmark and the International Charles Perrault Research Institute in Paris. The International Research Society in Children’s Literature brings scholars from all over the world together. Scandinavian scholars, such as Maria Nikolajeva, Mia Osterlund and Riita Oittinen, teach and write in Anglophone contexts. And Emer O’Sullivan, originally from Ireland, works and writes in both English and German. Essay collections, published particularly in Europe, are beginning to reflect a much more global, multi-lingual perspective. For access to some of these critics see, for example, Children’s Literature as Communication (2002), edited by Roger Sell, Female/Male: Gender in Children’s Literature (1999), a collection published by the Baltic Centre for Writers and Translators, and Children’s Literature and National Identity (2001), edited by Margaret Meek.

For children’s literature critics in the twenty-first century, there is an increased awareness of the way primitives and children are frequently (t)roped together. In keeping with feminist agendas, this new theoretical line is changing both the readings and the text. It is true that there is nothing in children’s literature or children’s literature criticism as yet that is as dramatic as the acknowledgement in Marina Warner’s novel Indigo that it was a work of postcolonial theory, Colonial Encounters by Peter Hulme, that spurred her to write the novel. But there are changes, as children’s literature increasingly includes the images and voices of people of colour. I’m thinking especially of writers for children like John Agard, Grace Nichols, James Berry, Valerie Bloom and Joy Kogawa, who probe at the ways patriarchal powers have screwed up, how they’ve ruined the environment in favour of profit, and how they locked up people designated as ‘other’ on the grounds that if they were foreign they were dangerous.

The unpicking of the child/primitive trope is also the subject of academic study. Stephen Slemon and Jo-Ann Wallace, professors at the University of Alberta in Canada, taught a graduate course together called, ‘Literatures of the Child and the Colonial Subject: 1850-1914’. In an article they wrote together about their experience ‘Into the Heart of Darkness? Teaching Children’s Literature as a Problem in Theory’ (1991), they discuss their struggle with the construction of the child in pedagogical and institutional terms. They write about the child who, like the ‘primitive’, is treated ‘as a subject-information, an individual who often does not have full legal status and who therefore acts or who is acted against in ways that are not perceived to be fully consequential’ (20). Postcolonial discourse illuminates ways in which authority over the ‘other’ is achieved in the name of protecting innocence. The ideological assumption is that primitives and children are too naive (or stupid) to look after themselves, so need protecting - like rainforests.

The critical lessons in feminist/postcolonial theory increasingly have to do with ideology and with constructions of the subject. That’s quite different from what used to be the common feature of children’s literature and children’s literature criticism - the notion of the identity quest, with its attendant assumption that there was such a thing as a stable identity. Instead, contemporary critical emphasis is on the ways we are constructed by the socialising forces pressuring us in all aspects of our lives: relationships with parents and families, class, gender and cultural patterns and expectations.

The implications for the unpicking of the child/primitive trope are part of something provoking a new crisis of definition in children’s literature and children’s literature criticism and teaching. While children’s literature is predicated on the notion that children are essentially blank or naive and in need of protection and instruction, then issues of suitability or unsuitability are important. But as children become differently constructed in the light of feminist and postcolonial theory, so does children’s literature. Distinctions between them and us no longer become categorising features and suitability recedes as an issue.

The effects of this ideological shift begin to become apparent in criticism and in texts. Critics who work in feminist theory, postcolonial studies and children’s literature all find themselves interested in common grounds: in the dynamics of power, in ideology, in the construction of the subject. And authors produce texts in which child/adult categories are no longer the significant ones. Jane Gardam’s books, for example, appear in Abacus editions that don’t make adult/child distinctions. And Angela Carter’s Virago fairy tales are catalogued in the library not with children’s literature or women’s literature - but as anthropology.

The second wave of feminist theory has profoundly changed what we read and how we read. New texts and reclaimed texts have changed the canon so that more people are included and the ‘dead white male’ is less dominant. There is an increased awareness and valuing of maternal pedagogies and traditions of women’s writing. Tastes have developed for colloquial, domestic voices pitched in higher registers and speaking in other cadences. Even when I came to the end of this essay the first time, I predicted that the second wave of feminist theory was coming to an end. But I didn’t know how many of the innovations that had been put in place would become normalised. I didn’t know that there would be political moves towards more liberal attitudes: that lesbians, gays and people with a range of religious and cultural beliefs might be encouraged, at least nominally, to live openly. The end of feminism has not meant a plunge into the dark ages. It has opened up a kind of criticism that, in its best forms, is informed by the insights of feminist theory - and the joy.



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Further reading

Auerbach, N. and Knoepflmacher, U. C. (1992) Forbidden Journeys: Fairy Tales and Fantasies by Victorian Women Writers, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Barrs, M. and Pidgeon, S. (1993) Reading the Difference: Gender and Reading in Primary School, London: Centre for Language in Primary Education.

John, J. G. (1990) ‘Searching for Great-Great Grandmother: Powerful Women in George MacDonald’s Fantasies’, The Lion and the Unicorn 15, 2: 27-34.

Miller, J. (1990) Seduction: Studies in Reading and Culture, London: Virago.

Nikola-Lisa, W. (1991) ‘The Cult of Peter Rabbit: A Barthesian Analysis’, The Lion and the Unicorn 15, 2: 61-6.

Warner, M. (1994) Managing Monsters: Six Myths of Our Time, The Reith Lectures, London: Vintage.