Tag Archives: gender

Enid Blyton on gender, class, and race

Children’s author Enid Blyton helped shape my gender identity as a “tomboy.” Her Famous Five series included a girl who called herself George, dressed as a boy, and was always delighted to be mistaken as one. In contrast, her cousin Anne liked dolls and dresses and always leaped at the opportunity to keep house. Both characters were sympathetic, but Blyton clearly favored George.

I liked dolls and was offended to be mistaken as a boy, but if I could have chosen, I’d have been George. She ran around getting dirty and she could row a boat all by herself, to the island she owned. She didn’t take nonsense from anybody. She was powerful.

I read every single Famous Five book I could find. The library didn’t carry all of them, but most libraries carried at least a couple. So any time I found myself at a new library, I went straight for the card catalog.

I returned to Blyton in adulthood, once again scouring libraries for her books. The minute I found her books online, I ordered them straight from the U.K. Now I own every single one Famous Five book, and my spouse and I have been reading them to our kids off and on for several years.

I enjoy them as an adult now, and not uncritically. Blyton wrote in the 1940s-1960s in the U.K., and back then people had much different views of race, class, and gender. So I take note of those aspects in her books.

Let’s start with gender. George is powerful, but Anne is disempowered. She’s a scaredy-cat and her love of dolls is “babyish.” She goes along with the group but never initiates anything. Her love of traditional feminine activities is looked down upon. It’s not all bad, of course. Her caution makes her a good spy and often keeps her from getting captured so she can run for help. But on the whole, I absorbed the message that girlishness made you weak.

Next, class. The Five were solidly middle-class. The villains were mostly working class. The Five often hooked up with another child in their adventures, and those children often tended to be working class — often the unwashed masses who were in need of shoes or a pocket handkerchief, but once given them, used them wrong. Sometimes their parents were the villains and they had to be sent to a civilized home after the Five landed their parents in jail.

On the other hand, the working class status of the friends gave them spunk, critical climbing and exploration skills, a range of animal companions, and the freedom to sneak around. So long as they were willing to conform to the middle class standards of the Five, they were accepted as equals.

And finally, race. I saved this one for last because it’s most interesting to me. One of the books featured a mixed-race boy nicknamed “Sooty” because the kids at his school thought his black face looked like soot. My spouse and I had a heck of a time with that one! We were worried that if we read the book as is, our kids might nickname a schoolmate “Sooty” and we’d get called into the principal’s office. Nobody wants to get called into the principal’s office! So we explained to the kids that “Sooty” was rude nowadays and substituted his actual name, Pierre, which was quite tricky to do on the fly. I kept saying “Soo-Pierre.” (We did well enough, by the way, that there weren’t any playground incidents.)

Pierre’s nickname was offensive, but the kid himself was cool. He invented nifty gadgets, he was a star student at school, and he was clever and brave. With Pierre, Blyton subverted a whole bunch of racial stereotypes. Nicely done.

The other people of color that the Five run into are “travellers.” They’re usually called gypsies, which is actually an offensive term, so I’ll use Roma instead. The color of their skin is not important to the narrative and is rarely called out — the books focus on the Roma characters’ class status much more strongly.

One Roma girl, Jo, appears in many adventures. She’s one of the barefoot and dirty people, and also one of the most admired. Most fascinating to me, though, is that in more than one adventure, she is George’s doppleganger. (Check out the excerpt below.)

What does that make George?

I have no answer to that question, so I have to leave it hanging.

As to my conclusions on Enid Blyton’s treatment of gender, class, and race, I have nothing definitive. It’s complicated.

But I will say that I enjoy her books. Give them a try. You might too.

Excerpt

Five Fall into Adventure by Enid Blyton.

‘What’s your name?’

‘Jo,’ said the girl.

‘But that’s a boy’s name,’ said Dick.

‘So’s George. But you said she was a girl,’ said Jo, licking the last bits of ice-cream from her fingers.

‘Yes, but George is short for Georgina,’ said Anne. ‘What’s Jo short for?’

‘Don’t know,’ said Jo. ‘I never heard. All I know is I’m a girl and my name is Jo.’

‘It’s probably short for Josephine,’ said Julian.

. . .

‘It’s really strange,’ said Anne, at last, ‘but Jo is awfully like you, George – same short curly hair – only Jo’s is terribly messy and tangly – same freckles, dozens of them – same turned-up nose . . .’

‘Same way of sticking her chin up in the air, same scowl, same glare!’ said Dick. George put on her fiercest glare at these remarks, which she didn’t like at all.

‘Well, all I can say I hope I haven’t her layers of dirt. . .’

For Further Reading

“Primary school removes Enid Blyton’s Famous Five children’s classics so it could win a race equality award”, Craig McKenzie, The Daily Mail,  December 7 2013.

Blyton, who died in 1968, wrote some 800 books. They have been translated into nearly 90 languages and sold more than 600million copies worldwide.

One of her best-known characters is Noddy, although her greatest output involved adventure books such as The Famous Five and The Secret Seven.

Many contained references that were commonplace at the time but were later deemed racist, sexist or anti-Semitic and subsequently cut or altered.

“Are the Famous Five as racist and sexist as I remember?” by Anna-Marie Crowhurst, Xojane, May 29, 2012.

. . . erm yes, yes they are. They’re still amazing though.

“Jo, the gypsy,” Serge, from the website serge-passions.fr.

Jo is the most recurrent secondary character in the Famous Five series. We see her again in “Five Have A Wonderful Time” and then in “Five Have Plenty of Fun”. Enid Blyton often calls on Travellers (gypsies) in her books. The Galliano Circus series shows us young Carlotta [?], a circus rider, whom we also meet in the “St Clare’s” series. Those characters give the author the opportunity to get us closer to people of a different background, who are often critized, and whose talents and qualitites she underlines.

and

An attaching character, Jo loves her freedom, and refuses any constraints. She loves walking barefoot, singing and dancing in front of the fire. It’s the rebellious, free, primary side of childhood that Enid Byton makes us feel, and we are not insensitive to it.

“I am a man”

“I am a man,” writes Ursula Le Guin in her book the wave in the mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination. She doesn’t mean it literally; instead, she’s making some potent observations on the past and present of Western culture.

She goes on. “Women are a very recent invention. I predate the invention of women by decades.” I love this! She’s telling a tall tale that makes us look at the world with fresh eyes and laugh at it. It’s the sugar that makes bitter truths go down.

“So when I was born,” she continues, there actually were only men. People were men. They all had one pronoun, his pronoun; so that’s who I am.”

She’s not, however, a particularly successful man: “I can’t write my name with pee in the snow, or it would be awfully laborious if I did.”

Le Guin goes on to explain all the other ways she fails at being a man, and then points out that she’s not much good at being young either, and suggests that perhaps she might as well start pretending that she is an old woman. “I am not sure that anybody has invented old women yet; but it might be worth trying.”

Of course she isn’t a man; she is an old woman, and a mighty fine one at that. If I’m ever fortunate enough to become an old woman, and I can pull it off half as well as she does, I’ll be happy. I hope she stays an old woman for a long, long, long time.

But I do resonate with what she says. I’m a man too. A feminist man. I became a feminist boy at the age of ten, when I read Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series and identified so strongly with George, the girl who insisted on being called a boy. George believed that boys were better than girls, and by being a boy, she was better than a girl.

Feminist discourse was right there with me, for quite a while. Women could be as good as men, but only by becoming like them. I didn’t see a separate and worthwhile female identity for a long time — or rather, it’s come into focus only slowly, as I stay home, do housework, and raise kids. I have to keep reminding myself that my work is valuable and important.

(That means it’s time to take an intermission from this blog post and listen to Carole King singing about The Enchanted One.)

Okay, that’s better. Anyhow, I’m gradually coming around to the concept that I might be a woman. Dresses — no. Purses — no. Lipstick and eyeshadow — no. Girls’ night out — you bet! Listening to the Verity Podcast — absolutely! Favoring books by woman — yes! It seems my gender changes as my activities change. Maybe that’s my superpower.

I absolutely loved what Ursula Le Guin had to say about women at the 2010 Winter Fishtrap gathering, themed “Learning From Women.” She was uncomfortable with defining what a “woman” was, and pointed out that women are required to learn how to be men, but the same is not true in reverse. A proposal went out that we might honor the men in the audience by letting them be honorary women. Well, that was mind-blowing!

Okay, now, I’ve managed 548 words without talking about Doctor Who, even though I’m really, REALLY excited about Doctor Who right now. We just saw an episode where a woman, Clara, played a man, the Doctor. She did it flawlessly. Why, she’s as good as a man!  Who knew? (Or you could look at it another way: the role of Doctor turned out to be gender-neutral and to fit a man or a woman equally well.)

So how come, I wonder to myself, how come I didn’t get all excited about seeing a woman Doctor, but instead wrote a blog post all about the man, and what he’s thinking and feeling? That question is right up there with, “Well, I’m a feminist, so why am I taken with this quite patronizing and patriarchal character?” Also, “If the role were to be played by a woman, would I like it as much?”

Another question: when I watch the show who am I identifying with? The female companion or the male Doctor? The answer is both, and that sometimes it’s one more than the other. When I first started watching the Doctor Who, I identified most strongly with the female companion, Zoe. She was about my age, and a good student, and she got to one-up the Doctor intellectually from time to time. I also identified with Liz Shaw, Jo Grant, Sarah Jane, Nyssa, and Ace.

Right now, though, I’m mostly identifying with the Doctor, as played by Peter Capaldi. And I’m doing it whenever he has a difficult choice to make or an ethical question to consider.

Curious.

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