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Boy-woman pairings in stories: PC weighs them up

July 19, 2013

Unfeasibly tiny boy, unfeasibly massive woman: one way of negating sinister sexual connotations. Tom Thumb: frontispiece to 'English Fairy Tales', 1621

Unfeasibly tiny boy, unfeasibly massive woman: one way of negating sinister sexual connotations. Tom Thumb: frontispiece to ‘English Fairy Tales’, 1621


This week, I’m wondering why there are so few amicable, equitable, platonic relationships between one boy, one woman in stories – specifically children’s stories, for children aged 7 and up. The topic interests me not only because of my enduring yearning for a boy child, at the advanced age of 58 (a yearning you all know about by now), but because it saddens me that such friendships (and the equivalents between men and girl children) are so often, in popular culture these days, tainted with the fear of paedophilia. I’m looking at stories for children because cultural attitudes to the harmlessness, even positivity, of such relationships – or, sadly, otherwise – start in readers very young.

(By the way, I’m not interested here in the semi-sexual, or even blatantly sexualised, relationships between boys/young men and women: they belong to another, racier genre.)

Of course, in children’s literature there are mother-son relationships (although shockingly few are centre-staged by their authors). Then, several notable boy characters are teamed up with mother stand-ins: adoptive mothers, aunts, honorary aunt characters. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is adopted by the Widow Douglas, who sends him to school as the reward for saving her life; in his Adventures, she attempts to ‘sivilize’ [sic] him, much to his dismay, and despite his gratitude for the new wealth she has brought him. One of the main protagonists of the second Camp Half-Blood Series, The Heroes of Olympus, by Rick Riordan, is Jason Grace. Jason’s parents are the Roman god Jupiter and a mortal woman, but he’s separated from his female family – mother and sister – and initiated into the ways of Rome by the wolf goddess Lupa in the Wolf House (Lupa chimes, for me, with my earlier post on the term ‘cougar’ for a certain type of woman – q.v.!). In other words, Lupa is his surrogate mother-cum-mentor. It interests me that in the BBC adaptation of Oliver Twist in 2007, it was decided to enhance the relationship between the Artful Dodger and Nancy: he’s jealous of not being Nancy’s favourite when she’s nursing Oliver, and is distraught when she’s brutally killed: the pull of this trope of surrogate mother runs deep. Then of course there’s Wendy of Peter Pan, a girl child turning into a mother figure for Peter and the Lost Boys. (But I’ll come back to her later.)

Sometimes the mother figure ‘turns': poor Matt Freeman, from Evil Star of the Power of Five Series by Anthony Horowitz, is brutally attacked by his aunt Gwenda Davis, who has seemingly gone mental, and blows up a petrol tanker in an effort to kill him. Is it a coincidence, I wonder, that the writers of all these pairings, boy with a mother substitute, are male? The Oedipus complex at work? Hmmm. In fact often, lurking just behind the benign protectress, I get a sense of some demonic alter ego who may easily break out – as with Gwenda Davis. Maybe this stems from male writers’ primeval fears of gender competition, of unwanted female dominance, if not of female paedophilia itself. Of course, the archetype of the evil female witch – often, though not always, portrayed as old, ugly and hooded, half-concealed – is a potent shadow, overhanging all literature.

Commonly, the woman partnered with a boy in children’s literature is some kind of mentor or teacher. (This makes her ‘safe’, or at least less sexually threatening, of course.) Bean – Julian Delphiki II – is a major character in the Ender’s Game Series of sci fi novels by Orson Scott Card. In Ender’s Shadow, he’s saved from a harsh life on the streets of Rotterdam by an unconventional nun called Sister Carlotta, who recognises his intelligence and trains him at Battle School, and also researches and discovers his true parentage. John Bellairs, author of a series of Gothic horror stories about a thirteen-year-old called Anthony Monday, has the hero befriended by an elderly woman librarian, Miss Eells, who helps him when he gets into trouble, drives him and his brother around and sometimes triggers the action. With both these women, old age and eccentricity seem intended by their creators to neutralise any sense of sexual ‘danger’ in their woman-boy pairings. Although not strictly a children’s book, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time again features a woman mentor. Siobhan is Christopher’s counsellor at school, and, as he has Asperger’s, plays an important role in the story, teaching him how society works and how to behave with other people. Then of course there are wizard guides. Angie Sage’s Septimus Heap has one: Marcia Overstrand, powerful, ambitious and wilful, stern, bad-tempered and intimidating, but with a good heart beneath. She protects the boy Septimus and his sister, even with her own life. And let’s not forget that there are several in Harry Potter: Professor McGonagall, for one.

I detect a pattern here, though: if the boy is the protagonist (which, of course in these examples, being children’s literature, he is), then the woman must be neutered in some way, her sexuality concealed, kept from seeming threatening. And more generally, the limits to her ‘character power’ in any shape or form, in her partnership with the boy hero, must be felt. Age, eccentricity, a nun’s vows, the boundaries of behaviour that mustn’t be crossed by a teacher: some or all of these are used to weigh each woman character lighter in the ‘power balance’ than her boy partner – or at least, to keep her in some way ‘separate’.

Back to Wendy in Peter Pan. At the beginning of the story, Wendy, the same height as Peter, expresses the ambition of avoiding growing up, an aim that Peter offers to fulfil for her when he takes her to Neverland; in other words, they seem to start the book both as children, and in that sense ‘character equals’, symmetrical. But during her stay in Neverland, Peter and the Lost Boys ask her to be their ‘mother’, and she starts to conform to that stereotype, performing domestic chores. There’s even a bit of flirting with Peter; and in Barrie’s original script, Wendy actually asks Peter to talk to her parents about a ‘very sweet subject’, implying marriage. The partnership has become an uneasy hybrid of childhood ‘equality’ and child-adult imbalance. As if he’d become uneasy about the sexual undertones of a relationship between a boy and a girl-now-woman, Barrie subsequently wrote An Afterthought, in which Wendy has grown up, married and had a daughter. She’s become a woman more distantly relating to a boy, a scenario that children’s literature seems more ‘comfortable’ with.

I’ve saved Tom Thumb till last. His tales started out for adults in the seventeenth century, and only gradually got appropriated for children; so their attitudes reflect cultural attitudes from ancient to modern times, young to old readers. These stories present repeated incidents that balance the scales of ‘character power’ between woman and boy. Tom is a tiny boy, rarely described as a man; his tininess is not only his main characteristic, but the cause of many of his follies and plights. In certain versions of the tales, he is also a warrior and conqueror of giants; in others, a fool and a simpleton; in many, if not most, he is also the object of desire for women of giant stature. In the 1621 tale, he dances in the palm of a maid of honour; in Henry Fielding’s tragedy, the Princess Huncamunca, the giantess Glumdalca and Queen Dollalolla all argue over Tom’s favours. He’s also, in this version and others, swallowed by a cow (who is of course another kind of large female). Yet the humour of the tales creates an interesting ‘character status stand-off’ between the sexes: by sheer force of personality, despite his size Tom looms large; due to their enormity, the women he encounters are merely funny and endearing, not a sexual threat to him at all (if he is married off to one of these giants, we can all see that sexual congress is a physical impossibility). So between any female character and Tom, there’s a power stalemate.

I’d love to see a story – for children, or for adults – that created more of a ‘character status symmetry’, not simply a stalemate, between a boy and a woman: a true example of equality, sharing and friendship. If you have any good examples, please let me know!

This post is dedicated to Mother Goose, the matriarch of all stories.

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