Good Girl Messages: How Young Women Were Misled By Their Favorite Books, by Deborah O’Keefe
It is difficult to determine how many of the hypocrisies and contradictions in this book are intentional, based on the author’s avowed aim of feminist literary criticism of a wide variety of self-selected children’s novels, and how much is accidental and has not crossed the mind of the author. Nevertheless, it is the job of a fair-minded but critical reviewer to subject a book like this to careful scrutiny, not least because it makes claims of being insightful and providing wisdom when it does not live up to these claims, or many more modest ones besides. The ironies of this book are legion–the author seeks to critique the self-flagellating nature of feminine heroines in old-fashioned literature only to find herself engaging in self-flagellation over her own fondness for many of the worst and blandest books herself when better options were available. She criticizes the writing of C.S. Lewis and others who seek to judge and evaluate female (and male) characters by societal standards and the desire for the preservation of social harmony and moral excellence, but she merely inverts the process by subjecting books and characters and authors to her own self-appointed standards and her own personal biases and perspective, which is a good deal less wise than the view she criticizes. She bemoans the large role that social harmony and etiquette for girls and women has for girls’ fiction but then bemoans the problems of contemporary society, not realizing that the failure of women to properly appease men has increased the danger for women in contemporary society, and that women are asymmetrically subjected to many dangers that men are not in general subjected to, which makes their concern and plight more serious, and more requiring of both virtue and the ability to charm and persuade others, to exercise skill in soft power.
In terms of the book’s contents, it reads almost like a parody of books of deportment, with chapter titles like: Horizontal Heroines, Fluttery Girls, Bloody-Minded Boys: Where Girls Fit In, What girls Could Do, Without Losing Their Girlishness, Girls With Grownups: Loving Authority, Melting Hostility, Girls And Their Friends: Civilized By The Group, Girls And Boys–Conservative Romance, and Today’s Terrific New Girl Heroes. The book as a whole takes about 200 pages for the author to criticize a lot of books that few readers are likely to have ever heard from and to comment occasionally on some books that are still read even today, like A Little Princess, Lewis’ Narnia Novels, and Anne of Green Gables, among other series . The author spends a lot of the pages of this book whining about and bemoaning the nature of children’s literature and its messages, especially (but not only) in the 1950’s and earlier, but tacitly acknowledges the fact that she herself was largely to blame, since there were better books available even then that she simply was not interested in, a fact for which she bears responsibility. Both her censure and praise are largely irrelevant, as her personal standards lack any tie or regard for larger moral or societal matters, except to reflect her own change in personal preference between her youth and today.
What fills this book is a sense of resentment at society, at the threat of social displeasure over the violation of gender norms, at those who write books seeking to encourage social harmony and avoid disruptions, and at the practical encouragement given to women to use their own emotional maturity and skills at dissembling to manipulate men. Yet the author’s desire for the well-being of women is in direct conflict with the author’s hostility to the skills and focus on decency and morality that are necessary to preserve that well-being. Likewise, the author’s intense hostility to self-sacrifice undercuts the possibility for there being anything but dishonest and hostile relationships between and among men and women. The need to communicate boundaries and tun aside wrath and hostility did not suddenly vanish when culture engaged in the regress that the author is so fond of celebrating, and we live today with the consequences of both that regress and with the failure to recognize it for what it is, and to engage in the appropriate measures of repentance and restoration to recover as much as possible what has been lost without abandoning those few good things that have been gained.
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