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Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Pippi Longstocking: a Character that Transcends Gender

One of the clearest indications that a children's literature character is well-developed and "good" is that the character makes children want to "play" being him or her. That the child reader wishes to take the character from their reading experience to an active play experience. "Shall we play X?"

I have always known that Pippi Longstocking is a fantastic character, but yesterday my son made me see that Pippi is so much more than just a well crafted character. She manages to transcend even gender barriers, making a boy who is just at the age where he is defining his gender identity and who has for some time now rejected the very idea of playing a female character, stop on the way to school on a cold and frosty winter morning and suggest: "Mummy, shall we play Pippi? I'll be Pippi and you can be Mr. Nilsson!" And so we played Pippi all the way to school, for the entire half hour it takes us to walk there every morning. I was instructed to play different roles every now and then. I was sometimes Mr. Nilsson, sometimes Tommy and sometimes Annika, but my son insisted on being Pippi from start to finish. 

When a character is so good, so interesting and so complex, gender becomes as secondary as hair colour. 

This came a day after my philosophy session with four year olds [in Spanish] where we spoke about wishes. We all talked about our greatest wishes. Almost without exception (there was one or two), every single girl in the group (16 of them) wanted to become a fairy or a princess and every single boy in the group wanted to be given a Lightning McQueen car as a present. (I quickly scheduled in an urgent session on gender identity!)   

And I suddenly thought of what I want for Christmas:

Children's literature publishers: please, please, please refrain from actively or passively contributing to the horrendous "genderisation" of childhood and look out for well crafted, interesting, complex characters beyond their gender instead. There is no excuse. Genderising literature should be a punishable offence. 

To children's bookshops: please, please, please do not even think of classifying books by gender, with the excuse that it's "what the market wants". There is no excuse for it either and it should also be a punishable offence. 

Parents: please take a closer look at the false claim that girls are genetically determined to like pink and make-up and boys are genetically determined to like cars, speed and competing. Give them a chance to focus on who they really are and who they'd really like to become. Give them plenty of chances to read about characters of their gender and the opposite gender behaving in non-stereotyped ways. Plenty of chances, lots of them, because you'll need them to counteract the bombarding of stereotypes they are subjected to every single day. 

In brief, all I want for Christmas is: 

A literature with interesting characters, beyond gender stereotypes (well, seeing as I'm asking, I might as well say beyond stereotypes full stop). 

A world of interesting people, with interesting personalities, above and beyond their gender.

That's what I want for Christmas, but I'm likely to get a big wet raspberry instead, I know. 

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