Where Are the Girls?
When I was in fifth grade my mother read me The Lord of the Rings. For months the highlight of everyday was getting to snuggle into bed and listen to the next chapter. For years my friends and I would get together and reenact the scenes, pretending to be Eowyn or Galadriel. To this day they remain my favorite books, as well as one of my greatest sources of inspiration
I loved Lord of the Rings before I started the first chapter. I knew it was my mom’s favorite book. I knew it was about friendship, fantasy, and adventure, just like all the other books that I loved. I was enthralled from the start. But it didn’t take me long to notice that there was something critically wrong with the story that I loved. Of the nine central characters, absolutely none were girls or women. At eleven years old I was outraged. How could you tell a good story without any girls? What was so great about boys that I needed to read about nine of them? At that point in my life I was still pretty convinced that they had cooties. By the time we were halfway through with The Fellowship of the Ring I had decided that this must be a mistake and that we were going to have to fix it. I began to insist that my mom read one of the characters, Meriadoc Brandybuck, as a girl, and even went as far as to correct her when she didn’t. If you open up my well-loved, taped together, copies of the Lord of the Rings books now you will see every reference to Merry edited to ensure that the character reads as female. I still think of her as a girl.
I didn’t know why exactly this bothered me so much when I was younger. When anyone asked about it I would just say that I didn’t like boys and I thought girls were better. Now, a decade later, I find myself better equipped to explain what continues to be one of my biggest concerns as a reader. I still hate picking up a book, or turning on the TV, and being sucked into a story where women are only of secondary concern. In fact as an adult I’ve become more
demanding. I want queer women. I want mentally ill and disabled women. I want women like me.
When I took a class last year on how to write for children and young adults I heard a nearly identical statement. “Children want stories about people like them.” Everyone wants stories about people like them. This had been obvious to me for a while now, but hearing a professor validate it had me overjoyed.
When we see something of ourselves reflected in a popular character we get to feel more secure in ourselves. When we see something of somebody different from us reflected in a popular character we’re discouraged from seeing those differences as abnormalities. In other words: girls feel good about themselves when they see stories about girls doing amazing things, and when boys doubt that girls can do amazing things pointing at a popular character can help prove them wrong.
This is far from a problem specific to one kind of discrimination, but caring about gender representation as a child is what lead me to feeling so passionately about all kinds of representation now, and nothing else in the world has had a stronger influence on me as a writer. I write stories for children and young adults, that I hope all of them will be able to see themselves in one day.
I already had a foundation interest in the exploration of media through a feminist lens going into The Girlhood Project. During the course I was able to gain a more in depth understanding of a topic that I was already passionate about. Learning about the media’s impact on girls’ perceptions of themself in an academic setting helped to validate feelings that I had that I worried weren’t always taken seriously.