The second year of college we had literary criticism. Here is where you take a poem or a story or any piece of literary material written at least 50 years ago and then try to analyze why the author wrote what he/she did. We try to attribute reasons to the name of the character, the gesture and more.
Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” has been permanently etched in my mind through these discussions.
Long before that though, someone gifted me a book (whose name eludes me right now) that had modern fairytales with strong women and critical analyses of some old fairytales, like Little Red Riding Hood.
When I read that story as a kid, I never questioned the male and female roles in it. I never felt offended as a girl because the girl got swallowed by a wolf. I read Cindrella and Snow White and enjoyed it and never thought of it as being demeaning to women. I still do not.
Perhaps our cultural roles are defined as children. But how far should we take the analyses of such fairy tales?
There was a lesson in one of my text books in third grade. It read “Kamala helped her mom in the kitchen. Raju helped his dad in the garden.” That was probably more defining of gender roles and had a subconscious effect, if any. Because these roles were enforced by the teachers teaching them. They used this as a prelude to a lecture about how girls and boys were supposed to behave.
But reading Cindrella, or its Indian equivalent of Suryakanthi, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood or any of these classics had no role in defining gender roles for me.
A book I was reading today said Enid Blyton was racist. Because his books do not talk about brown or black people. They are all about blond and blue-eyed children and their adventure.
When I read The Famous Five, I wasn’t thinking about White or Black. I was thinking ‘o I wish I could have a similar club and be a detective’. The concept of discrimination comes from adults. Blyton’s books were written in the 19th century when immigration and intermingling was not as widely spread as today. She wrote about people around her. It becomes racist only if we make it so.
And if you can make anything racist that way… take Harry Potter for instance. The Indian characters there are shown as gaudy and frivolous with their pink fluffy gowns and ribbons. Should I be offended because of that? Should I be offended that a brown man is shown as a joker in most movies? Or when a Hollywood movie says the world will be destroyed, they usually show only New York or sometimes, Chicago?
Literature does have a role in shaping ideas. But how much does children’s literature shape one’s gender roles? Do children really think about it or do we plant these ideas into their heads as adults? Do we plant these ideas in children by quoting these fictional characters as examples for some thing? And did you believe that Prince Charming existed by reading Cindrella or by reading Mills&Boons novels?
Why can’t we let children’s books be just that?