If you have shopped for books for kids and young adults lately—particularly for girls—you may have noticed a theme: a proliferation of books about “badass,” “rebel,” and otherwise extraordinary women. What do they actually teach about history and social change, though?
Joanna Scutts—author of the delightful The Extra Woman, about Depression-era lifestyle icon Marjorie Hillis—has a compelling piece in Slate that delves into this trend, kicked off by the huge success of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls and extending into all manner of anthologies about impressive women, including Chelsea Clinton’s She Persisted.
“All these lavishly illustrated, lively, uplifting, and scrupulously inclusive anthologies collapse enormous gulfs of time, place, experience, culture, and identity, to assemble women as diverse as the Egyptian queen Hatshepsut, Ada Lovelace, and Serena Williams at the same fantasy dinner party,” Scutts writes. God knows it’s important to diversify children’s literature and good for girls to see women protagonists. That having been said, Scutts continues:
But when it comes to helping young people understand their place in history, the shallow kaleidoscope of inspirational biography can’t help but imply that the only women worth remembering are those who stand alone. This narrative obscures the realities of women’s lives, downplays the costs of rebellion, and consigns whole communities to obscurity for lacking the spirit to rebel. This heroic version of history reflects a fundamentally masculine narrative of genius and exceptionalism that is the root cause of women’s underrepresentation in history books in the first place.
The format privileges the successful and the extraordinary, popping them out of their context and any social movements or communities of activism or mutual aid that sustained their work. Telling stories for children also tends to file away rough edges, and there’s also the matter of who gets included, which is rarely the most radical or uncompromising or difficult or just plain controversial characters. One illustrative example: Scutts notes that books generally include Rosa Parks, presented as the almost entirely symbolic figure she’s come to represent without reference to her long history of activism, and only Chelsea Clinton’s collection, She Persisted, includes Claudette Colvin, the pregnant, working-class teenager who also refused to give up her seat on the bus but made a less perfect icon. You’re more likely to hear about Susan B. Anthony than the force-feeding of Alice Paul or the night in 1917 when protesters from the National Woman’s Party were arrested and terrorized by the police.
There’s also something vaguely dispiriting about the popularity of “badass” and “rebel” women distilled down into a version that’s child friendly, as though women’s success and activism and radicalism were only palatable via some Muppet Babies treatment. A girl standing stubbornly with her hands on her hips is endearing; a grown woman screaming is greeted with questions about whether perhaps she’s gone too far.