Childhood feminist heroes: are there any?

The hashtag, #childhoodfeministheroes filled my Twitter feed last night and got me thinking a bit about the subject. I have plenty of feminist heroes and role models now, i.e. now I have an understanding of the subject areas of feminism I enjoy reading about (Gioconda Belli and Scarlett Thomas jump to mind, though both for very different reasons), but I struggled to come up with a genuine feminist role model from my childhood.

Plenty of people using the hashtag listed their mums and older sisters or other female relatives, while others listed fictional characters they remember reading or watching at a young age.

While my parents introduced me to several iconic book, film and television characters as a child, I definitely did not come from a household which incorporates large political messages into its choice of childhood entertainment. Once I reached an age of selecting my own books with no suggestions from others during my almost nightly visits to the library after school, I did what I realise now was something every child must experience, and picked the books most likely to reflect my own life or those which discussed ways to fit in at school through their main characters.

The book series, Sweet Valley Twins is a prominent thought here. The two main characters, Jessica and Elizabeth were depicted as total opposites in terms of lifestyle choice. Jessica, the undoubtedly ‘cool’ one, was heavily into her appearance, fashion and choosing friends from the most popular group of girls in the school, she centred her choices around what would make her most attractive to boys (despite being around 12) and never went anywhere without her lip gloss. She was the girl you wanted to be. Elizabeth on the other hand, was the grounded twin, the equally pretty but down to earth half of the duo. She didn’t much care for fashion but kept her love of books and life-long friends close to heart. She wanted to do well at school and usually ended up doing her sister’s homework for her. Elizabeth was a lovely character, but easily depicted as someone girls should not aspire to be like. She was the one who ran to the parents and confided in them about the party that had gone wrong and as a result, got the popular girls in trouble for her efforts of safety. The Sweet Valley books clearly sent a message of ‘be the best you can be, so long as ‘best’ means popular, pretty and surrounded by coolness’.

Was I just reading the wrong material? As much as I adored Francine Pascal’s work (and I’d probably still admit her writing was fabulous), her idea of providing children with suitable role models wasn’t all that.

Jessica Wakefield: not a feminist icon

Strong female role models are definitely present in children’s culture, but I think it’s fair to say they are hard to find. I’m not an expert on modern children’s television or literature so I won’t comment on how things have changed in the last 20 years or so, but what I have noticed is that the older an audience gets, the more prominent feminism is as a topic.

Teenage culture is packed full of role models, in fact, it seems most cultural productions surround the subject, and feminism makes a real appearance here. It would seem criminal not to mention Buffy the Vampire Slayer, both for my love of the show and the fact the main character, Buffy, seems to be the first real feminist icon a lot of people come across in life. But Buffy was aimed at a late teenage audience, and the question that begs to be asked is, why leave inspirational feminism so late?

With the continued rise of political correctness in children’s culture, a natural surge in powerful female imagery isn’t an unlikely move to keep in line with the theme of equal representation. What would be interesting to know, however, is what culture of this sort will be like even further into the future, assuming a rise in feminism to be correct. Would it be unthinkable for boys in a hundred years time not to assume their gender would be represented as the stronger of the two in television programmes and books? Will it seem perfectly normal for the character who saves the day to be a girl as often as it is a boy, with no assumption of either sex being preferable for the role?

A move towards this would certainly be welcome, but until then, let’s carry on introducing Buffy Summers to people for generations to come.

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