During lunch yesterday, my husband and I happened to get on the subject of female protagonists in literature. He had recently listened to a repeat of a Fresh Air interview with Meryl Streep. She spoke of how, growing up, she identified more with male protagonists than female ones because she hadn’t read books with strong female protagonists other than Nancy Drew.
This intrigued me, so I looked up the interview online. Here are her remarks in context:
GROSS: So I want to quote something else you said, and this was in the Barnard speech that you gave in 2010, that “The hardest thing in the world is to persuade a straight male audience to identify with a woman character. It’s easier for women because we were brought up identifying with male characters in literature. It’s hard for straight boys to identify with Juliet or Wendy in “Peter Pan,” whereas girls identify with Romeo and with Peter Pan.” What led you to that conclusion?
STREEP: Well, it seems like true.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: I will accept that as evidence.
STREEP: All right. All right. What led me to that? What led me to that was I have never – I mean I watch movies and I don’t care who is the protagonist, I feel what that guy is feeling. You know, if it’s Tom Cruise leaping over a building I, I want to make it, you know? And I’m going to, yes, I made it. And yeah, so I get that.
And I’ve grown up, well, partly because there weren’t great girls’ literature. Nancy Drew maybe. But there weren’t things. So there was Huck Finn and Spin and Marty. The boys’ characters were interesting and you lived through them when you’re watching it. You know, you’re not aware of it but you’re following the action of the film through the body of the protagonist.
This is pretty loaded stuff. Girls identify with boy protagonists because they are the action characters, particularly in the literature available when she grew up.
First, I have to say that as a girl, I never identified with Juliet, Romeo Wendy or Peter Pan. My favorite Shakespeare heroine was (and is) Beatrice from “Much Ado About Nothing.” As for Peter Pan, never read the book, but my favorite character in the play and the Disney movie was Tinker Bell. I can’t tell another person who they identified with, but did Ms. Streep really identify with Darcy rather than Lizzie when reading and/or watching “Pride and Prejudice”?
I wondered when Meryl Streep was born, so I Googled her and found her birthday, June 22, 1949. This means Ms. Streep had her formative reading years in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Were there really no books available at that time with strong girl protagonists aside from Nancy Drew? The answer is there were a number of book in print, probably available at the local library. These include:
- “Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’Dell
- “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith
- “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott
- “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle
- “The Secret Garden” and “A Little Princess” by Frances Hodgson Burnett
- “Anne of Green Gables” by Lucy Maud Montgomery
- “Beezus and Ramona” by Beverly Cleary
I don’t fault Ms. Streep if she didn’t read these books. It’s possible she was unaware of them. This points to our responsibility as adults. If we want to grow girls into strong, independent, adventurous women, then we need to provide role models, both real life and fictional characters. Books with these characters have been and continue to be written. We need to help the girls in our lives become aware of female heroes and provide them with the books of their stories and lives. If we want boys to see girls and women as heroic and protagonist-worthy, we need to provide them with these books as well.
Looking for children and young adult books with strong female protagonists? Check out this WordPress blog, Amelia Bloomer Project. From their About page:
Welcome to the Amelia Bloomer Project blog! We create an annual booklist of the best feminist books for young readers, ages birth through 18. We are part of the Feminist Task Force of the Social Responsibilities Round Table of the American Library Association!
The chosen books by year are listed here.
You can also check out this Goodreads list: Popular Strong Girl Characters Books.
The following books mentioned above are now in the public domain and can be downloaded for free. You can find them in a variety of formats on Manybooks.net
“Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott
This popular novel concerns the lives and loves of four sisters growing up during the American Civil War, and was based on Alcott’s own experiences as a child in Concord, Massachusetts.
“Anne of Green Gables” by Lucy Maud Montgomery
A skinny, red-haired, and freckled orphan girl is mistakenly sent to live with a shy, elderly bachelor and his spinster sister on the north shore of Canada’s Prince Edward Island; The elderly siblings had asked to adopt a young boy who could work on the family farm, but the imaginitive and rambunctious Anne Shirley arrives instead, and becomes the center of a series of entertaining adventures.
“The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett
When spoiled child Mary Lennox loses her family to a cholera outbreak, she moves to her uncle’s manor surrounded by a massive garden. Within, Mary discovers a whole new outlook on life thanks to a supportive household and the garden’s power of healing. (Description from Amazon.com)
“A Little Princess” by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Sara Crewe, a pupil at Miss Minchin’s London school, is left in poverty when her father dies, but is later rescued by a mysterious benefactor.