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Marissa Lingen

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Needlework [Jul. 7th, 2013|09:38 pm]
Marissa Lingen

Oh, people. People, people, people, I am so tired of dislike of needlework being used as a stand-in for making a young female character actually interesting. I see this mostly in middle-grade fantasies, mostly. Not so much in YA, although I don’t know if that’s because I’m not seeing as much secondary world YA as I’d like. It sometimes goes with not being boyyyyyy crazy. Because girls who are interested in boys are stupid and hate everything that is fun and good and probably will grow boobs early and never ever ever have adventures. (Also girls who are interested in girls are invisible and don’t exist. So basically if you have proto-romantic feelings before age 18 or preferably 21, you stink. Thanks, MG tropes!)

Several things about the needlework thing annoy me, though. One of them is that it’s the cheap shot among “women’s work” stuff. It’s the one that middle-grade readers of the present are by and large not being asked to do, or at least not insistently/universally. Some girls are crafters as a hobby, but very few of them would self-define as doing “needlework.” So it’s a lot safer for an author aiming at a tomboy everygirl, because, hello, third wave! Tomboy everygirls can love making cookies or soup or whatever. And nobody* really says, “I adore cleaning. I live for cleaning. Cleaning is so awesome.” You can have your character announce that she hates scrubbing the floor, but nobody thinks that makes her amazing, they just think it makes her normal.

The other thing that ties in with this is: needlework used to be a lot like cleaning, in that it used to be necessary for continued health. Sure, you can choose whether you want your home spotless or a little messy, but you do in fact need to wash your dishes, one way or the other. That’s a health issue. And before industrial textiles, you had to do a million textile-related chores in order to keep your family healthily clothed. Mending. Taking things in and letting them out and altering them for younger/smaller family members. Even tapestry, while it is an art form and was used for self-expression, was also used to keep the walls of those stone castles and houses from turning the wenches into wenchcicles. Even in post-industrial textile societies, you will see a very realistic concern for what torn clothing and clever needlework can mean if you read the books of Noel Streatfeild, where the cost of a dress to put a family member in a good position to gain economic advantage is really non-trivial. I would love to see a parent or sibling in a fantasy novel react to a character’s stated hatred of needlework in one of these contexts–basically someone treating it as the protag saying, “I want you to buy me a better cell phone and data plan and all the other bells and whistles I want,” or else, “I hate cleaning the toilet,” rather than, “I am so interesting and independent!” I don’t expect that soon, though. It’s pretty embedded.

So where does all this come from? Two places: resentment of early twentieth century middle-class Anglo/American enforced femininity, and the Victorians. A lot, a lot of the women who pioneered the fantasy genres–especially children’s fantasy–chafed at the roles they were slotted into in the rest of their lives. And the “needlework as a useless pastime for enforcing female idleness” is straight out of Victorian life, where manufacturing endless unwanted decorations for the parlor and the jumble sale was, in fact, some women’s lot. But the Victorians were substantially along the line of progress of industrial textiles; a vicar’s daughter who spun flax would be distinctly odd, because that sort of thing was done in factories by then. Taking those frustrations and plunking them down wholesale in medieval-inspired cultures is understandable for those who lived them and witnessed them firsthand–Edith Nesbit, if ever you do that, I forgive you. (But notice that Nesbit has an unusual regard for the consequences of the children’s rash behavior on servants and the family budget. This was not much replicated by her imitators.) For those of us for whom they are historical study, it’s just plain laziness.

More than that, it’s attempting to make traits and interests exclusive that frankly aren’t. My friend V., for example, crocheted me a hyperbolic plane. She is interested in fiber arts and in math. She didn’t have to choose Boy Stuff or Girl Stuff–she can like some gendered activities and a great many activities like fiber arts and math that are not essentially gendered. And we lose a great deal when we accept shorthands for characterization too easily, too readily. “She’s a tomboy, not a girly girl.” “He’s a brain, not a jock.” We make our own cultural pitfalls in creating supposed opposites that aren’t really opposed more universal than we mean to when we import them whole cloth into secondary worlds.

Honestly, though, it’s just boring. It’s a trigger for me to say, “Another one of those, author getting lazy,” and put the book down. Find something else to express your character’s adventurous soul. Or don’t make them have a standard-issue Adventurous Soul TM in the first place. Whichever.

*Almost certainly somebody says this, because, well, people. They vary. And almost certainly there are loads of women who hate “needlework.” I am not a seamstress or a crafter myself. My complaint here is not that girls who fit these traits are unrealistic or do not exist, it’s that the traits are being overused and used cheaply.

Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux


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[User Picture]From: sartorias
2013-07-08 02:47 am (UTC)
Yes and amen.
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[User Picture]From: txanne
2013-07-08 02:48 am (UTC)

You may have noticed that I've taken up the drop spindle. In six weeks of obsession, I've not yet made enough yarn for a child's sweater. Spinning finely and consistently enough for actual clothing is something that takes a lifetime of practice, by which I mean modern Andean production spinners start when they're about 3. Girls who don't spin aren't special, they're just selfish.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-07-08 02:52 am (UTC)
And I mean--you could have a girl character who said, "Why can't $brother or $malecousin and I switch chores?" But "I would rather muck out stalls than spin" is a) very different and b) does assume that spinning, like all "girl work," takes no skill and can be substituted in at will. And I call bullshit.
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[User Picture]From: fidelioscabinet
2013-07-08 03:27 am (UTC)
Excuse me while I strike a match and burn some incense in your general direction.

Also, that 'fancy' needlework? It was a treat for when you'd done your share of the mending, plain sewing, and so on that HAD to be done. It was a chance to be creative and inventive and do something besides darn socks and patch things and hem sheets. </p>


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[User Picture]From: oursin
2013-07-08 07:49 am (UTC)
There's that scene in Little Women in which the March sisters deal with the boredom of hemming sheets by calling each edge the name of a different continent and using that as an educational opportunity. Also, but I can't remember where I read this (one of Charlotte Yonge's perhaps) having one member of the family reading while the others do their plain-sewing, but switching that round. (Though I wonder how poor myopic Ethel May managed sewing...)

According to the Journal of Saw It Somewhere Studies, girls' samplers were about demonstrating their mistressy of a range of types of stitching that were used for various kinds of mending and patching and making clothes, not just pretty embroidery display.
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[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2013-07-08 03:34 am (UTC)
A couple of general responses/points:

At a base level, this sort of characterization is, as you say, lazy. It's just as cheap as showing that someone is a villain by having them kick puppies, or making it extra-special clear that a kid is young and innocent and that her imminent sacrifice is a moment of pathos by having her ask for her teddy bear.

(There are times when I feel like the 4th Street mantra of "...if you do it well enough" might benefit from being "...if you don't cheat/aren't cheap." But I digress...)

On a more concrete level, authors often engage in this sort of characterization without thinking through ramifications. How important is it that, say, Arya and Sansa Stark be competent at embroidery? There's often a drive to depict all sewing and handicrafts competence as irrelevant frippery, regardless of the surrounding technologies of cloth production. It's yet another way in which the fantasy genre is unmoored from economics and more reflective of the '50s or the Victorian era than the age of chivalry. (As well as an indication that many authors don't care about cloth production.)

Finally, there are a ton of historical "girl things" that get elided in the focus on needlework and handicrafts. Household economics and accounting, for example, was "girl stuff" for ages-- as you noted elsewhere, men were expected to be philosophical in Louisa May Alcott's books, not to know arithmetic or be able to gauge how many candles were needed for the winter. So there are lots of other options available, but because they aren't cliches, they don't have as much generic weight/cultural charge. Bleah.

Edited at 2013-07-08 03:36 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-07-08 12:22 pm (UTC)
I don't propose "I hate sums/household accounts" as the new "I hate needlework" spurning of girliness, though, because it won't read that way to a modern audience. It might well work to have a scorned elder sister good at girl stuff like math and sums, ugh, but I think that would possibly work best in a boy character--and also work best if the math and sums turn out to be useful.
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[User Picture]From: wshaffer
2013-07-08 04:11 am (UTC)
And, speaking as someone who has done a bit of simple hand sewing recently, I can say that as domestic drudgery goes, it's pretty pleasant. You get to sit comfortably, and you can converse with people sitting near you, or listen to someone playing music or reading aloud. Your fingers may get sore if you spend a lot of time pushing the needle through heavy fabric, and you might jab yourself with pins and needles if you're a bit clumsy, but if you compare it to the physical discomforts of doing the laundry or scrubbing the floors in a pre-industrial setting, it's a treat.

Of course, the girls in these books very seldom seem to be asked to do the laundry or scrub floors, or even cook dinner. Because, as you point out, the needlework in these books is not actually a meaningful part of the domestic economy, it's an easily spurned symbol of girlyness.
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From: diatryma
2013-07-08 12:12 pm (UTC)
Needlework in books is treated like practicing violin: you have to do it alone and you can't do anything else at the same time. Which makes no sense. "I hate needlework! I want to be the kind of princess who stabs things!" "Darling, you have to do it or you won't be able to spend time in the solar with all the ladies of the court. If you don't keep up on the gossip, how will you know who to stab?"

Plus, it's not something you practice, it's something you do. I'd love to see more intermediate needlework in books or at least a bit of learning curve.
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[User Picture]From: txanne
2013-07-08 12:43 pm (UTC)
You'd be the person telling stories to keep the rest of us entertained.
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[User Picture]From: adrian_turtle
2013-07-08 12:34 pm (UTC)
"The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate" is not SF, it's MG/YA historical fiction about science. But it starts with a tween girl in 1899 who hates most of the women's work her mother wants her to learn, and the author seems to be looking at her with sympathy but not applause.
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[User Picture]From: carbonel
2013-07-08 03:02 pm (UTC)
Then there's Sandry in Tamora Pierce's Circle of Magic books. She wanted to learn to weave, but that was considered lower-class, so she was gently led (i.e., forced) to do more appropriate tasks, like decorative needlework.
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[User Picture]From: timprov
2013-07-08 05:14 pm (UTC)
Perhaps someone should write a story where a girl who hates needlework invents modern manufacturing.
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[User Picture]From: chinders
2013-07-08 08:02 pm (UTC)
Here's my thing: I think that a lot of the cultural baggage around this is the assumption that gendered activities broke down along active/inactive lines, which is flatly untrue for most time periods. You could make a more compelling argument for breaking down around house/not-house lines, but even that is pretty fuzzy.

But also, I am kind of tired of GIRLS WHO HATE GIRL THINGS. It was really exciting when I was about 10, and now it is not exciting any more. Now I am asking myself, 'can we not do something more intellectually challenging than hating on femininity?' Surely we can. Possibly we can even do it while having something interesting to say about femininity and its various cultural baggage!

Hell, are we really still playing with the standard "I AM CHANGING MY FATE" trope? Can't you have an interesting story without becoming and adventurer/princess/whatever? Hey, even Pixar managed to kind of subvert that trope. Sometimes the interesting stories happen at home, folks.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-07-08 08:29 pm (UTC)
And yeah, "I AM CHANGING MY FATE" had better come with some really interesting changes or some really interesting fate, or else I'm kind of over it.
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[User Picture]From: chinders
2013-07-08 08:08 pm (UTC)
Also; I feel that your opening line about how to make a female character 'actually interesting' is telling here. There has been an assumption that girls are so, so boring. Girls must set themselves aside, must Not Be Like Other Girls, in order to be interesting.

On behalf of the other girls, screw that.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-07-08 08:28 pm (UTC)
I sometimes get sad about the real life version of this, wherein people (of various genders) feel that they must Make Themselves Interesting, and if they are "only" doing [insert thing they take for granted here], then they are Not Making Themselves Interesting Enough.

You can skydive and be boring, or you can converse about random stuff and be interesting. Or the reverse.
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[User Picture]From: seajules
2013-07-08 09:18 pm (UTC)
I suspect this is also becoming more and more of an outmoded thing, because MG-age kids mostly don't have the context as to why 'needlework' would ever be a terrible thing. All the crafters of my acquaintance share my experience that when you do fiber arts in public, you'll draw an interested crowd of most of the kids in the vicinity, boys and girls. If you offer to let one of them try a bit of what you're doing, you're likely to start a riot, because they'll all want to give it a go.

Even as a kid myself, the part of the 'needlework' cliche that I could relate to was a heroine who didn't want to be stuck inside on a nice day, in a stuffy room where she was either alone or surrounded by older women who insisted on strict silence (or gossiped, unrealistically, only about things that wouldn't interest a tomboy: no horses or dogs or battles or hunts, and no folk stories or songs). My mother, both grandmothers, most of my aunts, and most of my mother's friends knew how to knit, crochet, sew, embroider, cross stitch, quilt, and even tat. Mom started teaching me these things when I was very young, both because I wanted to learn and because it seemed likely that I would remain in an economic bracket where such skills could be useful for actually clothing myself and others and keeping a comfortable house. I got to participate in actual fiber arts circles, which were often outside when the weather was good, involved other girls my age, and featured a lot of stories, jokes, singing, and sanitized gossip about wide-ranging topics, some of which were of interest to the kids in the group.
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[User Picture]From: rosefox
2013-07-09 06:07 am (UTC)
About 15 years ago, I lived in half of a two-family house. My upstairs neighbors were a woman and her young son, and one day the boy wandered down to my place out of some mix of curiosity and boredom. Having very little idea of what might interest a kid his age, I showed him books and crafts. His eyes got SO BIG when he saw my very basic wooden loom on which I was attempting to weave a scarf. I let him weave a few rows, and for weeks after he would stop me whenever he saw me and say shyly, "Can I come over to your place and loom?"

I love knitting on the subway too because kids stare and stare. They look away when I look up and smile at them (oh, New York kids, trained from birth not to make eye contact) but it clearly fascinates them.
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[User Picture]From: nineveh_uk
2013-07-08 09:26 pm (UTC)
It’s the one that middle-grade readers of the present are by and large not being asked to do, or at least not insistently/universally.

I'm sure you've got something here. I did compulsary needlework at school aged 10 - 12, in the rotating slot with cookery and woodwork, and they were all about as popular as each other with boys and girls, i.e. very, on account of being practical and creative and you could talk at the same time and you got to make something cool. Fantasy "needlework" isn't even needlework. It's code for "stuff women do is pointless and bitchy", like fashion vs. sports. Fantasy boys run away from being the blacksmith's apprentice, but the narrative doesn't claim that blacksmithing is a total waste of time in the process.

/via friendsfriends
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From: sheff_dogs
2013-07-09 04:34 pm (UTC)
Oh yes! Exactly.Although going to an all girls school I didn't get the woodwork or metalwork option.

It is the lazy shorthand that not only dismisses skills vital for the health of a household in pre-industrial times, but that essentially dismisses everything about being female along with those skills.

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[User Picture]From: rushthatspeaks
2013-07-09 04:05 am (UTC)
Agreed, agreed, so much agreed. And the thing with needlework as a signifier for 'girly and brainless' actually impacted me in real life, in that when I was in about sixth grade, I became interested in cross-stitch. And I had to keep it concealed from my friends, except the one who taught me, and I had to keep it concealed from classmates, because I was a tomboy and being known to do embroidery would have made everybody start expecting me to pay attention to makeup and clothes and so on. This happened to the friend who taught me-- she brought her piece-in-progress to school to work on at recess, because it was close to being finished, and what she usually did at recess was play football with the boys. A whole lot of teachers swooped down and made a big fuss about how nice it was that she was 'developing appropriate interests', and the boys noticed, and they never let her into a football game again, not for the next two-and-a-half years of her trying.

After that I hid my cross-stitch like it was a drug habit. Because I did not want to be expected to talk about makeup and clothes and boys, and it all went together.
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[User Picture]From: blue_hat_guru
2013-07-09 05:04 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: sprrwhwk
2013-07-09 05:03 am (UTC)
And nobody* really says, “I adore cleaning. I live for cleaning. Cleaning is so awesome.”

I don't say exactly that. I often enough find it relieving, though, in an obsessive kind of way, that I might identify with a character who said something along those lines. (I probably wouldn't have at MG age, though.)

(Hi! We met at 4th Street.)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-07-09 12:32 pm (UTC)
Well, and you notice that there's an asterisk on that "nobody." Because, as I say, people vary. It's just that the odds aren't great.

(Hi, 4th St. person!)
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