SPINNING. SPINNING SPINNING SPINNING FOR THE LOVE OF MIKE, SPINNING.
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.
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.
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>
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
You'd be the person telling stories to keep the rest of us entertained.
"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.
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.
Perhaps someone should write a story where a girl who hates needlework invents modern manufacturing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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!)