May 2, 2008

What Katy Didn't Do

I have just re-read What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge to check whether it might do as our next read-aloud chapter book. I'm on the hunt for good books, which contain nothing scary (Miss4 has a very vivid imagination), which don't condescend to kids, and have enough happening in them to engage her. Verdict on 'What Katy Did': not yet, probably better for them to read themselves when they're about 8 or 10.

But I was forcibly struck by one incident in the "Katy at School" part of the story. Katy is nearly expelled and is very definitely punished (unjustly), for 'unladylike conduct'. A note had been passed from one of the girls in the boarding school to a male student at the next-door college, signed "Miss Carr". This action of passing the note to a boy was considered to be wantonly forward and disgraceful conduct.

What struck me was the contrast between this standard of moral behaviour in 1860s America, and the expectations of our own society for teenage girls. Back then, merely communicating with a boy without your family's knowledge and permission was considered brazen and wanton - a reason to be sent home in utter disgrace. Today, if you are still a virgin at 18 you are considered hopelessly prudish, unattractive and uncool.

While I do not wish to return to the limited life choices that women had in those days, or any of the other social evils of the day (slavery, indentured servitude, a rigid class system of 'Society', arranged marriages) , there was a baby in with that bathwater.

In looking around at the dolls, clothes, greeting cards and magasines targeted at "tweens" (8-10year olds), it seems that the marketers and whomever else is driving pop-culture, is telling our 8 year olds, that in order to be a success you must dress and act like a whore, boys must like you "that way", and you will have ''romance" in your life. Excuse me? Since when has playing the market been the key to happiness? Since when have pre-teens (or even teens) been mentally and socially capable of the whole dating mine-field? (I know grown-ups reduced to tears at the thought of being back in the market - why are we putting that sort of stress on children?)

In this supposed age of feminism and choice for women and exaltation of all things female, there is a total absence of reverence for the Maiden phase of the cycle. How much more freeing it might have been to be a teenager in the days when you were not expected to be mate-hunting throughout your adolescence. How much energy could we have poured into other things?

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