The Anne Shirley Effect: Finding Ourselves in Fiction

We look to fiction to take us out of ourselves, to show us more of the world than we can see in our direct experience. We see through the eyes of people “not like us,” people of different genders or races or ethnic/religious backgrounds. We learn to share the struggles and triumphs of those beyond the bubble of our own experience and beyond the usual ideas of what constitutes “our own kind.”

Yet at the same time, we’re looking for ourselves.

We’re looking to expand our ideas of who and what we might be, yet we hope to recognize some aspects of ourselves — our personalities, our aspirations — in the stories we take in. If we find these things, we feel a little less awkward, a little less lonely. Somewhere, someone “gets” us. We may find this echo in places we don’t expect. I was dealing with my growing awareness of my lack of maternal instinct around the time I first saw Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun performed on PBS’s American Playhouse in 1989. When I heard Beneatha Younger, a young African-American woman from Chicago’s South Side in the 1950s, declare that she intended to be a doctor first and foremost and wasn’t thinking about marriage, I heard something of myself. Of course her mother and sister-in-law laughed at her, but she didn’t back down. Neither would I. She made my giving my writing ambitions first place feel a little less “unnatural.”

At no time are we keener to see ourselves reflected in stories than in our adolescence, and I had the bad luck to be a teenage girl in the 1980s. I hadn’t discovered the fantasy genre yet, so I didn’t know of Tamora Pierce’s Alanna the Lioness or Robin McKinley’s Harry Crewe. I’d found Scout Finch and Jane Eyre, at least. Yet movies and television offered me no visions whatsoever of the girl I was or the woman I wanted to become. All the adventurers and the academic achievers seemed to be boys. Boys got to start nuclear wars and travel into space to become the last starfighter, but girls could only be those remarkable boys’ distinctly unremarkable girlfriends. None of the teenage Huxtable girls on The Cosby Show had any academic interests or aspirations that I could see, and over on Family Ties, the decade’s other top family sitcom, the situation was worse: a hyper-achieving boy, the star of the show, had a pair of foils in his shallow airhead sisters. In pop culture, it seemed, girls like me simply didn’t exist.

I’d had my fill of invisibility when relief came at last, in the form of a skinny redheaded girl named Anne Shirley, as played by Megan Follows on PBS’s Wonderworks.

Anne and I had one vital thing in common: we were daydreamers. We got lost in the worlds of our own imaginations, sometimes to embarrassing degrees. Anne could disconnect from reality long enough to forget to cover plum pudding sauce with cheesecloth, so a mouse drowned in it and ruined it. She could dedicate herself to fantasy to the point where she nearly drowned herself while acting out Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott.” Yet Anne’s world was so rich in color and life, precisely because of that troublesome imagination. She owned her daydreams, despite the problems they sometimes caused. I aspired to her courage, her zest. She was both what I felt I was and what I wanted to be. She loved reading, just like me. She wanted to be a writer, just like me.

Why I hadn’t heard of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s books before seeing the PBS miniseries, I fear I can’t explain. Anne of Green Gables, the first in the series, is a beautifully written book, one I think every young girl should read. But I’m rather glad I first made Anne’s acquaintance through television, since TV was one of the main sources of my problem. The mainstream shows told me there was only one right, “normal” way to be a teenage girl, and that was to be concerned with boys, fashion, and popularity to the exclusion of all other interests and ambitions. Anne showed me a different kind of girl, one who could yearn for a dress with puffed sleeves and still earn top academic honors and tell wildly fantastic stories to delight her friends. I have never read the later volumes in the series where Anne settles down to the life of an ordinary housewife, and I don’t really want to. There’s Montgomery’s Anne, and there’s my Anne. My Anne, after the events of the first book, goes on to take the literary world by storm.

So, which fictional heroines might make awkward young girl readers feel a little less strange or isolated? Take-charge Alanna, Keladry, Beka, and Daine from the pen of Tamora Pierce? Robin McKinley’s splendid Harry, Aerin, and Rosie? Rachel Hartman’s gifted, conflicted Seraphina Dombeigh? The wonderfully nerdy Hermione Granger, who refuses to back down despite ridicule even from her friends? These titles reflect my own bias towards fantasy, but there’s also Meg Murry, Nancy Drew (the earliest novels are actually the best), Gilly Hopkins, and even Ramona Quimby. The library remains the best place to search for fictional friends. The multiplex still isn’t so great, Pixar’s wonderful Inside Out notwithstanding, but then that’s a matter I’ve already covered here. As for television… well, Cartoon Network’s cancellation of Young Justice still rankles, as does the story that CN’s executives asked Paul Dini to minimize the female heroes’ participation, because too much girl power might alienate the boy demographic the network was aiming for. Weird, introspective, nerdy girls might find kindred spirits in print, but movies and TV might make them feel very alone. Still, some of them may find “their” Anne. Perhaps her name is Katara Water-Bender, or the legendary Korra.

While browsing Goodreads, I came across a review for the second in the middle-grade series Dragon Codex. The book wasn’t as good as the first one, the reviewer said, because the lead was a girl. “That’s what every ten-year-old wants to read about. How a boy is the best.” This reviewer was not a boy, not a mother or father of boys, but a girl.

Blessings on you, girl-child. I hope you find your Anne one day.

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