It’s (Past) Time for Girls to Matter

My home state of Georgia has earned a measure of infamy for its various public school systems’ handling of the COVID-19 crisis as they proceed with Fall Semester. I can empathize with their dilemma, as their choices seem limited to one that sucks (to open up even though enforcing safe social distancing is all but impossible) and one that sucks less (to continue with virtual learning). But when school officials claim they can’t possibly enforce a mask mandate because the decision to wear or not to wear a mask constitutes a “personal choice” that should not be interfered with, I can only roll my eyes and groan. As has been pointed out frequently on social media, this constitutes rank hypocrisy, since school systems interfere with students’ fashion choices all the time, most often when those students happen to be girls. Evidently a girl in a miniskirt constitutes a greater danger to campus health than a maskless boy jostling and elbowing his way down a crowded corridor between classes.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve always disliked skimpy clothing. When I was in my early teens, my mom had to fight to get me into a pair of shorts during the summers. I’ve mellowed quite a bit since then, but I still find concealing outfits nicer to look at than revealing ones. (I feel this way about men’s clothing as well as women’s; Speedos do nothing for me.) But, with apologies to Voltaire, even if I don’t like what you’re wearing, I will defend to the death your right to wear it, especially when I consider just whom most school dress codes are intended to support and protect. What girl would imagine the school has her best interests at heart when the principal orders her to go home and change out of a short skirt and into a pair of jeans? She’s more likely to feel humiliated than cared for. This kind of thing is done for the sake of the boys whose attention might wander if the girls in their classroom show their legs, shoulders, etc. The idea is that boys will lose all self-control if they’re forced to look at girls’ exposed skin — the same logic behind the burka.

What do girls learn from this? That boys and their interests come first. That boys will carry the future that the students are being prepared for. That boys matter more.

It’s the same message I got while growing up and watching movies where boys got to save the galaxy, travel through time, stop nuclear war, and challenge evil rulers, while the only battles girls got to fight had much lower stakes and were generally domestic-centered. It’s the message I got from family sitcoms where the funniest, most charismatic characters, the ones the audience adored, were always boys. Popular culture has made tremendous strides since then in the direction of inclusion, but as Jacqueline Carey points out, we still have a good distance to go.

But even if entertainment doesn’t drive home the point that boys count in ways that girls don’t, news of the real world can do the job. Recently, the Jeffrey Epstein scandal has come back into the news, as his alleged procurer, Ghislaine Maxwell, has been arrested. Not many crime stories sadden me quite as much as Epstein’s. How was he able to keep his “Lolita Express” in business, servicing powerful men of all backgrounds and political ideologies? That question preys on my mind every time I see a picture of Ghislaine Maxwell standing next to President Trump or ex-President Clinton, and the only answer I can find is that Epstein and Maxwell were able to keep their game running because not enough people thought the girls mattered enough to interfere with the men’s fun. Men’s money was chosen over girls’ well-being, until the list of victims was simply too long to be ignored.

The news repeats the same story ad nauseum, with only the names changing — from Harvey Weinstein to R. Kelly to Bill Cosby to Matt Lauer to Louis C.K. and on and on and on. And girls are watching this, learning from it. Just how many books by Tamora Pierce and Robin McKinley, movies like Moana and Wonder Woman, and TV shows like She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is it going to take to counteract the poison of that oft-repeated story?

The daydreams we offer to girls have much power to do good, but fiction can’t carry all the weight. We have to start thinking about what we’re really saying to girls in the behavior we applaud, the behavior we excuse, and the policies we set — including school systems’ selective policing of what their students wear.

It’s past time to start telling girls that they count.

Book Report: Recent Reads

The True Queen

At the story’s outset, author Zen Cho introduces us to two sisters. There’s Sakti, tall, beautiful, replete with magic, and more than a bit temperamental and selfish. Then there’s Muna, smaller, less beautiful, and distinctly unmagical; she’s also the one who does the heavy lifting in the sisters’ close relationship. Sakti longs for experience, to escape the “tyranny” of their mentor, Mak Genggang; Muna, by contrast, is a patient homebody. A little familiarity with such earlier fantasy fiction as Gail Carson Levine’s The Two Princesses of Bamarre should clue the reader in to which of the girls will prove to be the story’s hero, and sure enough, as they pass through the land of Faery on their way to England, where hopefully they’ll discover the secret to lifting the curse upon them, Sakti disappears, and Muna must carry on alone, not only to undo the curse but to save her sister.

Muna, who as previously mentioned lacks magic, must somehow present herself as a powerful sorceress to gain entry to England’s foremost — well, only — school for female magicians, run by Sorceress Royal Prunella Gentleman Wythe (the heroine of Cho’s previous novel, Sorcerer to the Crown). As she taps into a reserve of resourcefulness to keep up the charade and to search for answers, we readers come to realize two things: 1) we really only care about rescuing Sakti because Muna does, and 2) Sakti’s disappearance is actually the best thing that could have happened to Muna, as it gives her a chance to discover who she is, and what she can do, outside the shadow of her oh-so-special sister. Resourcefulness is perhaps my favorite trait in a hero, and Muna’s time in England and her return trip to Faery win me firmly to her side. Like Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins, Muna has more about her than she or anyone else guesses. The truth about herself and her sister reveals she is far from the ordinary girl she always thought herself. While on the surface this resembles plenty of YA fantasy narratives that depict their heroines learning they have supernatural powers — Goodreads and other internet reviewers coined the term “special snowflake” to describe these girls long before the alt-right got hold of it — Cho handles the trope with skill, and Muna’s eventual discovery of her specialness feels earned.

The book includes a romantic subplot, as Muna and Prunella’s best friend and fellow instructress, Henrietta Stapleton, are drawn to each other. Here again we see Cho’s strength, as she deftly navigates away from the most annoying cliches. Finding love is part of Muna’s journey rather than the whole of it, and Henrietta is not simply a Satellite Love Interest to be left on the sidelines till the hero is ready to settle down. She has a character arc of her own, and she’s at Muna’s side on her return journey to Faery, playing a vital role in her adventures, including the rescue of an imprisoned dragon. In Henrietta, Muna finds someone who can give her the love and support she deserves, and that makes me smile.

Some might ask, is it necessary to read Sorcerer to the Crown in order to understand The True Queen? Not really. Muna’s journey can be followed without prior knowledge of Prunella’s struggles in the previous novel to win the right to practice magic, for herself and all women. But why would you want to skip it? I admit I enjoyed the sequel a little bit better than I did the first one. In Sorcerer, we have to read through fifty-odd pages before we meet Prunella, at which point I became fully engaged in the story; this one, which introduces its protagonist at the beginning, had me invested from the get-go. Also, since Muna is a more empathetic heroine than the brilliant, dauntless, but slightly chilly Prunella, the book as a whole has a bit more warmth to it. But Sorcerer is, nonetheless, a fine work, and the two novels together form a tribute to Cho’s talent and range as a writer. I look forward to seeing what she has in store for us next.