- Sexism Down on the Farm? Anne of Green Gables
A municipal draftsperson by trade, an interior designer by education, and a student of children's literature by interest and inclination, I am quite honestly impressed by the essays and ideas of writers such as Alan Garner and Virginia Hamilton, or educators and literary scholars such as Perry Nodelman and Carol Gay, that appear in the Quarterly. I learn a great deal from them. But sometimes I learn more from the articles and opinions that impress me less than they annoy me. It is in disagreeing with an idea that I'm forced to think about it in greater depth, particularly when the idea comes from a respected source and I can't just dismiss it as foolishness. This essay is about that sort of idea—a comment made by Perry Nodelman during a class in the children's literature course I took from him which is a perfect illustration of this sort of mental catalyst.
We were studying L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, as an example of a "girl's book". Apparently it had evolved amidst a history of series books about wonderful girls, such as the Pansy books the Elsie Dinsmore books, and Heidi, that were intended to confirm certain ideals of feminine behaviour. They were written at a time when it was generally believed that women were different from men and that women should ideally be impractical but imaginative, loving but not gruff, and so on. "Anne of Green Gables is one of the most definitively sexist books I know of," Nodelman said, "because Anne becomes an ideal woman at the end of the book: she never stops being a child."
Well, I don't claim to be a feminist. But, I am a woman, working in a traditional male environment and like most women in the eighties, I do have a feminist conscience of sorts. I had enjoyed Anne of Green Gables both as a child and again reading it as an adult. My feminist conscience was livid! How could Nodelman say that the book I took such pleasure from was sexist?
In fact I was convinced that Anne of Green Gables is not a sexist book. Anne herself is not stereotypically female, with stock female weaknesses and sex-linked characteristics. She undoubtedly acts within a female framework, but many of her character traits, were they classified stereotypically, would be decidedly unfeminine.
Anne is aggressive. The things she wants and dreams of most in life, she goes after. She gives of herself to become and get a "best friend". She works hard for her academic achievements. She even goes to great lengths to create an elaborate confession for Marilla, in order to be allowed to go to the church picnic and taste her first ice-cream. This is not a passive child. She dreams, but she tries very hard to make those dreams come true.
Anne is independent. She still acts within the inherent, day-to-day restrictions of dependency that all children must, but beyond that she has a certain independence of spirit. Her thoughts on such significant topics as religion, life, and ways of viewing the world, are her own, coming from her own life experiences, and she will not easily give them up unless she is ready. "Other people may call that place the Avenue, but I shall always call it the White Way of Delight" (Montgomery 18).
Anne is practical. If imagination is stereotypically female and action is stereotypically male, then Anne's response seems to me ultimately more practical than a "male" reaction might be. Anne is an orphan, with no home, no means of support. A male protagonist would presumably react to a life with which he was dissatisfied by action; by running away: creating a new and better life. But practically, the life available to an eleven or twelve year old boy, on his own, in the Maritimes, would be limited. Employment opportunities in a conservative, rrual setting, distrustful of outsiders (Marilla doesn't even [End Page 12] trust the local French boys) would be slim at best. Given the parameters of her...