Kirsty, Rachel, and the quest for equality

Nina, my seven-year-old daughter, received a boxed set of seven Rainbow Magic fairy books when she was five. She had been begging for Rainbow Magic books for some time, and when I saw a special offer on the Sporty Fairies set, I reasoned that if she had to have Rainbow Magic books, she could at least have a set where the fairies were ostensibly interested in something beyond jewels and parties. The Sporty Fairies include Francesca the Football Fairy and Alice the Tennis Fairy, both sports my daughter plays, and as I had not actually read a Rainbow Magic book before ordering the set, I entertained hopes that perhaps Francesca and Alice would be good role models.

 If you have not been in contact with a five- to eight-year-old girl in the U.K. recently, you may be blissfully unaware of the Rainbow Magic fairy phenomenon. The series contains over one hundred books, mostly in sets of seven books each, with themes such as “The Dance Fairies” or “The Pet Keeper Fairies.” Each seventy-page book is divided into chapters of ten-fifteen pages each, with simple pen and ink drawings scattered throughout. The covers are all remarkably similar, with the Rainbow Magic logo in the upper left-hand corner, the fairy in question surrounded by stars in the centre above the title in the distinctive Rainbow Magic cover font, and a small rainbow in the bottom right-hand corner. They are written by “Daisy Meadows,” and illustrated by Georgie Ripper.

For the first several months of ownership, Nina was content to just take the Sporty Fairies books out of their box and admire them. She would spread them all out on the floor, gaze at them lovingly, then put them back into the box and replace the box in her bookcase. But in the end, just looking wasn’t enough, and Nina asked to read Zoe the Skating Fairy at bedtime.

Every Rainbow Magic book I have been exposed to has had the same basic premise. Two girls, Kirsty and Rachel, who seem to be somewhere between ten and sixteen years old, need to help the titular fairy by finding an object that the fairy has lost. Only when the girls have found all seven objects is their mission accomplished; in the Sporty Fairy set, reaching that goal means that the Fairy Olympics are able to take place. In each book, it is Jack Frost and his band of nasty male goblins that has taken the special object. The goblins all look the same: bald heads, big pointy ears, extremely long noses. They are smaller than Kirsty and Rachel, sometimes just by a bit, sometimes significantly (although there are tense moments in some of the books when Kirsty and Rachel temporarily shrink to fairy size and the goblins tower over them). The fairies themselves are diminuitive and are always fashionably dressed. Each fairy’s outfit and appearance is described when the fairy first steps into the scene to ask Kirsty and Rachel for help, which the girls are always willing to provide. The friends encounter goblin mischief (which is never threatening enough to keep a seven-year old up at night), but by the end of each book, Rachel and Kirsty outwit the goblins and return the stolen object to its rightful fairy owner.

What bothers me most about the Rainbow Magic books is not the fairies’ silvery voices or their sparkly outfits, although those attributes do give me pause. I have no objection to the quality of the writing, as I do with some other children’s books Nina has brought home. No, what I find most troublesome is that in most of the Sporty Fairy books, and in all the other Rainbow Magic books Nina borrowed excitedly from her school library, the only prominent male characters are goblins. King Oberon, king of all the fairies, makes a brief appearance with Queen Titania in Helena the Horseriding Fairy to set the girls on their quest for the sporty objects, and he and the Queen reappear in Gemma the Gymnastics Fairy to congratulate Rachel and Kirsty on a job well done. Rachel’s dad, Mr Walker, has a very small role in Samantha the Swimming Fairy, but features more prominently in Francesca the Football Fairy, as does a male football official. However, in four of the seven books in the Sporty Fairies series, goblins are the only men mentioned.

The Beast Quest books, a series of sixty books aimed primarily at five- to eight-year old boys (but read more often by girls than Rainbow Magic books are read by boys), are more even-handed regarding gender roles. Tom, a boy of about twelve, is the hero of Beast Quest, but in each story, he is accompanied by Elenna, his tomboyish best friend. Elenna is a worthy role model—capable, loyal, and eager for adventure— but she is still very much Tom’s sidekick. The spotlight always shines most brightly on Tom.

My son preferred the Astrosaurs series, a set of over twenty books about a group of herbivorous dinosaurs that belong to the Dinosaur Space Service (DSS). These books, written by Steve Cole, focus on the efforts of the crew of the DSS Sauropod to keep space safe from the many evil plans of the carnivorous dinosaurs. The captain, first officer, and chief engineer of the DSS Sauropod are all male, but the communications officer, Gypsy Saurine, is a female corythosaurus. Gypsy offers able assistance on each Astrosaurs mission, and in contrast to Elenna in the Beast Quest books, Gypsy even carries out the mission herself in one book, albeit aided by the male first officer.

These two book series for boys have chosen to include girls in significant supporting roles on the side of good, but in most of the Rainbow Magic books, the only boys are despicable goblins. Why?

***

Let’s start answering that question by looking at India. “4 million to 12 million selective abortions of girls have occurred in India in the past three decades,” according to a study published in The Lancet and reported on by Jim Yardley in the New York Times(“As Wealth and Literacy Rise in India, Report Says, So Do Sex-Selective Abortions,” May 24, 2011). The number of Indian women choosing to end pregnancies when carrying girls, particularly among the better-educated and more well-to-do, has increased in tandem with access to ultrasound technology and safe abortions. Mr Yardley further writes, “The 2011 census found about 7.1 million fewer girls than boys under the age of 6, compared with a gap of roughly 6 million girls a decade earlier.” An article in The Hindustan Times, one of the most widely-circulated newspapers in India, goes so far as to label the abortion of girls “India’s Silent Genocide” (Samar Halarnkar, January 26, 2011).

Selective abortion based on sex is morally murky because of continued ambiguity about the personhood of foetuses. However, “bride burning,” colloquial for murdering a bride when her family is unable to provide the dowry demanded by the groom and his family, is unequivocally immoral. Nilanjana S. Roy, in “A Campaign Against Girls in India,” writes that “National Crime Bureau figures indicate that reported dowry deaths have risen, with 8,172 in 2008, up from an estimated 5,800 a decade earlier” (The New York Times, April 12, 2011). Many of these deaths are caused by immolation.

A dear friend of mine is currently spending time in India. She posted recently on Facebook: “On being female in Delhi: so far, I have been groped, propositioned, condescended to, belittled, demeaned, severely scolded for an egregious instance of not doing as I was told and asking too many questions, invited to engage in adultery, and generally treated like my gender somehow ran away with my cognitive faculties, ethics, sense, good taste, and last pair of panties.”

In a society where women are treated as inferior, it would make sense that a book series portraying men as goblins would become popular. But the Rainbow Magic books are set in the United Kingdom, not in India. Surely girls and boys, and women and men, are on a more equal footing in this country, where dowries have not been common since the end of the nineteenth century and bride burning is considered barbaric? Are there reasons, in the United Kingdom, for girls to identify with an imaginary world where men are almost exclusively villains?

In the Global Gender Gap Report issued by the World Economic Forum in 2011, the United Kingdom had fallen from fifteenth to sixteenth place among the twenty countries with the greatest equality between men and women. The United States rose two places in 2011, to position seventeen, while India came 113th out of 134 countries. These results indicate that the U.K. and the U.S. are indeed achieving greater equality for men and women than India and many other countries, but the findings also point out that there is plenty of room for improvement. Particularly concerning for the United Kingdom is the drop from ninth to fifteenth place, although this is in keeping with an overall trend towards widening gaps in equality between women and men worldwide.

How do these chart positions play out in daily life? Jonathan Owen, writing for The Independent, reports that “Almost two-thirds of UK boys think that a woman’s most important role is to take care of her home and cook for the family – something less than half of girls agree with.” (“Why Equality Is A Distant Dream”, 9 October 2011). Mr Owen mentions that women have on average £9100 worth of retirement savings at the end of their working years while men average £52,800, and he points out that women are underrepresented in positions of power in the U.K.; there are fewer female politicians, judges, head teachers of secondary schools, and directors of large companies. Indeed, although India places much further down in the chart of gender equality, Mr Owen writes that “Only 49 per cent of boys in the UK, 52 per cent in Rwanda and 61 per cent of boys in India agreed: “It would be good to have the same number of men and women leading top companies.””

On a more personal level, in her TEDxWomen talk from 2011, Jennifer Siebel Newsom tells the poignant story of the gifts her daughter and son received at birth. Montana, the first-born daughter, was given “lots of pink” and many compliments on her appearance. Hunter, Siebel Newsom’s second child, was presented with several items bearing the White House insignia. The President of the United States and the Vice President each sent Hunter a letter welcoming him to the world. A tee shirt that Hunter was given had “Future President” emblazoned on the front in large letters. Ms Siebel Newsom fights back tears when she points out that “Montana, our eldest, but also our girl, didn’t even receive the suggestion that she, too, could be President… that her opportunities in life were limitless.”

Ms Siebel Newsom was not willing to stand by quietly and merely observe this dichotomy; she directed a feature-length documentary film, Miss Representation, to challenge the images and expectations of women created by the media and to call for greater empowerment of girls and women. She also created a campaign by the same name, with an online presence and an education department, to further the film’s message.

My own most powerful recent reminder of the distance women have left to travel before attaining parity with men came in the woods last summer. I took up jogging last spring, and when we went on holiday to visit family in Sweden, I was keen to keep up the habit. We stayed at my brother-in-law’s house, deep in the forests of Värmland, where wolves have made a resurgence and the wolf population is now estimated at 100. My sister-in-law, who lives in the same area, was able to get close enough to a full-grown wolf standing in the snow to take a picture that my husband now uses as his computer wallpaper. There was no snow on the sunny morning in late May when I set out for my jog. It was a peculiar feeling to run in wolf country; I imagined eyes watching me from behind the trees, and I wondered what I would do should a wolf suddenly appear close by. But my low-level anxiety about meeting canis lupus did not compare to my stronger worry about meeting the wrong sort of homo sapiens. When I jogged past a seemingly empty house in need of some repair, my concern about what sort of man could possibly live or stay in a house like that was serious enough to make me increase my pace substantially. I met neither man nor wolf, and returned safely, albeit out of breath, to my brother-in-law’s house.

Later in the summer we flew to the United States to visit my side of the family. Our base during that visit was a remote summer house, halfway up a mountain, on a dirt road in Vermont. During a morning walk with our kids we met a cheerful man with an exposed handgun in a halter around his waist. The man was in outdoorsy clothes, not in any sort of uniform, and he greeted us with a friendly “Lovely day for a walk!” as he passed.

I have spent most of my adult life in countries where it would be illegal to leave the house with a visible pistol. In England, even the policemen are generally unarmed, although there are special Armed Response Vehicles that may be called in if officers feel firearms are needed. I was shocked that a man could be armed as casually as if he were carrying a water bottle. There have been many times—walking home alone at night, locking my bicycle in the cellar of a block of flats, riding by myself in taxis—that I have vaguely considered the possibility that I could be raped. According to rapecrisis.org.uk, having this occasional fear places me alongside the majority of women. The fear is not at all unfounded; 23% of adult women in the U.K. will be sexually assaulted and 5% will be raped. When that anxiety starts to simmer, I attempt to calm it by assuring myself, probably falsely, that I would at least stand a chance against an assailant as I am physically strong and I am not afraid of making lots of noise. However, I am not naive enough to suppose that my strength and voice would do me any good at all against a rapist who was armed with a pistol.

When I went out jogging the next day, the man we had seen out walking and his weapon were never far from the front of my mind. I enjoyed running past the brook and through the dappled sunlight, but I was again glad to complete my jog without incident. Several days later, when I was ready to run again, my sister, who had joined us with her family at the summer house for a few nights, suggested that she look after our two children so that my husband could jog with me. My husband and I had not run together since my very earliest efforts to become a jogger, maybe twenty years earlier. I snapped up my sister’s kind offer, and my husband and I loped off down the dirt road. It was another glorious Vermont morning, and I was not only accompanied, but accompanied by a six-foot tall man. I felt no niggling anxiety about who we might meet, only a delicious sense of freedom to enjoy the run.

“Do you ever worry about being attacked when you’re out jogging?” I asked my husband between footfalls.

“No,” my husband replied, instantly. “Maybe I should sometimes, but I never do.”

“Must be nice,” I said.

“It is. Where did you turn around last time?” he asked, bringing the conversation back to more immediate concerns.

***

The Rainbow Magic books were the first books Nina pleaded with me to purchase for her. By the time she asked for them, she had already attended over a year of preschool and had entered her first year of primary school. Once acquired, the Sporty Fairy books were the first chapter books that Nina read independently. Children are savvy; by the age of five, regardless of the ideas we hoped to instil at home, Nina had doubtless begun to understand that boys and men have a societal advantage over girls and women. Behind the sparkly book covers, behind the descriptions of outfits and hairstyles, behind the fairy wings, the Rainbow Magic books are about female empowerment, albeit at the expense of males. Every time Kirsty and Rachel, as part of the all-girl good side, put the goblins in their place, inequality is redressed vicariously for the girl readers. Boys, who surely recognise that the balance of power is in their favour, can tolerate the presence of girl sidekicks in their popular book series.

Shortly after turning seven, Nina declared that she officially hated the colour pink. Not long after that announcement, she brought home a reading book featuring Secret Agent Jack Stalwart.

“You didn’t choose a Rainbow Magic book this time?” I asked, surprised.

“No, those books are too girly for me now,” Nina answered.

I then found myself in the peculiar position of defending Kirsty and Rachel. “I don’t think they’re too girly,” I said. “I think some of them are pretty exciting.”

“Oh Mum…” Nina sighed. “They’re like all pink, and sparkly, and fairies…”

“Well, I like that the girls are the heroines,” I persisted.

Nina looked at me, incredulous. “You actually like Rainbow Magic.”

“Yes, I do.”

“Jack Stalwart is far more cool,” Nina pointed out helpfully.

“That may be, but I still like the Rainbow Fairies,” I maintained.

By the time Nina has children (if she opts to follow that path) I fervently hope that the gender gap will be smaller than it is today. I want my grandchildren to read books that reflect an ameliorated balance of power. I envisage a Rainbow Magic equivalent for my granddaughters that will feature boys as helpers in the quest for magical objects and will portray both male and female goblins. If Nina’s sons read a series like Beast Quest, I’d like the books to include a girl heroine who often saves the day while wearing smashing dresses.

For now, I will look for books with strong female characters for Nina to read, I’ll send her to both ballet and karate lessons, and I’ll champion, as best I can, the idea that girls and boys are created equal.

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