Thursday, April 3, 2008

Boston Jane: An American Girl

I recently read two works of fiction marketed toward girls, Jennifer L. Holm’s Boston Jane: An Adventure and Gail Carson Levine’s The Two Princesses of Bamarre. Both were published in 2001 by Harper Collins. It is my understanding that Boston Jane is a series, and that Levine is working on a sequel to The Two Princesses of Bamarre.

The one thing these two books have in common is embroidery. I am serious; both protagonists are very good at embroidery. But in other respects they’re like night and day.

If you were to guess from the covers which one was the retch-worthily patriarchal of the two, you might have gone with the one that involved princesses. There is a long and shameful history of YA novels that make girls the protagonists primarily insofar as they put on male drag, embroidery and other needlework being a typical and convenient emblem of idle and worthless femininity (Tamora Pierce, I am looking at you).

You might also have thought that, Gail Carson Levine being a Disney sellout, she would surely be the patriarchal hack of the two.

But no.

When I picked up Boston Jane: An Adventure, with the drawing of a spunky girl TM on the cover and the subtitle assuring us of said girl's spunkitude, I almost looked for an American Girls logo somewhere on the book, it was that evocative of the genre.

This should have tipped me off, but didn't, that I was in for a tiresome, awkwardly written tale that pays lip service to politically progressive values while keeping its real goal firmly in its sights, namely: to take a nineteenth century girl and make her stop kissing the patriarchy's rear end in nineteenth century ways in order to have her start kissing the patriarchy's rear in twenty-first century ways.

In the novel, Jane is raised by her father, a surgeon, since her mother has conveniently died in childbirth. Because there is no evil female taint in her life (except for Mrs. Parker, a servant who exists only to make cherry pies year round, since apparently Pennsylvania has an extraordinary cherry season), she grows up a healthy tomboy, spitting, slinging mud, and generally wishing she were Lyra from His Dark Materials. Jane remarks that during this period she thinks herself lucky, which is code for "masculine and therefore good."

Along comes Nellie Olsen Sally Biddle, who mocks Jane for her failure to perform femininity. This is the primal scene, so to speak, and at this point, Jane tells us, her luck runs out. Around the same time, Jane's father takes on a cute apprentice, William Baldt, who plays good cop to Sally's bad cop, gives Jane ribbons, and tells her to go to etiquette school.

Jane is quickly brainwashed by Miss Hepplewhite's Young Ladies’ Academy. Every possible trope is trotted out, including fancy embroidery and the corset, and of course the uselessness of everything that Jane learns at the academy. William approves of her progress and gives her hope that she will not be a social reject forever, while her father expresses scorn that Jane has stopped being interesting and has become useless and feminine.

Father, of course, believes that "you make your own luck," which is his way of saying that you are free to choose masculinity (all that is good and holy) even if you were born with a body that is socially constructed as feminine, and that Jane's oppression is therefore her own damn fault.

We are meant to see, of course, that the dear old patriarch is right and William is a jerk, but his total lack of empathy for Jane's position -- that if she continues to fail to perform femininity, she will be screwed as soon as her father is no longer there to shelter her -- merely reveals that Jane is caught between two misogynists: one who would manipulate her and shame her into performing femininity and rejecting her favorite pursuits, and one who despises all femininity and urgently wishes that Jane were a boy (with the attendant freedom to eschew femininity).

Eventually William heads west to make a fortune in timber, for which Father holds him in contempt. William writes letters to Jane and, when she is fifteen, proposes to her. This is repulsive, of course, but it will turn out later that he is a snake for other reasons, so apparently it is okay for this to go under the radar.

Jane talks her father into letting her go to Oregon to marry William, and he finally relents, although he warns Jane that William is an idiot. Of course, father is right about this.

After a two-month delay, Jane sails to Oregon with her Irish servant, Mary. Once Jane has learned a Very Special Lesson About Class from her, Mary kicks the bucket, enabling Jane to Grow.

When Jane gets to Shoalwater Bay, she is horrified to find that William is not there, that the place is thinly populated by crusty pioneer types and a quirky proto-anthropologist, and that she is surrounded by Savage Natives.

She does a fainty-haughty-lady routine, a caricature of the stereotypical silly Victorian lady, and much is made of her total uselessness. She pays a Chinook man to go find William, and meanwhile makes a life for herself. She eventually becomes spunky, and once a Chinook woman named Suis teaches her a Very Special Lesson About Race, Suis kicks the bucket, enabling Jane to Grow.

Jane is very conflicted about Not Being A Proper Lady Anymore, but in the end she rejects William, who is a racist and only wanted to marry Jane so he could get more land anyway, and Finds Herself. The end.

What raises my hackles so much about this book is the way it pats itself on the back for its supposedly conscientious treatment of race, class, and gender.

We are supposed to hate William and love Jane because William wants to put the Americans on reservations, while Jane wants to work and live with them in peace. But we know that actually, the Americans eventually were put on reservations, and that it doesn't matter how many spunky white girls are respectful of native Americans, since they can't vote anyway. And of course, once we have Learned A Lesson from Suis, she dies. We couldn't actually have a strong native woman survive. Why, she might compete with Jane's spunkiness!

Similarly, Mary is there to show that Jane's state as a lady is "useless" (ironically, since nineteenth century conduct manuals for middle class ladies emphasize usefulness -- usefulness to men, of course -- as the pinnacle of a woman's achievement; it is the aristocracy, which does not exist in Philadelphia, that is seen as useless). Once Mary is dead, Jane is free to raid her stash of recipes so she too can become useful. These "lessons" about race and class are here solely for the benefit of the privileged white woman.

And the novel's gender politics are the worst of all, because the novel makes the greatest claims for its gender politics. Mocked at the beginning of every chapter is a different one of Miss Hepplewhite's precepts for gracious middle-class femininity. But there is nothing particularly radical about mocking Victorian standards of middle-class femininity; very few people today think that fiercely adhering to the correct number of petticoats or always exclaiming about what is "proper" are reasonable priorities.

Jane reflects at the end of the novel that Miss Hepplewhite taught her to always perform passive femininity in order to be pleasing to men, but that it doesn't make sense for her to marry William or wear long dresses that restrict her movement. With her recuperated presexual tomboy masculinity, her luck has returned!

Well called? Oh, I think not: for it is not that Jane stops trying to please men at the end of the book, but that she starts to succeed at pleasing the right men (which, of course, includes her father).

Jane's father and the men she meets out west are therefore figures for modernity, but certainly not for women's liberation. Caricaturing Victorian femininity in order to have the protagonist reject it is cheap feminism, especially when it's just a means for Jane to become a spunky-but-nonthreatening woman, aspiring to masculinity (because, as the novel repeatedly assures us, femininity is useless and vapid) while never challenging the order that keeps men in power and defines femininity as worthless.

Sally Biddle, the great enforcer of feminine mores, is always seen as a villain, never a victim, and all sympathetic and competent women except for Jane are killed off. There is no option of real female independence; it's just a matter of figuring out which men to serve (mend their clothes, make them pie, trade your most treasured asset for a canoe so you can financially rescue them, etc.).

Same patriarchy, different dudes, and the fact that they aren't making Jane wear a corset doesn't mean they don't still hold her in disdain for being a woman.

I meant to write about The Two Princesses of Bamarre today, but I think that's enough book-reviewing for now.

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