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It's stupid being a girl!: the tomboy character in selected children's series fiction

Chew, Cynthia Mei-Li (2009) It's stupid being a girl!: the tomboy character in selected children's series fiction. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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The tomboy is a female character that has featured prominently in many popular works of children's literature. Typically, the tomboy is a prepubescent or teenaged girl who is frustrated by the expectations and limitations placed upon her because she is female. She is reluctant to conform to feminine standards of appearance and behaviour.

This thesis examines the representation and evolution of the tomboy character in two distinct categories of children's series fiction, 'books in a series' and 'series books'[1], focusing on narratological elements such as plot, characterisation and series structure, as well as their publishing context, exploring issues of authorial intent, editorial decisions and, in certain cases, the official revision of texts. 'Books in a series' are usually presented as bildungsroman - that is, stories, or in this case, series, of development. In these narratives, time progresses and the characters age; tomboyishness is depicted as a temporary phase which is grown out of when a girl matures, and learns to accept and perform femininity. In contrast, 'series books' are centred on adventure and/or mystery stories, rather than on the process of growing up - the characters' ages are typically frozen, and tomboyishness is a distinguishing character attribute which remains for the course of the series.

In studying children's literature, it is important to acknowledge that the audience of children's literature includes adults as well as children - it is after all, adults who determine and control the production, distribution and legitimisation of texts for children. Originally, children's literature was written specifically for the religious, moral, behavioural and social instruction of children, rather than for their entertainment. Although appearing less overtly didactic in recent times, the production of children's literature has continued to be driven by the adult concern for ideological appropriateness, and the desire to responsibly educate its young readers. This concern and desire are fuelled by the underlying and persistent belief that children are like sponges and will absorb whatever they are exposed to[2], including representations of gender difference and gender performance. The ways in which the tomboy character has evolved in the children's series are a direct reflection of the shifts in society's ideas about gender, the gendered education of children, and the adult conception of what is ideologically appropriate for the children's text.

The tomboy character in children's literature has been an important cultural marker of both our evolving and constant values. It is clear that over time gender roles have changed significantly, allowing girls in series fiction to be sleuths, rescuers, warriors and adventurers, but through all of this change, the representation of the tomboy has always reflected adults' conception of what is ideologically appropriate and normal and therefore desirable, in the representation of masculinity and femininity, gender and sexuality in children's literature - a normality and system of gender based on a steadfast heterosexual hegemony.

[1] Inness, Sherrie A., ed. Nancy Drew and Company: Culture, Gender, and Girls' Series. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1997, p.2.
[2] Sternheimer, Karen. It's Not the Media: The Truth About Pop Culture's Influence on Children. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2003, p.181.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Social Sciences and Humanities
Supervisor(s): De Reuck, Jennifer
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