chapter  4
14 Pages

Through a Lesbian Lens: Girls, Femininity, and Sexuality on a Reading Spectrum

ByBeth Younger

When I was a young girl reading Harriet the Spy, I instinctively knew that there was something about Harriet that made adults nervous. I knew that I too often made adults nervous. What I did not know then was that Harriet stood as a symbol of pre-sexual lesbian identity. Young Harriet is a representation with whom many young women, lesbian and heterosexual, identify because her character is not stereotypically feminine. Harriet is a gender-bending, smart, capable, and sensitive young pre-teen who challenges the adult world with her idiosyncratic behavior and comportment. In many ways, Harriet is (and has been) a queer icon, an icon of resistance to hetero-normative culture. But Harriet is not the only literary figure in children’s or Young Adult literature (YAL) who challenges cultural ideals of femininity and sexuality; in the early twenty-first century we are progressively finding more and more fictions in our libraries and classrooms with characters who complicate ideas of what it means to be female, young, and gendered in contemporary culture. No longer are the issues that arise for these characters secondary to the conflicts of their more traditional counterparts. Their nonconforming gender choices are relevant and even critical for understanding the complexities of the world in which we live. When girls read books about fictional young women, they may hope to identify

with the protagonist. They may also begin to define themselves by rejecting or resisting the depictions they read as they seek to come to terms with their own identities in a culture that continues to marginalize girls, especially girls who do not conform to ideal standards of acceptable femininity or beauty. We know that girls and young women struggle with body image and with appearance; these kinds of issues have been pervasive in Western culture for decades. And while YAL in general has made room for all different kinds of girls with a vast array of beauties, sexualities, strengths, and personalities, including girls who vividly resist many of the

stereotypical standards, it is in subsets of YAL fiction like LGBTQ that we find the greatest challenge to long-held cultural norms. Contemporary YAL that introduces relatable lesbian characters and strong girl characters has created a very special and almost liminal space where young women can read about their peers and themselves and re-imagine (and perhaps re-define) what it means to be female in the twentyfirst century. In the ever-increasing array of novels now available, the LGBTQ subset has a progressive history of interaction with cultural norms and ideals. While it is worth noting that YA books about gay males outnumber books about gay females, perhaps suggesting yet another way girls and their developing sexual desires are marginalized, there still exists a range of complex and intriguing texts that depict young women in formation in terms of sexual orientation, identity, and femininity. Many of these texts depict much more than simply a coming of age or identity formation narrative focused on sexual orientation; they also grapple with issues of appearance, notions of femininity, and gender fluidity. In this chapter I propose a way for all girls-lesbian, questioning, bisexual, or

heterosexual-to read novels and stories that include various representations of femininity and femaleness, in order to help them to identify for themselves and each other where they might fit along the spectrum of femininity. I see the spectrum of femininity as an ideological tool that includes all sexual orientations while making significant room for lesbianism since female homosexuality still exists mostly outside the dominant culture. This reading space (or practice) focuses on how novels about girls and young women trying to stay true to their evolving selves allow for the depiction of character development along a spectrum. One way to introduce all students to the idea of the spectrum is to use a rainbow, a symbol of solidarity with the gay and lesbian community that can easily be constructed to focus on issues of justice or equality and how those issues impact gender construction and sexuality. The point here is not to supply a predetermined spectrum, but to help students think about how to meaningfully and purposefully construct a model of discovery that serves as a bridge for varying perspectives. Adult guidance is useful, but an important part of the learning process is that readers are involved in constructing their own spectrum in order that they may thoughtfully consider choices along the way. Beginning with the rainbow allows students to think about what a spectrum means through a symbol everyone knows and understands. A rainbow is also a part of nature, and in that sense the process of creating a spectrum of femininity through such an organizing principle acknowledges that while femininity may be seen by the dominant culture as having a “natural” trajectory, we also know there are many varieties of rainbows. Some are double. Some are seen only as a patch of color in the sky. Most importantly, throughout history the rainbow has meant different things to different people. By superimposing various understandings of femininity on the basic spectrum, a questioning of the cultural norm of what constitutes “natural” can occur. As we know, sexuality and gender identity are not inextricably linked. As Queer

Theory reminds us, reading through this lens allows scholars and educators to

visualize and put into practice a way to read against the constant bombardment of hetero-normativity and stereotypical forms of femininity that girls encounter each and every day. Queer Theory, then, according to William Turner, allows readers to view queerness not as a “synonym for homosexuality but as a descriptor of disruptions to prevailing cultural codes of sexual and gender normativity” (11). It is through this ideological lens that the chapter will provide a way for girls to read gender, femininity, and sexuality and thus learn to resist and reclaim what femininity and female mean to each one of them. What does it mean to be a “tomboy”? Can one be a lesbian and wear frilly dresses? If I like girls and boys, what does that make me? By posing and answering these and other questions about fictional characters, it is my hope that all girls will be able to reclaim gender identity and sexuality for themselves. Through the process of reading about disparate and varied female characters, lesbian, straight, and bisexual, they will be able to recognize that they have the power to (re)define what it means to be a girl. Young women and girls know what is expected of them in terms of how they

are “supposed” to be performing and grooming their gender identities-while they may not label it that way, they recognize the expectations. In what has become an important text, Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher documents myriad cases of young women struggling with body image because they do not believe they conform to the ideal standard of beauty. Pipher acknowledges “girls are terrified of being fat” (184); however, she also argues that: “Girls who stay connected to their true selves are also confused and sometimes overwhelmed. But they have made some commitment to understanding their lives. They think about their experiences. They do not give up on trying to resolve contradictions and make connections between events. … They will make many mistakes and misinterpret much of reality, but girls with true selves make a commitment to process and understand their experiences” (61). Those concerned with a lack of reading materials that introduce a wide range of

what constitutes femininity know that novel choice is important for opening up the conversation. Of course, the novels that may provoke the most reaction and controversy may not be available (or acceptable) for all classrooms, but I strongly suggest that, in order to push our students to critically think about the issues of justice, equality, and human rights that surround gender, we must expand our vision of what is “acceptable” in the middle school and high school classroom and bring as many challenging books as we can to the students. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE), and American Education Research Association (AERA) have all either made statements, partnered with GLBT organizations, or presented initiatives on the need for schools to more actively address issues of gender nonconformity. Even with that and young women in mind, I know that the novels I discuss in this chapter may not all make it into classrooms because making available YAL of any kind, especially stories with lesbian themes, is often still considered taboo. As Emily Meixner states in her 2009 ALAN Review article on LGBTQ in the classroom:

As we begin, then, to consider why this is, why LGBTQ literature continues to remain absent from most middle and high school classrooms, we focus our attention on two things. First, curriculum-specifically, the way in which the texts we privilege in class, either by explicitly teaching them or by giving them face time in an activity such as the book pass, become meaningful. We examine how it is that our curricular and methodological choices determine what educational theorist Michael Apple calls “the official knowledge” of our classrooms. (94)

In order to combat the kind of “official knowledge” referenced by Apple, such as privileging certain voices over others which often excludes voices of LGBTQ and other marginalized groups like girls, those who offer texts for reading choice must resist the urge to be safe and must also reject the monolithic voice of the dominant culture that would exclude some, if not all, YAL in the classroom. When reading fiction, it is typical to discuss the qualities of characters and how

their authors have created them to reflect certain traits and values. What if, when having these discussions, teachers simply asked readers to choose a protagonist and list her qualities? Such an entry to understanding character could be the beginning of the construction of a spectrum of femininity. Including books with lesbian or questioning protagonists for this process stimulates discussion because young female characters struggling with or even accepting a sexual orientation other than hetero are automatically coded by the dominant culture as being outside the appropriate boundaries of ideal femininity. These characters, then, have already been marked as other. They are not “regular.” They are different. Such protagonists open the door to the larger conversation about what is and is not acceptable in terms of the dominant discourse on femininity and femaleness. We know that adolescence is a time when many (if not most) teens feel “different.”

They feel awkward, uncomfortable, even weird. But it is important for educators to realize it is not for us to decide what “different” means for each reader. How do we know, after all? This is where novel choice becomes important. In the following sections of this chapter, I will first list and analyze several instances of YAL that introduce provocative female characters, some lesbian, some not. Each novel depicts a strong young woman who is dealing with some kind of difference. I will demonstrate how these female characters function to challenge traditional notions of femininity and hetero-normativity. In the last section, I will suggest some activities to facilitate classroom discussion and individual interaction with the aforementioned novels that coincide with my idea of considering a spectrum of femininity where all girls may be recognized. One of the ways that young women discover what it means to be lesbian in a

hetero-normative culture is through identification. By reading about and identifying with a lesbian character, a young woman may experience a shock or spark of recognition. As Sherrie Inness writes: “When lesbians read, they actively disassemble the dominant heterosexual plot, demonstrating that heterosexuality does not hold

its culturally prescribed central role for all readers” (83). I also see this logic as applied to heterosexual readers in terms of femininity. Many girls do not fit the standard role of “girly” girl, and by reading against the grain, and for gender and sexuality, all girl readers, regardless of sexual orientation, can challenge the status quo. My goal is to inspire a reading and learning space and process that would include young girls in every stage of identity formation and of every sexual orientation. This process would encourage young women to read widely and to identify not only where each character-gay, straight, or otherwise-falls on the spectrum of femininity, but also what the space they occupy means in terms of acceptance and/or oppression. In each depiction discussed, I will illustrate how a spectrum of femininity can be used to help girls “read” and interpret fictional characters, themselves, and each other as unique and individual, in whatever spectrum space they may fall.