Last night M and I finished the first Callahan Cousins book
. M decided she didn't want me to read to her at bedtime over a year ago, but when Grandpa gave her the Callahan Cousins, we decided to resume reading aloud and it's been nice. M devours all her books, so eking out a chapter a night has definitely been a challenge for her, but we've come to enjoy the suspense and it's nice to have the time together snuggling in the big chair (OK, so it barely fits the two of us, especially last night when we were both in sleeping bags, but we still sit there, because that's the place to sit for bedtime reading).
The Callahans are four twelve-year-old girl cousins spending the summer at their grandmother's summer house on Gull Island (read Block Island) (read enormous privilege that it is quite enjoyable to read about--M and I are both bedazzled by enormous summer houses with sailboats, swimming pools, private beaches, and housekeepers who make delicious food appear regularly). There appear to be four books--the fourth comes out next month--each focused on a different cousin with a different adventure. In this one, Hilary, whom we might also call Sporty Callahan, convinces the others to revive their dads' childhood competition with another island family and try to plant the family flag on Little Gull Island. Not a lot of drama, but some nice relationships, plus all that summer house life. We liked it; we're planning on reading the rest.
But what got me thinking (as opposed to just salivating) was the whole disparate cousins motif, as subtly hinted at in my characterization of Hilary as Sporty Callahan (please, someone, reassure me that you got the allusion, which should become obvious in a moment). Each girl, of course, has one distinguishing characteristic: Hilary is sporty, Kate is a mini-Martha Stewart, Phoebe reads, and Neeve is wild and crazy. Which got me wondering about the origins of the one-characteristic-per-girl model.
Let's see, there are, of course, the Spice Girls (last night at dinner we managed to remember them all--kind of like the time when I was a kid and we tried to remember all the seven dwarfs and it took us days to come up with Bashful, except this time we got them all in about three minutes: you remember: Sporty, Posh, Scary, Ginger, and Baby). I remember I used to read Camp Fire Girls books
when I was a kid, and I'm pretty sure they were all typed. Maggie Tulliver*, complaining about Madame de Stael's Corinne
, laments the type-casting of the blonde heroine (who would be her cousin, Lucy Dean, destined for sweetness, light, and boys), and the dark heroine (i.e. Maggie herself, headed for tragedy, and though Eliot critiques, she nonetheless enacts), and I believe Maggie mentions Rebecca and Rowena,** but if she doesn't she should. And what the heck, let's just go all the way back to the original virgin/whore dichotomy with Mary Magdalene and Martha.
So, one question is: is this girl-specific? Unfortunately, as child and adult, I have read mainly girl books, so I don't know. Is there a smart Hardy Boy and an athletic one? Do Frederick Exley novels revolve around a sensitive guy and a tough guy? Of course there's Ashley and Rhett***, but that's still a girl book.
Then there's the question of what this modeling does for girls. S argues that there are in fact two different things going on here: that in the Maggie/Lucy/Rebecca/Rowena model, type is destiny, but in the Spice/Camp Fire Girls model, type is just descriptive. I'm concerned, though, that the second model still sets girls up by suggesting that they can only be one thing: you pick a character to identify with (because, obviously, all those characters are there so that as many girls as possible can identify--hmm, this is getting a little chicken and egg, but I'll just keep going with it), and that's who you are.
Case in point: M, who is ecstatically convinced that she is Neeve. Neeve is short (check), has short dark hair (check--M just got her hair cut), and loves wild fashion (check, check, check, and this is the heart of the identification, because M is very into wild outfits these days, and she is very excited to have Neeve as a model--she even tried on the old dress-up tutu, because one day, in the book, Neeve wears a tutu, but, alas, it was too small) (just to illustrate: today M wore a white and red Serena Manish t-shirt [they're another band you've never heard of], a knee-length black satin skirt with embroidered flowers and a light brown ruffle, a thigh-length purple cardigan with a collar, white socks, and red Chinese shoes).
Now I'm very happy that M has Neeve to validate her fashion choices, but in fact, M is really a combination of Neeve (wild, fashion), Hilary (spunky leadership), and Phoebe (books, books, books), and when I pointed this out to her, she agreed. And then we agreed that she was not at all Kate.
And, in fact, this points to a point I have made many times, which is that readers are often smarter than books set them up to be. So perhaps I just need to have confidence in the ability of girls to construct complex identifications, even in the face of simplistic character types. After all, I'm Rebecca** and I didn't die in a flood*.
* George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss
** Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe
Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind