21 July 2011

+JMJ+

Reading Diary: Meet Felicity: An American Girl

"Oh, I wish I could wear breeches," she said.

"What?" asked Ben.

"Breeches," said Felicity. "Gowns and petticoats are so bothersome. I'm forever stepping on my hem and tripping unless I take little baby steps. Small steps are supposed to look ladylike. But I can't get anywhere. 'Tis a terrible bother. In breeches your legs are free. You can straddle horses, jump over fences, run as fast as you wish. You can do anything."

. . . Felicity sighed. ". . . You're lucky to be a lad. You can do whatever you like."

A few months ago, I asked a friend of mine--a real history buff--whether he had heard of the American Girls books and movies. He said that he had, and had even watched a bit of the Felicity movie. But this isn't a franchise he's particularly happy about because it has--

"Too much female empowerment for me."

ROFL! And . . . BINGO!

I've read enough of both (high culture) Shakespeare and (pop culture) "Wallpaper Historical" Romance novels to have a high tolerance for girls in adventures breeches, and so I didn't bat an eyelash when Felicity "borrows" what she believes is a necessary addition to her wardrobe. But I agree that any book which is supposed to recapture what it was like to grow up in Colonial America is weakened by yet another pesky modern protagonist in period costume. (You know: a Sue.)

. . . "Penny," whispered Felicity.

"What?" asked Ben.

"Penny," said Felicity. "That's what I'm going to call that horse. She's the colour of a new copper penny. It's a good name for her, isn't it?"

"Aye," said Ben. "Because an independent-minded horse, that's for certain. call her Penny for her inde
pendence, too."

And yet I like this story. I like it for the same reason I love the first five Baby-sitters Club books: its cleverness in arranging related elements in a small space. Just note that what binds these elements together is not necessarily a common time period, but a common theme. Hence the anachronistic breeches.

You see, Meet Felicity is set during the US Colonial period. If you want to be exact about time, the year is 1774. If you want to be precise about theme, the main idea is independence. And while Felicity's borrowed breeches are definitely closer to the symbolic "bra burning" of 20th century feminism than to any ideas the Revolutionists ever had (Correct me if I'm wrong, Christopher American friends!), they communicate the intended message to modern girl readers: Felicity wants to be free.

And she wants Penny, an abused horse whose trust she has won, to be free as well. It's really Penny who is the lynchpin element of the novel. (And between the girl and the horse, it's clear which one is actually oppressed. =P) It's too bad that the better symbol of the strong, spirited horse is completely upstaged by the obvious point of the breeches.

This isn't an encouraging beginning to the Felicity collection, but I'm actually looking forward to finding the next book: Felicity Learns a Lesson. It's all about tea, you know, and I don't think there's much the Girl Power agenda can do to mess that up.

Image Sources: a) Meet Felicity: An American Girl by Valerie Tripp, b) Copper Horse

23 comments:

lisa :) said...

I have to wonder if so many historical novels include anachronistic girl-power characters because if we read about demure submissive ladies that were true to the time period we'd be bored out of our minds. ;) I'm trying to think of the last historical heroine I read about who really fit within her time frame. I might be thinking for a while here...

Kate said...

Awesome - the American Girls! Back when I was a kiddo there were only three: Kirsten (Swedish immigrant in Wisconsin or Minnesota), Molly (1940s), and Samantha (Victorian age). They've expanded quite a bit since those days. I had the Kirsten doll and read a lot of the books of the 3 original ones but have never read any of the Felicity ones.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Lisa -- That's actually something I like to challenge (although I haven't done any research to back myself up). The "demure, submissive lady" stereotype sounds like something that comes from our own era rather than what actually went down all those centuries ago. I'd prefer to think that women could be interesting and admirable whether or not they fit the feminist template. Of course, your point about whether we would appreciate them for it is a good one: but to be fair to them, let's say it's partly because they might bore us and partly because we're too insensitive to understand them. ;-)

On a related note, the last time I had my finger on the pulse of the Romance community, there was some discussion about "Wallpaper Contemporaries." There are some readers who don't like picking up a Contemporary Romance, expecting a modern heroine, and running into someone who seems a throwback to an earlier age! (On the other hand, those throwbacks are one of my guiltier pleasures.)

Kate -- I've read Meet Kirsten and own Meet Samantha, but I've yet to find any of Molly's books in the thrift stores I haunt. So far, Kit (Great Depression) is my favourite. =) Who is yours?

geeklady said...

Well, you pulled me out of lurking again!

I'll admit that Felicity was my favorite of the American girl novels, because she was a tomboy like me. It's not really fair to single her series out as having too much female empowerment. All the AG series are about Girl Power.

Felicity was the first AG tomboy, though. I think they made her a tomboy because it offered a different type of conflict than had been explored in the previous series. Thus the breeches... which can't really be discussed until you've finished all the novelettes.

Because novelettes is exactly what these AG books are. They are too short for real novels. Put end to end, they are just about right for one noveI and I think the series as a whole ought to be examined together. In my opinion, doing that puts the breeches in a different light.

Constance Reader said...

I COVETED the Felicity doll when I was younger. I had Kirsten and Samantha, but I desperately wanted Felicity, too. I thought she would double well as Anne of Green Gables. :)

I see what the novels are trying to do re: girl power, etc, but you're right about it basically ending up being jarring within the time period.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Geeklady -- Actually, I think that's what my friend was trying to get at. (Notice that he didn't pop out of lurking but is sitting back and enjoying the show.) He might have seen only the Felicity movie, but he's right that the American Girl stories are about female empowerment. The question is whether they also have "too much" female empowerment.

As much as I'd love to put the breeches in their proper context (Let me guess: she has a role to play in the Revolutionary War?), I have to rely on the catch-as-catch-can system of local used books stores to find any American Girls books at all. My chances of finding the next five books in the Felicity collection (or any of the collections, really) are pretty low. So I do what I can. Meet Samantha is next, by the way. =P

Constance -- Oh, I can see that! =D Red hair and all! Did your Kirsten and Samantha dolls ever double as any other characters?

Kate said...

Oh, Kirsten was absolutely my favourite. Probably because she was the doll I had, but also because at that time in my life when I was reading the books (probably younger than 10?) I was well-versed in pioneers, pioneer history, and pioneer fiction (well, Laura Ingalls Wilder.) Plus I loved the St Lucia Day celebrations. Actually now that I think about it, I still have the doll in a trunk at my parents' house...I should say hi!

As for the female empowerment bit...well, sure. But I don't think I'd ever read or treated the books like either an agent of female empowerment or of fine literary historical fiction. When you look at the market age group for the books (which is, what, 7-11 or so?) and then contrast them to other books made for that age group, I can't think of anything more specifically telling girls that they can do awesome things. So here I default to the quality of the message for the age group as opposed to the historical accuracy :) I know when I was a kid, I just wanted to wear a crown of candles and make my own clothes like Kirsten, but wasn't worried about the historical discrepancies!

As for historical gender roles...well...I could probably clog up your comment feed on that one :)

geeklady said...

Felicity's minor role in the Revolutionary War does not involve her pulling a Mulan.

I don't want to spoil the rest of the books, but if you really want to know the significance of the breeches, I'll give you the full run down. :-)

Jillian said...

Really interesting post. Have you read Woolf's A Room of One's Own? She cites Jane Eyre as a novel that could have been amazing but got muddied by Bronte's feelings about female equality. Not that Woolf wasn't for female equality, too; she just felt the art of the novel was lost to the argument.

Lesa said...

Can there be too much female empowerment? Dang, we haven't even had the vote for 100 yrs yet! Hope you gave your friend an obligatory but playful swat upside the head.

I haven't read my Samantha books yet but I know from reading your posts and all the comments that I would have loved these as a girl and probably imagined myself as a doll and star of my own novelettes. Lesa: An American Girl (roller skates, disco and the Bicentennial) I can see it now!

You mentioned Kit. Is that the same Kit as in the Kit Kittredge movie? I loved that movie.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Kate -- I don't know if my friend's comment about Felicity could be made about Kirsten. I've only read the first book in her collection, and she remains very "traditional" all throughout. (Heck, if she enjoys sewing while Felicity doesn't . . .) Then again, as Geeklady might point out again, I don't know her whole story yet.

The over-all message that girls can do awesome things is indeed awesome, but I think that theme too often overlaps with the idea that girls should be just like boys.

And feel free to clog the combox with whatever you'd like to say! =D

Geeklady -- Thank you very much for the offer of spoilers! I know that wasn't easy to make. ;-) So now I'm going to make you very happy by turning it down. As curious as I am about Felicity, I'd really like to unwrap her story bit by bit with each book--even if, as I've said, they take me years to find.

Jillian -- No, I haven't read it, but I think I know what Woolf means! I also believe that Charlotte Bronte went completely over the top in balancing the scales between Jane and Mr. Rochester. (I mean, did she have to cripple and partially blind him before he and Jane could be together??? Was that the only way they could be "equal" in the end? During the proposal scene, Jane makes it clear that she already considers them "equal before God.") But I'll bet Woolf's issues are not my own. Thanks for this tip, Jillian. I'll check it out! =)

Lesa -- LOL! Unfortunately, my friend is an "American Guy" who lives on the other side of the world and is unswattable. =P

You know, I think your Lesa: An American Girl spin-off series idea has great merit! =D When you do get to read your Samantha books, why don't you try writing your own? I'd love to read a semi-autobiographical sketch from 1976. Just think of the cool details you'd be able to throw in!

Yes, the Kit Kittredge movie is based on the American Girl Kit. =) And Kate will be pleased to know that that "adaptation" was my "gateway drug" to the American Girls books. (LOL!)

elena maria vidal said...

Great post! I am sure they can make history interesting for young girls without the feminist agenda. Can you imagine Abigail Adams, who was a very influential lady, ever wishing that she wore breeches? It's all so silly.

geeklady said...

Oh nuts sweetie, I bet they're all in a box somewhere. I can at least see how much the shipping is.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Elena -- Thank you for commenting. You know I always appreciate your perspective on Historical fiction. =)

That's an interesting point about Abigail Adams. I know very little about her, but if I were doing more research on girls in the US Colonial Era, I probably would begin with an account of her childhood. Thanks!

Geeklady -- You're too kind! You really don't have to go to the trouble, although I appreciate the thought. =)

Kate said...

Awwww-right...gateway drug! I'm thrilled! :)

I think it's possible that Kirsten, Molly, and Samantha were all three a bit more traditional than that later ones. I wouldn't really call it a "feminist agenda" since I hate the idea of a bunch of feminists in a room plotting to take over the world of children's lit (and as a feminist myself I also don't think it's all about inserting "feminist agenda" into everything, although I'm sure there are some feminists who would disagree with that assessment). But it's more a chicken-or-egg question...were the later ones more more overtly anachronistic because the company got popular, or did the company get wildly popular since they introduced more "relateable"/anachronistic characters?

"I think that theme too often overlaps with the idea that girls should be just like boys." - amen! I believe in celebrating the difference.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I'm reading the American Girls books in a vacuum of sorts, so that analysis didn't really occur to me. I might have thought in terms of new (feminist) writers taking over and influencing policy, but I wouldn't know how the company itself is doing, business-wise.

And I'm always a bit reluctant to think of books as products honed to suit a certain target market. Yes, I know the industry must have it's bottom line or else we wouldn't have any books at all . . . but I just don't see them that way myself! So here are other thoughts from my little vacuuum . . .

I think feminism has already permeated so much of pop culture that we can't really talk of an agenda in that Conspiracy Theory sense. A lot of today's women take for granted what their counterparts of previous eras had to struggle to swallow. So I wouldn't say feminism "creeps into" these stories (Cue sinister music! LOL!), because I think it's already a given for the writers, who don't even have to think about it. Valerie Tripp probably tried putting herself in a Colonial girl's shoes--or rather, skirts--realised that they weren't as comfortable as the modern blue jeans uniform, and concluded that the Colonial girl might secretly long for breeches. I guess what I'm objecting to is the idea that people in the past were just like us, except for their funny fashions.

lisa :) said...

Well I suppose "demure and submissive" aren't quite the right words. Prim and proper, perhaps? (More accurate with alliteration)

I suppose thought that when I think about the domestic pursuits that were considered valued for girls in older eras and the focus on manners as well as the old adage of "children should be seen and not heard" - giving a protagonist more modern sensibilities can seem like a good way to make them more easy to relate to. I didn't mean to imply that historic characters (especially women) couldn't be admirable or interesting, but I don't know that young readers would be as adept at making a connection with a young girl character that was more true to her time period. As adult readers it's easier to gain that appreciation but I think especially young readers might find it boring.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I actually agree that young readers might find a 100% historically accurate Colonial girl a boring protagonist. Not to get all chicken-and-egg again, but modern girl protagonists tend to be more adventurous, outgoing and assertive than their counterparts from earlier eras, and so young consumers of these stories come to expect a certain level of excitement and adventure. I suspect a historically accurate Colonial boy would do much better with young readers (male or female).

Lisa, I'm now wondering if you're familiar with the Kirsten books. (If you're reading this, Kate, please weigh in as well, as she is your favourite American Girl!) Although I've only read the first one, Kirsten seems very traditional--whether we'd like to call her "demure and submissive" or "prim and proper." My fourteen-year-old ESL student found Kirsten's book really boring (vastly preferring Kit's and Samantha's stories), and I believe it had something to do with Kirsten being very historically accurate. =P

(As for the other two . . . Samantha might be the rich Victorian girl, but she's very egalitarian and doesn't mind at all making friends with a servant. She also engages in a bit of activism at a school function that costs her a prize but seems to have no other social ramifications. And Kit is one of the closest to our own time, so I think it was easy to keep her true to the time period and still appealing to modern girl readers. Besides, girls have been wanting to be writers for centuries. For a long while, I guess it was the only non-traditionally feminine thing a literary heroine could really do.)

geeklady said...

@Kate: Having read all of the originals as well, I can say that Samantha, Kirsten, and Molly were definitely not more ladylike. We are introduced to Samantha I recall in particular, when she falls out of the tree she was climbing.

@Enbrethiliel: I think the tone of all the books is unmistakably modern, and it's juvenile fiction which dumbs it down even more - you may be objecting to that, but lots of historical fiction has this problem.

In fact, you're driving me so crazy here with your conspiracy theories that I'm going to come out and say it: the breeches are just a macguffin. They get Felicity from plot point A to plot point B, and are never thought of again. They didn't exist in the toy line until Pleasant was acquired by Mattel.

While the breeches in Meet Felicity may be just a poorly contrived plot device, the idea that a ten year old girl would exist in a state of tension between childhood and adulthood is not contrived at all, and it is from this tension that every plot of an American Girl books takes its motive force.

If you think that tension is contrived, you must also throw out Anne of Green Gables, who walked the ridgepole of the Barry's shed and broke her ankle doing it.

In fact, comparing and contrasting Anne, to her rough contemporaries in the American Girl world (Kirsten and Samantha) would be rather interesting. The first thing that I think of is that Anne is excited about and interested in growing up, and Samantha thinks adulthood is boring and is not very interested. Samantha's is the thoroughly modern perspective where childhood has acquired its own culture that is sharply divided from adulthood.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Okay, I'm a huge fan of Conspiracy Theories (Let's talk about "Paul is dead" sometime!), but I'm not saying that that's what we have here. (I'm sorry if the comment to Kate didn't make that clear. And now I'm just putting her name in bold so she hears us talking about her.) I think that modern writers and readers alike have absorbed a certain level of feminism, and that is why the books are what they are--also that any active pushing of a "feminist agenda" stopped being necessary after the 1980s. These days, we're just seeing permutations of a theme that the majority now takes for granted. (If anything is being pushed right now, it's the "gay agenda." I wonder what Historical fiction will look like in thirty years.)

Which is to say that despite my focus on the breeches as a symbol of "too much female empowerment" (which we value by default, while the colonists certainly didn't), I don't think Felicity's character is contrived.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

PS -- And as usual, I didn't even know that you could buy breeches for the doll! =P

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

I loved these books. Felicity was by far my favorite of the American Girls. I think if I reread them now as an adult I would probably have some problems with them, but as a kid I thought they were wonderful.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Come to think of it, I loved tomboy heroines as a child. If I had stumbled upon this series much earlier, Felicity would have been my favourite! =P