“Let Her Prove Her Worth”: Culture, Critical Thought, and the Young Adult Fiction Reader

Woman who rides like a manThe pull of a long-silent memory stopped me in a familiar corner of the library. I didn’t bother to read the back jacket of Tamora Pierce’s The Woman Who Rides Like a Man before adding it to my haul for that day. The memory of Alanna: The First Adventure, from my own middle-school reading life acted as a comfortable assurance that I belonged in the universe between these covers. In some strange way, I held the rights of a founding citizen to claim entry into this more or less obscure YA world. Although the details were hazy, I remembered the first volume of Alanna’s history well enough: a young woman and her twin brother decide to reject the gender-based roles that society requires them to assume and seek their own destinies. Such stories were pretty popular in fiction for kids and teenagers when I was younger, and, if memory served, The Song of the Lioness series, of which The Woman Who Rides Like a Man was the third volume, even had a rather positive, pro-feminist approach to the tale (a trait that the college-educated, socially conscious version of that enthusiastic YA reader greatly appreciates).
I may have remembered some snippets of the universe between those covers, but once I got the volume home, something new called out to me about the covers themselves. I love the physical artifact of a book, its look and feel and smell, just as much as whatever power or truth may be contained within its pages. I was idly admiring the volume from a slight distance (yes, I like to look at books like some people look at paintings or sunsets. Don’t judge me. It’s not creepy), and the title, emblazed in white lettering under the image of a young woman in armor, sword held high and hair cut short, hit my mind’s eye in a new way.
My educational background in the nature of gender roles and the subtle ways in which they box us into certain modes of thinking about ourselves and others kicked into gear like a self-starting engine. The Woman Who Rides Like a Man: what does that imply? That Alanna’s worth as a knight, and as a human being, depends upon how well she can emulate, “masculine” traits and methods? The more she can prove that she is, “as good as the boys”, the more valuable she is as a person? Thus, the subtle complement inherent in the wording of the title and that glowing, heroic image: she may be female, but she ‘rides like a man.’ She’s proved that she’s as good as a man; not unworthy of notice or social value, like most women.
I might have decided that I was reading too much into a straightforward fantasy-adventure cover if I had not turned the book over and been greeted with this quote from the text, prominently displayed just underneath an ornate border: “Let her prove herself worthy as a man.” It was as if the text realized that I needed confirmation of my theory, and very sportingly decided to help me out.
Contrary to the assumptions of most stereotypical images of feminists, my first instinct wasn’t to tear the book to pieces in an indignant ‘feminiazi’ lady-rage. In fact, this confirmation of my original interpretation did not produce any significant indigence at all. At best, it might have induced a brief sigh, but in the end, I found the discovery more enlightening than frustrating. It served as a fascinating moment of illumination on a corner of my childhood, a new window into an old story that I did not have the conceptual background to properly see when I first read the book. Those moments of insight do not come around every day, and it was oddly exciting to be granted this new layer of illumination that allowed me to view a cherished memory in a broader social context.
I do not believe that my exposure to The Song of the Lioness series, in and of itself, caused any significant damage to my sense of worth as a female, nor do I hold any ire toward the books as a result of my discovery. This series, like countless books, films, poems and albums before and since, is the product of a culture that privileges traditionally “male” traits over traditionally “female” traits in many subtle ways. That innocuous little cover is a symptom of a much, much broader illness that impacts everyone, both male and female, living in a Western culture, but I do not see this as a reason to avoid the book, as though the very cardboard and paper carries a social plague. I choose to see this new understanding of an old memory as an exciting opportunity to both examine the more complex messages in the text for myself, and, perhaps, even discuss the implications of those messages, both good and bad, with young girls who encounter them today.
The third volume of The Song of the Lioness series suggests some very problematic messages in its title and cover art, but problematic messages alone will not keep me from engaging with the text. In fact, I’m glad that the title was phrased in a way that suggests a valuing of “masculine” traits and a devaluing of “feminine” traits, because this realization serves as a guidepost, telling me what to watch for as I read the text with a thoughtful, aware, critical eye. The more we read with both eyes wide open, paying attention to the implications and subtle messages that stories contain about how human beings should see themselves and one another, the better equipped we are to reason through what we consume, and discuss the potentially oppressive messages in the world around us intelligently and openly.
We owe it to ourselves, and to our shared social reality, to acknowledge the messages implicit in the stories that we read. As consumers of all kinds of fiction, we have the privilege to question the messages that we receive about ourselves and others, to consider which images of humanity will move us all forward, and to decide which ones might hold us all back. Engaging fearlessly with the ideas that fill our screens and bookshelves is the best way to embrace the greatest power that we have, both as humans and as readers: the ability to think deeply about the world that we live in and empower everyone to embrace the best parts of his, or her, own humanity.

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2 responses to ““Let Her Prove Her Worth”: Culture, Critical Thought, and the Young Adult Fiction Reader

  1. You’ve made me really want to read The Song of the Lioness series – I hope it lives up to your childhood expectations!
    I’ve only recently been in a seminar discussion which spoke about male and female roles and expectations. Personally, I don’t feel that women acting masculine is necessarily a bad thing: feminists want equal rights to men, which must mean that they wish to shun the traditional “housewife” image which was once so popular (but which – for obvious reasons – degraded women). As it is, women are beginning to assume the roles of men by the way in which they’re beginning to go out and work, so surely these females are becoming more “masculine” in order to gain more power?

    • It’s not really the heroine acting in a “masculine” way that I find problematic. In fact, from a feminist perspective, men doing things that are traditionally “feminine” (like being caregivers or showing affection to friends) and women doing things traditionally thought “masculine” (like being assertive and stating thier opinions) is a good thing, because it shows that, despite what we’ve ssometimes been taught, personality traits aren’t part of a certian gender’s genetic code. Human beings are more complex than that. The thing I find interesting here is the implication that “male”=”worth.” i.e., the “masculine” the character acts, the more worth she has as a human being. That implies that the more ‘femenine’ you act, the less worth you have as a human being. She “rides like a man,” therefore she’s awsome–she’s “proved her worth” as the quote in the back cover says–but if she rode like a woman…that would mean she had less worth. That’s what’s problematic: the message to little girls that in order to have worth you have to act like a boy–because boys have inherent worth, but girls don’t. Again, I don’t hate the books, but that “male=worthy” message is all over our culture in subtle ways, and being aware of it decreases the harm it can do.

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