There is a book, sometimes more than one—but even then, there is usually one that is higher than the others, one among the many—for every little reading girl. A book that resonates like a silver bell within. A book that says, Yes! This is why I’m here! A book that makes you fall in love with reading, with life, with yourself. A book that means you will never be the same, because now you will grow into womanhood as the person who read this book.
Within this book, there is a character. A girl who, on the fragile verge of fictional womanhood, embodies all that you hope your real womanhood can encompass. She isn’t perfect—far from it!—because you could never be. No, she isn’t perfect, but she is whole. She exists on the pages of that book like you would like to exist in your life—fierce, free, capable, accepting of the world and herself, willing to deal with flaws but also able to rise above. Strong—oh, this girl is strong. This. Girl. Is. She’s the IT girl, you know? Way before the It Girl got co-opted by the media. Before Coca-Cola, before Marilyn and Britney, before movies. This is the girl’s girl, after your own heart, because she will ensure that it is brave and true.
For me, that book is Little Women, and the girl is Jo March. For many little girls, that book was Anne of Green Gables. I must confess that I never read Anne of Green Gables, and I don’t even know why. (I must read it, and soon—the girl in me insists!) So when I saw that Anne has gotten a makeover, I passed right on by it—the picture was just one more item in a long newsfeed I get on a daily basis, a passing representation of objectified girlhood that has become so common it is practically the stale punchline in an old, unfunny joke. This is the danger that lurks in immersing yourself in feminist discourse—after a while, that which should be an outrage is business as usual.
Fortunately for me, I have a friend who was outraged enough to ask what I thought about Anne posing as if she’s on the cover of Objects R Us. At first, I said, “Meh, I wasn’t surprised.” And then I thought: What if this was Jo March? And all my girl turned mama indignation just bubbled up. Don’t be messin with Jo March. Just. Don’t. Even.
OK then. Don’t be messin with Anne either. Step off, and step off now.
Because do you know what you are telling our little girls, oh sexist artist of the updated classics?
You are telling them to ring their bells for you, not for themselves. And they hear that enough. They hear it so much, in fact, that it’s a wonder they can still hear the ringing of the bells at all.
The reason the fictional girl on the verge of fictional womanhood resonates for us all is because she exists in the time before, as we cannot. She exists before we really understood what sex or gender are, and how they can free you and limit you at once. She exists in a time when anything is—really and truly—possible, because your imagination is your only limit, and your body has not yet been measured and tested. She exists when you belong, fully and only, to yourself.
No grown woman knows what that feels like, because we all measure our steps in a culture that claims us, bit by bit. A very few lucky little girls know it, because what should be gifted to every girl at birth has, through fortune, been gifted to them.
Objectification aims to take that away.
I—and other feminists—aim to expand it, so that what has been gifted to a very few may be freely enjoyed by all, simply by being. It is called self esteem—the kind that is so strong it leads to self-actualization. And it is our birthright.
So don’t be wrapping it up in a pose, and putting our girl heroines in the spotlight. Leave them be, so that they may wander the meadows and ride horses, write hilarious plays and paint realistic pictures. Leave them be to kiss boys in uncertainty and then ponder what they have done in solitude, growing inwardly from the experience.
Leave them be, so that they may become the women of our dreams.