I thought I was finished with Calpurnia Tate, but throughout this week something about it has been bugging me, and I decided maybe this is the best way to put those thoughts to rest.
One of the themes that runs through the book is Calpurnia's frustration with the gender role she's stuck in. She wants to follow her grandfather around and immerse herself in science, but her mother is always forcing her to do things that Calpurnia considers boring and annoying, like knitting or sewing or learning to make a pie. Calpurnia hatches the idea that what she would like to do when she grows up is go to the university, but her mother seems to have her heart set on having Calpurnia "come out" in society with all the social engagements and fancy dresses that go along with it. I can see that this book is going to be celebrated as one that encourages girls to break out of the traditional roles and look to fields that have historically been dominated by men (specifically science).
I don't have a problem with girls being encouraged to explore their interests and to aspire to work in fields that have traditionally been reserved for men. I do, however, take exception to the devaluing of so-called "women's work" or "feminine interests." For the record, Calpurnia Tate is not the first book to do this; I remember reading something (sorry, can't remember what it was) in the last year or so that did the same thing. But Calpurnia is the one that brought it back to mind, so my examples will come from this book. Calpurnia, the viewpoint character girls who read this book will identify with, consistently talks trash about feminine pursuits and seems to take a certain amount of pride in being bad at all of them. She says it takes her three hours to make a pie, and then she makes fun of what a bad pie it is. The same thing is true of her tatting. She gets third prize at the fair for what she knows is a poorly-made item. When I was reading that part, I thouht, "maybe she wasn't as bad at it as she thought...maybe she's going to find something she has in common with her mother that she's ok at doing." But no. The only reason Calpurnia got third place is because there were only three entries.
Hey, people, there's as much beauty in a tatted doily as there is in an orb spider's web. And there is as much honor in being able to produce that beautiful tatted doily as there is in being able to identify the spider that spun the web.
My problem with books that take the stand on gender issues that Calpurnia Tate takes is that they perpetuate the gender divide. Stuff that guys do is interesting; stuff that girls do is boring. What preteen girl who is reading Calpurnia Tate wants to lump herself in with those boring girls like Calpurnia's friend (gosh, I've already forgotten her name!) (seriously!)? The friend may win first-place in tatting, and she may have three of Calpurnia's brothers going loony for her, but she's not very interesting. AND she has sweat on her nose - gross.
By making "masculine" pursuits the only attractive ones and by devaluing "feminine" pursuits, I think books like Calpurnia Tate are guilty of doing just what they purport to fight against - restriction of personal choice. And let's face it - the reality of the world is that someone has to cook that pie. I remember at one point while I was reading Calpurnia Tate that I became very annoyed. Calpurnia was comparing the life her mother led with the life she herself wanted. She talked about how her mother was tied down with all kinds of household chores. "But," I thought, "what's she complaining about? Viola and SanJuanna (the maids) do all the hardest work." The cooking, the washing, the cleaning - Calpurnia's mother doesn't do that. Those "feminine" chores fall to women of a lower class - the quadroon and the Latina.
I don't care if you (male or female) are a scientist. You have to eat something. You have to clean your clothes. You have to wash your dishes. Unless you don't mind living in filth, you have to clean your bathroom at some point. The joke is, men get a girlfriend to do those things. I guess a woman, if she's well-paid enough, hires another woman (who will be paid considerably less). And before anyone pipes up and says a person can eat at McDonald's, I'm going to point out that when you eat at McDonald's, you are indirectly hiring that person to cook for you - at minimum wage.
So what's my gripe? I would like to see a story sometime about a girl who aspires to be a scientist, or a doctor, or a political figure who embraces rather than rejects the feminine gender roles. I'd like to see a story about a boy who learns to make a pie or a loaf of bread at the same time he's learning to hunt and fight. I don't think those roles are mutually exclusive. Our literature for young people shouldn't make it seem that they are.