On Loving the Books that Hurt You

Inspired by this post, which drove home so many things.

-M

*****

We grew up getting lost in books. Books transported us away from days we couldn’t fix and schoolyards filled with taunts, and gave us worlds beyond anything we could imagine. We were Alanna and Meg Murray, and sometimes we were Han Solo or the Dread Pirate Roberts, too. We dreamed ourselves in those worlds where we could be kind and strong and courageous, because that was what heroes did, and we learned, too, about the strength of compromise and teamwork and being ladylike.

Because we knew, deep down, that there was an undeniable strength in kindness and civility. We understood that it was true that good deeds could make the world a brighter place, even tiny good deeds, even small acts of courage – just like Gandalf told us.

And we learned that even in some of the books that inspired us, that “ladylike” was a trap: obligatory and devalued all at the same time. We loved Susan and we felt a guilt at loving her still when she showed herself to be unworthy of Narnia. We loved the women who showed grace and humility in all they did, and we tried not to notice how they seemed to get the short end of the stick. How their stories weren’t really told. How their victories weren’t really theirs. How they were so often killed to stoke the fires of someone else’s rebellion. We were fed the same maze of contradictions about what to wear (or not) and when to stand up for ourselves (or not) and we saw free thinking answered with mythical punishments.

Now we’re adults. We’re contemplating raising daughters and goddaughters and nieces of our own, and we want to show them the books that we loved so much – and we’re beginning to realize just how much those books hurts us. We put our trust in them, we walked with them into strange lands beyond anything in the world today where we could witness epic stories of love and redemption and courage…and there, we were told to make ourselves something the world could ignore. For the greater good, of course. We faced the complicated tangle of loving an adventure with all our heart and being inspired by the wisdom of the characters, while being devalued, all at the same time. And we don’t want the next generation of women to be hurt the way we were, so we ask ourselves, do we shield them or do we not?

Maybe we realize that we can do both. We can hand our daughters and friends and nieces the book and say, “The way he treats Susan is kind of crap, but I really loved these. Let me know what you think.” After, we can play frisbee with them, or take them to buy lipstick, or both. Hell, we can stop beating ourselves up for wearing lipstick, and we can model that for the next generation. We can show them that we truly do value civility and compromise by teaching them to negotiate and make sure their own interests are part of the compromises they make, and we can be careful not to shoot them down when they speak their mind and take a stand. We can give them the books we loved so much and new books, books that haven’t even been written yet, that show them new ways to be. We can give them the books we loved…and we can also listen to their voices.

Because if we let them be, the stories we tell can be just as important as the stories we hear.

 

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