Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Sexism in pony books


Jessie Haas is writing a book about pony books (it will be published in 2009 and is, at the moment, called Horse Crazy), about which we've been corresponding, and she told me recently about a book she read called The Ginger Horse by Maureen Daly, which I've never read, but "has a girl hitting her teen years and starting to think that her boy friend really is smarter and stronger and more important" (quote from Jessie).

That started me thinking about sexist attitudes in pony books. I suppose one of the reasons pony books are so very popular with girls is that they show girls as strong and capable, or as equal partners with boys. I'm going to pick the books I've read recently as examples (though I may be self-selecting here, as I've been reading titles by authors I already knew I liked). So, Veronica Westlake's The Mug's Game has a heroine who is initially a bit of a wimp being initiated by the twin girls with whom she goes to live into a country life which is something of a walk on the wild side. The boy character is an elder brother intent on writing a play, who is seen as eccentric but in an entirely understandable way. Here, the mother is the one with the high-powered job, who keeps the household going.

Next came Cecilia Knowle's Hippo, a Welsh Cob. This has a good mix of male and female characters, with never a hint that one might be better than the other. The only villains of the pieces are so because they are thoughtless.

Josephine Pullein-Thompson's Six Ponies has a character who is extraordinarily dismissive of girls; but he is one of the book's villains and JPT obviously disapproves of him. JPT is unusual in having a virtually equal distribution of male and female characters, and what sex you are has absolutely no bearing on how well you do with your horse.

I suppose one really glaring example of stereotyping comes in Pony Jobs for Jill. Until this point, Jill has wanted to be a Matron of an orphanage, run a stable, work for Captain Cholly-Sawcutt and be an MHF. Although she obviously becomes a writer as she describes herself as the author of the books, in what always struck me as a bizarre turn, after trying various horsey jobs, she and Ann go off to do secretarial courses. I am not decrying secretarial courses: I did one myself after university when it soon became plain that I needed a few practical skills as well as the ability to argue about Alexander the Great.


The thing that really made the Jill episode stick in my craw, I suppose, is that it's one of the few times you sense Ruby Ferguson's authorial voice coming through. It is so absolutely what your mother or grandmother are going to recommend what you, a horsey girl, do, and it doesn't ring true with Jill's character as we know it. I know she says she's going to be secretary to the Prime Minister, but why not be PM herself?

10 comments:

Susanna said...

Alison Haymonds writes very well about the whole 'secretarial college' thing in her academic essays on pony books. She makes the excellent point that it's kind of specific to the time. The the parents of Jill et al, secretarial college was white-collar, and working with horses was little better than being 'in service'. Being PM was probably a bit too radical.

Susanna said...

That should read "to the parents of Jill"

Maybe I should go to secretarial college...

Jane said...

I think that the world that is presented in the books, with this one exception, is not, then, the standard "white collar" point of view. Mrs Darcy and Captain Cholly-Sawcutt are both seen as perfectly ok, socially, and both presumably make their money out of horses. Both are demonstrably efficient and successful: Mrs Darcy is a role model.

My theory is that Ruby Ferguson had created a world which showed equality rather too successfully for either her or her family's or her publisher's world view. I still think that Jill's capitulation does not fit in to the books' world: undoubtedly someone's yes, but not Jill's.

Susan in Boston said...

I've not read the Ginger Horse myself, though I see it quite often on ebay(after that review, I'll be giving it a miss, I think).

Like you, I'm astonished...you really have to do some looking to find really sexist attitudes in a pony book! Even some of the authors of books that had romance subplots (Janet Randall's Saddles for Breakfast, Janet Lambert's Dria Merideth trilogy, Jane McIlvaine's Cammie trilogy), the girl is still a strong and equal (or better!) character.

Now if you were looking for racial stereotypes, that would, unfortunately, be a different story altogether.

BTW...love the look of Hippo...who was the illustrator?

Gillian said...

I always wondered what was behind Jill's decision to give up horses and settle down in a proper job. I think only one or two books before, she'd virtually been offered a place with Captain Cholly-Sawcutt.

I've thought it might be the author or publisher deciding this would be too dream-come-true, and switching to something that would be more like the experience of real-life horsey girls.

It's a shame, as Jill deserved better.

Jane said...

I've just gone along to the library and am trying to inter-library loan books Alison Haymond has contributed to. Fingers crossed.

Susan - Hippo is illustrated by Juliette Palmer. It's a lovely read. I can thoroughly recommend! I've done some photos of the internal illustrations for her Hua Ma, and will try and get them on the site asap.

mutterings and meanderings said...

I reckon Jill went to college for about a month, decided it wasn't for her and jacked it in, then went to work for Cap C-S.

I wish someone would write a 'what Jill did next'

Linda Newbery said...

I think one of the reasons for the appeal of the pony story is that girl characters can show physical bravery and resourcefulness and be the equal of boys - and can often outdo boys because they combine sympathy and understanding with practical skill.

Monica Edwards' stories, which I loved as a child, provide good examples of girls being just as brave and daring as boys - particularly Tamzin and Rissa in the Romney Marsh stories.

Linda Newbery said...

PS I was disappointed about Jill's career choice, too! Couldn't understand why she capitulated.

Jane Badger said...

It would be interesting to know what people who read the books when they came out made of Jill's capitulation. I guess they'd be coming up to their sixties now, and it was a different world.