Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Mother figures in fiction for boys

"We're a generation of men raised by women. I'm wondering iof another woman is really the answer we need."
One place you can get a glimpse of how feminized our society has become is in the way mothers are presented in children's fiction today as compared to a century ago. Mothers have very rarely been criticized in children's fiction; they have always been almost sacred figures for reasons that ought to be obvious. But there are ways to criticize mothers in fiction without tackling them directly and it used to be much more common than it is today. The most famous example of this is the evil stepmother.

For boys and girls adoption fantasies, and that the evil stepmother is just one of variety of adoption fantasies, are very powerful because they help prepare us to break up with our mother. Despite a lot of talk about patriarchy, our mother is the person we come out of and she holds a powerful sway over us. She is often the one who gives us most of our earliest moral lessons. If it is not our mother, it is typically other women, such as nannies or daycare workers, who give us these lessons.

For much of human history, we got handed off from women to men beyond a certain point in our upbringing. That, as Tyler Durden observes in the quote I put at the top of this post, is no longer the case. Nowadays, a boy can go from one female teacher to another all the way to adulthood and, even then, choose a lover who is really just another teacher.

It didn't used to be that way and one way that fiction prepared us for that was by belittling our mothers. That shocks us, of course, but we should ask ourselves why it bothers us so little that fathers are constantly belittled by the modern entertainment industry.

The novel Jim Davis by John Masefield provides an interesting example of this. The eponymous hero of the novel is an orphan. He ends up in the care of not one but two women: his aunt and a Mrs. Cottier who is deserted by her drunken husband and comes to live with Jim's aunt and uncle. The uncle, like many fathers, is a distant authority figure.

Before going on, I want to pause and tell you how this novel was understood by the wider culture when it was published in 1911. The copy I have was part of a collection authorized by the Boy Scouts and called Every Boy's Library. Here is how the foreword describes it:
Tempting boys to be what they should be—giving them in wholesome form what they want—that is the purpose and power of Scouting. To help parents and leaders of youth secure books that boys like best that are also best for boys, the Boy Scouts of America organized Every Boy's Library.
The word I want you to notice more than any other in that paragraph is "wholesome". I want you to notice it because the way Jim learns all the important lessons of life is by falling in with outlaws.

And then there is the way the novel deals with mother figures. In one early adventure with the outlaw who befriends them, Jim and his friend Hugh are hiding in the woods when Jim's aunt and Mrs. Cottier coming looking for them. They ignore the women's calls. Later, they confess to having done this and the following ensues:
My aunt said something about 'giving a lot of trouble' and 'being very thoughtless for others', but we had heard similar lectures many times before and did not mind them much.
Think about that for a while. Here is a book representing the establishment views of the era that told boys to just ignore their mothers when they went on about some kinds of moral responsibilities that women might want to impose on boys. You could not do that today, even though it is very good advice.

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