This comes of discussing Coraline with my sister again. She who prefers not to be known as the Ginger Waifling was enamored with that particular book and, in fact, led us both to the awesomeness of its author that way. Coraline, for those who neither read creepy books nor watch passable silver screen adaptations, is the story of a little girl who discovers a way to another family. They seem to answer all her dreams of what a family ought to be, but then it goes from sour to dreadful and our heroine barely escapes. It’s a theme he touches on again in The Sandman: A Game of You, wherein Barbie’s Dream world (pun unintended but unavoidable) is destroyed by a villain known as the Cuckoo. Spoiler here: The Cuckoo is an odd manifestation of Barbie’s childhood dreams of being a foundling from another family, presumably royal. Without going into detail about that plot, the Cuckoo does expound at length on Gaiman’s theory. Unfortunately I don’t own the book and it’s long past time that bad rabbits and ginger waifs should go to bed, but I’ll try and summarize without access to the quote.
Little girls dream of being someone else. Of being the long lost princess, usually, but always of having another family, another place to belong. Boys, on the other hand, just dream about being knights and driving trucks and stuff.
Bullshit, says the Waif.
It’s not that little girl story. It’s not even that story. It’s the, story, to be a stickler for articles. It’s the story that drives all the others, the story that makes a teller of tales, the story of the misfit who’s really someone cool. Once upon a time there was a boring, everyday person who didn’t fit in. But then it was Uncle Bilbo’s birthday. His uncle bought some used droids. A letter was delivered to #4 Privet Drive. And those are just modern uses. Was once this time in Bethlehem when three wise men made a visit to a house and bestowed gifts on the baby there. Ever since we got past the idea that the only people worth talking about were born fighting dragons and died with all the gold and enemy skulls and who were kings and demigods, we produced the secret hero. He’s all those things, only no one knows it, and generally everyone’s mean to him and won’t they all be sorry?
Ahem. Now, notice how all my abovementioned examples are united in chromosomes? The misfits who only need to be discovered to be the chosen ones to take on the world aren’t the dreams of boys. They’re the dreams of misfits. But while not every boy needs that escape and that dream, just about every girl in societies like humanity’s produced so far generally do. Girls are socialized to compromise and nourish and subsume their own desires to everyone else’s until they’re not the least bit at home in their own skin. But they’re also socialized to know they don’t get to have a sword and save the kingdom. So the secret person they really are becomes tied to family with the rest of their identity. Leia needs to be a princess. Does anyone in real Star Wars ever point out that Luke would then, presumably, be a prince? (Never mind that they’d be royalty of a planet that somehow elected its monarchs, because that’s dumb and beside the point.) It’s cool to be a prince, sure, but you don’t need to be one.
In some parts of the world, at least, that socialization for little girls is changing. Or at least it’s being challenged. When the Ginger Waif was even smaller, the bedtime stories followed the adventures of a princess, but the point was mostly having dragons and her parents simply became a king and queen as well. And the littlest member of my family gets stories about a girl who lives with some mad scientists. No royalty necessary, a few decades later.
Though you know, when I think back to the heroines who really defined my youth, no one got a freaking Gandalf. Cimorene wandered out one day and signed up to be a dragon’s assistant. Alanna tricked her own way into knight school. Sabriel let herself over the wall. Deeba took over when the anointed one was knocked out of the game.
No wonder the boys get so ansty around wicked girls rescuing themselves. No need to be a princess nowadays, and no one needs to be the chosen one, either. Everyone’s in charge of finding their own adventures.