FICTION AND NONFICTION INTRODUCTIONS TO THE PATRIARCHY
The transition to adulthood is disorienting for both sexes but it can be especially challenging for girls. The middle school years mark an increase in bullying, dieting, and self-censorship as girls adjust to unfamiliar bodies and societal pressures. Fortunately, books can be great resources for girls to understand this period and distract themselves from it as well. Listed are ten books re-examining America’s expectations of women.
Nonfiction selections teach girls that their struggles are not personal, but societal. Research will expose how companies profit from manufactured insecurities and how the patriarchy benefits from silenced opinions. After a lifetime of socialization, girls may need proof that they are not the problem. Here are the facts.
We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Simple and strong, this quick read is the perfect introduction for a budding feminist. It shows how sexism touches everyday life, even when it is denied. Adichie uses her experiences in Nigeria and America to illustrate patriarchal influences around the world. Then, she defines feminism and explains how it could improve the future. This is already widely read in American schools, and it can prepare readers for other feminist manifestos.
The Beauty Myth, by Naomi Wolf
This was written amidst the heroin-chic era of the 1990s, but it remains relevant today. The Beauty Myth explores the diet industry’s relationship with the media and how the beauty standard tightens as women gain power. Wolf details the physical consequences of dieting and shares her personal battle with anorexia. This book will turn shame into anger, and it will open necessary conversations about body image and self-love.
Odd Girl Out, by Rachel Simmons
This is the first study on bullying among girls. Simmons explores toxic friends, “accidental insults” and group exclusion. She calls this “indirect aggression,” a way to hurt someone without sacrificing one’s self-image. She also discusses how competition and social status extend into later life. It couples anecdotes with analysis and ends with advice on living authentically.
Letter to My Daughter, by Maya Angelou
Although Angelou has written several autobiographies, this one is addressed specifically to young women. In it, she spiritually adopts every girl and writes to them as if they were her own. She shares her wisdom in a series of lessons, which range from heavy to hilarious. Reading it feels like a gift.
Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay
This is a collection of essays with titles ranging from “Not Here to Make Friends” to “The Morality of Tyler Perry.” Gay looks at pop culture through a queer Black feminist lens and humanizes greater issues through the incorporation of personal stories. She examines American culture with all its nuances and rejects individualism to look at the larger complex social systems at work.
Feminism’s message that girls can do anything is sometimes misinterpreted as a demand that they be everything. Most middle schoolers are not supermodels with superpowers, and unrealistic portrayals of women can be intimidating. At a time where girls are lonely and self-critical, even the understanding of a fictional character can be a blessing. The following novels star human characters with all the shortcomings and complexities of the average pre-teen. They seem to say, “I know how you feel, and it will get better.”
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume
Judy Blume’s 1970 classic is the go-to puberty book. Margaret is in sixth grade, and she is going to decide her religious identity. Simultaneously, she competes with her friends to grow the biggest boobs and experience first periods. Blume describes the fear and excitement about becoming a woman clearly and gently.
Millicent Min, Girl Genius, by Lisa Yee
This is another light book about making friends, fitting in, and first periods. Millicent is nerdy and unpopular, so she hides her true self from Emily, her first friend. Millicent’s loneliness and self-consciousness are universal, and Yee is able to keep the book light and funny. It is a fast read, and it looks at middle school values and stereotypes.
The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers
When it comes to 1940’s angst, The Catcher in the Rye steals most of the attention. However, Salinger could not capture uniquely feminine experiences addressed in The Member of the Wedding. The Member of the Wedding features Frankie, a seventh-grader who feels like the world is “turning a thousand miles an hour.” She is overwhelmed by shallow understandings of World War II, racism and sexism. She feels “caught” in her life and disconnected from everyone else. Perpetually angry, confused and dissatisfied, Frankie is a hardcore messy tween, not a manifestation of feminine ideals.
The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros
Told through chronological vignettes, 1984’s The House on Mango Street is still a middle school staple. The protagonist, Esperanza is ashamed of her class, her family and even her name. She is curious about boys and proud of her new hips, but she distrusts traditional womens’ roles. Images of housewives staring out their kitchen windows terrify her as she learns how social systems will impact her life. She grows up as she writes, and the reader watches her become stronger.
Two or Three Things I Forgot to Tell You, by Joyce Carol Oates
This one is rough, and a parent may need to read it before passing it to a younger girl. Oates describes three girls struggling with anorexia, self-harm and suicidal thoughts. The book completely throws the readers into their minds, so they can share in the thought processes that lead to unhealthy behavior. Oates writes about girls’ need for approval and the psychological strain from trying to be perfect. She does not glorify or dismiss these topics but instead shows how frightening they can be.
Almost all of these mention consensual sex and/or rape, so parents may want to read them first. There are no graphic scenes, but they can still be upsetting. This list should not be considered as final but as a basic starting point for understanding what it is like to grow up female in the patriarchy. In a world that pits women against each other and themselves, books can be unifying and empowering.