A few weeks ago my W&G studies class did an exercise that involved listing the people who had part in socializing us into our genders. It was through this exercise that I realized something big on a personal level: books and other media had more influence on my higher mental growth than the people I had face to face interaction with as I grew up.
I’m not saying they had a bigger influence on who I am overall: there are parts of my essential being that became rooted in me long before I could read. Basic survival and academic skills were taught by my family and teachers, as were experiences that cannot have the same effect on an individual if simply read in a book.
There is, however, something about the way I grew up that made me different from my family. A large portion of my values are different from the people I was in contact with from childhood to the brink of young adulthood. An even larger portion of my knowledge was gained from sources other than my family or my school. My ambition and expectations for my life and my beliefs about existence are alien from the surroundings I had.
This other influence was, as I said, the books, magazines, movies and TV shows whose information I consumed with a voracious appetite. An anecdotal demonstration of the volume of books I read is that, one summer, my local library allowed me to check out 100 books at once, all of which I read (except for the Gossip Girl series, which I skimmed). When I came home from school, my free time was spent watching TV, and, as I grew older, reading.
Media was an escape from my unpleasant station in life. There were many times when my reality literally slipped away from my perception—I was left behind in the library several times until my elementary school teacher realized she had lost a kid. Through the pages of books and the smooth glass of the television screen, I gained perspectives that I could not have encountered in my reality.
It was these media that introduced me to feminism. The most obvious example of a feminist influence on my young mind, was a magazine my elementary school inexplicably stocked (I grew up in a conservative area) that I only recently realized was explicitly feminist: New Moon. It featured an advice column that gave healthy advice to young girls, a section called “herstory”, information about physical issues girls face, and articles about important issues that were written purely by the young readers of the magazine. (If you want to get a subscription for a little girl in your life, just click the link here!)
There were countless, less obvious examples as well.
I burned through my libraries’ copies from the Dear America and The Royal Diaries series, and many miscellaneous historical fictions. Nearly all were written from the point of view of female protagonists, and though they were fictional representations of girls during their times, they were strong, brave, smart, and important. They faced obstacles related to their gender that often seemed foreign, but sometimes hit near to my reality. The injustices they faced made my fragile and developing sense of injustice boil.
It was through these books that I learned about my culture’s history with gender—from the treatment of women in Greece (discovered through a Magic Tree House book)—to the treatment of female factory workers. In a side note, the latter was learned in one of the most poignant novels in the young adult historical fiction genre that I have ever read: Uprising. It was about three girls who perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (the story still gives me goose bumps thinking about it today).
Throughout my reading, I encountered strong female role models. The widely adventurous Ms. Frizzle, teacher in The Magic School Bus series, was a favorite character of mine in elementary school. Leslie from Bridge to Teribithia was different and not afraid of her difference. Ella from Ella Enchanted did not need the prince to save her, she did it by her own will.
Above all, Hermione from Harry Potter was my greatest fictional role model. She was intelligent, clever, strong, and fiercely loyal. These were not just additions to an already conventionally pleasing character either. She wasn’t initially a conventionally pretty young girl, and she wasn’t well liked by her peers (she was a teacher’s pet and a know it all). Despite the initial low esteem she had among her peers, she did amazing and brave things. By the end of the series matured into a well-rounded individual and maintained her identity even as she began to develop romantic relationships. She was my hero.
These texts are where the feminist in me was born.