Fancy Nancy & the Male Gaze

This post inaugurates a new feature category here at Slatebreakers in which we critically analyze some aspect of kidlit or YA. We’re calling it “Use Your Gray Matter.” This category is named after a line of dialogue from one of our recent favorite books, Bink & Gollie by Kate DiCamillo and Alison McGhee. In the book, Gollie tells Bink to “use her gray matter” when she needs to think things through. We invite you to use your gray matter along with us as we examine characters and series from a feminist perspective.

First, I want share a little background about me that will provide some context for my take on Fancy Nancy. I am not a girly girl. Not once in my life have I ever worn a princess costume. Rather than idolizing princesses, I spent my childhood pretending to be the nasty stepsisters and the wicked witches from fairy tales. I perfected an evil cackle before the age of 5. Thus, when I learned that I would be teaching a week of summer camp based on the Fancy Nancy books by Jane O’Connor, I approached the series with disdain.

I decided to read my first Fancy Nancy book with an open mind. I was surprised when I found that I didn’t hate it. Yes, Nancy is kind of spoiled, she’s 90% frilly sparkles, and she’s really overdoing it with the Francophilia – but the concept of the series is sound in that it aims to expand young readers’ vocabularies. Nancy has a lot in common with those children who are expert imaginers; the ones who try to weave all of their daily activities into their fantasy worlds.

Although Fancy Nancy is superficial, she’s still charming. She’s ten times more likeable than Pinkalicious. So why is it that I still get a sick feeling in my gut every time I look at that book? One day, it finally hit me: in the cover image on the first Fancy Nancy book, Nancy is pictured as if she were a model posing for a heterosexual male audience.

Take a look at how Nancy is standing: angled legs, hips thrust forward, peeking out at the viewer over her sunglasses. She’s posing the way the girls pose on America’s Next Top Model. And her outfit – she’s basically wearing the trappings of a burlesque dancer. Swimwear, heels, and a feather fan on a woman 20 years older would look pretty sexy. Something like this, in fact:

That’s pretty lady and burlesque phenom Dita Von Teese. Now, I have nothing against Ms. Von Teese – in fact, I think she’s an impressive, stylish, and groundbreaking woman. But it’s weird to me that a best-selling children’s book character looks as if she shares a wardrobe with a burlesque performer.  As I perused the illustrations further, I found that Fancy Nancy had more than a little in common with Dita. Here’s an illustration from the book in which Nancy is giving her parents fancy lessons while wearing a tutu and her signature red toe shoes, laced up to her knees:

And here’s Dita in her ballerina costume:Trust me, there are more similarities, but some of the comparison pictures of Dita show a little more skin than I’m comfortable posting on this blog.

I might come off as a stuffy old granny while writing this post, and I hope I can convince you that is not the case. I’m not necessarily an advocate of conservative dress and absolute modesty for little girls. I think it is totally acceptable for little girls to play dress up, and sometimes they are going to run around in their underwear or put on fancy clothes. That’s fine. What worries me is the public, marketed over-sexualization of little girls, and the way that sexualization creeps into the cover image of the first Fancy Nancy story. There must be another way to make this little girl character appealing to readers.

I was relieved to find that subsequent Fancy Nancy books have significantly different images on the cover. Nancy is dressed less like a burlesque bombshell and more like an eccentric little girl. Nevertheless, that first cover image makes a lasting, and disturbing, impression.

So, readers, what do you think? Am I overreacting to this image of Fancy Nancy? Am I simply imagining the male gaze in this context? Have you noticed any other images like this in kidlit? Bring your gray matter to the conversation!

(For more about girl culture and the premature sexualization of girls, check out Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein. I’m reading it now and it’s quite good, and thought provoking.)

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18 Responses to Fancy Nancy & the Male Gaze

  1. Sarah says:

    So interesting to think about this, especially since I agree with you Brianna, the actual content of the books isn’t nearly as insipid as I thought it would be. I think it’s the fact that sexualized=fancy or, really, when you think about it, sexualized=feminine. So here we’ve got this little girl who keeps trying to “be fancy” and is essentially performing femaleness (or her perception of femaleness anyway) to a really extreme degree. That’s a complicated question in and of itself, but the fact that the lines between female and sexualized are blurred, even when it comes to preschoolers is alarming.

    • Brianna says:

      Yes, it really does seem like “fancy” = “feminine” = “sexualized” in this case. And this coded meaning emerged when the boys in the Fancy Nancy camp shied away from being described as “fancy” – they wanted to be “handsome” or “dapper,” or something other than “fancy.” Makes you think, right?

  2. Emily Hayes says:

    As a mother of a 4-year-old who’s just started appreciating the Fancy Nancy books, I’ve never made the connection. Now that it’s glaring me in the face I feel a little silly for not seeing it sooner – especially since I’ve been reading Orenstein’s CAMD for the past few weeks! I’ll admit, Nancy annoys the heck out of me — she’s just so prissy — but my daughter loves the new words. “Bonjour” & “dapper” are this week’s faves. The images disturb me, though, and I’ll be even more vigilant about scanning the images of her books before we bring them home.

    • Brianna says:

      I’m glad you commented, Emily, because it’s helpful for me to hear a parent’s perspective. I am not a parent, and I work as a teaching artist, so my primary interactions with Fancy Nancy are in drama camps/classroom settings. As an educator I can’t help but appreciate the vocabulary that Fancy Nancy develops, but I feel so conflicted about the visual messages in the book. Thanks for bringing your “gray matter” to our conversation.

    • Sarah says:

      Emily, how do you deal with these kinds of issues when they come up with your daughter? What kind of conversations do you have?

  3. Deb V. says:

    You are making my grey matter hurt! I wish we could sit down face to face and unpack this! As a girl who grew up enjoying wearing tutus and sparkles, but also loved camping and digging in the sand, I appreciated views of all different kinds of girls in the books I read. I loved Ramona Quimby’s disasterious shenanigans, but also loved sweet Jane in Pride and Prejudice. I guess the common theme is that the characters I really loved the most had thoughtful heads on their shoulders, even if they sometimes forgot (or decided not) to use them. As a woman who discovered her “girly” side later in life, I still struggle to reconcile my love of pink dresses with my hyper-intellectualism. Is it possible to be perceived as both pretty and smart? And are there female characters out there who are valued equally in both categories?

    PS–Oregon Children’s Theatre is doing a musical version of Pinkilicious next season. I’ve not read it, but I’m already frightened. And pink is my signature color! But still . . .

    • Brianna says:

      Deb, you pose some great questions that I think Sarah and I should consider for future posts – looking for those characters who show us beauty and brains and feel confident in both areas. I think that finding those heroines could be a strong antidote to commodified and heavily marketed “pretty girl” characters like Fancy Nancy and Pinkalicious. (I am not familiar with Pinkalicious the musical but I’ve seen it become increasingly popular with children’s theatres, so I better check it out.)

      Will you be at the AATE conference in Chicago next week? Sarah and I will both be there and we would love to shat with you in person about your comments. Thanks for contributing your thoughts to the dialogue!

      • Sarah says:

        I agree with everything Brianna says, and Deb I think you should put Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens NEXT on your to read list for a really interesting commentary on the possibility of perception as pretty and smart (and a lot of other awesome things besides)

      • Deb V. says:

        Unfortunately, I won’t be at AATE–sorry to miss out on a great opportunity to chat! Sarah–adding Beauty Queens to my list!

  4. Tifani Pust says:

    I completely agree with you Brianna. Sometimes the effect of the male gaze is so subtle it sneaks in without us even fully acknowledging it! It disturbs me that part of the perversity of it all IS the subtlety and sneakery it entails. Off topic a bit- but with teenage nieces I have even seen some of thier FB photos that innocently/accidentally include images/facial expressions/poses that can be filed right in line with the “for a heterosexual male audience” label. I know my nieces well and I kno it isn’t intentional. We’ve all been taught that “this is sexy” and recreate it with or without knowing exactly what we’re doing and how we’re sliding down a slippery slope. It’s all rather frustrating.

    • Brianna says:

      Your point about the facebook photos is interesting, because I have been pondering a drama activity we did in the preschool Fancy Nancy camp I just taught. We gave the children large, neutral pieces of fabric and allowed them to craft them into their own “fancy outfits.” We then hosted a fashion show during which the campers showed off their creations. Some of the 4-6 year old girls (and it was mostly girls enrolled in the camp) strutted and posed with a bodily awareness that surprised me. They knew exactly how to angle and position their bodies like the women we see in advertisements, fashion magazines, etc. Like you mentioned, I doubted it was intentional – it just sort of happened. I’m now wondering if it was even a good idea for me to include that activity to being with. Thanks for keeping the conversation going – you definitely got me thinking!

      • Sarah says:

        It’s so true! It’s amazing how young these kinds of things become socialized. And as parents and teachers, what is better? To try to avoid it? Or to start conversations that our young people may or may not be ready to engage in?

  5. Appalling. These are actually good books. many people are so small minded to put up these stereo types. and if your really reading the art work this way you better get checked out for being a pedo, sad.

    • Brianna says:

      Amanda,

      We actually agree with you that the books are good on a lot of levels. But we also have a lot of questions about some of the things that are represented in them. Do we think that Jane O’Connor is intentionally trying to sexualize young girls with her books? Absolutely not. But we do think that society’s hyper-sexualization of women bleeds over into the way we often see girls represented? Yes, we definitely do. And that’s what we’re trying to bring attention to, and start conversations about, with posts like this.

  6. My daughter LOVES these books and, although I noticed the sometimes objectionable images of Nancy, she was always much more taken by overboard style and storyline. I haven’t worried about it. That might change if I broaden my consideration to other book series.

    • Brianna says:

      Thanks for commenting, Juliann. What other books/series does your daughter enjoy? We’re looking for more picture book ideas to consider and review here at Slatebreakers.

  7. liberalmama says:

    Interesting discussion. I’ve stayed away from both Pinkalicious and Fancy Nancy because they seem hyper girly and not really what I want to be promoting to my daughter. But then again, I don’t want to shield her from things that other children her age are reading and enjoying. Very torn on this.

    I’m planning to attend a Pinkalicious stage production — mainly because I thought it would be fun for DD to experience the theatre with some of her preschooler friends. It may not be what I’d choose to see given a lot of options, but she’ll see, read, hear lots of things in her life that don’t exactly have my stamp of approval. I hate censoring material geared toward her age group, but I also hate promoting gender stereotypes, violence etc. Ah, what’s a mom to do? We went to see the play Jemima Puddle-duck a few weeks ago and I was unsure how to handle the fact that the fox wanted to EAT Jemima Puddle-Duck. DD picked up on it, and it didn’t bother her much at all. In the second part of the production, a hunter tried to shoot the rabbit characters. It all sounded so sweet on the flyer…

    • Brianna says:

      Thanks for joining the conversation. You make an interesting point about Jemima Puddle-Duck – sometimes those stereotypes can blindside us, even in the most innocent of situations. You mention what you’ve avoided with your daughter so far – what characters/series have you encouraged and shared with her? What literature does she respond to most enthusiastically?

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