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:
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.)