The Mystery of Mixed Messages

Payal Dhar is a freelance writer on technology and society, and an author of young adult books
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Enid Blyton’s storytelling as a crash course in patriarchy

ENID BLYTON MADE me a feminist at the age of six. At seven she convinced me that I had to be an author. It would be many years, decades even, before I could articulate the disquiet that my favourite author’s stories stirred in me, and the connection between that feeling and my current profession. She may have had a contrary way of going about it, but I can’t not give her credit for setting me down the path of rebellion. That the very thought might be making her turn in her grave gives me a grim sort of satisfaction.

She died almost a decade before I was born, but Blyton was one of my greatest influences. Her stories shaped my moral and ethical radar; they let me see beyond my own life and imagine new worlds; and, of course, they were instrumental in deciding my career. She also caused me a significant amount of trauma, the repercussions of which were to linger well into adulthood.

Growing up in India the 1970s and 1980s, Enid Blyton was a steadfast companion. Then came the 1990s, which saw the economy opening up. Children’s fiction poured in from the West and young readers finally had choice. Despite that, almost three decades later now, that iconic Blyton signature is still easy to spot on the shelves, both in homes and bookshops. Her prose was smooth as butter. The lucidity of her language was an art form. Years later, in journalism college, one of our professors told us that to be good writers we had to aspire to the kind of language in Blyton’s Famous Five novels. It remains the best writing advice I’ve ever got.

The protagonists in Blyton’s stories were always children (unless they were animals or toys), and they were children with agency. They made their own decisions and they hoodwinked international smugglers, contributed to war efforts, solved mysteries that baffled professionals, went on expeditions to far-off lands, unearthed treasure, escaped their abusers and took refuge on secret islands. All on their own. It was inspiring and empowering. The lesson was resounding: we kids could do anything.

Moreover, it was all clean, wholesome fun. There was no blood, no threat of loss of life or limb. The worst that could happen was that one could get tied up or locked in. But rescue always arrived. Oh, and the food they ate and how much of it! Scones and tarts and homemade jams and freshly laid eggs and jammy buns and bread still warm from the oven. Mostly alien to my peers and me, yet it made our mouths water.

Underneath this veneer of perfect skies and ever-ready picnic baskets lurked a darker reality. As much as I loved Blyton’s world and her protagonists, and yearned to be adventuring and midnight-feasting alongside them, there was the simmering knowledge that I wasn’t a good fit in this alternative universe. It did not stop my craving to escape there at the best and worst of times, though. Aching to be one of the gang and the impossibility of doing so on Blyton’s terms tore me to ribbons.

She was none too subtle about her value system and politics in her writing. On the one hand, she had a strict moral code—honesty and loyalty trumped all else; kindness and generosity came next, as did compassion; bullies were always to be stood up to; and when the chips were down, you rolled up your sleeves and mucked in. On the other hand, even back in her time, she courted controversy for the classist, racist and xenophobic underpinnings in her work. Foreigners and dark-skinned people were inherently untrustworthy, even if they were only toys. Those who lived in big houses and had scullery maids and cooks counted for more than others who had less. The English were the only ones who understood the concept of honour.

Blyton set great stock by biological determinism when it came to gender roles. Her sexism knocked you sideways, if you let it

As adults, my contemporaries—many of whom are parents now—and I talk about this quite often. Some of Blyton’s prejudices played out subtly, like classism, but even brown- skinned 10-year-olds have the self-esteem to be injured when it is insinuated that the English (there weren’t any dark-skinned Brits in her stories as far as I recall) are better than them. However, for reasons I’ve not been able to comprehend to this day, it was never a barrier in inserting myself into her stories. Maybe because there was something else that was insurmountable for me, something that my friends have no recollection of being so disturbed by.

Blyton set great stock by biological determinism when it came to gender roles. Her sexism smacked you in the face, knocked you sideways if you let it. There was a hierarchy: men ruled, women obeyed, and the little humans reflected the same dynamic in their little universe. There was, of course, no question of other genders.

Blyton’s girls were gentle, kind, caring, soft; while boys were rough, hardy, strong, boisterous. Boys had to be brave; for girls, bravery was optional. Girls liked dolls and needlework and gentle games; boys liked football and climbing trees and rough and tumble. Boys were naturally good at physical stuff; girls were automatically endowed with housekeeping skills. The general picture was that boys were ‘better’; they were stronger, cleverer, braver, more reliable, better at making decisions, better at leading. It was their job to set the rules and for girls to follow. They were the bosses, and girls who didn’t like it were swiftly put in place. (Boys who were quiet and gentle were also shamed into conforming.)

But I knew from the middle of my bones, with an instinct so ferocious that it didn’t need a name, that she was spectacularly wrong. Her sexist views were so ridiculously ‘normal’ that most of my friends didn’t even notice it, and when they did, they shrugged it off easily. That was quite impossible for me.

For I was a little butch girl who was already struggling with the socially mandated demands of gender. She was constantly being reminded that she was wrong—in how she looked, how she behaved, what she wore, the things she liked. Her greatest crime was being misidentified as a boy. So she believed it when everyone pointed out that she was doing ‘girl’ all wrong—family, friends, school, society, and her other best friends, that is, the stories she lived in.

Enid Blyton's girl protagonists were often brought to heel by being reminded that they were lesser beings

Blyton’s girl protagonists were often brought to heel by being reminded that they were lesser beings. And when they did something brave and extraordinary, they were given the highest compliment possible: ‘as good as a boy’. So every book of hers that I picked up filled me with warring emotions. A simmering excitement at having a new book, mingling with the sick anticipation of whatever poisonous put-down awaited me. I can still recite my mental list of titles that were—though at that time I did not know this term—triggering.

The only time Blyton did anything ‘interesting’ with gender was in the character of Georgina ‘George’ Kirrin in the Famous Five series. George ‘wanted to be a boy’; she wore boys’ clothes, did boyish things, sometimes better than ‘real’ boys, had a boy’s name. She was brave, headstrong and loyal—all traits deemed masculine by Blyton. And yes, I can name the book in which she was told by her boy cousin, just a year older, ‘You may look like a boy and behave like a boy, but you’re a girl all the same. And like it or not, girls have got to be taken care of.’ And George, to my eternal disappointment, relented. I wondered later on if Blyton had imagined George to be transgender. I don’t think so, but it’s a discussion for another day.

If I had known myself as a tween, I might have wondered if I were transgender. Back then, such a thing didn’t exist, not in my world at least, so there was no way to articulate it even secretly to myself. But if it were true, why did getting misgendered leave me with such discomfort? Why did not looking like a girl give me such a high, yet I could never revel in the category of ‘boy’? So, then, was I gender-queer, weaving between the perceived poles of masculine and feminine? Why did it matter what I was? Why couldn’t people let me be?

There are some things you can’t unsee once you notice them. Being a six-year-old, a 13-year-old or even a 19-year-old who is hyper-aware of the everyday sexism that is carved into the very air we breathe can be exhausting enough. It becomes traumatic when you can’t even find a word to describe yourself, when you’re constantly, persistently, out of your comfort zone. What Blyton had done with her delightful mastery of storytelling was given me a crash course on patriarchy. And as much as I loved her fiction (yes, I never stopped, for some reason), I retaliated in real life with scornful disdain at the implication that there was only one way to be a girl.

It wasn’t exactly the final stand of the brave and noble knight of gender-non-conformity. In reality, it was decades of hating and hurting. It was not comprehending why I needed to fight. It was not understanding why nobody else understood. It was never, ever, fitting in.

So what I am, then? A cisgender woman with an attitude? Someone who dances along the length of the gender spectrum? A transgender man in denial? None of these? All of these? Short answer: what I am is None of Your Business. It’s a simple enough reply when the stakes are low, but impossible to say out loud when your four-year-old nephew asks you: “Are you a girl or a boy?”

It wasn’t a question I hadn’t expected, and I should have been ready with an answer. I wasn’t, though, and in that moment I replied, “I can be whatever you want.” But it pitched me into a quest, an adventure just like the enterprising children in Blyton’s stories. Only, I wasn’t looking for treasure or smugglers. I had to find an answer for the nibling.

I wanted to say so much more that day, but I didn’t have the words. I wanted to tell him that boy and girl are not the only two options. That you can’t tell by looking at people if they are boys or girls. That nobody else decides if you are a boy or a girl or a rainbow-cultured ball of fluff. And that whatever you are, you still get to choose what kind of girl, boy or rainbow fluff you want to be. (Actually, I rather like the idea of being rainbow fluff, thank you.) I’m sure we’ll finish the conversation some day—and I hope it will lead to others.

Meanwhile, by writing young adult fantasy, I continue to create worlds where gender is a bit kinder than it is on Earth. Maybe it will help kids like the nibling to continue to ask questions, and kids like the one I once was to stop needing to. It’s an exercise in self-aggrandisement, I can see that, but I’m sticking with it.

Meanwhile, I can’t help wondering where Blyton’s misogyny stemmed from. Was she a product of her times? Or was she the proverbial foot soldier of patriarchy, desperate to make sense of an unequal world? If her own idea of fairness was as acute as that of her protagonists’, surely the injustice and inequality around her were unbearable?

I’ll never know the answer, of course. There are days when I can be kinder and forgive her. There are others when the echoes of the past are agonising, and I cannot.