I hate to take on Naomi Wolfe, because I do appreciate that she brings a feminist perspective to children's literature. However, I think she was a little too harsh in her New York Times' review of Fairest by Gail Carson Levine.
While I agree with her that the singing in the book doesn't work, I don't think it's at all inappropriate that Aza, the main character, "sees herself harshly, for most of the book" and "sees others who possess beauty in an equally obsessive way." Wolfe says, "this worldview is not terribly interesting."
It's interesting if you're a teenager, which is the group the book was written for. It's audience is probably going to be girls on the younger end of adolescence and appearance is important to them. Wolfe and I may not think that's right, but what we think isn't going to change anything. Adolescents are self-conscious about their appearance and to be told outright that you're unattractive, as Aza is, is going to be the source of pain and suffering. To make Aza just take it, to just ignore it because she's above all that would be nice and instructional for readers, but it wouldn't have a whole lot to do with the world that, sad to say, they have to live in.
Wolf also says, "If you look at the great unbeautiful heroines of literature, whatever they were contending with, they insisted on the right to love themselves."
I wish she had told us who these unbeautiful heroines might be, and if they were teenage characters.
Finally, Wolf tells us, "A heroine who obsesses about her own appearance — especially when she is experiencing such intriguing things as dragon-flake soap and skirmishes with ogres — interferes with the reader’s encounter with her magical world, just as it interferes with her understanding of her own situation."
This raises another question for me about fantasy, which, as you all know because I keep telling you, I've been reading these last two weeks. What's the point of fantasy? Is it just so that we can encounter a magical world? Or is the magical world used to do something else? To address a theme, for instance?
I think Carson Levine was trying to do something more in Fairest then just provide us with an opportunity to encounter a magical world. I think she was trying to make statements about how we perceive others and how we feel about ourselves. I think those statements go down a little easier because she made them through a character who responds to her situation as many teenage girls would.
Thanks to Big A little a for the link. I forgot all about The New York Times children's supplement this weekend and am glad you didn't.