My bedtime reading these days is ‘Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.’ A few weeks ago, I was (re)reading ‘Last Term at Malory Towers.’
For those of you who do not live in a time warp, the latter is by an extremely prolific British author, Enid Blyton, who published between the 1920s and the 1960s. If you have read Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and St. Clare’s series, Harry Potter’s dorm stories with their focus on school discipline, food, and social relations will ring familiar. When I was growing up in Pakistan, Enid Blyton’s books were all the rage. I consumed them hungrily (though my English teacher cautioned us that they were not particularly well-written).
Anyway, in ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,’ we meet the visiting foreign students from Beauxbatons and Durmstrang. Beauxbatons students are hyperfeminized (in the film, all vila) while the Durmstrang kids are hypermasculine, gruff, and dark (I mean, Malfoy almost went there). Beauxbatons is, of course French, while Durmstrang is somehow Northern European.
The British students at Hogwarts, however, possess a ‘just right’ gender quotient. Sensible nerdy Hermione and tough hex-queen Ginny sniff at the feminine wiles of Fleur Delacour. Ron and Harry are uncomfortably weirded out by Victor Krumm’s “grumpy” good looks and lack of humor. The Hogwarts / British students are perfectly balanced in the middle. The men have eyebrows that are not terribly noticeable and the women are not excessively attractive. Just right.
Enid Blyton, mostly writing in the 1930s-1950s, uses American and French characters as foils to the perfect British balance of
gendered culture. The American Zerelda Brass (Third Year at Malory Towers) is obsessed with her appearance, wears (gasp) makeup, hates sports, dislikes getting sweaty and muddy in the lacrosse field, and looks forward to a career as a famous film actress. The English girls, with their rough and ready ways, their forthright (um, rude?) manners, and their sensible, tomboyish ways are shocked and amused by their American friend. Zerelda means well, but she gets into a lot of trouble until she learns to become “sensible.” The unscrupulous, funny, mischievous French students (Claudine, for example, in St Clare’s) must also learn English and sports (and that “English sense of honour”).
Gwendoline Lacey, though English, is considerably wealthier than the other Malory Towers girls: her task is to become a good deal more sensible and middle class, less attached to her notions of femininity (braid your hair! get in the pool! stop worrying about your skin!), and eventually, to face the fact that she will be employed as a (gasp) secretary or something.
Rowling’s writing is way, way, way better than Blyton’s but both writers position British / English gender as being just right, moderate, neither too feminine nor too masculine, in contrast to their counterparts elsewhere in the world. Rule, Brittannia, in gender moderation.