Bookish Girls Run the World: Applying literacy to life under the gaze

Venue: The Hairpin

Little Women was one of the only books I couldn’t finish as a kid. Though I was intensely bored by their domestic lives, I do remember absolutely loving Jo. I saw myself in her. We both liked books and that was a good enough reason for my 10-year-old self to make her my favorite. It’s the same reason I loved (and still love) Hermione. I like to think of myself as an exceptionally clever, bookish nerd that blossomed into a beautiful and capable young lady. I like girls who read because I’m a girl who reads. Being well-read is a girl’s key to instant likability; everyone–including men–likes smart girls. Why is this picture of women attractive to both men and women? Perhaps this has to do with the gaze.

John Berger’s Ways of Seeing describes women as “surveyors” as well as the “surveyed” (Berger 46). I’d like to think surveyor and surveyed are easily interchanged with “readers” and “the read.” Women are (stereotypically) good readers, and that’s because of the “gaze.” A woman has to survey “everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the successes of her life” (46). Because reading functions much like surveillance, being a successful reader means being a successful woman.

Our most successful bookish heroines have translated their bookishness into a successful navigation of life under the gaze. Jo successfully navigates away from Laurie’s gaze, saving their friendship. Harry and Ron initially roll their eyes at Hermione’s obnoxious encyclopedic knowledge, but they end up completely dependent on her for survival. Even Bella uses her Austen-begotten literacy to manipulate the men around her to achieve her perfect idea of a family.

The trouble comes when women aren’t able to translate their book skills to real life. Despite the “asphyxiating mass of literature” (Green 15), John Green’s Alaska has only read “maybe a third of ‘em,” putting off reading for “cigarettes to smoke, sex to have, [and] swings to swing on” (20). Instead of reading her Life’s Library and gaining invaluable life literacy, she impairs her reading abilities with intoxicants and clouds her sight with cigarette smoke. These habits cloud her vision, leaving her unable to survey though she is heavily burdened by surveyors. She doesn’t have the necessary reading skills to navigate the stress of the multiple gazes upon her, including her father’s accusatory gaze, and most importantly her own gaze. “A woman must continually watch herself,” (Berger 46), however Alaska’s guilt prevents her from watching herself–she cannot stand to watch the person who killed her mother. Alaska dies because she cannot survey herself or her surroundings through the cloud of alcohol: “She didn’t hear the siren? She didn’t see the lights?” (162).

Even worse is when women can’t read at all. Charlotte Temple’s naivete and inability to correctly read the implications of her actions lead to her downfall. When La Rue tells her to read Montraville’s letter, Charlotte replies, “I’m afraid I ought not…my mother has often told me, I should never read a letter given to me by a young man, without first giving it to her” (Rowson 28). La Rue replies, “Have you a mind to be in leading strings all your life time. Prithe open the letter, read it, and judge for yourself” (28). Charlotte does not have the necessary literacy skills to “judge” for herself. Her mother recognizes this and acts as the reader and interpreter for her. Because she has been in “leading strings” all her life, under her mother’s strict protection, Charlotte was never given the opportunity to learn how to read. She cannot read through the implications of the letter and she cannot read La Rue’s true motives. She continues living under the mercy of other’s readings of her life.

Being a good reader means having power. All are empowered by literacy, however reading is generally coded as a feminine action. “Men act” (Berger 47), thus they go on adventures and defeat evil with swords, wands, and other types of sticks, never once stopping to consult Hogwarts, a History. Bookish boys don’t make the best heroes. Take Charlie in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. He is bookish and lonely and pathetic. Though he reads everything around him excellently, no one is good at reading him. The thing is no one is reading him–he’s a dude. Men are not generally the subject of the male gaze, thus the powers of reading created by the dualism of the surveyor and surveyed don’t work for him. Successful reading does not equal successful men because a man’s success comes from the exterior: “the promised power may be moral, physical temperamental, economic, social, sexual–but its object is always exterior to the man” (Berger 45). Charlie’s object is Sam. Sam astutely reads the lonely desperation of Charlie’s gaze and gives him what he needs. What really enables Charlie isn’t his reading skills, its his gaze. His eyes hold all the power to convince a woman to come in and turn his life around.

The gaze turns women into objects, yes, but objects that save mankind’s asses. Where would Laurie be if Jo wasn’t so wise? They’d both be in a miserable marriage. Where would Harry and Ron be without Hermione? Dead seven times over. Where would Edward be without Bella? Well, he’d probably still be living a soulless existence, denied the human privilege of procreation. The tools women developed to navigate the gaze are exactly the tools that men depend on to keep their world spinning. So while the gaze objectifies us, it has enabled us to create a power that elevates us over magic sticks. We are the external objects that give power to men. Without us, they are powerless, or so I like to think.

Bookish girls are very sensibly attractive to women, but even more sensibly attractive to men. Shoot us a look, we’ll read you like a book and save the day.


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