On Badass Little Girls
In the last two weeks, I have binge-watched Stranger Things, and I have binge-listened to the audiobook of M. R. Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts, the latter primarily in anticipation of the film coming out later this year.
I have come away with an unshakeable belief in the almighty, untamed power of little girls.
Spoilers abound; you have been warned.
In Stranger Things, El is a mysterious little girl with soon-to-be-revealed powers discovered out in the woods in the rain by a group of young boys out searching for their missing friend, Will. She doesn’t actually have a name, just a tattoo on her arm that reads “011”, so Mike, the boy who hides her in his basement E.T.-style, names her Eleven, or El for short. With her buzz cut hair, her intense, intelligent gaze and minimalist approach to speaking, El’s presentation screams the exact opposite of young femininity.
Melanie, the protagonist of The Girl With All The Gifts, is a little girl with a photographic memory, a genius level IQ, and an unbridled love for her teacher Miss Justineau, who teaches her at the army base that has been home for as long as Melanie can remember, along with the other children who, like her, are strapped into restraints and wheelchairs every morning and wheeled to class. She’s also a zombie. (Told you. Spoilers.)
The reason for the restraints soon becomes clear. Melanie, along with the other children, has retained full capacity of her brain and personality — all of them unaware of their true natures, even as they are made the subjects of experimentation at an army base in an England overrun by zombies, or “hungries” as the book routinely refers to them (the word “zombie” is mentioned exactly zero times). They act, look, think, giggle, and react like normal children. However, they are triggered into irresistible bloodlust at the scent of any human flesh unprotected by a patented, foul-smelling ointment that all the teachers and soldiers in the base wear on every visible skin surface. Melanie, like the other children, is dressed in a gender neutral outfit more for practicality than pleasure, and during some spoiler-related events, she, like Eleven, ends up with a shaved head.
Both girls would read as “weird” or “unfeminine” any day of the week based on their appearance, and, well, their predisposition towards extreme violence. (More on that soon.)
When I think about little girls in popular society, the image is often one of fragility; tender beautiful creatures to be protected from the world at all costs. There are images of Barbies, and princesses, and damsels in need of rescuing. Clothing companies sell t-shirts encouraging little boys to become CEOs and doctors, and little girls to become trophy wives and fashionistas. Anything targeted at little girls is lavishly drowned in pink paint and sparkly bits, and often with shopping-as-recreation tied into it somehow, like little girls are not much more than future household spenders.
Little girls tend to be socialized as less than strong — to be told that one does anything “like a girl” is often considered the highest insult — and they are often also told that their power comes from their beauty and to foster that power at all costs.
Eleven’s lack of traditional feminine beauty is thrown in her face several times over various episodes of Stranger Things. When the bully Troy is describing his encounter with her and the gang to the adults, he saves his most disgusted tone for the exclamation, “She doesn’t even look like a girl!”
In order to disguise her and sneak her into school, Mike puts El in his sister’s old dress and a blonde wig, eliciting the unexpectedly sad question from her, “Pretty?” When she later loses the wig as a result of fairly intense action and racing around, and then sees herself in the mirror again with her shaved head, the small, quiet way she asks Mike, “Still pretty?” is heartbreaking.
In The Girl With All the Gifts, Melanie is routinely referred to as “it” or “the subject”, rather than “she”. One soldier in charge of her refers to her as a hungry pretending to be a little girl. She is routinely denied her humanity — but also particularly, her femininity — except by Miss Justineau. When, along their journey, they discover a temporary sanctuary against the hungries in a place that used to be a hospital, Melanie replaces her torn clothing from the base with an outfit that is about as traditional-little-girl as you can get — pink jeans and all.
Both incidents — El with her hand-me-down dress and wig, and Melanie with her pink jeans — almost read as an attempt by each girl to reclaim the traditionally feminine identity of “little girl” that has been foisted on every other young girl, yet denied them.
But both El and Melanie simultaneously embody and defy the fragility and vulnerability that is held within the general idea of what little girls should be.
They embody it, because despite the extreme things both are capable of, they are still little girls who are hurting, fearful and lost, and in desperate need of shelter and love.
And they defy it because when they do find these things they lack— for Melanie, found in the compassion of Miss Justineau; for Eleven, in the acceptance from Mike and her newfound group of friends — there is no power on earth that can withstand these girls’ desire and capability to protect their loved ones from harm.
El and Melanie defy the stereotype of “young girl as victim” by showing very real, raw, physical power not often attributed to women, let alone girls. But in these two stories, this raw power is combined with their innate vulnerability and an emotional core that girls and women are so often derided for (with “crazy” often being code for “emotional”). In Stranger Things, other female characters are chided or brushed aside with language that subtly puts down their emotional responses. Yet, for both El and Melanie, it is this emotional centre that is the core of their power and fuel for their intense strength.
In Melanie, her love for Miss Justineau and desire to protect her overpower her innate biological urges, allowing her to repeatedly save her and the rest of their travelling companions, while protecting them at the same time from herself. With El, when she senses her friends walking into danger she actively attempts to redirect them in order to save them, despite the personal physical toll the effort takes, and at the knowing risk of alienating the only friends she has.
Both stories foreground the importance of these little girls’ complexities, showing them not as simple tropes, but as full beings with a richness of lived experiences, and stories worthy of being told. They are both guided by their hearts, despite intense inner conflicts, and by a strong moral compass that leads to fierce, unwavering loyalty — and abilities that make them more powerful than any other character in their respective worlds.
Similarly, little girls in our real world have power beyond what we can imagine, or usually ascribe to them. Before puberty, most young girls are fearless, from being tutu-wearing junior skateboarders, to being unbelievably talented dancers, to being fierce, screaming martial arts practitioners, to being award-winning science students and computer programmers, to fighting off their own kidnappers, to being athletes who leave their competitors in the dust.
But too often that fearlessness is siphoned out of them through a gradual, insidious, well-meaning at times, downright disturbing at times diet of expectations and limitations. Because you are a girl, they are told, you will do only this, and will never do that. And it takes an incredible force of will to resist this. But many of them do — many of us do — and this reclamation of power is a wonderful thing to behold.
I already knew little girls were magical. But what El and Melanie have reminded me is that they are also more powerful than they are ever given credit for.
Ironically, to return to the socialization of little girls as not much more than future mall shoppers, little girls do have an undeniable hold on the economic reins of the world. Financially-empowered girls and women are more likely to empower whole communities and boost entire economies, and it is, after all, young girls who create the demand that creates superstars and fuels entire entertainment industries. Just ask the Beatles, or Justin Bieber.
In fantasy as in reality, powerful little girls are a force to be reckoned with.
Bonus! Trailers :)