Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Pony jobs for Jill...or not? Are pony books pro or anti-feminist?

As with many of my musings, this topic has been inspired by a discussion on the ponymadbooklovers chat forum. Now, I always thought that compared to other books of that era aimed at girl readers, pony books were fairly empowering. Unlike the many of the adventure books, especially those by Enid Blyton, both girl and boy characters in the majority of pony books were on a fairly equal footing. (Compare for example the escapades of the female characters in the families of the Pullein-Thompson books to the way that Dinah and Lucy-Ann in Enid Blyton's 'Adventure' series were always left to do the boring stuff by the boys, who had all the exciting adventures.) However when these independant pony-girls began to grow up and enter the job market, things seemed to change for them. One of the biggest disappointments of my pony book reading career (and that of many other similar readers) is at the end of Pony Jobs for Jill by Ruby Ferguson, when Jill is persuaded to give up her dreams of pursuing a horsy career. After a series of unappetitising horsy jobs, she almost seems to welcome the suggestion by Captain Cholly-Sawcutt that she keep her riding for a hobby and get trained for a 'proper job.'

Far more satisfying were the characters who defied their parents and convention to stick with a horsy career. We have Janet in Janet Must Ride, Rennie in Rennie Goes Riding, Fiona in Clear Round, Sarah and Ginette in Ten Week Stables, and many more.

A lot of books followed the Pony Jobs for Jill theme of the horsy job as being deadly hard-work, under-paid and disappointing: which as we all know it can be. And of course not pursuing a horsy career is not necessarily giving up the fight for equality and independence. However as another forum member pointed out, how come the non-pony choice of job always seemed so un-intellectual? The older pony books offered a selection of secretarial or domestic jobs, more recently modelling has been offered as an alternative to the horsy career. Where were the degree courses, the careers in science, law or teaching? Were these books actually saying that the pony mad girl was anti-intellectual and that horses and brains could not be combined? I am still wracking my brains for books where the heroine left the world of horses to pursue such a job.

So are pony books pro-feminism or do they conform to the old stereotype of women as intellectual inferior and fit only for motherhood or unchallenging jobs? It is sad that many authors allowed their creations only a short period of equality and freedom before
they were expected to conform, and that many were not allowed to show any intellectual capacity at all. Especially so as most of the authors of the genre were female and many were highly educated. On the whole however I think compared to other books of the 1940s-1960s era, they do come down on the side of empowering female characters. For every Jill who allows herself to be moulded into what society would like her to be, there are ten Janets and Rennies who pursue their independance despite the odds. Certainly no girl in any pony book I have ever read bemoaned the fact she was a mere girl and tried to turn herself into a psuedo-boy, as did George in the Famous Five! They may have had their problems but in general, their gender was not one of them!