Exploring Gender in Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’

The Famous Five is a children’s adventure series written by the British author Enid Blyton. The first book The Five on a Treasure Island was published in the year (1942) after which 20 more books followed. With the sales totaling over a 100 million, it is considered to be an all-time best-seller in children’s literature. The series revolves around the lives of four children: Julian, Dick, Anne, Georgina (George), and her dog Timothy. Blyton’s portrayal of their carefree summers and adventures have always gained popularity among children. More often, Enid Blyton books are usually responsible for getting children interested in literature. Her use of simple language helps children easily understand the story. Her vibrant descriptions appeal to the readers in such a way that we long for adventures, matching the enthusiasm of the characters portrayed in her stories. Her storylines are intriguing and her peculiar way of dropping hints throughout the book which finally connects up as a shocking climax is always interesting.

“Far from being a set of fixed and stable values and roles assigned/imposed by society, gender is a performance or a role enacted by the individuals. This performance of gender is, of course, social in the sense that it is enacted, validated and accepted by the society.”

-Judith Butler (Gender Trouble)

In most cases, Blyton adheres to the dominant gender norms of her times; which is the Middle-class heteronormative British views which regulated the behaviour of women with respect to their appropriate domestic roles and activities for women like raising children and managing the household instead of careers. Blyton presents rather contradictory representation of gender roles. Mostly, she follows the dominant submissive roles of females but on the other hand, she also shows that there are alternatives where women have agency and freedom of choice. Her writing of ‘sexist’ characters are probably a result of suiting the story to the audiences of her time.

“Anne had a very happy morning. She arranged everything beautifully on the shelf… IT really was a splendid larder and dresser!… Then the little girl set to work to make the beds. She decided to make two nice big ones, one on each side of the cave.”

Five Run Away Together (1944)

Anne is described as someone who is shy and timid. She’s not as adventurous as her brothers Julian and Dick or like her cousin George. She does all the domestic chores and is often in charge their food and other domestic needs. She is referred to by her brothers as a “Very good little house keeper”. She likes playing ‘house’ and thus, voluntarily does all the chores during their quests and she likes doing it. And she is extremely happy when she’s praised for her work. She takes pride being referred to a good housekeeper. Despite being the youngest of the four, she is often portrayed as the nurturer and care-giver. She selflessly takes care of everyone’s needs and plays a mother-like figure to the rest of the group. George’s mother, Fanny is portrayed in a similar such way and serves as a role-model figure for Anne. It is a given that she’s the youngest and perhaps that’s one of the reasons why she is babied. But there’s a clear hint of patronisation when her brothers address her. Through Anne, Blyton firmly reinforces the typical female gender stereotype that women are supposed to be gentle, caring, nurturing and subservient housekeepers who are not fit for a career-based life.

“Don’t you simply hate being a girl?” asked George. 

“No, of course not,” said Anne. “You see – I like pretty frocks – and I love my dolls – and you can’t do that if you’re a boy.”

“Pooh! Fancy bothering about pretty frocks,” said George, in a scornful voice. “And dolls! Well you are a baby, that’s all I can say.”

 Anne felt offended.

-Five on a Treasure Island (1942)

Blyton was a career woman, so her portrayal of George can be seen as her personal resistance to the dominant gender stereotype of her time. Georgina prefers to be called George, and is good at everything that is traditionally masculine like climbing trees, swimming, rowing boat, drawing carriages etc. She tries very hard to not be ‘girly’ and dresses up like a ‘boy’. In anyway, she wishes to be a boy as she prefers being called ‘Master’ instead of miss, loves it when people mistake her for a boy etc. It is evident that boys were valued more in the society than girls. And her desperate need to imitate a man can be seen a cry for help in an overtly patriarchal society. She wants to be treated with the same respect and dignity that her male cousins enjoy and so, she feels that the only means to achieve that is by imitating a man. On a separate note, many readers have read into George’s tomboyishness as signs of gender dysphoria. (Gender dysphoria involves a conflict between a person’s physical gender and the gender with which he, she or they identify with.)  So, the idea of a tomboy fails to take into account the more contemporary idea of gender as a spectrum rather than a rigid binary. Considering the time that this was written in, it is unlikely that this is what Blyton meant. But nevertheless, it is empowering to interpret that perhaps George is a transman; a boy trapped in a girl’s body.

George despises any characteristic of weakness that is usually associated with women. She seeks power and respect while Anne is contented with whatever the society is willing to give her. There is an instance where George gives into something and the boys praise her for giving in gracefully or decently like a boy. At this, George becomes extremely happy for being identified as a boy and she feels that “She didn’t want to be petty and catty and bear malice as so many girls did.” This can be seen as a perfect example of gender hierarchy where having a “decent” behaviour is normal only for boys and that it’s an exception for girls. George is admired by the rest for being good at physical activities. She excels to the point that she even threatens the authority of the dominant male leader by being better. There are several instances where she’s better at swimming or rowing than the boys. This skilled behaviour empowers Anne and in those instances; she longs and hopes to be as skilled as George. George is a successful, independent girl who can do anything that a boy can do, and do it better. This can be seen as Blyton’s attempt at empowering little girls.

While Anne takes pride in fulfilling her duties as the default nurturing housekeeper, George is expected to help her out and engage in these domestic chores as well. And this internalised social norm creates a feeling of guilt within George while no such guilt exists in the minds of the boys. Now even if the boys do offer help, Anne dismisses it off as “No. That’s my job and George’s.” Anne is easily scared and is seen as a cry-baby. The group takes it for granted that she’s emotional and weak and is in need of protection. George on the other hand, suppresses all of her emotions in fear that it’d show her as a ‘girl’ which was considered inferior. She hates crying as crying is seen as something that only girls do – a sign of weakness if expressed by a boy. Aside from effecting George, this also imposes an unrealistic and unhealthy emotional and mental standard on the boys. For instance, Dick is shamed for crying or expressing any emotions that are not ‘manly’. This also reinforces toxic masculine traits on young boys.

George thus imitates traditional masculinity as an attempt to receive equal treatments. She over-compensates in this aspect to desperately hide any traces of being a girl. To an extent, it does grant her more privileges than the feminine Anne but this comes out as a positive reinforcement on her, and it proves the masculine authority over women of the time. Despite all her attempts, the fact remains that she is still ‘just a girl’ and that she only receives the freedom that her male peers allow her to enjoy. No matter how much she tries to imitate men, she’s still othered by them.

We see a contradictory portrayal of gender roles by Blyton. All the criticisms aside, we can also interpret this as her way of showing that girls can choose to be either Anne or George or a mix of both. Anne might have been typecast as the stereotypical girly girl, but even if it’s because of the inherent social norms, she loves it. She unapologetically takes pride in being herself and doing things that she enjoys, even if the others ridicule her and tease her for being ‘too weak’. On the other hand, even though it reinforces male superiority, George’s unique character proves that girls can do anything that boys can and actually be better at it. For the time that it was written in, it is clear that Blyton intended George’s character as someone who breaks away from tradition. Thus, we see that Blyton offers different perspectives on how girls can choose to be.

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