An essay about sport in girls fiction
Sports and games appear constantly in girls’ fiction, whether it’s as an important plot point or a fleeting reference. Love it or hate it, it’s always there. I was originally going to cover sport references from a huge variety of different girls series, including Sweet Valley Twins/Jr High, the Baby-Sitters Club, St Clare’s, Malory Towers, Trebizon and the more recent Princess Diaries series. But if I did, this essay would never end. Ever. So, I’m going to focus on the representation of sport in St Clare’s, Malory Towers and the Baby-Sitters Club. But feel free to include any series you wish in the discussion.
”You forget [games] do other things as well,” said Janet. “We have to learn to work together as a team – each one for his side, helping the others, not each one for himself.” (Second Form at St Clare’s, p12)
In the St Clare’s and Malory Towers books, sport is considered fun, great, smashing, character building, essential. The central characters of each series (the O’Sullivan twins and Darrell Rivers) all excel on the sporting field, as do many of the other friendly, popular and “normal” girls such as Sally Hope, Alicia Johns, Hilary Wentworth and Bobby Ellis. It’s interesting to note that many of Blyton’s characters that are bad, out of the ordinary or unpopular are generally bad at and/or dislike sports.
Sport and Characterisation
Bad Girls Suck at Sport
Gwendoline Mary Lacy attended Malory Towers from the first form to the sixth and spent her entire time there being thought shallow, conceited and mean by the other girls. Prudence Arnold was expelled from St Clare’s after a mere term due to her cheating, sneaking and hypocrisy. Josephine Jones was far too spoilt to think of anyone but herself and was expelled from Malory Towers after bullying a first former into joining her in running away from school. A common characteristic? They all detested games. All three of these characters were frequently seen shivering on the side of the pool, and all three of them faced contempt from the other girls because of it – they’ve all been pushed in and ducked. Their dislike of sports was hardly a marginal aspect of the storylines as Blyton frequently placed these characters in positions where their sporting ineptitude was pointed out and ridiculed by the other girls.
In these three girls, a dislike of sports represents an absence of the qualities described in the initial quote from Second Form at St Clare’s. Their inability to work as a team with the other students results in expulsion for Jo and Prudence, and a long history of selfishness and friendlessness in Gwendoline. As these characters that dislike sport are dysfunctional within the boarding school community, then Blyton represents sport as the only way people can learn to work together.
Foreign Girls Suck at Sport
One of the noticeable trends in Blyton’s school stories is that non-English characters generally don’t understand how sports could possibly be enjoyable.
Mam’zelle … for all her years in England had never been able to understand why English girls liked cold water, hitting balls and running madly about.
(Claudine at St Clare’s, p25)
Unlike the bad girls, the foreign girls’ inability to enjoy sport doesn’t mean they are unable to function in the boarding school society but symbolises that they are dramatically different from the English girls. All of them have various un-English ways, one of which is always being terrible at organized games or even unwilling to try.
Sadie Greene and Zerelda Brass arrive at St Clare’s and Malory Towers respectively, fresh from America. Both girls are obsessed with their appearance, have an interest in film stars and say “wunnerful” instead of wonderful. All of these traits single them out as different, and is accentuated by their lack of interest in sports. However, while they frustrate the English girls at times (Zerelda’s unwillingness to try at lacrosse, as she was perceived as a potentially good player, was a point of contention in Third Year at Malory Towers) they are not widely disliked as Gwen, Jo and Prudence. Their positive traits are recognised and liked:
Sadie’s kind and generous, and we all like to be friends with her because of those things, not because she’s well-off.
(Summer Term at St Clare’s, p27)
Well – there’s plenty of good in [Zerelda] – she seems very good-humoured and I like her smile.
-Miss Grayling (Third Year at Malory Towers, p48)
Another example of a foreign girl is Claudine, Mam’zelle’s niece, who is liked and accepted into the fold of fourth formers when she arrives in Claudine at St Clare’s. Like the American girls, Claudine shocks and surprises the English girls with her ways.
At first the girls were very much amused with Claudine, but they soon discovered that she had very un-English ways. For instance, she thought nothing of copying from someone else’s book! … Another thing the girls found irritating about Claudine was the way she borrowed things… and nine times out of ten she didn’t give them back.
(Claudine at St Clare’s, p17-18)
Claudine’s refusal to partake in games and sports, as do her other unusual traits, appears to go hand-in-hand with her nationality. As seen in the above quote, these traits are generally described as “un-English,” indicating that the simple reason behind her unusual behaviour is her nationality. The other girls accept her despite her ways on the basis that she’s French and therefore doesn’t understand the ways of the English girls.
Carlotta is a slightly more unusual case. Despite her initial exceedingly un-English actions when she first arrived (slapping, pulling faces, being “wild”) she was very widely liked and accepted for completely being herself from the start. Unlike the other foreign girls, Carlotta does excel at sports. But not the traditional kind. Her tennis and swimming are described as “wild” but her circus background means she is capable of all sorts of diving, gymnastic and horseback riding feats. Her inability to hit a tennis ball over the net and swim proper swimming strokes demonstrate that she is different from the English girls, but her excellence at circus tricks symbolises how she is appreciated and liked for her differences rather than scorned.
Benefits of Sport
Sports are also shown in Enid Blyton to be beneficial towards a character’s personal development and in developing relationships with others. Two examples of this are Mary Lou and Moira from the Malory Towers series.
Mary Lou is described throughout First Term at Malory Towers as a weak character. She is terrified of insects, the dark, storms, her own shadow and the pool. The others find her irritating, especially when she tags along after Darrell and tries to be helpful by doing odd jobs for her. Mary Lou only realises that she is capable of conquering her fears when she jumps into the deep end of the pool to rescue Darrell. After this moment, Mary Lou becomes increasingly brave and strong. She never loves sports the way the others do and she remains timid and quiet, but she is no longer controlled by her fears. This was ultimately achieved through conquering her fear of swimming.
Moira Linton is strongly disliked by most of the form in In the Fifth at Malory Towers and it’s generally consented that she’s a dictator. The only times she interacts positively with the others is when sports are concerned.
Darrell glanced curiously at Moira. How much nicer Moira was over this games question than over anything else! She was fair and just and interested. She forgot to be domineering and opinionated.
(In the Fifth at Malory Towers, p85)
While Moira’s interests usually lie in getting her own way, discussing sports permits her to become fair and understanding, acting like a member of a community rather than a dictator.
Enid Blyton Conclusion
In general, Blyton’s characters that dislike/are bad at sport have something wrong with them. The “bad girls” are all perceived as having some irreconcilable character flaw and the foreign girls, though liked and accepted, are constantly seen as strange and unusual, their foreignness constantly having attention drawn to it. Does Blyton therefore convey to readers that it’s not normal to be bad at sports? Does the constant depiction of sports as beneficial contribute to this?
”In the big picture, none of this mattered. But right now, I was trapped inside the little picture. Trapped with a maniacal gym teacher, and a bunch of half-crazed volleyball players.” (Mallory Hates Boys (and Gym), p60)
Sports in Ann M Martin’s Baby-Sitters Club series are portrayed in more varying lights than in Enid Blyton. Sport is depicted as a fun pastime, dangerously competitive, and as a painful and stressful experience.
Just Have Fun
Kristy’s softball team, Kristy’s Krushers, is the most obvious example in the series that demonstrates the idea that sports are intended to be fun. Kristy put the team together to give kids who can’t take part in Little League for various reasons (too young, handicapped or a bad player) a chance to learn the basics of playing and to have fun.
How is the team? Pretty bad, if you want to know the truth. But the idea is to have fun and learn basic skills, that’s all.
(Kristy and the Dirty Diapers, p4-5)
The kids in Kristy’s team face a variety of problems. Jamie Newton is scared of the ball and ducks whenever it comes near him. Claire Pike throws tantrums if she gets out. Gabbie Perkins is so young she has to use a wiffle ball and bat when it’s her turn to hit. But Krushers practice is always written as a ton of fun. All their triumphs, no matter how small, are pointed out and celebrated and all their mistakes aren’t important. For the Krushers, having fun is the first priority.
The Negatives of Competition
The Baby-Sitters Club series also demonstrates that sports can cause people to become overly competitive. One example of this is found in Kristy’s autobiography, Kristy’s Book. This book includes one summer where Kristy went on a sporting camp where she was involved in the softball program. The two softball cabins, the Robins and the Bluejays, played softball against each other for the entire camp. The rivalry extended to simple pranks, such as sugar in the salt shaker. As the camp progressed, the pranks became more frequent, extended to snide comments and disrupted the games. The combined team that represented the camp at inter-camp games kept losing because of the constant in-fighting. The climax came when their coach consequently decided to quit. For Kristy, softball was no longer fun.
I read the card again. As I read “Kristy + softball = fun” I thought, I’m not having any fun playing softball. I remembered what Coach Martin had said to us in the van. “It is no fun to coach a team that behaves the way you do. It is no fun to watch your games.” … I had to admit to myself that I was part of the problem. I’d been playing pranks, I hadn’t had any camp spirit and I’d been very jealous of Samantha. I wasn’t proud of myself.
(Kristy’s Book, 107-108)
This incident doesn’t denounce sports, but highlights one of the dangers. It’s easy to become so focused on being the best that any enjoyment of the game disappears. For Kristy, being so competitive almost ruined the camp.
Another example of a sport stirring competitiveness and jealousy is in Jessi and the Dance School Phantom. After Jessi wins the role of Princess Aurora in her dance school’s production of Sleeping Beauty, a jealous classmate tries to get revenge. She ruins her dance gear and attempts to get Jessi injured so she can’t dance. The girl responsible did it because her mother was overly competitive – she pushed her daughter into dancing and was never satisfied with her performances. This woman’s competitiveness resulted in not only her own daughter’s unhappiness but lead to Jessi’s ruined dance gear and injured ankle. Again, this situation demonstrates that competitive sports can be detrimental.
Sports Causing Mental Anguish
The Baby-Sitters Club books also represent the point of view that I can identify with the best. The books also demonstrate how sports can be an absolute nightmare to a person who is terrible at them, but forced to play. One of the best examples of this is in Mallory Hates Boys (and Gym).
Mallory voices many of the hardships that some girls face during mandatory sports, such as competitive classmates, teachers who just don’t understand how difficult some find sport, and the feeling that failing at physical activity means you irritate and frustrate other students. Throughout the book, she asserts that being bad at sport doesn’t make her a lesser person.
It drives me crazy that sports people think that life is like sports. Life is not sports! Life is life and sports is sports. Ms. Walden’s telling me I would end up some huge failure in life just because I didn’t want to play volleyball made me even madder and crabbier than I already was.
(Mallory Hates Boys (and Gym), p92)
Mallory’s plight in this book illustrates the opposite point made by Enid Blyton. This book counters the view in her books that sports are the sole way girls go through personal development and learn vital life lessons. In fact, sports are shown in this book to be detrimental to self esteem and therefore negatively affecting personal development. Mallory describes several incidents that occur during her volleyball games that cause her to be embarrassed and ashamed that because she’s bad at volleyball.
“It helps if you keep your eyes open, too,” Glen added snidely as he tossed the ball back over the net to the other team.
“Right, yeah. I know that. Sorry,” I mumbled.
After two more misses, I could tell my team was pretty annoyed with me. Hey! Don’t look at me! I felt like shouting. I didn’t ask to play this stupid game!
(Mallory Hates Boys (and Gym), p39
Baby-Sitters Club Conclusion
The Baby-Sitters Club promotes a wider point of view of the benefits and costs of sports, demonstrating many negative effects that participation in sports has on girls. Is the depiction of the problems caused by sports realistic? Can girls relate to the problems faced by characters in these books? And is achievement at competitive sports on too high a pedestal in girls literature?