An Unlikely Feminist Icon
When I say 'feminist icon', the first name that pops into mind probably isn’t Anne Shirley. But she was the first that came to mine. “You know she’s fictional, right?” my husband just asked me. Way to rub it in, sweetheart.
Anne came into my life in a beautiful illustrated edition gifted by a neighbor. Being used to hand-me-down books, this one already felt special. I was not disappointed. Anne felt like a revelation, like someone had looked into my ten-year-old soul and written it onto a page. Sure, I wasn’t an orphan living in Canada. I didn’t have red hair, or a bad temper (that I let anyone see). But I lived in my imagination. I loved school, and I very much loved working hard and being the smartest kid in any class. So Anne nestled into my heart and didn’t leave.
Many years later, with three children of my own, I decided it was time for a re-read. I read it aloud to my kids—who may or may not have been interested. It was hard to tell. But they laughed at her endless descriptions, at her turns-of-phrase, at her misadventures. And they were legitimately uncomfortable when their mother could not stop sobbing long enough to get through a chapter with a death that had affected her the exact same way the first time she read it. (Sorry, kids. Mommy just needs to go cry for a while.) But in re-experiencing the story with them, I was amazed at how revolutionary it really was.
Anne, for all her charms, is an oddity. She comes from a tragic, abusive background, and copes by retreating into her imagination. She has a temper and a tongue. She longs desperately to be beautiful, but refuses to let other people define her worth by her looks. She does not follow directions unless she does it on her own terms. She values friendships—particularly with other girls—above all else. She is resourceful and clever and dreamy and forgetful. She is as likely to excel as she is to get herself into trouble by not paying attention. She is ruthlessly ambitious, determined to overcome her early lack of education and beat everyone in the class. And, in the end, she is willing to delay her ambitions in order to help the people who have helped her so much.
In short, Anne-with-an-e, written so long ago, was allowed to be a fully-realized person. I still consider it a gift that I was given Anne at such a crucial stage in my development. I’d go on to read many, many books (and watch countless films) where girls were sidekicks, stereotypes, one-note dream girls, always existing to decorate someone else’s story. But my girl Anne was her own story, and showed me that I was already a heroine. She’ll always be my unlikely feminist icon, as well as a kindred spirit.