Gender is a central theme in Munro’s “Boys and Girls” and Cole’s Princess Smartypants. Discuss how gender is dealt with in the two texts. Consider both content and form, i.e. what the texts...

Gender is a central theme in Munro’s “Boys and Girls” and Cole’s Princess Smartypants. Discuss how gender is dealt with in the two texts. Consider both content and form, i.e. what the texts are about as well as the way in which the stories are told by means of narrative techniques and choice of narrator.

In your answers make use of relevant terms and concepts from Gamble’s Exploring Children’s Literature. Example, themes, narrative, narrator etc

Complete references shall be given, in the text, to all sources used in answering the questions

Expert Answers
Jamie Wheeler eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Although these stories are for very different audiences, both have a common theme: staying true to one's self and avoiding being defined by men. 

Alice Munro's story is for a more mature audience. The unnamed narrator resists being relegated to what she deems as the "dreary, and particularly depressing" work that her mother does (canning, washing, cleaning, preparing dinner). Instead, the protagonist prefers the outdoor work with which she helps her father. She has yet to learn that being a "girl" is more than a gender. She recalls,

"The word "girl" had formerly seemed to me innocent and unburdened like the word child; now it appeared that it was no such thing. A girl was not, as I had supposed, simply what I was; it was what I had to become. It was a definition, always touched with emphasis, with reproach and disappointment."

Already we can see a couple of parallels between Munro's heroine and the heroine of Babette Cole's Princess Smartypants. First, both characters are approaching an age where conformity to gender roles is expected. In Cole's children's story, Princess Smartypants's mother, the queen, reproaches her daughter, saying, "It's high time you smartened up. Stop messing around with animals and find yourself a husband." Although marriage is never explicitly addressed in Munro's story, the expectation certainly is that she will settle down and assume the standard gender roles that her mother has taken on, and her mother likely had taken on, and likely her mother before her. 

In addition to both characters eschewing gender expectations, both protagonists have active imaginations. For Munroe's character, her flights of fancy occur mostly at night, when her brother has drifted off to sleep in the bed next to hers: 

"Now for the time that remained to me, the most perfectly private and perhaps the best time of the whole day, I arranged myself tightly under the covers and went on with one of the stories I was telling myself from night to night. These stories were about myself, when I had grown a little older; they took place in a world that was recognizably mine, yet one that presented opportunities for courage, boldness, and self-sacrifice, as mine never did. I rescued people from a bombed building (it discouraged me that the real war had gone on so far away from Jubilee). I shot two rabid wolves who were menacing the schoolyard (the teachers cowered terrified at my back).  Rode a fine horse spiritedly down the main street of Jubilee, acknowledging the townspeople’s gratitude for some yet-to-be-worked-out piece of heroism."

As for the comparing and contrasting the ends of these two stories, the outcomes are very different. In Munroe's tale, the protagonist identifies with a horse named Flora. This female horse is about to be shot and fed to the hungry foxes the family raises. Somehow, the horse senses what is about to happen and makes a run for it. Instead of closing the gate as her father orders, the young girl opens it wider, allowing the horse to escape. However, her act of charity is shortsighted. There is nowhere for the horse to go; she winds up being shot anyway. One suspects that no matter how hard and fast the protagonist tries to run, it is highly unlikely she will escape the fate of her mother in the very gender-specific world in which the characters live. 

The end of Princess Smartypants is more hopeful. While the narrative follows the traditional order of a fairy tale, the end reverses that expectation. When the princess kisses the man who has completed her required tasks, he turns into a frog. This transformation horrifies all of Princess Smartypant's would-be suitors and she is left to pursue her own happiness, on her own terms, as Gamble points out (188). Gamble calls this ending "a radical feminist ending, perhaps." But is it really? What is radical about living life in the way in which you are happy? 

It should be pointed out that Munro's story was written in 1968 while Cole's was composed almost thirty years later, in 1997. Munro writes near the beginning of Second Wave Feminism, while Cole writes in what is sometimes deemed "Third Wave Feminism."