Lenora Mattingly Weber

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Rebecca Radner

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[The Beany Malone series is mentioned in Rebecca Radner's essay discussing the limiting effect on girls of some of the teenage literature written during the nineteen-forties and fifties.]

Recently I became curious about just what in these books exerted such a strong pull on our young imaginations. (p. 789)

The basic elements of this sort of story are simple. The sixteen or seventeen year old heroine meets the right boy and the wrong boy. We can tell them apart instantly, but she can't until the end of the book. While her mother is cooking and cleaning for the family, our heroine goes through an identity crisis, usually brought on by a desire to impress the wrong boy. This leads to a temporary misunderstanding with the right boy. By the end of the story, she has made up with the right boy, been invited to the big dance after all, has become solidly popular with the crowd, and decided to be herself. As we shall see, this decision is less impressive than it sounds; the typical heroine of the period knows she is a girl who wants to be both nice and popular, and end up with a house and kids just like Mom. Her quest for identity usually ends with this comfortingly vague realization. (pp. 789-90)

Unpopularity is the greatest menace for all the girls. Even Beany Malone, one of the most independent heroines, surveys the unpopular girls at a dance with the resolve never to be one of them….

One might think that … our heroine will challenge [the] system, but she never does. Her way of dealing with it is to exchange the wrong boy for the right boy, but she will end up secure in the knowledge of her popularity. (p. 790)

The main function these nice boys serve is to assure their girl friends' popularity, and bolster up their egos. All the girls want to feel they are special, that their lives are special, that their love affairs are special….

Perhaps because there is so little inherent drama in this sort of relationship, every story has a misunderstanding part way through which threatens the heroine in her most vulnerable spot, the senior prom or its equivalent….

The girl and the boy are reconciled, and the girl vows never again to try to act like anyone else. This rings all the more hollow as these passages have a similar tone of having your cake and eating it. In a little epiphany near the end of Beany Has A Secret Life. Beany decides, "Yes, it was nice to be on her own without her heart's happiness depending on any one boy." In the last scene, however, Beany welcomes Andy's claims on her. "Andy held out the apron for her, and wrapped the ties around her twice. He tied them snugly. 'There! Now you might say I've got strings on Beany Malone,'" he exclaims, in a classic demonstration of Male Chauvinism. (p. 792)

The game the girls seem to enjoy the most might be called little weak feminine me and big strong masculine you. Mary Fred Malone, Beany's big sister, assures her boy friend, "I'd like you to boss me, Ander." (p. 793)

It's true they don't seem to have many choices other than marriage. Very few of the girls seem to have any interests beyond boys, clothes, and an occasional round of housekeeping. Mary Fred Malone lives for horses, but that has always been an acceptable side-line for a teen-age girl, and that's how she gets her husband. Older sister Elizabeth goes from beauty queen to wife...

(This entire section contains 1191 words.)

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and mother, and Beany is decidedly the hausfrau type. (pp. 793-94)

Perhaps one reason the girls' choices seem so limited is that they don't know anyone who doesn't conform. (p. 794)

There are no non-conformists in [much of the literature of this period], with the possible exception of the Beany Malone series. Beany knows the only career woman mentioned (a lonely hearts columnist), an old homeless newspaperman, the only cripple (who is, luckily, beautiful, sweet and uncomplaining, and the younger sister of Beany's boy friend), and the only fat girl (who reduces, with Beany's help, in time to get her own boy friend by the last page). There are no minorities and no seriously poverty-stricken families; no one, in fact, who isn't automatically eligible for small town popularity, if they'll just make a slight effort to be pleasant. At least the Malone series does suggest that other people count too….

The adults in these books are not much help at suggesting another way of life. They are contented with their own, which presents a range of choices even more limited than that of the girls. Beany Malone's father Marty is one of the exceptions. He is a crusading newspaperman who encourages the motherless Malone children to be self-reliant. The standard father figure is much more like the right boy grown older. He is solid, dependable, unimaginative, and convinced that woman's place is in the kitchen. He rewards his daughter for the use of feminine wiles. (p. 795)

Beany's Secret Life presents an interesting picture of a new stepmother who is an artist instead of a housekeeper. Beany is resentful at first, because "a stepmother ought to be more at home in a kitchen." Mary Fred tries to excuse Adair: "I think she wants to do for us, but she doesn't know how." Adair herself apologizes constantly for her ineptness and her preference for painting over housework, even suggesting that she go to cooking school. The problem is solved when motherly Miss Opal offers to stay with the Malones and do the work. Adair is delighted by the suggestion but still feels guilty, telling Miss Opal she'd rather worry about her salary "than about what a wash-out I am as a housekeeper." Despite her long-time career, now that she is married, Adair's first duty is to the housework, and only the lucky presence of Miss Opal, who needs a place to stay, and Beany's hausfrau nature will allow her to escape it. (p. 796)

Why did we love these stories so much if they made us feel so bad? I think it was because they were the only literature we had that talked about girls a little older than we were in a contemporary setting. Most of us weren't supposed to read adult best sellers at eleven or twelve, and these books were the only ones that claimed to give us an idea of what it was like to be in high school, how we should behave, what would really happen to us….

Many of these books are no longer generally available. They've been reevaluated by younger librarians and teachers as badly written, full of social stereotypes, and misleading. My friend the children's librarian says, "I'm really glad to see them go."

Before they went, though, they affected a whole generation of women. How much, it's impossible to tell. These books were part of a larger phenomenon, of course, and it's silly to blame them for all of our confusion. But I think they augmented it. (p. 798)

Rebecca Radner, in Journal of Popular Culture (copyright © 1978 by Ray B. Browne), Spring, 1978.


John W. Conner