Fifteen and a Feminist Perspective

As I read Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen using a feminist lens, I was what now seems overly critical of Jane’s near-obsession with her image and her quickness to call herself “dumb” (though she sometimes warranted the pejorative). It was after I read Chelsea Condren’s columnFifteen and reflected on my own teenage years that I began to better understand Jane’s behavior. Although Jane does not always act on her emotions (e.g., she passively awaits Stan’s call despite a burning desire to speak with him, perhaps indicating ’50s male/female power dynamics), she develops confidence as the novel unfolds. Toward the end of the novel, she even embraces the nickname “Birnam wood,” which originated in ridicule.

But from a more traditional feminist perspective (i.e., one that takes issue with attitudes that reinforce male dominance) there is at least one problem with Jane’s newfound self-esteem: it relies heavily on her relationship with Stan and the social status provided by that relationship. Of course, we cannot know whether Jane would have developed confidence to the extent that she did if Stan hadn’t come along to foster and maintain it. Yet there is no doubt that the relationship props Jane up as if she were a rag doll.

After reading Fifteen, the feminist reader might still wonder: how would Jane deal with a breakup? Would she mope and abandon her new feelings of self-worth as she does when she learns that Stan is taking someone else to the dance? If so, Jane’s feelings of self-worth would be too dependent on her perceived worth to men. Nevertheless, the feminist attuned to the realities of female adolescence might concede that whether Y.A. protagonists like Jane suit feminism or not, modern teenage girls will obsess about their appearances, and many more would feel heartbroken if their beaus took another girl to a school dance. That particular set of circumstances is about more than gender; it’s about loyalty. And Jane’s story serves a young female audience in that it shows that moments like these—full of sorrow—are fleeting.

There is no question that young girls have been acting much like Jane for generations, and it seems inevitable that many will continue to do so. Therefore, as Condren seems to suggest in her column, it may be time we stop deeming such behavior as “boy-crazy” or wrong. To me, it would be more completely feminist—more supportive of young girls and their free will—to accept dreamer-like behavior rather than criticize it. To this end, perhaps we should resist the urge to hastily reject books like Fifteen on account of their old-fashioned, mono-cultural standpoints. (Although the cultural homogeneity of Fifteen truly deserves criticism.) Instead, we could let young readers decide whether they want to pick up Fifteen, just as we would let them decide whether to comport themselves like Jane or not.


5 thoughts on “Fifteen and a Feminist Perspective

  1. Great response!
    I was intrigued by your comments regarding how she was sort of a “prop” to Stan and how so much of her happiness depended on being with a man. This is is something that I see so often with my students and I think is so important for them to recognize at a young age. Perhaps that would be a great focus for discussion/writing while teaching the book. Being able to recognize these things from such a young age would probably greatly help girls to develop more self confidence and independence. What you spoke about truly makes for a great teaching moment and I’d like to see it more developed in the classroom setting. By addressing these issues, I believe it may change the dynamic of reading the book as simply a sappy teenage love story.

  2. I think your last statement says it perfectly. Feminism isn’t about rejecting the past, and
    “traditional” gender roles. It’s about giving women and girls the option to accept them, or not. While Fifteen bothered me, I’m sure there are many young ladies out there who would still flock to it.


  3. I really like the paragraph in your response where you pose the question, “how would Jane deal with a break up?” You do a great job of setting this up through the lens of a feminist, but you end saying that it is more than gender, it is about loyalty and that is what I really like about this post.
    As I grew up, girls broke up with me and it hurt, but, I learned and lived. Teenage love isn’t about which gender you are, it is about trying to squash the insecurities that you fostered and created when you were younger. Teenage love is about finding confidence in yourself, that’s what adolescence is, it is that time that you take when you are young to figure out who you are.
    I think Fifteen hints at this, it skims the surface a bit with Jane trying to find the confidence that she needs in life. Or maybe it hints at the confidence that she thinks, emphasis on thinks, she needs.
    I do think that Jane is much more of a Feminist than Julie.
    I think it would have been interesting to have gotten Julie’s perspective on the “kiss” that Buzz provoked, in order to see another example from the author on what young girls of this time-period were thinking.
    -MAS 2015

  4. Hey SD, this was an insightful post! I really enjoyed when you mentioned that it would more feminist to support young girls to be dreamers, or dreamer-like behavior rather than criticizing it because it’s how many teenage girls are built. You’re totally right that the themes are universal and girls today are like Jane. I personally wouldn’t teach on this book, but you’ve convinced me to keep it in my class library. Perhaps some girls may find Jane’s personality as comforting because they can relate to her feelings and behavior. As other mentioned, the question you asked was really great, how might Jane deal with a breakup? It was sort of fairy-tale that she got the guy she wanted, but at least there was character development where she realized that she can be herself to any guy, so if there was a breakup then she would have to deal with it then when it comes to the next guy she can start the right way by being herself. JA

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