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 column 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.