The Great Big Grotesque Book for Girls

A new book encourages girls to knit, bake and make daisy chains. Emily Hill has a better idea: girls should use the book to make a bonfire.

Emily Hill

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‘When it comes to girls’, says Sarah Vine, co-author of The Great Big Glorious Book for Girls, ‘everyone from traditionalists to ultra-feminists has an agenda’. Don’t they just. In a preview of her book in The Times (London), Vine declares that, these days, girls should ‘get on with being whatever they want to be’, and then she prescribes a list of 10 things every girl should know: basic ballet, how to knit, how to make a daisy chain, how to eat spaghetti, how to make the perfect French plait, how to grow cress from seed, climb a tree, sew on a button, bake cupcakes and play conkers.

I don’t know whether Vine has got some sort of diagnosable problem – whether she is leaking pure saccharine from her Enid Blyton veins like an oil tanker pierced by a scud missile – or whether she is simply attempting to plug a gap in the new gritty-childhood publishing market following the runaway success of The Dangerous Book for Boys. But in her Times article, she seriously says that for women to come out and admit their unquenchable, innate desire to bake cupcakes etc would represent the ‘final battle for female emancipation’.

The book may be heralded as an aid for young girls. But as far as I can tell, it will probably only be of use to a budding preteen bulimic. The idea that the summit of her ambition should be learning how to grow cress should have her vomiting away into her sick bag like an old pro.

The book certainly got me going. Racing through the sections on how to make rose-petal perfume and the perfect picnic, and others on how to read a palm and make a pom-pom, I came to some quite shocking entries about boys. ‘The main difference between boys and girls is that boys like doing things – driving cars, playing football, throwing things, eating, farting, etc – and girls like feeling things – love, friendship, happiness, excitement, etc. Boys are physical, girls are emotional’, Vine writes. How exactly this fits into her demand that we ‘stop trying to pigeonhole the next generation of women’ is anybody’s guess, when it seems that, by virtue of our sex, we are destined to spend our lives in a flighty, feelings-based, rose-petalled Barbara Cartland novel.

The book then goes on to explain ‘how to deal with boys’. If you take on board a few simple guidelines (for example, ‘Boys don’t always say what they mean and don’t always mean what they say’), then you will discover that ‘boys can be among the best friends you’ll ever have. And they will carry your books for you, too.’ What?! Is this 1932? As every modern-day girl and teenage woman knows, the best way to make friends with boys is to drive cars and throw things, rather than emoting in the corner and throwing a silent hissy fit when he neglects to carry your books home for you.

It may of course be that The Great Big Glorious Book for Girls, like The Dangerous Book for Boys before it, isn’t really aimed at the young at all. Rather, perhaps it is a nostalgia glut for adults, for the parents of the girls and boys who really ought to be making daisy chains and playing conkers but aren’t. Thanks to Vine’s book, as never before a nation of mothers, aunts and grandmothers can bask in halcyon memories of Jackie magazine and skipping around a toadstool at Brownies; they can look back wistfully to an age when apparently the streets were free of paedophiles, the roads were free from cars, and little girls weren’t ‘obsessed with pink’, ‘didn’t wear “hot to trot” T-shirts aged 8’ and avoided ‘overplucking’ their eyebrows.

In other words, to an age when little girls were not miniature Vicky Pollards hanging around after dark in the park guzzling lucozade, wearing pencilled eyebrows, pink boob tubes and doing imaginative stuff with boys. For all the claims that this book is aimed at educating a new generation of girls, it actually contains myriad expressions of disappointment with today’s female youth who refuse to behave as their parents did (or at least as their parents like to imagine that they did).

Behind both this book and The Dangerous Book for Boys lies the assumption that childhood is not what it used to be – and a mistaken belief that playing conkers or baking cupcakes or making a den can recapture the spirit of childhoods past. Of course, the demise of outdoor activities should be interrogated. One reason why girls aren’t running through fields making daisy chains is because they have more interesting things to do. Who wants to do Victorian-style girly things when you have a Playstation and a TV in your room that you and your friends can watch? Who wants to grow cress when you can create your own online world with interactive graphics via your PC? No one ever points out that in bygone eras when ‘a bit of sticky backed plastic and a tissue box could be the answer to your dreams’, there was also widespread and abject boredom amongst kids who had little money and few toys or modcons.


The Great Big Glorious Book for Girls

Another reason for the alleged end of conkers, daisy chain-making and the rest is the culture of fear that surrounds children these days. In an age that is riddled with suspicion, where parents are encouraged to fret over every aspect of their child’s life, it is not surprising that fewer children are playing outdoors. And neither The Great Big Glorious Book for Girls nor The Dangerous Book for Boys will challenge the paranoia that is widespread these days. Indeed, by talking up the past (which actually was more messy and unpredictable than Vine and others claim) as a great time for childish liberty, and comparing it unfavourably with today, these books might actually contribute to the combination of nostalgia and fear that dominates contemporary discussions about childhood.

Still, one trusts that any girl with gumption will see The Great Big Glorious Book for Girls for the patronising pap it really is, head straight to the garden, build a great bonfire with her and her girlfriends’ copies, and then head off to the park with the boys to play football, eat, throw things and fart in the general direction of today’s childhood nostalgists.

Emily Hill is staff writer at spiked and a blogger for Dazed and Confused.

Previously on spiked

Josie Appleton looked at measures to keep kids off the street. Helene Guldberg asked whether children are being held hostage by parental fears. Julien Grenier examined a toxic view of working class parents. Or read more at spiked issue Parents and kids.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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