Gender themes in Topsy Smith’s Trompie books

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Trompie and the Boksombende (“Boxing Gang”) are part of the reading and viewing experience of many generations of Afrikaans-speaking youths. The original Trompie series, which consists of 25 books, was published during the 1950s and has been reprinted several times. Twenty-four of the original 25 Trompie books were revised during the years 2013 to 2020 and collected in eight omnibuses. The continuing demand for Trompie books is remarkable, especially seen against the background of the growing supply of new youth books worldwide and the changing emphasis of books for the youth. The South African and especially Afrikaans youth literature, up to and including the 1970s, dealt exclusively with the white middle-class child, who grows up in an almost idyllic family with a loving homemaker mother and a hard-working father. Since the 1980s, characters have been created whose lives have not been so secure and idyllic. During the 1990s there was an overemphasis on social and personal problems. The traditional patriarchal family has made way for an absent father and a mother who is a single parent and breadwinner.

The importance of youth literature for the book market is evidenced, among other things, by the awarding of literary prizes for the recognition and promotion of high-quality youth literature. There is a growing awareness among library staff, teachers and therapists of the value of youth literature. The first Trompie book appeared in 1950, in an era when youth literature consciously or unconsciously presented traditional white middle-class norms as the ideal. The Trompie books therefore probably played and still play an important role in shaping the views of several generations of young people on issues such as race, class and gender. The purpose of this article is twofold: (1) to indicate and discuss gender themes in the Trompie books through the lens of Connell’s (1995) masculinity theory; and (2) to reflect on the possibility of Trompie books as a point of departure to cultivate an awareness of gender inequalities in children.

From a literature review of international youth books it transpires that, since the Women’s Movement (1960s), researchers and publishers have made a conscious effort to expose the positive portrayal of male characters to the detriment of female characters. Although this awareness has created a sensitivity among some writers and publishers about the portrayal of female characters, popular youth literature that appeared as recently as 2004 (Dear Dumb Diary series) and 2011 (Twilight series) still emphasizes boys as protagonists.

Research on gender themes in Afrikaans youth books published since the 1950s has found that Afrikaans youth books published up to the 1970s are mainly about the rough and the smooth of Afrikaner boys growing up in a secure, patriarchal family. Research publications further point out that since the 1980s, Afrikaans youth books have moved away from patriarchy and the idealized family with the father as the head, the mother as the caregiver and obedient, submissive children, to broken, eccentric, reconstituted and dysfunctional families. Recent research (2018) has found that Afrikaans youth books that have been published since the 1990s portray women as strong, intelligent and independent. From the literature it also transpires that, over time, the portrayal of female characters has gradually conformed with those of their male counterparts with regard to, among other things, marital status, role in the household, occupational status and ambition, fearlessness, independence and intellect.

Connell’s (1995) masculinity theory, which underpins this study, provides insight into how boys’ or men’s behaviour, attitudes, and values depend on their dominance over girls, women, and femininity or refinement. This dominance is central to what Connell calls hegemonic masculinity. According to Connell, hegemonic masculinity is about more than just justifying unequal husband-wife relationships; it is also about the unequal relationship between different groups of men. Here, among other things, class, race, sexual orientation, age and nationality can play a role. Hegemonic masculinity is thus, according to Connell, the way in which (a specific group of) men acquire or possess positions of power and wealth and how they justify, maintain and expand this domination.

The eight Trompie omnibuses served as data for this study. An interpretive qualitative research approach was followed. Three gender themes were identified using qualitative content analysis:

(1) The portrayal of Afrikaner boys and men. Trompie is the epitome of the alpha male: he is an autocratic, egocentric leader with an excess of confidence in his intellectual and physical abilities. It is important for the alpha male to enjoy prestige among adults and children. Trompie’s participation in violent confrontations and sports is characterized by brute force. The Trompie books are about much more than the domination of women by men; it is also about men’s dominance over other men. Violent clashes between boys are an important way in which the alpha boys establish and reaffirm their dominance over other boys. In almost all the Trompie books analysed, some of the members of the Boksombende are involved in a fistfight with fellow learners, usually newcomers, to “teach” these newcomers what is acceptable behaviour, to stifle and incite bullying behaviour, and to show who is the pack leader. Violence therefore seems to be the solution to many problems and the restoration of the balance of power. It is clear from the many descriptions of how the members of the Boksombende react to severe corporal punishment and other forms of physical discipline that it is important proof of boys’ masculinity. Sport plays an important role in the development and establishment of hegemonic masculinity. From the stories it appears that winning is everything and that boys who do not strive to excel and win on the sports field or do not participate in so-called “male” sports are marginalized and humiliated. In contrast to Trompie, the hegemonic, dominant protagonist, refined and cultured boys and men are despised and portrayed negatively in a 1950s school and community environment where patriarchy flourished. To the contrary, the white men referred to in the Trompie books are, with a few exceptions, portrayed as leaders in the local or international community.

(2) Female characters in the patriarchal, idealized Afrikaner community are either portrayed as caregivers and housewives or individuals trapped in characteristic female occupations, such as receptionists and teachers, or mocked. The women’s lives revolve around their homes, husbands and children and the local community. The girls who cross paths with Trompie are stereotyped as superficial, money-hungry and vain. None of the female characters can serve as inspiration or example for young female readers to spread their wings.

(3) The patriarchal Afrikaner household is an idealized household. The traditional family is presented as the norm: Trompie’s mother performs tasks in and around the house. She prepares food, takes care of her children and is involved in church and community activities. In the idealized patriarchal Afrikaner family, Trompie’s father plays a leadership role inside and outside the family. He is the “head of the family”, the breadwinner (bank manager), the person who carries the wallet. In the Trompie books, the family and the marriage are viewed through romanticized, rosy glasses.

There is the danger that negative gender stereotyping in youth books can lead to low self-esteem and feelings of inferiority among girls, and excessive self-confidence among boys. One should therefore take notice of international research findings that children’s exposure to non-sexist books can bring about a change in preconceived gender views. It is also important that parents and teachers cultivate an awareness of, and a critical attitude towards gender stereotyping and hegemonic masculinity in children. The article discusses the possibility of making a meaningful, enriching contribution to the Grade 7‒9 Life Orientation Teaching Plan for South African schools through the critical reading of youth books.

Keywords: Connell; gender stereotyping; gender themes; hegemonic masculinity theory; youth literature

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