Ramona Quimby Is Not A Role Model
As most are probably aware by now, beloved children’s author Beverly Cleary passed away recently. While it wasn’t unexpected, since Cleary was, after all, 104 years old, still it felt to me like the end of an era, the passing of the old guard who believed that children deserved and desired a child’s level of realism in their stories, and gave it to them. Not cheaply, in a tawdry fashion, like the authors who followed Cleary in the 1960s and 1970s did, writing about periods and parental abandonment and anorexia and gang violence. Instead, Cleary wrote about the familiar, everyday drama of parents arguing about the best way to cook pancakes and little girls resisting the wiles of toothpaste tubes that just REALLY wanted to be squeezed.1
Beverly Cleary wrote about a world that was safe, but still challenging for a little person to navigate, the world all children inhabit – because even children with more substantial worries still must deal with the mundane. She presented her readers with snapshots of a child’s world, little nuggets of truth captured believably on the page, somehow rendering those small moments far more compellingly than the grandiose adventures of superheroes and chosen ones in the here and now.
As I’ve read the recent glowing and breathless accolades, most of them written by twentysomethings who, based on the sheer genericness of their remarks, I am not entirely sure have actually READ Beverly Cleary’s books, I keep bumping up against the same theme. “Ramona Quimby is iconic because she’s so NAUGHTY!” these articles crow breathlessly. “Ramonaramonaramonaramona, and did we also mention RAMONA?”
Personally, I never liked Ramona. I was, as a lot of young girls are, a born rule follower and Ramona’s inability to follow the rules annoyed me. And I didn’t like, didn’t like at all, how often Beezus, a much more responsible girl, was made to be the bad guy, the wet blanket, the butt of the joke. There’s a lot of that in the Ramona books.
Something I found enraging was when Beezus responsibly saved up her money to get a professional haircut at the local salon academy (where hairstylists are trained), and somehow Ramona finagles getting a haircut there too, and Beezus’ hair ends up looking terrible and Ramona’s looks great. While it’s a moment of cringe-inducing, thoroughly relatable realism, from Ramona’s perspective it really looks a lot like Beezus being made to look the fool for her initiative, punished for her desire to grow up and not have her mother cut her hair anymore, chastened for wanting to look pretty. Meanwhile, Ramona is rewarded for just showing up and being Ramona. While it doesn’t ~quite~ reach the level of CS Lewis cutting the eldest Pevensie, Susan, out of heaven for liking lipsticks and nylons, it gives me the same sort of vibe.
Please understand, I’m not faulting Beverly Cleary. All is well on Klickitat Street. The books are great, Ramona is the protagonist, she’s meant to appeal to the target audience. Beezus is, to some extent, Ramona’s foil. Life ain’t fair, bad haircuts happen, all that is as it should be. In fiction, even in realistic fiction, I believe it to be perfectly ok to present one side of a conflict and not the other. I simply find it very interesting how one-dimensional every word of posthumous praise has been, ignoring all of Cleary’s other books, replete with interesting and realistic characters, to praise one single solitary imaginary girl, a girl who at first blush fits very nicely into the Plucky Girl narrative.
Ramona, Ramona, Ramona!
The fawning accolades for Ramona remind me about how in modern day fiction, it’s invariably the girl who breaks the rules and does whatever she wants and somehow faces absolutely no consequences for that, who is the hero of every story, even though in the real world, girls are socialized (very strongly indeed, BTW) to follow society’s rules even when it doesn’t serve their interests, and face consequences – in many cases, quite severe consequences – when we step off the path society has set before us. It shouldn’t surprise me that generations of girls who grew up having the mantra “color outside the lines” drummed into their heads and view even the most reasonable consequences as oppression, glom onto Ramona Quimby as being an avatar of, or possibly a precursor to, that mentality.
But it does make me a little sad. Firstly, because Beverly Cleary’s larger point in creating the character of Ramona was that growing up is harder for some people than others and that it’s ok to struggle along the way, NOT that anyone should take delight in being naughty in perpetuity. And secondly because there sure do seem to be a whole lot of people who cannot seem to manage being a Ramona in the world without having to cast a Beezus to play bad guy – even though Beezus, the character, as written, was never a bad guy.
I’m going to tell you a little secret, You-Go-Girls. If the only way you can find to exist in this world is by creating adversarial relationships with every other woman you come across, even fictional ones, in order to feel fleetingly superior to them, then you’re basically fulfilling that sexist stereotype of “women just can’t get along”. Believe it or not, despite what media conglomerates are telling you, it is ok to be both a Ramona and a Beezus (or a little of both of them at the same time), and while there’s certainly nothing wrong with being a Ramona, there’s also nothing wrong with being a Beezus, either.
Ramona and Beezus loved each other. They were different, but they loved each other. A critical element in the story is that love, and the mutual understanding they are able to come to along the way. At no point in any of the Ramona books did Ramona break the fourth wall and tell us that she would only ever be a valid person once Beezus was an invalid one. It is ok to coexist with, even love, people who are very different from you. Not everything is a competition.
The weirdest part of the Ramona fetishists to me is this: many of the same people who enjoy retroactively cosplaying as Ramona, are actually Beezus IRL. Rule followers. Conformists. They just happened to live on Klickitat Street in the 2000s instead of the 50s, and so the rules they cling to so passionately are different, but Ramona Quimby they ain’t.
Beezus, baby, I know the rules say to be a rebel, but you can only rebel against things the grownups DON’T believe in, the expectations that are set too high. If you’re doing everything the parental units and the multinational corporation you work for and the million screaming mouthpieces of the media wants you to do, and you’re knocking it out of the park in those arenas, that’s a pretty good sign you’re not a rebel at all.
I was told to be a rebel and I followed the rules but in following the rules that means I was no longer a rebel!!! Beezus, my dear, that’s a paradox worthy of a supercomputer arguing with Captain Kirk.
All the people screeching about rebellion while doing and saying and believing everything their fellows do are not rebels. They are not Ramona. Because they don’t want to be “naughty”, not really. People being naughty makes them nervous just like Ramona’s naughtiness made Beezus nervous. These so-called rebels want to obey, and obey they do. At the same time corporations are selling us t-shirts embossed with “color outside the lines”, society simultaneously whispers “but actually, stay inside these other lines just to be safe.” These girls delighting in the Cult of Ramona are born rule followers just like I was a born rule follower. It’s simply that they’re following a different set of rules. But they’re following them as strictly as Beezus ever did. Anyone who is following different rules is seen as…to put it nicely, a pest.
By the way, stay tuned for my new children’s book, Gina Carano, Age 8.
Riddle me this – if everyone has blue hair, where is the rebelliousness in having blue hair? If everyone has tattoos, where is the rebelliousness in having tattoos? If everyone is a rebel, where is the rebelliousness in being a rebel? There is none, and the word “rebellion” loses all meaning. In fact, being unrebellious, old-school, dare-I-say conservative, in the trad sense of the word, starts to take on an air of radicalism itself.
We live in a world where Ramona is actually Beezus and somehow Beezus became Ramona without wanting to, but she is still just as much the bad guy as ever. No longer is Ramona just a girl trying to figure everything out in a hard world full of rules she just can’t seem to master. She is become Beezus, destroyer of nonconformity, the person who HAS it all figured out, and she loathes everyone who does not live up to her set of standards.
There is a bitter irony in that Beverly Cleary started writing children’s novels because she loathed the treacly, preachy moral tone in stories written for the kids of her generation. But she lived long enough to see the treacly preaching about morality simply be taken up by another set of busybodies who enjoy inflicting their personal codes of socially acceptable moral behavior upon the world just as heavy handedly as ever. And that these people, these people who love rules and hate anyone who rebels against them, or who just can’t quite manage to live up to them, because the rules are so complicated and feel so arbitrary and change by the day, have seized upon Ramona Quimby as an avatar, honestly turns my stomach.
I don’t know that Beverly Cleary understood that sea change that happened over the course of her very long life, in which excessive propriety died and then was resurrected in a new form that some consider “Ramona-ism” but is in actually merely an empowerment of the inner Beezus in a whole lot of people, people who now look around at anyone misbehaving and stamp their feet and say “but you just can’t DO that!” out of one side of their mouths while screaming “Ramooonnnnaaaaa” from the other.
But I understand it.
One of the grossest comments that I read on a pro-Ramona article said this: “Little girls aren’t supposed to be little peonies!” as if that was in any way a positive, pro-female sentiment. Ok Beezus, if you say so, but some girls are meek and shy. Some little girls prefer to follow the old rules. Some girls don’t want to make waves even though the world is telling them “make waves”. Some girls like princesses and horses and tea parties and clean clothes and getting straight As in school. Some of us are fragile and delicate and some of us, like peonies, even like to be looked at. Some little girls are peonies, actually, and I know this, because I was one. You saying we’re not supposed to be who we are reminds me a lot of the types of people who used to tell active little girls to sit down and act like ladies. People who tell others what they “aren’t supposed to be”, are bad, regardless of the externalities of their statement. Who are you to decide that everyone has to be a dandelion, anyway?
Some girls are some things inherently, and it’s a shame that we cannot celebrate the Ramonas of the world without tearing down a different subset of girls instead. Because the world is a lot more beautiful a place with every flower blooming in its own unique way.
The truth is, the skilled and amazing Beverly Cleary was entirely able to celebrate many types of people in her writing. If you read anything Beverly Cleary ever wrote outside of the Ramona series2 you will meet other girls and young women and boys and dogs and mice who also find rules hard but figure out a way to live in them, with them, and succeed, because they learn through harsh experience that hey, in many cases the rules actually make some sense. Perhaps most importantly, they learn that they are capable of more than a perpetual childhood.
And you know what, now that I stop to think about it, Ramona Quimby did that too. I’m sorry so many of you missed that element of Ramona, but Ramona wasn’t the same girl by the end of the series. She grew up. She got older. She managed the hard stuff until it became easy. She came to understand other people better, even Beezus. She learned not to squeeze all the toothpaste out of the tube. Screaming “Ramona is NAUGHTY, reeeeeeee!” completely undermines Ramona’s character arc, in which she tries hard and learns to behave better along the way.
Children grow up. Even Ramona. That is as it should be. If you missed that, maybe you need to read the books again.
- You may point out that there was an intended age difference between Cleary’s books and the books of some other writers, and you would be right about that, but for most of us, it was a pretty narrow window between when we found ourselves able to read a full-on novel and when we were reading the very risqué books like Forever. Beverly Cleary was, for many of us myself included, read not prior to but alongside much more adult-themed books. I for one found them a welcome respite from content that I was likely not developmentally ready to be reading anyway. I remember reading Beverly Cleary when the world felt like it was too much, too soon, that it wanted things from me that I was unable to give. I would pull one of my tattered Cleary books from the shelf and enter a world in which things seemed a lot simpler, and kids only had to master a child’s world, instead of a child’s world and the adult world all at the same time.
- Growing up, my personal favorites were Ellen Tebbits/Otis Spofford (this tells two sides of a girl and boy who have a lighthearted teasing relationship in school), Mitch and Amy, the story of twins based upon Beverly Cleary’s own children, who each have their own unique academic challenges to master, the Mouse and the Motorcycle trilogy (my boys loved these) and my most beloved Cleary books, her young adult novels, Fifteen, Sister of the Bride, Jean and Johnny, and The Luckiest Girl.