Role-model criticism, the easiest and often most logical form of criticism for children’s literature, has fallen out of favor in our more theoretically sophisticated times. Toril Moi, surveying the state of feminist criticism in 1985, devoted a chapter to “Images of Women” criticism, finding it overly prescriptive and frequently self-contradictory in its calls for a “realistic” or accurate depiction of women’s lives simultaneously with the desire for “strong, impressive female characters” (47). Since many real women (and men!) are neither strong nor impressive, the effort is doomed from the start. And the specific call for “role models” is problematic in itself, for literature is an exchange between writer and readers: readers separated widely by historical circumstance, out of the control of the author and yet affected by him/her in incalculable ways. My role model is your anti-heroine, even in the same text. Yet as a politically-charged reading strategy, Moi goes on to say, “Images of Women” criticism broke new ground: its “will to take historical and sociological factors into account must [in the mid-seventies, coming out of the New Criticism] have seemed both fresh and exciting” (49). She doesn’t suggest, however, how we might revive the best efforts of such work without lapsing into a naïve ahistoricism or a vulgar model of textual reflectionism.

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Copyright © 1998 Johns Hopkins University Press. This article first appeared in The Lion and the Unicorn 22.2 (1998), 163-187. Reprinted with permission by Johns Hopkins University Press.

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