In Which Gender Essentialism Ruins A Perfectly Good Book Series

I recently read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley, and I rather liked it. Set in 1950s England, the book featured an 11 (or ten, the book was a bit inconsistent) year old heroine, Flavia de Luce. Flavia is in love with chemistry and she’s got keen observational skills, so when she gets thrust into the middle of a murder mystery, it’s natural that she would help solve it. It was a generally fun book and I recommended it to other folks.

So then, I picked up The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, the next book in the series. I reasoned that if I liked the first book, I would probably like the second one, and I was curious to see what would happen next with Flavia and her family.

And I was in for a disappointment. Because this book read like Bradley had doused himself in gender essentialism before he wrote it or something. It was rife with references to ‘women’s intuition’ and ‘secret female codes’ and the ‘difference’ between male and female brains. It went beyond a passing reference. It was solidly embedded in the book. As recurring themes go, I’ll freely admit that it’s one of the more annoying ones I can think of. There are few things I enjoy less than gender essentialism and Bradley didn’t give me much of a respite from it at any point in this book.

It was, in a word, revolting. One of the things I liked so very much about the first book was that Flavia was not stereotyped. She was a tad precocious, but Bradley refrained from sticking her in a box; there were even some moments in the book when she had an opportunity to resist a lot of adult attitudes. Flavia was, in a word, her own person. Independent, strong, and allowed to have her own characteristics. What made me recommend her book was her character and the characters of others. The people really came to life in the story.

In the second book, it felt like she was reduced to a caricature. She was wandering around over the whole course of the narrative having all of these essentialist thoughts about men and women, and it really ruined both the book and the character for me. There was even a point at which it was implied that the reason she was so good at solving mysteries was that she had a ‘woman’s brain’ which was able to think ‘intuitively’ and thus this provided her with the tools for resolving mysteries.

Whether this is a reflection of how Bradley thinks about men and women or of how Flavia thinks about them, I could do without it. In a major way. Here we’ve got a story which defies adult expectations and beliefs from the start by allowing a young girl to be autonomous, clever, and valuable. It’s a story which takes thoughts about children and their role in society in new directions. And Bradley had to go spoiling it by reducing it to essentialism.

There seems to be this widespread belief that men and women are different, when things get down to brass tacks. This belief, of course, assumes that trans* people do not exist; there are no trans men or women, let alone nonbinary folks or people who have no gender identity at all. Under the gender essentialism argument, people are born either male or female and remain that way for life. And their brains are different which means that they are good at different things.

Differences between human beings are attributed to their ‘male’ or ‘female’ brains. Flavia, for example, can’t simply be good at observing things and skilled at picking up signals from adults; two things which are not uncommon for bright 11 year olds who are used to living in a world where everyone writes them off, assumes that they are worthless, and sometimes actively works against them. When you constantly find yourself in an adversarial position with adults because adults believe that you have no value, you tend to become very skilled at picking up on subtle things, at observing people, at reading situations. But no, that’s not the reason Flavia is the way she is. Flavia is so good at detecting because she’s got a girl brain.

Gender essentialism is embedded deep in our society; hardly a day passes that I am not presented with another example of this line of thinking about gender. And, the thing is, it’s a very harmful belief. When it shows up in fiction like this, it reinforces social attitudes about gender and gender identity. I’m sure that plenty of readers either glossed right over this material in the book, or even nodded along with it. I’m not sure how many people had a reaction as violently visceral as mine and said ‘hey, wait a minute!,’ let alone thought that it ruined Flavia’s characterisation and the series as a whole.

Bradley managed to turn what was overall a resistant narrative which challenged dominant attitudes into a predictable, troped one which did little more than reinforce those dominant beliefs. It’s disappointing that it happened so fast, and it’s also disappointing that the series seems to be a bit of a smash hit, which means that we will be seeing numerous future entries in the same vein.

I like reading books which question social attitudes, not books which prop them up. Books like these are damaging, and they make things that much harder for people who want to reject gender essentialism. People who stand outside the cis binary have no place in books like this, and people who are located within that binary but who believe that there’s more to gender than meets the eye find nothing to support their beliefs in books rife with gender essentialism. Over time, it adds up. A single book doesn’t change society, but if more books had resistant narratives, it would be much easier for those of us who are resisters, because the resistance would be woven into the fabric of the media we consume, and society by extension.