Oh, people. People, people, people, I am so tired of dislike of needlework being used as a stand-in for making a young female character actually interesting. I see this mostly in middle-grade fantasies, mostly. Not so much in YA, although I don’t know if that’s because I’m not seeing as much secondary world YA as I’d like. It sometimes goes with not being boyyyyyy crazy. Because girls who are interested in boys are stupid and hate everything that is fun and good and probably will grow boobs early and never ever ever have adventures. (Also girls who are interested in girls are invisible and don’t exist. So basically if you have proto-romantic feelings before age 18 or preferably 21, you stink. Thanks, MG tropes!)
Several things about the needlework thing annoy me, though. One of them is that it’s the cheap shot among “women’s work” stuff. It’s the one that middle-grade readers of the present are by and large not being asked to do, or at least not insistently/universally. Some girls are crafters as a hobby, but very few of them would self-define as doing “needlework.” So it’s a lot safer for an author aiming at a tomboy everygirl, because, hello, third wave! Tomboy everygirls can love making cookies or soup or whatever. And nobody* really says, “I adore cleaning. I live for cleaning. Cleaning is so awesome.” You can have your character announce that she hates scrubbing the floor, but nobody thinks that makes her amazing, they just think it makes her normal.
The other thing that ties in with this is: needlework used to be a lot like cleaning, in that it used to be necessary for continued health. Sure, you can choose whether you want your home spotless or a little messy, but you do in fact need to wash your dishes, one way or the other. That’s a health issue. And before industrial textiles, you had to do a million textile-related chores in order to keep your family healthily clothed. Mending. Taking things in and letting them out and altering them for younger/smaller family members. Even tapestry, while it is an art form and was used for self-expression, was also used to keep the walls of those stone castles and houses from turning the wenches into wenchcicles. Even in post-industrial textile societies, you will see a very realistic concern for what torn clothing and clever needlework can mean if you read the books of Noel Streatfeild, where the cost of a dress to put a family member in a good position to gain economic advantage is really non-trivial. I would love to see a parent or sibling in a fantasy novel react to a character’s stated hatred of needlework in one of these contexts–basically someone treating it as the protag saying, “I want you to buy me a better cell phone and data plan and all the other bells and whistles I want,” or else, “I hate cleaning the toilet,” rather than, “I am so interesting and independent!” I don’t expect that soon, though. It’s pretty embedded.
So where does all this come from? Two places: resentment of early twentieth century middle-class Anglo/American enforced femininity, and the Victorians. A lot, a lot of the women who pioneered the fantasy genres–especially children’s fantasy–chafed at the roles they were slotted into in the rest of their lives. And the “needlework as a useless pastime for enforcing female idleness” is straight out of Victorian life, where manufacturing endless unwanted decorations for the parlor and the jumble sale was, in fact, some women’s lot. But the Victorians were substantially along the line of progress of industrial textiles; a vicar’s daughter who spun flax would be distinctly odd, because that sort of thing was done in factories by then. Taking those frustrations and plunking them down wholesale in medieval-inspired cultures is understandable for those who lived them and witnessed them firsthand–Edith Nesbit, if ever you do that, I forgive you. (But notice that Nesbit has an unusual regard for the consequences of the children’s rash behavior on servants and the family budget. This was not much replicated by her imitators.) For those of us for whom they are historical study, it’s just plain laziness.
More than that, it’s attempting to make traits and interests exclusive that frankly aren’t. My friend V., for example, crocheted me a hyperbolic plane. She is interested in fiber arts and in math. She didn’t have to choose Boy Stuff or Girl Stuff–she can like some gendered activities and a great many activities like fiber arts and math that are not essentially gendered. And we lose a great deal when we accept shorthands for characterization too easily, too readily. “She’s a tomboy, not a girly girl.” “He’s a brain, not a jock.” We make our own cultural pitfalls in creating supposed opposites that aren’t really opposed more universal than we mean to when we import them whole cloth into secondary worlds.
Honestly, though, it’s just boring. It’s a trigger for me to say, “Another one of those, author getting lazy,” and put the book down. Find something else to express your character’s adventurous soul. Or don’t make them have a standard-issue Adventurous Soul TM in the first place. Whichever.
*Almost certainly somebody says this, because, well, people. They vary. And almost certainly there are loads of women who hate “needlework.” I am not a seamstress or a crafter myself. My complaint here is not that girls who fit these traits are unrealistic or do not exist, it’s that the traits are being overused and used cheaply.