I regret to inform you that Little Miss Inventor is a milkshake duck. She looks like progress but she’s actually regressive. She seems feminist but she’s actually sexist. She appears to be the solution, but is part of the problem.
The bar for female representation is so low, it’s easy to mistake sexism for progress. Despite the risk of being called a fun-hating feminist harpy, I refuse to accept the mouldy feminist crumbs that Little Miss Inventor represents, and there are several major reasons why.
The first is a simply issue of male default. Mr Tickle was created in the late 1960s by Roger Hargreaves and the first six Mr Men books were published in 1971, before women existed. Around 10 years later – when the first human girls were invented – the Mr Men empire generously allowed a few scatter cushions into its man-cave and created Little Miss. But the universe both genders inhabit is literally called “Misterland”, and the Mr Men are…well, they’re men. With a capital M. While the Little Misses are, we’re to understand, either girls or (gasp) spinsters. They are not Mrs Women, and I promise you can’t come up with a justification which isn’t sexist somewhere along the line.
In the 1980s, “Ms” was not as well used as it is today, but I still have to query the thinking that lead to Little Miss. I go by Ms, and always have, because I refuse to broadcast my marital status when men don’t have to. Miss and Mrs – both derived from the word Mistress – are relics of an age when a woman’s marital availability was her sole asset, but men need have no such concern. The closest male equivalent is the now defunct 16th century useage of “Master” to mean the younger male of the household. You rarely see that usage outside of Dickens parodies these days, but Mrs and Miss persist because women are still judged by their relationship to men.
So “Miss” is itself sexist. Then we come to “Little” . Trying to diminish the status of women further with diminutive titles is the first chapter in the patriarchy handbook. Call women little (sorry, Louisa May Alcott, you were a product of your time), and we appear small and powerless. Call us girl when we are adults. Keep us in our place, because nothing is scarier than a grown woman with all her wiles and demands. A little woman, on the other hand, well the weakness is right there for all to see and exploit. She’s no threat. And a little miss is the least threatening title there is. Her lack of power is built into her name.
The Little Miss and Mr Men characters each have a single personality trait, often presented as a kid-friendly version of the seven deadly sins, cautionary tales for toddlers. Don’t be greedy like Mr Greedy, although Mr Greedy has to maintain his sin – greed – in order for him to have any adventures beyond the first book. He reforms for only as long as necessary to tell his story, then he’s back to his gluttonous ways. There’s also a Little Miss Greedy, who was until 1988 (coincidentally the year of Roger Hargreaves’s death) named Little Miss Plump. Allegedly she was renamed because Plump was deemed politically incorrect. Greedy is apparently just fine, though, as are (and these are real Little Miss names, I promise), Bossy, Scatterbrain, Chatterbox, Dotty, Contrary, Stubborn, and the utterly baffling Little Miss Princess.
These are all things girls are meant not to be. They are also sexist tropes. Equally, the Little Miss books present positive attributes as role models. In 2014’s Little Miss Hug (written by Roger Hargreaves’s son Adam, a 54 year old man), Little Miss Hug is a pink heart with a different shade of pink hair in pigtails, a red bow and matching shoes, and daisies behind her ears. She’s a girly girl, a real little miss. She also looooves to hug. No concept of personal space or stranger danger, she goes around hugging everyone whether they want it or not. But then she meets Mr Grumpy, who is twice her size and physically pushes her away when she tries to embrace him. She hugs him tighter until he gives in and blushes for the first time in his life. Success! She assaulted a man until he liked her!
The Girl Scouts of America just issued advice to parents to stop forcing girls to hug relatives on Thanksgiving, because they understand that girls learn far too early that consent doesn’t apply to them. Little Miss Hug, on the other hand, teaches girls that hugging is adorable “everyone wants a birthday hug!” and you should touch and let people touch you without question.
Little Miss Inventor’s sole personality trait is inventing things. I haven’t read it because it’s not out until 2018, but she is being hailed as a feminist godsend (where god is the Hargreaves estate) because she’s a SCIENTIST. Society has a problem getting girls interested in science, technology, engineering and maths (known as Stem), and Little Miss Inventor is supposed to help with that. But she’s still a Little Miss. She’s not Ms Inventor. She’s not Dr or Prof Inventor. She still sits alongside Little Miss Hug and Little Miss Don’t be Bossy Even Though Only Girls Get Called Bossy Gee I Wonder Why That is. Girls inspired to get into Stem because of her will still know it’s OK to call them little, and miss, when boys are called no such things.
You can’t dismiss the terrible sexist messages of the other books while simultaneously insisting Little Miss Inventor is a role model. Either these books influence kids or they don’t, and if they do, then a total rethink is needed about what message is sent by the Little Misses name and their place in the Misterverse.