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Although in most fairy tales boys are placed in the role of heroes thanks to gender stereotypes, Dahl proves that girls can fulfil this role just as well. Matilda, for example, is an adventurous and active girl who outsmarts her parents by going to the library herself when they refuse to buy her any books. Accompanied by her witty friends, she stands up against the scary and authoritative Miss Trunchbull in a manner that only boys would in more traditional literature.
Although he was most critically acclaimed for his children’s books, Dahl has written many books and short stories for adults, too. A great collection is Tales of the Unexpected, in which female power seems to be a central theme. In his witty, naughty, and often violent stories, he constantly surprises by turning stay-at-home and overly dependent women into stronger, sometimes man-hating versions of themselves.
As a lot of Dahl’s main characters grow up in somewhat unconventional families, he shows that family comes in all shapes and sizes. This includes single parents such as Miss Honey, who is a single woman without the desperate need to marry the perfect guy. She teams up with Matilda in fighting both the evil Miss Trunchbull and Matilda’s parents and takes Matilda into her own home in the end. The story of Miss Honey and Matilda shows that women really don’t need men to survive.
Matilda is the perfect example of a clever and independent girl. Yet she is taught that little girls should be seen, not heard. Her father doesn’t bother involving her in his business, as she is ‘too stupid’, and he talks to her (clearly less intelligent) brother, instead. It may be just a small detail in the book, but it reflects perfectly how women are often treated in society.
The Witches are especially feared because they are more than they seem to be. Covered up with make-up and wigs, they look like perfectly normal young women, but underneath they are evil creatures with the cruelest intentions. This is Dahl’s brilliant way of showing how society demands women all over the world to be pretty in order to achieve success.
…whether it’s an old, bored lady who is not permitted to leave the house without her husband or a young mother sitting at home all day, desperately waiting for her spouse to get home. In Tales of the Unexpected, Dahl often ridicules the limitations women had to live with in the ’60s by expressing some kind of morbid revenge among his female characters.
In Dahl’s autobiography he describes his mother as ‘undoubtedly the primary influence on my life.’ From this it’s clear that for a life’s worth of writing material, all you need is an inspiring, story-telling mum.
Whether it’s Matilda, Charlie, or Sophie (from The BFG), Dahl always focused on a powerless underdog becoming powerful. Through this, he showed it doesn’t matter who you are, what gender you are, or where you’re from. If you’re brave enough, you will make it in this world.
The Witches was published in 1983, when feminism was at its peak. Dahl received heaps of criticism for misrepresenting females, by defining witches as only ever being women: ‘A witch is always a woman. I do not wish to speak badly about women. Most women are lovely. But the fact remains that all witches are women.’ Interestingly, although we never heard any men complaining about this, the opposite statement is used in The BFG, when The BFG reacts indignantly after being asked about his mother: ‘My Mother! Giants don’t have mothers! Whoever heard of a woman giant! Giants is always men!’