Several of my friends grew up reading the Moomintroll books, so I've been hearing the books recommended for a long time, but only just started reading them for the first time.
(Note to people who loved them: I'm sorry to say that I'm gonna be kinda critical here. I know it can be distressing to hear criticism of beloved childhood favorites; I'm sorry about that.)
I've now read the first two in American publication order: Comet in Moominland and Finn Family Moomintroll. (The real first book, The Moomins and the Great Flood, wasn't published in English until years later.) And although there are bits I've liked, I've been kinda disappointed at the gender dynamics so far.
For example, the prominent explicitly-female characters in Comet and Finn Family are:
- A prankster “silk-monkey,” who doesn't get a name (though, to be fair, arguably Moomintroll himself, the main character, also has a species for a name), and who's flighty and scattered, and disappears from the first book after the second chapter. She reappears at the end, but only briefly, to be rescued. I don't think she appears at all in the second book.
- Moominmamma, Moomintroll's mother, who spends pretty much all of her time making food, except when she's making beds for unexpected houseguests. (Well, when she first appears, she also places pretty shells around flowerbeds, and darns socks, but after that it's mostly food and beds.) Nothing wrong with domesticity, but there isn't much to her character beyond that.
- The Snork Maiden, about whom more later.
- The Groke, a mysterious and frightening force of evil, who appears only for a few pages in the second book, though she does have a significant effect on the plot.
(I should note that having even four prominent female characters puts these books ahead of, for example, the Winnie the Pooh books in that regard. So I'm certainly not suggesting that the Moomintroll books are worse on gender issues than many other classic kids' books.)
When I've mentioned the gender stuff to friends who read the books as kids, they've said (among other things) “Oh, but what about Little My? And what about Too-Ticky? They're great!” But those characters don't appear in the first two books, so I haven't seen them yet.
In the first two books, the handling of the Snork Maiden especially irritates me. She's introduced initially off-camera; Snufkin tells Moomintroll and Sniff that he once encountered a Snork and his sister the Snork Maiden. Moomintroll immediately, knowing nothing about her other than that she exists, is female, and is a Snork (which are similar to Moomintrolls), falls in love with her. (Well, okay, Snufkin has also said that she's beautiful, can weave grass mats, and can make a drink that's good for tummyaches.) Twenty pages later, she appears on-camera, and he's kind of gaga over her, and she immediately falls for him as well, because he bravely rescues her from a killer plant and says he's there to protect her. Her main interests are flowers and looking in mirrors and wearing jewelry. And telling Moomintroll how brave and wonderful he is.
. . . On reskimming various parts of the books as I wrote this, I see that I'm not being entirely fair to the Snork Maiden. For example, when she first tries walking on stilts, she whimpers with fright, but “after a time she was better than any of” the male characters at stiltwalking. She teaches Moomintroll to dance. She rescues Moomintroll from a monster using quick thinking and her mirror. More generally, she several times comes up with clever ideas for how to solve the problems that the characters encounter (though the others usually don't give her credit for having good ideas).
So all of that is pretty cool. Still, my overwhelming impression of her is someone who cares primarily about her appearance and about admiring Moomintroll.
I've been excusing (to myself) all the traditional-gender-roles stuff because the books were written in the 1940s, but I keep finding it disappointing nonetheless. The author, Tove Jansson, was female, and she lived for decades with her female life partner, Tuulikki Pietilä; there's no rule that lesbian or bi women have to write three-dimensional female characters, of course, but I would've hoped that her characters would've stretched further beyond the standard prescribed roles for women. . . . Speaking of Pietilä, she is of course left out of the two-page bio of Jansson that appears in the back of the American editions of the Moomin books, but I gather that Jansson and Pietilä were quite open about their relationship. And apparently Pietilä was the inspiration for Too-Ticky, so maybe Jansson went on, in later books, to do exactly the kind of thing I was hoping for.
Even in the first two books, there are occasional redeeming moments on the gender front, such as the less-stereotyped aspects of the Snork Maiden. Another example: there's a bit in Finn Family Moomintroll where Moominmamma is asked to name a boat, and she demurs in favor of letting the boys name the boat, but the names they come up with are unsuitable, so she steps in and names it Adventure. I really enjoyed that scene. But I wish she showed that much personality in other parts of the books.
Another interesting aspect of all this: In Finn Family, a pair of little creatures named Thingumy and Bob are introduced. As far as I can tell, they're never given gendered pronouns, but given the name “Bob,” I assumed they were meant to be male. But in the original Swedish, they were named Tofslan and Vifslan, which derived from the names of Tove Jansson and her lesbian friend (and, I think, lover) Vivica Bandler. It's not clear to me whether the characters of Tofslan and Vifslan are explicitly gendered in the original. If they had been explicitly female in the English versions, that would have gone a long way toward ameliorating my disappointment.
Back in 2010, JoSelle Vanderhooft praised the Moomin books for their subtextual queerness, but I disagree with some of what she said. For example:
Moomintroll is in love with Snork Maiden and Moominpapa with Moominmama not because it’s the expected thing to do, but because each truly admires his or her beloved. This kind of romantic relationship, free of gender roles and their toxic expectations,...
I would argue exactly the opposite: I think Moomintroll is in love with the Snork Maiden (even before he meets her) entirely because of heterosexual gender-role expectations.
And Vanderhooft added: “if Snork Maiden likes jewelry or Moominmama enjoys cooking, they do so because these things truly interest them.” I'm always hesitant about that kind of argument. Why is it that it just happens that the only really prominent female characters are truly interested in jewelry and cooking and supporting their menfolk, and aren't truly interested in much of anything else? And why is it that it just happens that none of the male characters are truly interested in jewelry or cooking? In real life, I can agree that (partly due to societal pressures) people may just happen to be truly interested in traditionally gendered pursuits. But in fiction, I find that argument harder to swallow.
But I should note that Vanderhooft was writing in the context of all of the Moomin books, not just the first two; by writing this entry without having read the later books, I may well be giving Jansson far too little credit. So I'll be interested to see how things change in the later books.