The easy, intimate friendship between Jess Aarons and Leslie Burke puzzles those around them, both at school and at home. The tomboyish Leslie’s disregard for social norms and traditional expressions of femininity, as well as the sensitive Jess’s artistic talent and disregard for cultivating friendships with the other boys in his grade, make both children into objects of curiosity and even scorn in their communities. As the novel progresses, Paterson explores how Jess and Leslie’s unlikely friendship is intimately entwined with their mutual refusal to embody the gender roles dictated for them by society. Ultimately, Paterson suggests that pressuring children to strictly adhere to the status quo when it comes to the embodiment of gender roles is at best unnecessary, and at worst actively harmful.
Jess and Leslie are, from the start of the novel, two children who don’t necessarily fit in with the status quos prescribed for either of their genders. The tomboyish Leslie and the sensitive Jess draw confusion from their family, taunts from their peers, and even experience confusion and self-loathing resulting from their society’s strict, unnuanced view of the roles that boys and girls must inhabit and perform. At the start of the novel, Jess is determined to become the fastest runner in the fifth grade. He loves the freeing feeling he gets from running wild through the fields beyond his house—but running is only one of his passions. Jess’s best-loved hobby is drawing, but because of his tough, masculine father Mr. Aarons’s insistence that art is an unsuitably feminine pursuit for a boy, Jess has flung himself into running, which is the favorite hobby of his fellow male classmates at Lark Creek Elementary.
Jess also has four sisters, and though he feels sick of being surrounded by so many women, he soon finds that his closest friend at school is also a girl—Leslie Burke. When Jess develops a close friendship with Leslie, he finds himself in defiance of yet another gender norm, since many in his community believe that boys can only form platonic friendships with other boys. Other people—schoolmates and family members alike—don’t understand Jess’s relationship with Leslie. His classmate Gary Fulcher and his older sisters Brenda and Ellie all tease Jess about his “girlfriend,” unable to conceive of a platonic and equitable friendship between two 10-year-olds of different genders. Mrs. Aarons is skeptical and judgmental of Leslie’s tomboyish nature and believes that she is a negative influence on Jess. The other characters in the novel don’t understand Jess and Leslie’s friendship because it defies gender norms. Leslie and Jess both cast aside prescribed behaviors for boys and girls within the confines of their friendship, encouraging each other to be who they are without any fear or shame.
Leslie Burke, the novel’s secondary protagonist, is another individual who shirks not only society’s expectations in terms of her behavior, but also in terms of her gender role. From the moment Jess meets Leslie, he is uncertain of her gender and has trouble pinning her down in one category or another: “The person slid off the fence and came toward [Jess]. […] ‘My name’s Leslie Burke.’ She even had one of those dumb names that could go either way, but he was sure now that he was right.” Leslie dresses like a boy and sometimes even acts like one. She doesn’t enjoy playing with the other girls at recess and takes up running races against the boys. She wears undershirts and cutoffs—never dresses or skirts—and the only time she gets dressed up in the novel is for a visit to church with the Aaronses. Leslie is intrepid, adventurous, and unafraid—all qualities generally associated with boys her age, not girls. Leslie discovers and founds the kingdom of Terabithia and appoints herself its queen—but the very act of laying claim to a kingdom is a radical act which goes against the timid and submissive roles women were expected to play in society even in the mid-1970s (when the novel takes place), years after the sexual revolution and women’s liberation movement in the U.S. Leslie’s parents Bill and Judy encourage her to be exactly who she is—but she witnesses Jess’s parents’ attempts to stifle him, and finds herself acting small, polite, and quiet in the Aaronses’ presence. She struggles to fit in at school, and even cries in the bathroom one afternoon when the other girls are mean to her. Paterson uses all these examples of Leslie publicly resisting stereotypical gender roles—and privately contending with the constant and very real pressure to conform—to show how cruel it is to suppress a child’s self-expression.
Throughout the novel, Paterson investigates how strict gender roles can alienate and inhibit individuals—children, especially—who deviate from the norms dictated by society. Jess and Leslie, luckily, have one another to complement and validate the other—but Paterson suggests that many children are not so fortunate as to have a friend who accepts them regardless of whether or not they follow society’s rules.
Gender Roles ThemeTracker
Gender Roles Quotes in Bridge to Terabithia
“Daddy!” May Belle screamed with delight and started running for the road. Jess watched his dad stop the truck, lean over to unlatch the door, so May Belle could climb in. He turned away. Durn lucky kid. She could run after him and grab him and kiss him. It made Jess ache inside…
The person had jaggedy brown hair cut close to its face and wore one of those blue undershirtlike tops with faded jeans cut off above the knees. [Jess] couldn’t honestly tell whether it was a girl or a boy.
He felt it before he saw it. Someone was moving up. He automatically pumped harder. Then the shape was there in his sideways vision. Then suddenly pulling ahead. He forced himself now. His breath was choking him, and the sweat was in his eyes. But he saw the figure anyhow. The faded cutoffs crossed the line a full three feet ahead of him.
Leslie turned to face him with a wide smile on her tanned face.
On the bus that afternoon [Jess] sat down beside May Belle. It was the only way he could make sure that he wouldn’t have Leslie plunking herself down beside him. Lord, the girl had no notion of what you did and didn’t do.
“Do you know what we need?” Leslie called to [Jess.] […] “We need a place,” she said, “just for us. It would be so secret that we would never tell anyone in the whole world about it. […] It might be a whole secret country,” she continued, “and you and I would be the rulers of it.”
There in the shadowy light of the stronghold everything seemed possible. Between the two of them they owned the world and no enemy, Gary Fulcher, Wanda Kay Moore, Janice Avery, Jess’s own fears and insufficiencies, nor any of the foes whom Leslie imagined attacking Terabithia, could ever really defeat them.
[Jess] wasn’t comfortable having Leslie at his house either. […] Brenda and Ellie always made some remark about “girl friend.” His mother acted stiff and funny [and] later she would refer to Leslie’s “tacky” clothes. […] Her hair was “shorter than a boy’s.” Her parents were “hardly more than hippies.” […] His father had seen Leslie only a few times and had nodded to show that he had noticed her, but his mother said that she was sure he was fretting that his only son did nothing but play with girls, and they both were worried about what would become of it.
“What are you giving your girl friend, Jess?” Brenda screwed her face up in that ugly way she had. [Jess] tried to ignore her. […]
“Don’t you know, Brenda?” Ellie joined in. “Jess ain’t got no girl friend.”
“Well, you’re right for once. Nobody with any sense would call that stick a girl.” […] Something huge and hot swelled right up inside of him. […] Lord, it hurt his guts to realize that it was Brenda who was his blood sister, and that […] he and Leslie were not related at all. Maybe, he thought, I was a foundling, like in the stories.
Entering the gallery was like stepping inside the pine grove [in Terabithia]—the huge vaulted marble, the cool splash of the fountain, and the green growing all around. Two little children had pulled away from their mothers and were running about, screaming to each other. It was all Jess could do not to grab them and tell them how to behave in so obviously a sacred place.
“Well, Momma, he’s just sitting there eating pancakes like nothing happened. I’d be crying my eyes out.”
Ellie was looking first at Mrs. Aarons and then at Brenda. “Boys ain’t supposed to cry at times like this. Are they, Momma?”