One of my first blogs for Reel Girl was about sexism in Dr. Seuss. Here’s a kidlit author with such a fecund imagination, an incredible gift for words, yet when it comes to female characters in his fantasy worlds, he falls flat.
Dr. Seuss’s sexism (just as Herge’s, the creator of Tintin) is loyally and meticulously maintained by contemporary Hollywood. Right now, The Lorax’s mustachioed face all is in ads all over San Francisco as he prepares to make his debut on the big screen. Meanwhile, the “love interest” in the movie, Taylor Swift’s character is nowhere to be seen on the posters plastered all over our city’s buses. As far as marketing, I have seen Swift’s character only in TV commercials. (The one I saw was during the Grammys broadcast.)
So when I discovered the wonderful book, Fearless Girls, Wise Women and Beloved Sisters: Heroines in Folktales From Around the World, I was not surprised that the anthologist, Kathleen Ragan, was driven to seek out female protagonists because of her frustration with the sexism in Dr. Seuss. While reading his many, many books to her young daughter, Kagan became annoyed and then enraged. Here’s what she wrote in her introduction:
We read One fish Two Fish, Red Fish Blue Fish. My daughter loved the rhythm and rhymes, just as I did when I was a little girl. She memorized whole pages on the couch pretending to read “I am Sam/ Sam I am.”
The more I read, the more uncomfortable I became. I found myself changing the pronouns from male to female when I read stories to her. …
One night we read If I Ran the Zoo as bedtime story. A part of the story described hens roosting in each others’ topknots. When it said, “Another one roosts in the the topknot of his/ And another in his, and another in HIS, I got angry. Since when is a hen masculine?”
Ragan’s shock at how far adults will go to maintain male privilege in the imaginary world reminds me of my reaction when I saw the animated film “Barnyard.” The protagonist, Otis, played by Kevin James, is a cow. A cow with an udder. I kid you not. So not only do our kids go to the movies to learn that girls aren’t nearly as important as boys, but they’re getting distorted lessons about basic anatomy.
After the male hen experience, Ragan began counting characters:
As soon as my daughter went to sleep that night, I picked up And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street. I looked for female characters. There were none. In fact, the only mention of a woman occurred in the lines “Why Jack or Fred or Nat/ Say even Jane could think of that.” I picked up the 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, Even the crowd scenes were male…I did a more thorough survey, hoping to find Dr. Seuss books with positive, exciting female characters. I found that over 90% of the characters were male. …
I continued to count. I counted books in my local library which prides itself on being gender conscious yet there were at least twice as many male protagonists as female protagonists in the children’s fiction section. In the scarcity and poor quality of heroines, my daughter was constantly being told ‘you don’t exist, you’re not important.
Ragan started to research to folktales. In published anthologies of world folktales, she found a low percentage of female characters: 4% female protagonists (not necessarily heroines) in a book of 220 folktales and 2% female protagonists in a book of 107 folktales were standard ratios. When searching through fairytales Ragan found 10% female active protagonists to 90% male. In the first edition of Grimm’s, supposedly more feminist than later adaptations and Disney movies, out of 210 stories, just 40 featured female main characters.
So Ragan decided to create her own anthology. She reviewed over 30,000 folktales from around the world and came up with her fabulous book featuring 103 tales complete with inspiring heroines.
Thrilled to have discovered Ragan’s book and read about a mom’s experiences of frustration with kidlit so like my own, I thumbed to the copyright to see when Fearless Girls was published. I was hoping that this anthology had just come out and was about to inspire Hollywood to make a new slew of movies with female heroines, LEGO to make sets with female adventurers, derivative video games and apps to follow. A new trend of gender equality in kids media was about to begin.
Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters came out in 1998, 14 years ago. Before Ratatouille, Cars, and Wall-E. Before the Happy Feet 1 and 2 and Tintin. Before Disney announced it will make no more princess movies i.e. the only genre, albeit totally sexist, that allowed in a very limited way for females to be to be front and center, to star, to actually get a movie titled in honor of them.
In 15 years from now, is some other mom with little kids going to come across my blog and think: wow, someone was writing about this years ago and things have only gotten worse?
How can we as parents continue to allow fewer and fewer female characters? There is no reason for fantasy world to be sexist. It’s an imaginary world, equality for our kids should at least be possible there.
And if this phenomenon of missing girls continues to go on at the rate it is now, how does that affect our kids’ imaginations and aspirations? Who they are and the adults they’ll become?
This radical and perpetual gender disparity of choicemaker-hero-male versus passive-sidekick-female (if she’s allowed to exist at all) might continue to replicate in the adult world, as if it’s expected, as if its normal. Here’s an illustration of today’s congressional hearing on contraception that could be right out of a Dr. Seuss book. Not a uterus present but lots of facial hair. Minus a few trees, The Lorax would feel right at home in Washington DC.
So would a cow named Otis.
Reel Girl rates Fearless Girls, Wise Women, and Beloved Sisters ***GGG***