Dr. Seuss’s sexism inspires mom to create anthology of heroines

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.

But, no.

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***

23 thoughts on “Dr. Seuss’s sexism inspires mom to create anthology of heroines

  1. Bravo!
    Love seeing discussion and articles like this, addresses a very real and present issue.

    A book I found by random chance at my local library is very much like the one you listed; The Serpent Slayer, and Other Stories of Strong Women. Folk and myth anthology of ethnically diverse heroines!! Way cooler than Disney princesses. ;)
    Purchase here– http://www.amazon.com/The-Serpent-Slayer-Stories-Strong/dp/0316387010
    or check your library!

    Be warned, some illustrations would be deemed immodest by those who care about such things. Also, some of the stories deal with adult themes, so you can either edit those for your audience or use them as discussion opportunities.

    Also, what are the thoughts here about the TV show Once Upon a Time? =)

  2. Have you seen the TV ad for “The Lorax” movie with the punchline: “You wouldn’t hit a woman!” [Lorax reply:] “THAT’S a woman??!!”

  3. I am glad that this wonderful book got some press. I just love it. Two other wonderful collection are “Don’t Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North American and England” by Phelps and “The Maid of the North: Feminist Folk Tales from Around the World” by Zipes. Also a shout out to a wonderful picture book, interesting to 3rd grade through middle school: “Sophia and the Heartmender” by Olofsdotter.

  4. This is an interesting and different take on Dr. Seuss for me! In my field (juvenile dependency) Dr. Seuss’s books are used as teaching tools to help combat discrimination. For example, when we have kids who are taken away from abusive mothers, we use Horton Hatches an Egg to help them understand that dads and nonfamilial parents are equally worthy caretakers. In fact, a “Horton parent” is the term used (even in court!) for a nonfamilial guardian who has taken on a parental role in the child’s life and can provide her with the care, stability and love that the biological parents cannot. I’ve always thought of Dr. Seuss as a champion of progressive causes, so this is definitely a different take on things.

    • Hi rain,

      I am a fan of Dr. Seuss just like I am of the movie Ratatouille or the animation of Tintin. It’s just that these books and movies are also sexist. It would even be OK if there were females represented elsewhere, but they are not hardly at all. I got “Oh the Place You’ll GO,” for my college graduation and I still have it. I read the stories to my kids. There is a lot to love about Dr. Seuss but not the lack of females.

      MM

      • I loved the wway you phrased that, Margot! It is a new take on Dr. Suess for me as well, and a new take on sexism. Normally, I just try to avoid things that I see as sexist . . . Perhaps my mind might be opening a little!

        • Hi Laura,

          It’s hard picking on loveable cartoon characters! I love them too. I think it’s important to say that upfront (I probably don’t enough) b/c otherwise people often end up defending the character/ author/ movie and miss the point about the sexism. Many people have asked me why I just don’t go to these movies. There are many reasons: I want to see what’s out there, I’d rather write about the sexism as publicly as I can instead of just be one silent person trying to ignore it, i’d rather teach my kids critical thinking then isolating from “bad” stuff, but the real reason? I love movies! Not going for me is like when I complain about our government and people say: why don’t you move to France? I love America. If I avoided sexist movies, music, TV, books my world would get pretty tiny. I just want women to be included for God’s sake.

          Thanks for visiting Reel Girl.
          MM

  5. I was fairly surprised when I decided for Black History Month to watch and review as many black superhero movies as I could find and I was disappointed when I only found 9 of them. I thought that was a pretty low number. But then when I found out that March is Women’s History Month, I looked up how many lead female superheroe movies are out there and there are only 6. And not only that, but not a single one of those movies were any good.

    • HI Bubbawheat,

      Wow, fascinating but not surprising. I am sure racism in the animated world would be much more blatant if it didn’t feature so many animals, cars, robots etc. While producer and directors seem compelled to assign imaginary creatures genders, race is mostly not an exaggerated big deal. The way female characters are presented is very often degrading and offensive. It would be interesting to research how many actors of color of hired to do voices.

      MM

      • I know a few off the top of my head, Phil Lamarr who does a lot of work on Futurama, Michael Dorn does a lot of cartoon network shows, and the voice of Jar Jar Binks and Elmo are two other noteworthy voice actors as well as puppeteer in Elmo’s case.

        Now that I think of it, Japanese Anime is one area that tends to feature a large number of female protagonists and female-centric shows and movies compared to western animation. Especially Miyazaki. Howl’s Moving Castle especially has a fairly large percentage of female roles in it.

  6. There’s no question this is a pervasive and egregious imbalance in all literature, which of course is the primary point of the article. Really, it’s more of a wholesale gendercide. The core reasons for this are the scapegoating and objectification of femininity present in culture for eons.

    Because of it’s unbudging male dominance, Hollywood screenwriting is also creatively bankrupt outside of technology. While cinema has increased it’s ability to realistically portray in visual form those things we could previously only imagine, it has exhausted it’s pool of subjects to portray and now continuously regurgitates the same sexist, male dominated storylines of old. In her 2009 article “Still Sucks to Be a Female Writer in Hollywood”, Melissa Silverstein detailed the numbers:

    “Women hold just 25% of all the writing jobs. TV jobs make up 28%, and film jobs make up 19%.

    Earnings: There is an over $5,000 earnings gender gap in TV and almost $42,000 in film. This is the widest margin in years.”

    Because there is much more to this, I’ll include the link:

    http://womenandhollywood.com/2009/11/19/still-sucks-to-be-a-female-writer-in-hollywood/

    Melissa’s report points out the fact that Hollywood movies are both more popular and more profitable when they are based in the action genre. I’ve mentioned before that I think women actually do get more even exposure in those roles, particularly when they are based on new ideas and storylines. “The Incredibles”, “Alien” series, and “Head In The Clouds” all come to mind as films where I think women were both powerful and feminine, albeit still in disproportionate numbers.

    There are two points that were made in the course of the article that I would question. While we can certainly bemoan the misappropriation of a female bovine physical attribute (the udder) because it’s been done from male privilege, I think we dilute the argument and perpetuate our objectification by stressing that gender should be defined by organs; particularly when we try to equate anthropomorphized animals as people.

    Secondly, regarding the hens reference in Dr. Seuss. It doesn’t excuse the lack of female protagonists in Seuss’s milieu, but given the age when these were written I have to wonder if it’s more a reflection of the (albeit decrepit and sexist) literary custom of assigning male pronouns to identity (such as calling a female officer, Sir) and female pronouns to objects; ships, cars and airplanes are still often referred to using female pronouns. More to my question about the comment though, why CAN’T women be masculine?

    As women and as parents, we need to stop supporting media that leaves us out and we need to stop regurgitating the old literary sources to teach our kids. Vote with our wallets, Hollywood will eventually listen.

    • Putergirl,

      Melissa blog is one of my favorites. I guess I see your point about the udder, but to me, it seems complicated and intellectual for a kid. The star of the movie, Otis, the male with the udder is not playing a transgender cow, it is all about male privilege and I don’t think its fair to kids.

      As far as the Dr. Seuss male pronoun, I disagree. I think he intended the characters to be male. He makes it pretty clear on the rare occasions when he includes females that that was his intention as well. And also, the excuse about the age when it was written– I got that comment a lot about sexism in Tintin– it doesn’t excuse making a Hollywood movie is 2012 that perpetuates 50 year old sexism for a new generation.

      Why can’t women be masculine? I guess I don’t know what that means. Are you saying can you call a female character a hero and not a heroine? Absolutely. But again, I don’t think this is a grammar issue.

      MM

      • Ohh, I completely agree that the characters in the movie were certainly meant to be male. My comment about pronouns referred specifically to Regan’s point about the hens in “If I Ran the Zoo”. So I didn’t at all mean to dilute your point about the inappropriateness of this movie, or Tintin. Quite the opposite, I think the Tintin rehash was hugely dismissive and tacitly approving of the underlying sexism and racism in the Tintin milieu. It’s disingenuous for the producers of Tintin not to realize their movie would give new life to a storyline that really should be left behind as an archaic example of many social wrongs.

        The use of an udder for the bovine character IS confusing and inappropriate. Showing the udder OR pointing it out; at the level of a children’s movie with anthropomorphized animals, I think it’s overly complicated either way. It’s certainly not a transgender reference at all, so given it’s prominent appearance it really begs the question of why they included it at all. They didn’t need an udder or horns to make it clear it was a bovine and the remaining context was enough to say the character was meant to be male in the standard sexist “male buddy” theme.

        Just the same, trying to make further analogies to human traits or characterizations just compounds the error the filmmakers perpetrated in displaying a physical sex trait in an anthropomorphized animal character. It strays into sexism, cissexism, and body politics to equate this with anything human; male or female.

  7. Hi Sara,

    YUK. Ragan write about those two in her introduction as well: “when major characters were female, they were negative: Lazy Mayzie who wouldn’t sit on her egg, vain and silly Gertrude McFuzz, stuck up Lolla Lee Lou, and the nasty kangaroo mother who tries to kill all those sweet little Whos in Horton Hears a Who.”

  8. I’m beginning to feel redundant. I love your posts. I always feel so much more aware about gender equality (or lack thereof) after reading your blog. I also appreciate that so many of your posts point out gender inequality and then counter that by directing us to books/movies with strong female characters.

  9. Need to track down this book now! And gift it to my daughter’s kindergarten class.
    Anyway, I just now read the original blogpost you linked to and would like to add something. To the best of my knowledge, there are only two Suess stories with female leads: “Daisy Head Maizy” and “Gertrude McFuzz”. Wanna guess what they are about? Wait for it ….

    Body image.

    Yep. The Gertrude and Maizy characters don’t like how they look and set out to change it. And that’s the story right there.

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