Unsubtle Anti-Feminist Cautionary Lessons From My Childhood Books
Before I had access to the first three waves of feminist literature, fictional plants and animals offered me antiquated warnings on growing up female.
Have you ever reviewed the messaging in a stack of books you read as a child to unpack the sense of doom you felt growing up in the eighties? My brain still pages through these long overdue check-outs from the library of how to be a girl. Before the work of bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Rebecca Walker, Kate Bornstein, and Naomi Wolf took hold in my heart, I had these suspect texts and their unsubtle anti-feminist lessons.
Look appreciative when a man teaches you something basic.
Some adult found it astonishing that I could add, so they got me Anno’s Counting Book by Mitsumasa Anno to further my terribly surprising masculine accomplishment. Besides, if you are raising a female child you must empower her with mathematics so she doesn’t realize her head is full of cotton balls, which is the nice way of saying menstrual pads. The story involves a magician from France teaching a girl how to do math. This magician presents as very clever, yet is mostly just counting. The girl, who is too old to be working on this remedial task, does a great impression of a happy child. This might have been the first acting lesson that led to my eventual B.A. in Drama.
You have terrible judgment and worry for nothing.
Baby ladies need to be made aware that they are prey. In The Camel Who Took a Walk by Jack Tworkov, there’s a jungle, and night falls. It’s really scary, even for the animals that live and sleep there all the time. But seriously, it gets and stays dark for a lot of long hours, and you’re just a delicate little flower who happened to wander into the wild because you’re really bad at reading maps and taking charge. You better stay awake until dawn so you don’t get eaten. You are so worried!!! But then the sun comes up and everything’s fine. What do you get when you combine gaslighting and a panic attack but are too young for lorazepam?
Friends will break your stuff and your mom will judge you.
Social contracts are complicated, riiight? In A Bargain for Frances by Russell Hoban, a thoughtful, diligent bear named Frances has a friend who is an asshole. The friend breaks her beloved blue porcelain doll-sized plates and then makes her go ice skating, where she breaks her leg. This friend is A LOT. The bear knew better than to trust the friend but gave in to peer pressure; and her mother points out that she should have listened to her instincts in the first place. Mom’s not wrong, but obviously this is an emotional three-car pile-up that feels way too familiar.
You should sacrifice all comfort and natural instincts to be part of society.
Love! Marriage! The longed for dream fed to those raised female! In this story — The Dwarf Pine Tree by Betty Jean Lifton — there’s a sad bonsai, and it’s very coveted. A man and a woman get married and get the bonsai, but even though it has a home now it is still sad because the poor plant has to be tied up in all these complicated ways in order to grow aesthetically. If a teeny tree isn’t even allowed to let its limbs just be, what hope do we have? On the plus side, maybe some readers come away determined to not be the bonsai. Take that, diet culture and inventor of the bandage dress!
You will give everything only to sit at home while your kid acts like a total phallic symbol.
Motherhood is always incredibly rewarding. Like in Arrow to the Sun by Gerald McDermott when your son who you have poured all your lifeblood into as a single mother — after the Sun hits it and quits it — decides to jet right out of the pueblo to find his dad. When he returns as an arrow the whole village celebrates his achievement, and you are literally not invited to the Dance of Life. All that matters is men!!!!!!!!!
Don’t get wet.
There is a brown rabbit and it’s raining, so she hides under a spotted red mushroom until it stops. Can you even imagine what would happen to a femme’s makeup and hair were she to go out into the downpour?! You just cannot, and should interpret I Am A Bunny by Richard Scarry as a true cautionary tale. This plot requires an entire book.
These days I remedy such lessons learned with books written more recently for kids. Even if the pigeon isn’t allowed to drive the bus, they sure can try (Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive the Bus! by Mo Willems); a worm who loves painting has a hankering for a specific piece of fruit and never second guesses that goal (Toto’s Apple by Mathieu Lavoie); all manner of edible plants have fun getting dressed (Vegetables in Underwear by Jared Chapman). Here’s to fourth wave feminism showing up for the second grade.