by Wendy Steel
I am standing in front of a display of beautiful, glossy hardback children’s books (competitively priced) choosing a birthday present for my niece’s six year old daughter. I start to gather up Frozen, Tangled, Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood – surely a lovely present – then doubts grip me. Is Tamsin still obsessed with Frozen? (It’s been four years now) Are fairy tales feminist? What happens at the end of Tangled – does Rapunzel save herself or is it Finn who fights the witch and cuts her hair short? And Snow White? Keeps house for a bunch of men and is saved by the prince. Red Riding Hood? Prey for the wolf, saved by a man.
What messages do I want to send to Tammy about her gender? I put them all back and pick up a lone copy of ‘Brian the Smelly Bear Smells Something Smelly’, stranded there among the Disney and Grimm classics. This could be fun. Animals, maybe a poo story or a skunk. Kids love to laugh at this stuff. I skim the first page and think maybe a preppy could have a go at sounding out some of these words. Brian will become a cherished bedtime story. My niece or her husband will pause at key spots for Tammy and her little brother Alex to finish sentences. They will put on different voices for the characters. When they are tired, Tammy will scold them….’That’s not the rabbit voice! Do it properly.’ Brian it is.
I drive home and muse over how feminism touches everything. Innocent enjoyment of fairy tales and Georgette Heyer novels are a thing of the past. I know I am right to care about the messages texts send. Romances teach women to be passive and to attribute a wealth of virtues to men that they simply don’t possess. Brooding silence and smouldering looks are not romantic in real life. Our year 7 text, soon to be replaced, has a male narrator with a headstrong sister. Her courage and impulsive actions are viewed as rash rather than admirable. We’re dropping the book with the female heroine who saves herself and her parents because we’ve ‘done’ it for so long. Lady Macbeth’s strength makes the students see her as evil…well, to be fair they think Macbeth is evil too. I should remember that our year 12s study Robyn Davidson and Chimanda Ngozi Adichie. The books that I have picked for another niece’s one year old son are simpler – numbers from one to 100, the alphabet and lots of animals. At some point, it becomes political. Yes, fairy tales are definitely problematic. If only there had been a copy of Brave. Merida is a Disney heroine that I can probably promote wholeheartedly.
I lay out the birthday purchases on the kitchen bench and joke with my husband about the title of Brian the Smelly Bear Smells Something Smelly. Just what is the smell? I read the whole book. Hmm, it’s in rhyme – that’s cute, although some of the lines don’t scan very well. I predict a skunk, but I’m wrong. ‘Oh no!’ I exclaim. ‘It’s not a feminist text! The smell is a female bear who’s covered herself in garbage because she thinks that will make her attractive to Brian! AAARGH!! And then he tells her to go back to shampoo and soap because that will be better. Then the message of this pathetic fable is ‘just be yourself and you’ll shine like a star.’ Grrr. Is this supposed to be uplifting? Make sure you smell nice or the boy bears won’t want to kiss you.
I’ve bought a pack of Crayola markers to put with the book. I’m still going to give it to Tammy because she’s got an amazing mother who will tell her, ‘Tammy, the girl bear was silly to try to make Brian notice her. She should have just told him “I like you” or been herself and waited for him to notice how great she was. His loss if he didn’t.’ I need to remember that this is the niece who bought her daughter a Luke Skywalker costume and took photos when Alexander dressed up as Anna to Tamsin’s Elsa. Probably I should keep buying Frozen stuff as long as Tammy still likes it. It’s a story of sisterly love and women who don’t need men to save them but recognise how relationships can make us all stronger and happier. Maybe Disney is getting with the times.
Wendy Steel is an English and Literature teacher who has worked in government schools since 1984 with time off for good behaviour and children. She enjoys the classroom, married life, leisure and overseas travel. After some time in Italy last year, she can hear Venice and Florence calling to her to come back.