Friday, September 25, 2009

Ducks who bake

In which I ponder the feminist implications of embracing your sissitude.

Welcome to this week's Jacqui Reads Her Children Even More Books That Other People Think Are Bad For Them

For an explanation of my Banned Books Month project, click here.
For a far deeper and more eloquent post against book-banning, etc, read Laurie Halse Anderson's discussion here.

The Sissy Duckling
by Harvey Fierstein, illus. Henry Cole

Elmer the duckling likes to build things and paint and make believe. The other ducks tease him and call him "sissy" and beat the crap out of each other. Even Elmer's own dad can't take Elmer's sissy ways, so Elmer runs away to spare his family any more embarrassment. He sets himself up a nice little pad in a nearby tree. Elmer's mother and father leave with the rest of the flock to fly south for the winter, but hunters shoot his father down. Elmer rescues his father and they spend the winter bonding in Elmer's apartment. When the flock comes back, the family is reunited, Elmer's dad stands up for him, and Elmer declares himself sissy and proud.

This is a cute book. I love that Elmer doesn't have to change to be accepted. I love that he uses his own specific skills to survive the winter. And I love any book that shows how mean name-calling can be.

Now. This book was challenged on several occasions for being "gay themed." This fascinates me, because in order to see the book as having anything to do with anything gay, you have to buy hook, line and sinker the idea that men who like interior decorating are all gay and, of course, that all gay men are "sissies." I know people think like that. I'm just amazed that they're at home being so open about it. It's one thing to challenge a book about gay marriage because you believe it's a sin. It's another thing, in my mind, to challenge a book and to admit that the main character being at home with his own baking skills makes you unfathomably uncomfortable and don't you people know that liking to paint means you are gay gay gay! And, oh, good lord, our KIDS can't read this because what if OUR son should, GASP, take up baking! We all know what "good at baking" is a euphemism for, DON'T WE????

Of course, it is just this leap in logic on which Harvey Fierstein was banking when he wrote the book, I think. And I'm all for telling kids early on, before they ever start thinking about it, that they will be loved no matter who they love.

However, I do have one beef with The Sissy Duckling. At the end of the book, Elmer announces that he is a sissy and proud. This bugs me. Not because I don't want Elmer to feel good about himself, but because it reinforces the idea that a man who likes to do the things Elmer likes to do is a "sissy" in the first place. Which is an opinion that relies entirely on the idea that men and women should like to do different things AND that the things women purportedly like to do are weaker, less important, etc. I'd rather abolish the sissy concept all together. And "tomboy" too, while we're at it.

So, with all this in mind, we read it to our kids.

Yeah, they didn't notice any of that. They were way too caught up in the parents.

"They LEFT him?! Why did they LEAVE him?! They didn't even LOOK for him!!!"

"Hold it. The dad got SHOT?! Is he dying? Is he dead, Mama?"

"Does the mom come back? Is that her? Does he go live with them now? WHEN DOES HE SEE HIS MAMA?!?!?!"

And there you have it. To them, it was a horror story about a poor duck who nobody liked ("Those other ducks are BAD, Mama!"), whose dad yelled at him so bad that he ran away and his parents didn't even look for him before they flew south and abandoned him even though no duck has ever been known to survive a winter in the forest and then his dad gets shot by hunters and almost dies.

This is an important lesson, I think, in how hard it is, even for those of us who pride ourselves on it, to truly see things through a child's eyes, and also in the dangers of too much theory.

Meanwhile, Tink has been sneaking the light back on at night after I come downstairs so that she can see what happens to Harry, and honestly, I can't see giving her a hard time about it.


cath c said...

amazing how people will inject their fears into anything. like how about ten years ago, that one 'boy' teletubby carrying a purse made the religious right go all kaflooey over a pbs show trying to make our kids gay through indoctrination. pbs is a cult of gays!

i like how your kids responded to entirely different and appropriate themes in the book, and i agree on the whole sissy/tomboy thing.

i can remember my father saying 'no grandson of mine!' when i suggested they get my eldest a play kitchen for christmas since he enjoyed them so much at friends' houses when he was little. i brought up he could one day be a world class chef, then what would you say?

btw, he is now 14, and will make our dinner once in a while when i am out of ideas.

Jacqui said...

cath c, exactly. Destructo wants to be a chef when he grows up too. Or Roger Federer.

Corey Schwartz said...

Great post, Jacqui! I hadn't heard of this book, but I am definitely going to look for it now.

Jacqui said...

Corey, have fun!

Amber Lough said...

This was a particularly good post, Jacqui. I wish it had been around for my grandfather when he was a kid...although his own dad would have knocked him out for even cracking a book like that one open. (My grandpa was a "sissy" for wanting to be an architect and not a carpenter...and he in turn thought my dad was a "sissy" because he liked to cook.) Calling someone a sissy not only affect their lives, but the lives of their children, too. I was lucky that my dad didn't believe in those labels.

And about Harry. Has she figured out the flashlight under the sheets trick yet?

Jacqui said...

Amber, it's true. Destructo loves pink, and I am always surprised at the men who are made uncomfortable by that, and who feel like it's okay to comment on it to him.