Wednesday, July 8, 2009

"Why do my son's books tell him all men are useless?"

Daran at Feminist Critics has just posted a link to a London Daily Mail article by William Leath, titled Why do my son's books tell him all men are useless?

Some excerpts:

Why is the dad in [Zoo, by Anthony Browne], about a family trip to the zoo, such an idiot? Not just an idiot, but a grumpy, overweight idiot who tries to make jokes, but is never funny and, what's more, is always on the verge of ruining things for everybody else. He's a greedy slob, just like Homer Simpson. He's more childish than his children, even though he has hair sprouting from his ears.

Then there's the dad in Into The Forest, another book by this author. This one's about a dad who goes missing. He is clearly a weakling. He walks out of the family home and goes to stay with his mum.

A recent academic study confirmed that men - particularly fathers - are under-represented in almost all children's books. And when they do appear, like the fathers in Gorilla [also by Browne] and Zoo, they are often withdrawn, or obsessed with themselves, or just utterly ineffectual.
in another of our favourites, Benedict Blathwayt's The Runaway Train, the driver is called Duffy. And what does he do? He gets out of the train, forgetting to put the brake on, and the train rolls off without him. A driverless train - what a powerful symbol of male inadequacy! Yet this seems quite normal. We sit on the sofa and laugh.

'Why does Duffy forget the brake?' my son asked me. Why? Stories require fall-guys. They need some people to be malign or foolish or weak. And it just so happens that these people, in these stories, are male. It just so happens that it wouldn't seem right, to me, if these malign, foolish or weak people were female. Somehow, they have to be male. And symbols of male inadequacy are so deeply embedded in other parts of our culture. So much so, in fact, that nobody notices it any more.

For years, I've laughed at hopeless Homer Simpson and his dangerous son Bart, and the attempts of the female characters in the family to clean up after them.
For years, men in our stories - not just for children, but adults, too - have been losing their authority. Not just years - decades. It's crept up on us and now it's everywhere. Remember when movie stars were strong and decisive? That was a long time ago now: John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn.

Then came a new, softer type - Cary Grant and James Stewart were strong, yes, but against a background of self-doubt. And then came Jack Lemmon, Dustin Hoffman, Woody Allen, Bill Murray, Kevin Spacey - neurotic, bumbling, deeply flawed anti-heroes.

Think of Kevin Spacey in American Beauty. The deadbeat dad, smoking dope in the garage because he can't take the pressure of family life. For a long time now, something has been happening to the way we portray men.

And wherever you look, things seem to be getting worse for guys. In a survey of 1,000 TV adverts, made by writer Frederic Hayward, he points out that: '100 per cent of the jerks singled out in male-female relationships were male.'

So does this mean that there is something wrong with the way we portray men? Or - much more seriously - is there some deep trouble with men themselves? I can't bear to have that thought. Can you?

Yet that's certainly what our culture seems to be telling us. And it's what certain feminist writers seem to be telling us, too.

And predictably, at this point, he goes on to attack Susan Faludi and feminism in general.

But until he commences blaming women (which you knew was coming, right?)--I thought he made some good points.

However, those last few paragraphs got me thinking. I very much prefer Jack Lemmon, Dustin Hoffman, Woody Allen, Bill Murray, and Kevin Spacey to the Big Dumb Hollywood He-Men he named. I found them to be far more human, authentic, complex and 'thinking' protagonists. (I'd add Gene Hackman to that list, my all-time favorite actor.)

I loved Kevin Spacey smoking dope in the garage; he was trying to figure out what to do with his life rather than mindlessly charging ahead and continuing his unhappiness. Deadbeat Dad? He was present and accounted for in his child's life, she just didn't want anything to do with him. (And why do you suppose that was?) The pressures of family life? How about, the fact that his family was falling apart? His daughter was lying to him, he developed an obsession with a young friend of his daughter's and his wife was having an affair.

I guess John Wayne would have just pretended everything was okay and carried on anyway?

Some of us think that brand of male behavior was THE PROBLEM, not any kind of solution.

On the other hand, I don't want children to grow up expecting males not to do their share, which is how I read a lot of this fiction: Men usually screw up anyway, so don't be upset that your father has abandoned you.

If fathers are not represented in fiction, perhaps it's because fathers have been abandoning their role in real life? And this fictional presentation of male bumbling is possibly an effort to explain away the lack of men in children's lives?

How else could one explain it?

Any opinions?


D. said...

The complaint about the way men are portrayed in popular art (just to compress all the media) has been made for the last, oh, 60-70 years. Ayn Rand, for pete's sakes, made it.

And actually? In children's literature? Ineffectual fathers, but absent mothers, dating back to Grimm's fairy tales.

Grain of salt. De-icing salt.

Robin said...

Gee, I always thought it was the blond that was the bumbling idiot. :-D And before someone gets their tail all in a twist, I am a blond. I grew up with people making jokes and nasty comments because of my hair color…..they still do. But all that you say about the way men are portrayed in books and film, for every one of those bumbling actors / characters, I can think of just as many women. I think you have just zeroed in on the male figure because you are raising a boy (to be a man one day). Like all mothers, you are worried about such socially accepted garbage that he is digesting, even force fed (by some school texts no less). When my girls were young I would spin the classics such as Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, Cinderella, etc., in favor of the female gender. I hated the way the stepmother in Hansel & Gretel was portrayed as a scheming, selfish, greedy, evil b*tch. I would simply spin the tail so that both parents were loving parents. Later, when they were older, I read them the story the way it was written and explained to them that some writers feel the need to make such characters in their book but I didn’t care to be reading them such stories. We would then discuss this.
I understand and love what you are saying. But I feel much that we dislike about that certain type of man, has stemmed from his upbringing. More so, I feel it is the mother that has influenced the boy to become a lazy selfish distant man by allowing him to do as he pleases. Making his bed for him, picking up after him, not issuing chores and giving into his wants.....they grow up thinking the world revolves around them. And I think the only way to get around this junk in the books is to point out the me.....real men.....that are good and strong.

There I go again....writing way too much.

What I meant to say was....Great post....Have a beautiful day.

John Powers said...

My first thought about William Leith's question in the article is I've heard kids make the same complaint about how kids are portrayed. And kids like books and programs where kids are portrayed doing well, especially after trials and tribulations.

Quickly I tried to think of children's books that portrayed fathers and men well. I thought of a book "Yonder" written by Tony Johnston and illustrated by Lloyd Bloom. Children's books can be very lovely. The story is about a 19th century farming family. Each page reveals an important event, as the family changes through a generation. With each important event a tree is planted. The illustrations are so much like my beloved western Pennsylvania. And the trees, in particular the plum tree from the beginning, mark the seasons. It's so beautiful!

When I was a little boy the stories I wanted to hear most were stories from my father about when he was a little boy. In a way my father was a better storyteller than my mother.

Another book that came to mind is "Pink and Say" by Patricia Pollaco. Dad's don't figure in this tragic Civil War story's action. But at the end the veracity and meaningfulness is revealed at the end where the author tells how he heard it from her father who heard it from his father, whose father was Say of the story. It's hard to describe picture books and how they work, but this final page of the book is so moving.

After all that here's a stab at a theory about men's stupidity in books. It's been a while since I read it, but Barbara Welter's "The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860" points to a shift in the economy. Prior to the Industrial Revolution economic activity was primarily around the home. The domains of home and "the outside world" came into starker relief and men and women's roles became defined differently than the home-based economies. Crudely men could rule on the outside, but women ruled the home.

Even though "the cult of domesticity" was something shared by middle-class British and Americans there is a difference between British and American views of parenting--broad brush. American parents want children to show off their independence. Also in the British middle class often there was a nurse who added a tertiary dynamic to the parenting system. Anyhow, in my broad brush account, to a large extent in an American home the moral authority rests with mothers.

Children's books often deal with virtues, and Americans expect mothers to be expert--mother's rule.

"Yonder" offers a contrast of an earlier community life where the domains of home and outside the home are not so starkly drawn. Men can safely be competent in this setting.

Obviously most of us want more community, so the issue Leith points to is important.

Gyo Fujikawa was one of the first-or the first--children's author/illustrator to portray multi ethnic children. I think nowadays her illustrations reflect the reality of most American kids, but radical in the day. "Oh What a Busy Day" is one of my favorites for young children; it's a universe almost entirely devoid of adults.

OT I recently discovered the blog Causabon's Book and really love it.

ballgame said...

Not having read the book, I can't make a definitive comment on your evaluation of it, DaisyDeadhead, although if this quoted sentence is accurate …

In a survey of 1,000 TV adverts, made by writer Frederic Hayward, he points out that: '100 per cent of the jerks singled out in male-female relationships were male.'

… that would seem to be substantive evidence that the author's thesis isn't entirely fanciful.

At any rate, I do agree with you about preferring the more nuanced modern male characters like "Jack Lemmon, Dustin Hoffman, Woody Allen, Bill Murray, and Kevin Spacey" to the more classicaly patriarchaly figures epitomized by the noxious John Wayne et al.

thene said...

They portray men as bumbling so women are obliged to clear up after them; you can't shatter the illusion of female competence because that would force men to start pulling their weight. And if women were fallible, they couldn't be perfect kitchen madonnas. And it's always the teenage male hero who saves the day, because an imperfect teenage boy is a 'everyman' who we can all relate to. Next!

the watercats said...

We're Going On A Bear Hunt, Inkheart, The Book Thief, .. Just trying to think of books which have positive 'father' roles... About the same amount as I can think with positive 'mother' roles... It's six of one, half a dozen of the other... it drives me nuts that things have become; "who's most under-represented.. boys or girls!".... We're all humans.... each sex is as fecked up as the next.. or not!

Meowser said...

If they're talking specifically about children's literature, there's a reason for the bumbling dads, absent moms, etc. I know this from when I was working on young adult fiction, it's a truism in children's lit that the kids in the books are supposed to actively solve their own problems, not have an adult do it for them (or have the solution left up to chance). Even if IRL that's not typically the case, in a made-up story, it's different. Kids, it seems, get off on the idea that they have some power to make things happen. (Not unlike adults?)

sheila said...

There's lots of positive dad movies/books. I think everyone has their fair share of being portrayed badly. I'm a blonde. But I'm not a stupid moron.

Maybe it's in how one 'reads' and reacts to the character. ??

BASTA! said...

"But until he commences blaming women (which you knew was coming, right?)--I thought he made some good points."

Translation: women, unlike men, are never to blame, and whoever suggests otherwise is wrong.

EKSwitaj said...

OK, BASTA!, do explain how it's logical to blame women for a problem in an industry that is still largely male dominated. Until you can do that, you might want to check your "translation".

Anonymous said...

You claim that after the part you quoted, the author started blaming feminism and Susan Faludi for it... seriously, I don't see it. He mentions feminists as a whole just once and never uses the word "feminism". He also doesn't blame Susan Faludi, he mentions that at first he refused her argument that men were "falling apart", but that now he is more inclined to accept it. There's no blaming there. You might have gotten stuck on the phrase "And it's what certain feminist writers seem to be telling us, too. " and gone "oh, here we go again" and then misread the rest of the article, because I read the rest and there is no justification for your characterization of his article as "blaming women".

Anonymous said...

Duh our feminist/man-hating culture instigated by feminist man-haters is to blame. Quite elementary, really.

Man-hating feminist said...


Our secret is out! How did you know?

Guess we will have to re-write the whole conspiracy now.

We'll keep everyone updated on Twitter!

Igroki said...

I think the point about lack of fatherhood is a very good one. I think men's roles etc in fiction can be represented in this fashion.

This is not an issue in a hysterical sense. It would be pointless to be outraged as a man over this issue. Simple fact : fatherhood is a lesser commodity.

Kevin Spacey in AB was terrific. I thought that was an excellent role. Things like his wife cheating on him are not necessary for the analysis of his character ( in adding such, one may be displaying their own bias)

Important issue, but I believe, of somewhat trivial impotance to the typical male mind (certainly mine). This is not to dismiss the article, but to highlight some basic differences in the reading of the same event.

Keep up the good work though. The article is an excellent tell of a feminist view. I appreciated that angle very much.