Another Feminist Reponse to Horton Hears a Who: Why is it always the mother’s fault?

A year ago, when the Jim Carrey/Steve Carrell version of Horton Hears a Who came out, feminists responded (see here and here and here) to what they saw as the blatant sexism within the movie’s over-emphasis on the single son as the hero and the 96 daughters as invisible. Why couldn’t one of the daughters save the day? Why does the mayor care more about his one son than his daughters? Why would the filmmakers add this sexist storyline?

I agree with this assessment of the film and do find the emphasis on the son at the expense of the daughters to be disappointing. Typical, but disappointing nonetheless. However, when I first watched the movie at the Riverview Theater in South Minneapolis with my kids (and again today on dvd), what angered me was not this reinforcement of the male-as-the-only-hero-that-matters. No, what angered me was how the movie perpetuated the classic take on who was to blame for all of the conflict and crisis: the smothering mother.

Why does the Mayor’s son need to save the day? Because the kangaroo mother is afraid of change in the jungle of Nool. She is afraid of things that she cannot see or hear. She is afraid that all of Horton’s “troublemaking” (yes, she uses that word in the film) will lead to questioning authority and eventually anarchy. While other animals may help her realize her plans, it is her fear alone and her disdain for that which challenges her simple worldview that leads to the crisis in the first place. She will stop at nothing to make sure that Horton doesn’t corrupt the children of Nool. She is so concerned with the corruption of her own son that she “pouch schools” him. And, she manages to stir up the other parents into a frenzy over the supposed threat that Horton and his “free thinking” pose.

Unlike the storyline about the son and the 96 sisters, the idea of the fearful kangaroo was present in the original version. But what is different in the earlier version is that the kangaroo was not alone in her fear or her disdain of Horton. Her son was a willing participant in the mocking and criticizing of Horton. In fact, he helped to instigate it. He was not trapped in her pouch, smothered by her “love” and her need to protect. So, why did they add this smothering mother theme? What could it possibly add to the story?

Horton Hears a Who was originally written in the 1950s and, according to this wikipedia entry, was inspired by Dr. Seuss’ desire for the U.S. (in their occupation of Japan post WWII) to treat the Japanese better. The book serves as an allegory and, as such, has a political message: Every person counts. Even the Japanese. The 2008 version seems to have its own political message. With its rhetoric of change good/staying the same bad and its villifying of traditionalists (and the Bush Administration) as home-schoolin’, fear mongering, anti-thinking conservatives, Horton Hears a Who is a liberal response to what is understood to be a radical shift towards conservative, fundamentalist beliefs. The message seems to be less that every person counts (because a person’s a person no matter how small) and more that close minded conservatives who see change as undermining important traditions and values are crazy freaks who are willing to kill an entire world (the cute little whos in whoville by boiling it in oil) just to protect their own. The film seems to be saying (or screaming or bashing its audience over their heads) with the message: They must be stopped! Free thinking, imagination, questioning authority must win out!

Hey, that sounds like what I am trying to promote in my own vision of troublemaking as a critical and questioning approach to the world and our understandings of it. I am all for promoting imagination and encouraging people to move beyond their limited perspectives (and their belief that anything that they don’t see or that they ignore doesn’t exist). So, what’s my problem? My problem is that the person standing in the way of all of this great thinking and imagining and saving little worlds is an overbearing, smothering mother. That’s right. Once again, the mother is to blame. Not the government. The city council of Whoville only makes a brief appearance as a bunch of idiot jerks who are more interested in ensuring that the annual Whoville celebration occurs than protecting the interests of its citzens. Not the evil vulture Vlad. He is tricked by the Kangaroo into stealing the flower that houses the Whos and Whoville. Not the other animals in the jungle. They like Horton, but the Kangaroo bullies them into being afraid of his non-conformist behavior and approach to life. Nope. It is the evil, nagging, overbearing, ignorant, close-minded, fear mongering Kangaroo that is to blame (Do I sound a little harsh here? She is such a caricature of the smothering mother role that I am not sure that she has any endearing qualities).

The filmmakers in this 2008 version shifted the message away from valuing everyone (as emphasized in the book) and towards critiquing those who fear change and are afraid to challenge tradition. To emphasize this message, they went with one of the most popular ways to show the conflict between tradition and innovation: The mother who refuses to let her child grow up and who wants to make sure that tradition is respected and adhered to. So, what’s the big deal? Here is one reason that this is a big deal:

This movie vilifies mothers. This isn’t something new. It happens all of the time in movies (in many kid’s movies mothers are not present–usually dead–or they are clueless or they are the problem). But, when I am sitting in the theater with my two kids watching Horton Hears a Who, I get very angry at being reminded of how I, as a mother, am represented in movies. What images and damaging stereotypes are my kid’s wittingly and unwittingly absorbing as they watch the mean kangaroo try to destory Horton and Whoville? She is the ultimate bad guy (don’t get me started on how they oversimplify the good guys/bad guys and good vs. evil in these films).

As I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, feminists have been quite critical of how the girls (the mayor’s 96 daughters) are ignored in favor of the boy (the son). By ignoring the girls and not allowing one (or all) of them to save the day, the movie reinforces the idea that boys are still the heros and reminds kids, as they are watching the film, that “boys rule, girls drool” (sorry, my son likes to chant that. Of course my daughter flips it so that “girls rule, boys drool”). In some ways, this part of the story is an easy (and obvious) target for criticism. But, if we focus all of our attention on this example of sexism (which seems to be indefensible for many these days), we fail to see some of the deeper, darker and more insidious forms of sexism and mysogyny that this film taps into and reinforces. Why is it still okay to blame the mother for our problems? For our own inability to embrace change? For our desire to not think critically? Why aren’t we all responsible for this ignorance and our hateful responses to a fear of change, the unknown, or different ways of living?

When will we ever grow up?

Eminem (and Borat) as Socratic gadflys?

I was reading a recent Time article about Eminen’s new album at my parent’s house this past weekend when I came across this description of the cultural instigator:

But one development wreaked more havoc on Eminem’s hateability than all the rest: amazingly, someone coarsened the culture without him. As Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen advanced the art of provocation, broadening it from Eminem’s preferred taboos of sex and class to the mocking of all Americans (by a foreigner, no less) for being naive enough to believe their own mythology. Baron Cohen was darker, funnier and way more misanthropic than Eminem — which is how it goes with cultural instigators. They poke, we react; they poke again, we react a little less, until eventually someone with a sharper stick and a bushier mustache comes along. America’s Most Outrageous is just not a title you keep for long or get to hold twice.

Consider the various elements of a cultural instigator (as outlined by article author Josh Tyrangiel). People hate them and they demonstrate a hatred for people. They provoke by messing with cultural taboos. They mock and challenge treasured values through their cultivation and practice of the art of provocation. They are funny, but their humor is dark. They must constantly come up with newer and better and more shocking ways to antagonize and anger. They are outrageous but never for long. Some other instigator always comes along with a better (sharper, more pointed, more provocative) way to be outrageous and to capture the country’s (world’s?) ire.

According to Tyrangiel’s description, one implicit goal of a cultural instigator is to be the most outrageous. To be the center of attention. To have people talking about you. To have a certain buzz surrounding your name and your exploits. And, above all else, to sell the most products (whether they be cds, concert tickets, dvds, books, magazines). All of these goals are focused on the instigator and their role as entertainer/celebrity. But, is this the only (and even main) goal of the instigator? Are they really only interested in being hated and stirring up controversy to sell their products? Are there other ways to interpret what the cultural instigator is doing and why they might be doing it?

Can we read this image as something other than an a**hole delinquent trying to piss us off and take our money?


What if we thought about Eminem (and Borat and others like them who push our buttons and raise questions that get us talking about topics that we are usually too afraid to talk about or we assume to be beyond question) as Socratic gadflies? Is that too much of a stretch? How about this: what if we thought about cultural instigators as engaging in practices that are similar to the Socratic gadlfy? How would that enable us to think about those instigators and the creative and critical work that they do as something more than a clever (and mean-spirited) game that they play (and that is meant to play us)?

Consider Socrates’ defense at his trial. In a plea for his life, he attempts to make a case for his necessary and important role within the community by claiming the role of the gadfly:

I am the gadfly of the Athenian people, given to them by God, and they will never have another, if they kill me. For if you kill me you will not easily find a successor to me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is a great and noble stead who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life. I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state, and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you. You will not easily find another like me, and therefore I would advise you to spare me.

Is this what Eminem or Borat are doing? Does Socrates live up to his own lofty goals? These questions should be addressed and the troublemaking-as-gadfly actions of these cultural instigators should be evaluated. Maybe I can take that up in another blog. Right now, I am interested in leaving the question open so as to think about cultural instigators as troublemakers in ways that are counter to the popular stereotypes of them as a**holes with sticks who poke us for profit and pleasure.

Men Behaving Badly: Virtue, Vice and the Battle for our Souls?

The Book of Virtues / The Book of ViceI just started reading Peter Sagal’s The Book of Vice (subtitled very naughty things and how to do them). Sagal offers up this book as a (quasi-satirical?) response to William Bennett and his The Book of Virtues (subtitled a great treasury of moral stories). Bennett wrote his book in 1993 as a response to what he saw as the lack or decline of moral education in the United States. Since I plan to devote several future blog entries to this book (I will end the suspense here: I have many, many problems with Bennett’s book), I will just offer this brief summary: The Book of Virtues is a collection of stories that are meant to educate both children and adults on classic virtues like self-discipline, compassion, courage, responsibility, and honesty. In writing the book in 1993, Bennett hoped to continue the tradition (a tradition that he thinks is being lost) of passing on important values to the next generation.

I have only read a few pages of Sagal’s book, but I can already tell that it is at least partially a reaction to Bennett and his lofty goal. From the flipped (book of vice not virtue) title, to the strikingly similar book jackets, to Sagal’s gleeful reference to Bennett’s own inability to live up the standards his book promotes, it is clear that Sagal wants to make fun of virtues and virtue talk. He also wants to demonstrate that, even if people think that virtues are a good idea, they really want to talk about and imagine how to practice vice. Here is his (disturbing, I think) assessment of virtues vs. vice:

In the long war between Vice and Virtue, Virtue has been met on the battlefield, routed, defeated in detail, occupied, and reeducated in prison camps. When last seen, Virtue was working on the Strip in Las Vegas, handing out color flyers advertising in-room exotic dancers. She says she’s happy, but she doesn’t meet your eyes (2).

WARNING! WARNING! I see some real problems here. When I first heard about this book, I was intrigued and thought it might offer an interesting counter to the rigid link between virtue and conservative (frequently fundamentalist) thought that is so prevalent these days in popular and scholars-who-don’t-study-religion-or-ethics talk. On some level, I am still hopeful, but I absolutely cannot let this paragraph pass without reacting to Sagal’s satirical take on William Bennett and his virtue crusade. (Wow, this is page 2. How long will it take me to read all 252 pages?)

In Sagal’s scenario, Virtue is a man at battle who is courageously defending the honor of virtues and morals. He is weak and eventually overtaken by Vice. Okay, overtaken is too tame of a word. He is routed, defeated, occupied (violated? penetrated?), and re-educated by Vice (possible translation: Virtue becomes Vice’s bitch?). Having been completely emasculated, he becomes a whore on the street who is so demoralized that she (yes, he is now a she which demonstrates how far he has fallen!) can’t even look you (by the way, who is the you in this sentence?) in the eyes.

Of course, Sagal is joking here and he using his humor to demonstrate (among other things) the hypocrisy of moral crusaders like Bennett and the disconnect between what Bennett (and other “family value” folk) vigorously promote and what they secretly (or not so secretly) practice. I have no problem with exposing such hypocrisy, but I am bothered by how he does it. Let me explain. The image that Sagal gives us here (and as far as I can tell, throughout the book) is exclusively of a white, heterosexual male who must undertake the epic struggle between being virtuous and having vices. Women (of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, ages) may tempt and successfully seduce him but they are only serve as evidence that the struggle exists. They are not subjects or actors engaging in the struggle themselves.

Now, I understand that Sagal is writing from his own perspective and that he is a white, heterosexual (and happily married) male. And his writing style is one that draws heavily upon his own humorous engagements with and observations of the various vices. For these reasons, I understand why the book would skew toward the white male heterosexual (aka the-top-of-the-heap) demographic. But, in his blurb about virtue and vice in a battle (for our souls) he doesn’t just ignore women, that is, not consider them in his description of the battle. No, he uses them as the foundation for his joke; he uses them to serve up his humor about men who claim to defend virtue but end up (always and inevitably?) being seduced by the dark side and behaving very badly. Ha Ha. Look. Virtue has become a whore. Isn’t that funny? While Bill Bennett and his cronies may be the butt of Sagal’s joke, it is women (and their roles as strippers giving lap dances in the introduction and chapter 3 or as prostitutes handing out flyers) and the reader’s shameful pleasure of them that dominates so much of what I have read so far (since I started this blog entry, I have made it to page 81).

The pitting of women as strippers/whores/objects of our lust against white, heterosexual men as failed paragons of virtue/typical guys-who-want-to-behave-badly is established in the author’s note even before the introduction. Sagal writes about how this book is partly inspired by and dedicated to Marv Albert (and those like him) who engage in vices (Marv is an adulterer who has a secret biting fetish) and get caught. No fair, Sagel cries as he ponders: Why are a select few allowed to get away with it while the rest of us (men, that is) are burdened by our pesky virtues and moral (and legal) accountability to our families and society? Poor Marv, Sagal laments. Basketball players like Wilt Chamberlain and Kobe Bryant can engage in bad, perverse behavior, but a schmo like Marv won’t ever be able to get away with it. He won’t ever be able to engage in polymorphous perversity (or force sex on a woman) and bite a woman (without consent and repeatedly) on her back. Of course, Sagal is not endorsing Bryant’s, Chamberlain’s or Albert’s behavior. But, by not considering the perspective of the women who are the objects of this vice (in this case, sexual perversity and more), Sagal is leaving out an important part of the story about how battles over virtue and vice are engaged (and represented in the popular imagination).

At whose expense is this battle between vice and virtue waged? Whose souls are being struggled over (and who doesn’t have a soul or at least one worth fighting for)? And, why, no matter who wins (Virtue or Vice), does the woman always end up the loser?

Michael Steele keeps getting into trouble…

0 So, STA tipped me off to this article about Michael Steele and the recent troubles that he is having. I am including it here as an example of how getting in trouble and staying out of trouble get used and understood within the mainstream media. [Note: Thank you Jon Stewart for pointing out how much Steele looks like the guy with the fly in his soup!]

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, working the room at a luncheon gathering of party officials yesterday, had the same parting words for each man he met: “Stay out of trouble.” Or, if speaking to a couple, he would tell the woman: “Keep him out of trouble.”

After this opening, Dana Milbank from The Washington Post describes the kind of trouble that Steele has gotten into in the last couple months: his run-ins with Rush Limbaugh, his failed attempts at appealing to the “hip hop generation,” his inability to generate enthusiasm for the Republican Party, and the misguided hope he places in the “tea bag” as the future of the party. Milbank concludes by admonishing Steele to “stay out of trouble.”

For the author of this article, trouble is being used as something that is bad, something that leads to crisis and has the potential to cause serious damage. Milbank understands Steele to be in some serious trouble: his job and the success of the party are in serious danger because of his bad/misguided/ineffective actions.

But, how is Steele using the term? Does he mean it as a joke? A playful and fatherly greeting to his party members? A warning and admonishment? And, when he tells the men (this, perhaps is too obvious, but what about the women? Does he imagine that they are incapable of making serious trouble or does he want them to make trouble?) to stay out of trouble, what exactly is he suggesting that they do? Stop raising controversy? Stop challenging the Democratic party or start challenging them more? Stop trying to change the course of the Republican party?

What if instead of telling them to stay out of trouble he had said, make trouble? Go out and shake up the party in ways that help to invigorate it and make it relevant. Ask the tough questions about where they went wrong and how to get them back on track. And don’t stand for anything less than an agenda that speaks to (and for) a wide range of people and their concerns. Would this be an example of virtuous troublemaking?

The time out as a liminal space of possibility?

So, I am using this blog as a way to work out different ideas I have about troublemaking–how it functions and how it is represented and understood within a variety of discourses and media. At a certain point–family members, friends, colleagues, students, acquaintences, random people on the street–grow tired of hearing me go on and on and on…and on about my theories/ruminations/rants of particular examples of making trouble and valuing troublemakers. That is where you, my dear blog, come in. You are my opportunity to squeeze every troublemaking drop out of an example (I haven’t even begun to tap into the possibilities of the Brady Bunch and “A fistful of reasons”). In that spirit, I want to continue my “critical exploration” of The Book of Timeouts.

Earlier today, I had a brainstorm while I was in the bathroom (Martin Luther, eat your heart out!).  I started thinking more about the link between troublemaking and punishment and kid’s troublemaking and time outs. One thought I had (and that I mentioned in my last entry), was: Do they need to be linked? Can we imagine the consequences of troublemaking to be good (transformative, leading to change) instead of all bad? That is a continuing theme of mine and one I will come back to again and again. But, after I finished my last entry, I started thinking more about the connection between making trouble (in all forms) and being punished. Then, I started thinking about the prison industrial complex and all of the important critical activist work that is being done on this crisis. So, I picked up a book by Angela Davis that I have been meaning to read all spring, Are Prisons Obsolete? In her introduction she ponders what it might mean to do away with the prison system and rethink how we address and deal with crime. Instead of reforming prisons or finding ways to create more of them, she wants to raise the question of “how to prevent the further expansion of prison populations and how to bring as many imprisoned women and men as possible back into what prisoners call ‘the free world'” (20). For many, that is a radical and inconceivable idea. How, exactly, could we go about doing this? Davis’ shift in emphasis would require a complete transformation of how we think about “criminals”, criminal activity and how to respond to it.

With that in mind, I started thinking about the time out and how it functions in terms of resolving (or at least dealing with) kid’s troublemaking behavior.  Consider how Lucke envisions it when she writes in her introduction:

You got more and more out of control. Finally someone like your mom noticed and said, ‘You need a time out!’ And suddenly, surprise!–you were on a little vacation from everyone else. In a corner, by yourself, where you could pout away until you could play nicely with others.

Lucke understands the time out implicitly and explicitly as a place of punishment and, in many of her examples, presents it as the equivalent of a prison cell. As a prison cell, the time out place (most often the dreaded time out chair) becomes a space of confinement that you are banished to when you do something wrong. You go to the time out chair not so much to settle down but because you did something that you need to be punished for. The time out chair takes you out of the action and out of the fun. It is meant to separate you from everyone else–from your friends, family, the world–as a reminder that you shouldn’t act out, you shouldn’t be too full of yourself, you shouldn’t step out of line.

The time out chair (and the idea of the time out in general) can be understood simultaneously as a threat (see kids, don’t behave like these bad troublemakers who got extra long time outs) to ensure that none of us actually do things we aren’t supposed to and as a means for wearing us down and draining us of our ability to resist and step outside of the system (so, you want to make trouble, huh? We will just lock you up until you come to your senses).  Whether it functions as a threat or a means of punishment, the time out (chair) is a necessary part of a kid’s moral education.

As I mentioned in my last entry, Lucke uses her different examples of troublemaking as moral lessons for her reader. The front flap makes the connection between troublemaker and moral lesson explicit: “Lucke showcases some of the world’s most famous troublemakers and proves that lessons can be learned from all of them”.  For each of these troublemakers, getting a time out (and often in the form of the time out chair) is a necessary part of growing up and learning what not to do. Don’t be too full of yourself (Hannibal). Share with others (Napoleon). Always apologize (Grace O’Malley). And, reading about what these other troublemakers allows kids to shape their good and improper behavior against the threat of punishment for bad behavior.

But, what if we thought about the time out space differently? What if we didn’t imagine and reinforce it as a fixed location for punishment, as a kiddy prison cell where you went when you misbehaved? What if we reimagined the time out space as a space of reflection and rumination, where a kid could ponder and process their thoughts and feelings and where she might be able to channel them in different ways? And, what if we imagined the act of a time out as not being experienced in a time out chair? What if we kept part of the goal of the time out (that is, to allow a kid to cool off and to stop the trajectory of their out-of-control actions), but didn’t connect that goal with punishment and got rid of the chair?

Would disconnecting the time out (as the process of stopping or tempering out-of-control behavior) from punishment enable us to think differently about how to deal with “bad” behavior? Would it allow parents to think differently about how to guide (instead of just disciplining) their kids? Would it give kids a different model for thinking about how and why they should develop strategies for dealing with their desires to disrupt and challenge authority? Would it require that we rethink moral education outside of the discipline and punish mentality?

Now, I need a lot more time to ruminate on this idea. I want to do a lot more (re) reading on punishment (Foucault, Davis, to name a few). I want to do a lot more researching on how the time out chair functions within the literature on child development. I want to think more about what this might mean for how I do my own parenting. And what this could mean for how we respond to the prison industrial complex.

I want to be very clear here: I am not suggesting that there is a simple (and direct) connection between children who are sent to the time out chair and prisoners who are sentenced to a prison cell. It is much more complicated than that. What I am suggesting is that the implicit and explicit connections we make between improper/out-of-control behavior, punitive consequences, and moral lessons begin in the time out chair and help to produce a society that becomes too dependent on prisons as the answer for “solving” crime and too dependent on punishment (or the threat of punishment) for developing morals and/or ethical codes of conduct. Troubling the time out chair and how it should/does function, could open up some new ways of thinking about how to deal with and understand disruptive, improper behavior. And it could open news way of thinking about how to develop and practice moral education for children.

Now, in ending my writing here, I haven’t even begun to answer the question I posed as the title of this entry: The time out as a liminal space of possibility? I guess that will have to wait as I continue to think through how to connect these thoughts that are swirling around in my head. Maybe I should spend some more time in the bathroom.

It worked for Martin Luther and Doc Brown (is that too obscure of a reference for you?), didn’t it?