Day #320 The literal strawman: sexual harassment in children’s literature

Anyone who hasn’t been living under a rock these days has noticed that there’s a new laser-focus in the mainstream media and on social media on the topic of sexual harassment. It’s been slowly building up steam for a while, leading up to the most recent #MeToo campaign to highlight how wide spread the issue really is, and culminating with the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, whose downfall has opened the floodgates which have long been held closed by fear and silence.

I don’t really want to delve into this topic too deeply because it’s like falling down a rabbit hole. Like most women I’m sure, I have strong opinions on the topic, but they may not all be in line with what’s considered politically correct. I like good friendly banter. I work with a senior partner who’s about as inappropriate as they come, but his comments have never left me feeling diminished or inferior because I also know that he can be professional when necessary, and because I know there is nothing serious or suggestive behind his comments. My life in the office would be a lot more boring and staid if regulations and fear of harassment complaints stifled the sort of joking that goes on with him.

But not all banter is good banter. And it is perhaps one of the hardest things to know where to draw that line. This is something that comedians have to deal every day in their work – how far to push the envelope. When does a joke stop being edgy and just become in poor taste? Why can one person get away with jokes about sexual innuendo and another guy sound sleazy? I think intent and knowledge of the person play a large part in the interpretation, because ultimately, harassment and sexism is in the eye of the recipient. I have had the privilege of not being exposed to these issues frequently myself, so the one time I witnessed a passing joke from one male solicitor to another female one that essentially boiled down one of those cheap early ’90s sexy secretary jokes, I was actually shocked. I have been insulated from this sort of behaviour around me, though I am aware it exists at large. The comment, which the female solicitor laughed off on her way out the door, was so cringe-worthy trite that I nearly expected it to be accompanied with a slap on the ass. The man rowed it back immediately with a “just kidding” comment but it felt as flippant and insincere as the original joke. Now, maybe these two are closer as colleagues than I thought they were, but despite working for one of the more outrageous bosses of the company, this cheap shot felt completely inappropriate. I kept my silence on my way up the stairs. There was no opportunity to speak to either party, even though a part of me felt dissatisfied at this lack of action when I got to my desk. Maybe the woman really didn’t mind it. Maybe she gives as good as she gets when she has the opportunity. They sit relatively close together and I’m sure that side of the office has as much camaraderie as our side, if maybe of a different kind.

But without knowing these details, to me as an observer it just felt like a cheap sexist joke that has no place in today’s office environment. And this is why casual sexism and low level sexual harassment can be so hard to tackle. Because everyone agrees that groping without consent is wrong. Everyone agrees that using a superior position of power to extract sexual favours is wrong. This is not about that. This is about that fine line between a good joke between long standing colleagues and a demeaning casual comment that is a tiny drop of water on a stone worn right through from centuries of identical drops of water having come before it.

Where am I going with this? I actually don’t really know. I don’t want to be protected from sexual harassment in the work place or out in the public sphere in general at the expense of freedom from fear of saying the wrong thing. There appears to be an ever-diminishing capacity for common sense in these sorts of discussions. I have seen men display outrage on behalf of women everywhere over comments or images that honestly don’t bother me. Similarly I have seen men make casual remarks that are so misogynistic I sometimes have to remind myself that it’s 2017 not 1957. Where’s the happy medium?

All of this makes me wonder how in the world I’m supposed to teach my son the difference between right and wrong behaviour. I am, thankfully, years away from having to raise these issues in conversation. And as things stand, he will grow up in a household where we will not have to teach him about the importance of respecting other people because he should be seeing it every day in how his parents treat each other.

However, I did have this issue unexpectedly thrown into my face recently. In retrospect, I should not be surprised to encounter this topic in books. Books are, after all, the best source of teaching children about the world and it’s more difficult aspects in the relative safety of its pages. But I’ll admit that our son is young enough that I have not yet really had to deal with meaty issues in literature.

As my readers would have seen previously, this household is a big fan of the collaborations between Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. Aside from the world-famous Gruffalo books, we also have and love Tabby McTat, The Whale and the Snail, Stick Man, and a few others. It’s gotten to the point where if I’m perusing the children’s book selections anywhere, either a charity shop or some other discount rack, I will purchase any Donaldson/Scheffler book that we do not already have, without even having to read it first. Chances are, it will be at least decent, if not downright good.

This is exactly how we came to be in possession of The Scarecrows’ Wedding. It was not a title I had heard of before. I flipped through a few pages, but since it was only going to cost me one or two quid at most I didn’t really concern myself with the contents. I came home with a small selection of new books, and a few days later I had my first opportunity to read the most recent acquisitions with Hawkeye.

The story is about two scarecrows, Betty O’Barley and Harry O’Hay, who fell in love and decided to get married. “Let’s have a wedding, the best wedding yet,” Harry proposes to Betty. “A wedding that no one will every forget.” Betty enthusiastically agreed and suggested they make a list of everything they will need for their amazing wedding. The list included a dress of white feathers, a necklace of shells, two rings, and some bells. Also, lots of pink flowers. Harry and Betty wandered around the farm collecting items on their list. The acquired everything other than flowers, and Harry suggests that Betty rests while he looks for flowers.

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A bee leads him to a field with lots of pretty, pink flowers, but first Harry needs to get water so they don’t wilt. And while a frog leads him to a stream, it’s a long walk and they need to stop for rest, and when he gets to the stream he realises he needs something to carry the water in. A snail volunteers to lead him to a pail, but the snail is slow and it takes more than a day to locate the pail, and what is happening to Betty during this time?

Well… in Harry’s absence the farmer puts a new scarecrow in the field. Ladies, meet Reginald Rake. You all know someone like him. He’s the overly groomed, slightly sleazy guy who likes to wink at the ladies, gives out backhanded compliments, loves the sound of his own voice (particularly when talking about himself), doesn’t know when to stop, and can’t keep his hands to himself.

First, Reginald takes Betty’s hand to shake it. This is actually in the text. They don’t shake hands. It’s not a mutual gesture of greeting. The book actually says “He took Betty’s hand and he gave it a shake” which just drips heavy with implications of what Betty thought about this move. Then he insists that he and Betty would make a fine pair. “You’re really quite pretty,” Reginald tells her, “apart from your hair.”

Ouch. That’s a bit of a stinger. What do you say to that when you don’t want to be rude and you’ve only just met the guy?

Then Reginald jumps into a tractor and insists Betty gets in, telling her he’s “a really fast driver. Let’s go for a spin.” Betty doesn’t want to go, however, she tells him she’s waiting for Harry, her fiancé, and that they’re planning a wedding together.

Does Reginald listen to her? Of course not. He doesn’t care about Harry and he certainly doesn’t care about Betty. He only cares about what he wants which, at the moment, is Betty’s attention. So he laughs at Betty and tells her to forget about Harry. “You’ll be waiting for ever. Forget about Harry! I bet he’s not clever.”

And there it is, that macho chest-thumping strut. Believing himself to be so handsome and debonair he tries to sweep Betty off her feet, and by the look of the picture on the next page, he tries it literally, wrapping his arm around Betty’s waist while he crows into her ear about how he, Reginald, is the cleverest scarecrow around, how he can sing songs, and dance and drive. He tells her how he’s dashing and cool and how he can even blow smoke rings.”

20171116_213321.jpgI’ll be honest. When I turned the page I nearly dropped the book and stopped reading. My toddler was sitting next to me engrossed in the story while I was staring at poor Betty in the picture, my skin crawling from the interaction – the smug look on Reginald and Betty’s unhappy face. I mean, honestly, how many ladies reading this have been in a similar situation? I bet every single one of you has a story of that creep in a bar, or that friend of a friend of a friend who just likes to put his hand on your knee or stand a little too close and laugh at his own suggestive jokes while you mentally plot all of the nearest exits and formulate a strategy to extricate yourself.

The farmer clearly went a bit too far in dressing Reginald as he had left a cigar in a pocket of that white suit, which is what prompted Reginald to boast about smoke rings. I’m sure you can see where this is going. Betty tries to make him stop, telling him that smoking is bad for him. (And let’s be real here, smoking is hazardous to a human’s health, but it’s downright fatal for a straw scarecrow!) But of course Reginald not only ignores her but belittles her, telling Betty to not “be a fusspot”. In fact, he actually says “My smoke rings are staggering, make no mistake.” and on my first read I had to send a thank you to the writer for not using the word ‘tremendous‘ here because even as written, my mind just flashed to an unfortunate politician that has been foisted on the world in the past year and I was already straining under too much reality reading this to my son.

Of course as expected, Reginald starts to choke and drips the cigar on the ground, where it starts a fire around Betty. Scared, she starts screaming for help as the fire spreads.

And where’s Reginald?

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He’s hightailing it out of there, running away leaving Betty to her own fate. Like that guy that leaves you stranded on the side of the road, or in a shady bar, or borrows your car when you need it most. Or that most quintessential scenario – gets a girl pregnant and runs off.

So what happens to Betty?

Well, this is a children’s book, so there is a happily ever after. Harry, after spending days and nights trekking for flowers, water, and buckets, arrives just in time with a pail full of water and beautiful pink flowers. Quickly thinking, he dumps out the flowers and pours water on the fire, saving Betty. They hug and kiss and pick up the flowers, finally being able to cross the last item off their list, and proceed to marry in front of all the animals who had assisted them over the course of the story. The onlookers all agree that it was in fact, the best wedding that no one will ever forget.

As I said before, parenting never stops, so the minute I closed the book I had to go read another book, and another. At three years old there is not really enough attention to dwell on the evils of Reginald Rake’s behaviour and discuss why it’s wrong. That comes later. But in the back of my mind I was slightly horrified at how nakedly this book portrayed a scenario that women deal with every day. In work. At home. Out and about. Unwanted attention, toxic comments about appearance, dismissal of their opinions and wishes, being put in dangerous situations. There is nothing allegorical about this tale because it is literally a story of sexual harassment and intimidation and abandonment.

I cannot help but wonder what was going through the minds of the author and illustrator when they created this book. Was it just something that popped out her head on a whim? Or was it written deliberately with this topic in mind? Did the author have her own encounter with a real life version of Reginald Rake that made her wonder about how to translate such issues into a language children can understand? The book fills me with equal parts dread and wonder. I dread the very idea that these are lessons I need to teach my son. That one day in the future, I will need him to understand why Reginald Rake is a bad man, and explain exactly what is wrong with his behaviour. And at the same time I am in awe that there are authors that dare to bring these issues to children’s literature.

It was, of course, sheer serendipity that this book fell into my hands at this particular moment in time, when the issue of sexual harassment is the hot topic everywhere. And who knows, maybe if I had read this book a year or two ago I would not have come away with such a searingly strong impression of the contents. But since I have, I think this is a book that might stay on our shelves a long time, because it will almost certainly be a stepping stone for us in our journey to teach our son right and wrong. I dread the idea but I am grateful that there are authors out there who are willing to help us along the way.

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