Why “The Giving Tree” and “The Runaway Bunny” Set My Teeth on Edge

Please sit down. It’s time for a rant.

So there I was, in our powerful and unsettling #MeToo season, sequestered at an indoor sports complex because two small persons I know and love were at a birthday party in the bowels of the place. Circumnavigating the main floor, I came upon huge skating rinks surrounded by windows to the hallway, perfect spots from which to observe the parents involved in skate-tying.

But what I’d assumed was going to be an hour or so spent in mind-wandering contemplation instead turned into an agitated anthropological assessment. 

On one large expanse of ice were two aggressive teams of boys. They were about 12 years old (I asked the skate-tying parents), though they looked much huger than that thanks to their hockey skates, padded uniforms and massive helmets. And they were fierce, going after the puck with their sticks and fast, unexpected moves, blades flashing. (For those of you as unfamiliar as I am with the refinements of hockey, please extrapolate to any other competitive males-only sport played with two teams in opposition to one another. Football is a shining—or, rather, tarnished—example.)

On the next, equally large rink was a large group of adolescent female figure skaters, working in gorgeous precision, just as aware of the moves of every skater around them as the hockey boys were, but with a very different goal: to synchronize with the others, rather than competing with them. Now, I’m not saying that figure skating isn’t competitive, pitting ambitious young women against one another as it does. But on this particular rink and on this particular day, these young figure skaters were marvelously in tune with one another. As with ballet vs. basketball, the tricky part was to make their graceful moves look effortless, whereas the hockey guys could sweat, mutter, pant, and show the hard work the enterprise demanded. The figure skaters had to make it all look easy, at no personal cost.

Here comes more of the rant.

Coincidentally (or not), a few hours after absorbing the gendered messages being carved out by blades on ice, I returned to my computer to find a post recommending books for young children, including one I’ve always found deeply distasteful: The Giving Tree, by the sometimes sardonically funny Shel Silverstein. Let me refresh your memory. The book is about a self-sacrificing (mother) tree; she provides everything needed by her (ungrateful) offspring, who in the end needs wood, so the tree suggests he chop her down. Feh! No spine, that tree.

The flip side of the female-with-no-needs-of-her-own is, of course, another children’s book—esteemed by some and loathed by me—The Runaway Bunny, where the protagonist is the all-seeing, all-powerful, inescapable mother who follows the bunny everywhere, transforming herself so that she can turn up in every environment. Following the lead of the male child, like that tree, Bunny mère still has no needs or desires of her own, save for responding to the fancies of her boy. The book is perhaps intended to reassure a small child of the constancy of parental presence and love, but instead it sets my teeth on edge, because it feeds into the perception of a primal (male) desire to separate from the mother. If the little one can’t get away from Ma Bunny, sooner or later he will disparage her and other females in order to reduce their power. Misogyny 101.

Meanwhile, in the real world, removed just a bit from skating and sexist books, more men in media and politics are being outed as gropers, assaulters, harassers and worse, behaviors which in the past had forced their victims to choose silence or the exit door.

Like work in the Jewish community, where for many women sacrificially low salaries and long hours are typically the trade-off for doing work one loves, the worlds of media, artistic and political work can have a similar aura of mishpacha—family. This parallel provides a context in which professional boundaries may be transgressed easily without such behaviors recognized as unacceptable. An avuncular arm around the shoulders. A “brotherly” comment about an alluring outfit. Like those synchronized young figure skaters, women enduring misogyny in their newsrooms or dressing rooms or office cubicles thought they were wearing the mask of effortlessness and even nonchalance in the face of harassment while working hard for the greater good—whether the theatrical production, the politically relevant campaign, the breaking news story. 

Until now, that is. Now female actors, journalists, political operatives and restaurant servers are finding our spines, and our voices. It isn’t an immutable rule that we must give and give like that tree, selflessly putting out year after year. New rules are being set. Women are speaking loudly, counter to our training and to the messages from the smiling faces on the skating rink and the treacly messages from children’s literature, to articulate our own needs and wants. Including announcing that we do not choose to have our bodies or the space around them violated.