Reading Too Much into Animal Stories

– A Rebuttal to ‘Too Many Monkeys Jumping in Their Heads: Animal Lessons within Young Children’s Media,’ by Nora Timmerman and Julia Ostertag, as reported in the National Post by Sarah Boesveld, June 6, 2013

The title of the National Post article is “Children’s media use cuddly animals to reinforce ‘racist’ and ‘socially dominant norms,’ researcher says” – a headline obviously much more attention-grabbing and inflammatory than that of the actual research paper.

Funnily enough, the headline is entirely true, but only because children’s media use cuddly (and not-so-cuddly) animals to reinforce just about anything.  The photograph accompanying the article shows the Berenstain Bears, which certainly were not the first characters to come to my mind when I pictured “racist” and “socially dominant norms.”  First of all, “racism” goes out the window with cuddly animals, especially brown bears, and “socially dominant norms” is a variable term.  The Berenstain Bears live in a rural setting and are devout Christians, so how socially dominant their lifestyle is for modern children is debatable.

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Of course, that brings me to my main argument, which is that children think differently than adults.  Take the example of Babar the Elephant.  Is it a series of adventure tales starring a young elephant king and his family?  Or is it a promotion of imperialism and colonialism by Europeans on Africans?  Aside from some obvious politically incorrect portrayals that have not aged well since the books were first published in the 1930s, the Babar series is primarily a series of adventures.  I loved them as a kid and it was not until I was an adult that I noticed how much the stories lauded colonialism.  Likewise, I loved the Berenstain Bears and devoured as many of their books as I could, but I never thought there was anything amiss about their lifestyle, nor did I realise until much later how much they were a product of middle America.

Do these revelations change how I view the books now?  Of course they do.  Do I still enjoy the books?  Of course I do.  Would I read them to my children?  Absolutely.   Why?  Because what I enjoyed about them as a kid had nothing to do with any adult political, historical, or social baggage that came later.  I liked Babar because he went on adventures in the jungle.  I liked the Berenstain Bears because they had much more mundane and relatable family adventures and taught me moral lessons in a funny and relevant way.  As an only child, Brother and Sister Bear demonstrated to me what it was like to have siblings and slowly helped me to understand what daily life was like for my friends and cousins.

With this point of view in mind, I will turn to the article itself and go through it with my responses.  The article is in italics.

More than 7,000 academics are gathered in Victoria, B.C., this week for the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, presenting papers on everything from the errant lessons of Grey’s Anatomy to Justin Trudeau’s political brand power. In this week-long series, the National Post showcases some of the most interesting research.

Parents who read their kids stories about happy, human-like animals like Franklin the Turtle or Arthur at bedtime are exposing their kids to racism, materialism, homophobia and patriarchal norms, according to a paper presented at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

A fine start, accusing parents of doing something wrong!  This is a worn-out argument that sounds straight out of the 1960s.  Not that racism, materialism, etc. don’t still exist, but we are mostly aware of them now.  Children are taught about them in school.  More importantly, we adults see these themes everywhere because we have been exposed to them since childhood as well.  Parents are not doing anything wrong.  (Of course, this is still the reporter talking, trying to grab our attention.  Parent-shaming is unfortunately an international pastime.)

Most animals portrayed in children’s books, songs and on clothing send a bad message, according to academics Nora Timmerman and  Julia Ostertag: That animals only exist for human use, that humans are better than animals, that animals don’t have their own stories to tell, that it’s fine to “demean” them by cooing over their cuteness. Perhaps worst of all, they say, animals are anthropomorphized to reinforce “socially dominant norms” like nuclear families and gender stereotypes.

These academics profess to be in the education field, but yet they do not know that children learn about the world through themselves first?  That is why most literature aimed at children shows animals in a “how we use them” way, or as a simple word listing.

This one paragraph sums up the entire article and thus contains a hodge-podge of arguments, each more ridiculous than the last.

  1. Humans are better than animals – No, humans are more relatable to children (and adults) than animals, so we anthropomorphize them.
  2. Animals don’t have their own stories to tell – Sure they do, but I have a cat and I don’t even speak Cat, let alone Pigeon, Rabbit, or Dinosaur.  All stories about animals are going to anthropomorphize them to some extent.
  3. Demeaning animals by making them cute and cuddly – How frightened do we want the children?  Also, define cute and cuddly.  This argument does have some merit, though.
  4. Anthropomorphized to reinforce socially dominant norms – Again, the aim of children’s literature is to entertain and to teach the readers about the world around them.  Clearly, the researchers are taking aim at certain popular works and applying that to all children’s books.

 “[M]uch of young children’s media reproduces and confirms racist, colonial, consumerist, heteronormative, and patriarchal norms,” Timmerman and Ostertag write in their paper ‘Too Many Monkeys Jumping in Their Heads: Animal Lessons within Young Children’s Media,’ presented at Congress Wednesday.

The word “consumerist” sums it up – the media wants to sell its product to a captive and vulnerable audience.  It will cast its net as wide as possible.  Children’s media is also generally made to be more simplistic than adult media, and that simplicity can come across as dogmatism.  Timmerman and Ostertag also say that “much of” the material that they came across confirms politically incorrect norms.  I think they need to a) broaden their research base; and b) reflect on whether or not these norms are offensive.  Last I checked, most children still have families, still go to school, still play with their friends, and still have to learn to like new food, which seem to be the dominant themes of books for young children.

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Ms. Timmerman  — a University of British Columbia PhD candidate in educational studies focusing on environmentalism — admits she’s no child psychologist, and admits there are probably extremely thin ranks of those fretting about “subliminal” messages in Goodnight Moon or Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed. “I do. But I don’t think most people do,” she said.

Her argument is that books and media are often the first exposure children under 4 get to society — and it’s a society in which tigers don’t talk, bears aren’t cuddly and rhinoceroses are creatures they may never see in their lifetimes.

“If they don’t see what it is that they experience reflected within that media, then they don’t come to value that experience as much or think it’s worthwhile,” she said in an interview at Congress this week.

All right, this is a step down from racism and more about how the media portray animals.  Ms. Timmerman focuses on environmentalism and she does have a valid point.  Real life animals are not cute and cuddly, they don’t talk, and they are often dangerous.  Children may feel less connected to the real world if the animals that they meet are not like their books and cartoons.  However, this is more of a problem for them when they are older.  Just because brown bears were friendly in books does not mean they are friendly when they are breaking into your car at your campsite.  On the other hand, just because they are not cute and friendly does not make polar bears less of an endangered species.

In their paper, she and Ms. Ostertag recommend children age 0-4 should be primarily exposed to the creatures in their daily lives in their “full richness and ambiguity,” not zebras and elephants and tropical fish and toucans (that, apparently, can come later).

Flat no.  These women are wrong.  First of all, zero to four is a very large gap.  Those under two tend not to care about which animals are which and whether or not they have seen them before.  Those between two and four are more apt to categorise the animals and are eager to learn lots of new things, including animals that they have never seen.  If the children live in a city, they are just as likely to see a wolf as they are a toucan.

Also, not to discredit children, but “richness and ambiguity”?  How about we replace “creatures in their daily lives” with “astrophysics”?  Even adults need a story and some characters and a theme.  A book about a rabbit that nibbles grass, runs from a fox, nibbles some more grass, finds another rabbit to mate with, nibbles some more grass, runs into a hole to escape a hawk, and then has a nap, would be a very boring book — especially if the rabbit didn’t have a name, which would be the first step to demeaning it and making it cuddly and human-like.  While such a book might hold the attention of a small child, it likely wouldn’t be memorable.

And then there’s the anthropomorphism — animals like Franklin and Arthur the aardvark and the Berenstain Bears wearing clothes and talking to each other and living in nuclear families.

“What I’ve noticed in particular about animals is the cultural stereotypes that we have in our society, and in the culture of prejudices we have often are more hidden when they’re inserted into a story about animals or animal form.”

As I have said above, they are not hidden from the adults.  It is our job to either explain to our children or wait for them to ask us about it.  Children pick up our stereotypes, prejudices, and norms from everything – that is part of how they learn.  Also, Arthur, Franklin, the Bear family, Babar, Olivia the Pig, Winnie the Pooh, and many others are fun and friendly — they are stand-ins for the children themselves.  None of these books have the aim of educating children about aardvarks, turtles, bears, elephants, pigs, or any other animals.  If Timmerman wants to teach children about these creatures, she needs to look elsewhere.

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It’s just problematic when it’s the only way children see animals portrayed in the media and “when we don’t realize that an animal also has its own complex embedded ambiguous life and it exists outside of our own use or interpretation,” she said.

Children will learn this as they grow up, but it is a complicated concept for young children.  Children are generally looking in stories for friends, not science.

Authors are often trying to convey good social values in children’s books with animal characters, whether it be acceptance or generosity or inclusivity. But Ms. Timmerman wishes these authors would acknowledge that “animals themselves may have lessons to teach us.” For example, bees buzzing around a hive or ants in an ant farm can teach the importance of community and teamwork without having to be anthropomorphized, she said.

Not all stories about animals are anthropomorphized to an extreme – I have seen books where other than giving the characters names, the authors have preserved the animal nature of the characters.  However, I think Ms. Timmerman wants one thing and is looking in the wrong place for it.  If she wants scientific fables, children’s literature is not where to find them.

“Billy the Bee doesn’t necessarily project any kind of cultural bias unless we ignore, for example, that worker ants are mostly females and we call them male because we tend to think of workers as male,” she said.

At least the article ended on a relevant and accurate note.  I would say that the above statement is true and does reflect our cultural biases.  However, it also reflects the simple reality that humans are not bees.  When children learn about bees in school, their assumptions will be corrected.  It would be nice, however, if book taught to them in toddlerhood didn’t confuse them later.

In summary, I think that while Timmerman and Ostertag’s research has some merit, I think their concern is misplaced and disconnected from what children need and want.  Speaking particularly from a librarian perspective, and therefore mostly conscious of books and television shows, I think the researchers are letting their social and scientific environmental concerns overshadow children’s need for story, adventure, and learning.

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One Response to Reading Too Much into Animal Stories

  1. Oh puh-leeze. Some professional academics have waaaaaay to much time on their hands with nothing to do. I am a parent and obviously a bad one because my kids all enjoyed these books and when we came face to face with a real bear while on a hike, not one of them thought the bear was cute, cuddly or safe. What a load or doo doo.

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