Growing up in a private Christian school, I learned to dissect. Of course there were frogs in formaldehyde, but they weren’t the only thing we were tearing apart to inspect.
We were taught to cut into words, to pull them in pieces and put them back together again, to see how they fit into the body out of which they came.
It was all a part of being able to interpret our most important textbook: the Bible.
From that process, I learned to think critically about layered meanings and veiled allusions.
And this is precisely the part of my brain I am having trouble turning off when I read nursery rhymes to my children.
Therefore, I extend the following confessions from a feminist mommy trying to get through bedtime.
First, the gender stereotypes in these little stories are just unacceptable. Women are weak enough to need buns first instead of being expected to share them, fragile enough to be scared of a spider while sitting around eating curds and whey, and impressionable enough to fall down a hill simply because a little boy fell down first.
Incidentally, Jack got up, went home and took care of his wounds with no mention of him needing help from anyone. This story doesn’t say anything about whether Jill even got home (which isn’t as surprising as it should be). According to Wikipedia, there is an optional verse about Jill in which she gets whipped by her mother for causing Jack’s “disaster.” Figures. Women are responsible for saving men from their own disasters after all.
The rest of the rhymes have women making some tarts, caring for lambs, flying around on a broom, and riding a horse.
Let me remind you of some of those verbs one more time: scaring, eating, sitting, falling, causing, eating again, making, caring.
Sounds pretty passive, unless you count flying around on a broom.
Passive, and full of food. Leading to one of my personal favorites: “Jack Sprat could eat no fat; his wife could eat no lean; and so between them both, you see, they licked the platter clean.”
Could eat no lean.
But what of a woman who has a mind of her own, who is doing more than scaring and eating and sitting, and falling?
Well that appears to be the situation Peter the Pumpkin Eater finds himself in. See, he had a wife and couldn’t keep her. So, naturally, he put her in a pumpkin shell and there he kept her very well.
Woah, I mean, we were just talking about some misogyny here, no need to escalate on up to a felony domestic. Not to mention, kidnapping your wife and storing her in a gourd may not make her want to stick around.
So other than holding hostages in pumpkins, what are the rest of the men up to? Well, with the exception of one who takes a great fall, it seems they are ordering around women. Or ordering around someone. Calling for tarts. Calling for pies, calling for bowls, and calling for fiddlers three (but at least he was a merry old soul).
And then what of the children?
When they escape the falling from cradles as babies, they are falling down hills, going to bed with stockings still on, stealing tarts (and getting beaten “full sore”), loving plum cake and sugar candy, and eating a Christmas pie. NOTE: All the above children are boys. There is also one boy who has found some competency in jumping over candlesticks, but the rest of them sound a lot like boys who will grow up calling for tarts.
Which puts in perspective the dilemma of Little Tommy Tucker who sings for his supper. “What shall he eat? White bread and butter. How shall he cut it without a knife? How shall he marry without a wife?”
Sounds pretty essential to survival. Ya know, being able to cut bread. And ensuring you have a wife.
I get it. To whom else would he call for tarts?
I’ll leave behind my commentary about the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker needing to be “turned out” after being found together in a tub to close with a couple of more disturbing wonderings.
Adjacent on two pages are the following:
“Georgie Porgie pudding and pie, kissed the girls and made them cry, when the boys came out to play, Georgie Porgie ran away.”
Why is there a boy who kisses girls until they cry and then runs away when given the opportunity to play with boys (or be observed by others?)
I vote for a second verse about a little girl that kicks little Georgie’s ass for not asking before he touched.
It’s called consent people.
And then this:
“Wee Willie Winkie runs through the town, upstairs and downstairs, in his nightgown; rapping at the window, crying at the locks, ‘Are the children in their beds, for now it’s eight o’clock!'”
A guy running around town in his pajamas trying to figure out if the children are in bed, crying at the locks?
It always makes me want to ensure “Wee Willy Winky” gets added to the national sex offender registry.
Just in case.