The Guardian recently published a list of feminist books for five-year-olds. Being one of those feminists who wasn’t exactly trained from the cradle, this sort of thing doesn’t tend to catch my interest; it seems to me that children either will find their way to right-thinking or they won’t, but I’m not convinced they are programmable, like computers. “You can’t teach gender studies to small children in a day, but you can make a start,” the journalist breezily avers, but I don’t know, I feel like I’m still teaching gender studies to myself, years out from the initial discovery, and most days I’m still not sure I’ve done much more than a “start” of it.
And yet… and yet. A couple of months ago I saw Where the Wild Things Are. I didn’t see it out of nostalgia. As a child it didn’t do much for me – I remember the naked picture of course, but I sort of skipped picture books because I was an early reader – or rather, was out of them by the time certain books got a foothold in my mind. No, I saw it because I do, after all, like Spike Jonze – one of the few real talents in the hipster-movie set, it seems to me, along with Charlie Kaufman. And because it was a fundraiser, and because I like Lauren Ambrose, and because I see just about every movie that sounds like it has even the slightest chance at greatness.
I can tell you that I tolerated the movie for just about fifteen minutes, and I can also tell you the exact point at which I got so annoyed I considered walking out. I can’t quite remember if it was in the book, but at the outset of the movie, you are shown a trophy which Max’s dad allegedly gave him, inscribed, “You are the owner of this world.” And just that briefest of images made me want to put my fist through the wall, kick the seat in front of me, storm out into the lobby, scream at the heavens. It was meant to be touching, sweet, a father’s gesture to the expansiveness of a young boy’s imagination, I know. But the hubris of it just sort of clunked off the curb, and from there on out I sat, arms crossed, bitchface on, irritated by the Karen O score, annoyed at the wild rumpus, indifferent to the pathos of finding out that the world will always disappoint you.
Because let me ask you this: can you picture someone giving a young girl a trophy with that same inscription? I can’t. And for some reason that hits a nerve, because in that image is, it seems to me, the whole key to the patriarchy itself: some people growing up thinking – hell, knowing – that the world belongs to them. Courtesy of that small bit of personal indoctrination, (some) men become the assholes who Explain Things, who forget to check if the person they’re fucking is enjoying it, who are indifferent to war if it means building a narrative of greatness for themselves.
But you want to know the strangest thing? Even knowing all that, I couldn’t help but be a little jealous, from an aesthetic standpoint. Lizzie Skurnick is right, of course, when she says that “ambitious” is an empty term, usually used to justify giving male literature the benefit of the doubt where so-called “greatness” is concerned. But I can’t help but wondering if it rather gives boys an edge in the imagination department, this whole “world-owning” thing. I don’t know that it’s pure coincidence that men have written most of the great imaginary epics while women have often been much more adept at what I think of as chamber novels. It’s not that I think women aren’t capable. It’s that very early on, we are simply told to keep our eyes on the ground, while little boys are told to reach for the stars. That has to have an effect, it seems to me, and I think I can feel the anchor sinking in women’s writing a lot of the time.
Does anyone else feel this way?