This year, I’ve been participating in a tutoring program in which adult volunteers work one-on-one with kindergartners to reinforce the reading and writing concepts they’re learning in class. I meet with the same two little girls every Monday for thirty minutes each. They meet with another tutor on Wednesdays and another one on Thursdays.
Typically, I read them a little book, and then we read a little book together, and then we do some writing and drawing, and then there’s usually some sort of flashcard-type skill or something.
This past Monday, I found that we had new material — there was a little binder of nursery rhymes and each day we were supposed to read one of them and highlight the rhyming words. The kids had already done one of them with their Thursday tutor, and now I was supposed to guide them through ‘I’m a Little Teapot.’ After I’d read it to my first student (A), she said, “What about the one where he’s biting in her ear?”
“What?” I said. If you don’t have any experience with kindergarten-aged kids, they’re really hard to understand a lot of the time, so this kind of bizarre non sequitur is not unusual.
A flipped through the binder and stopped on ‘Georgie Porgie.’ If it’s been awhile since you’ve been around nursery rhymes, here, as a reminder, is Georgie Porgie:
Georgie Porgie, Puddin’ and Pie,
Kissed the girls and made them cry,
When the boys came out to play,
Georgie Porgie ran away.
Above the poem, there was a little cartoon illustration of a little boy smashing his face against the side of a little girl’s head while she wept (hence why A thought he was biting “in her ear”) and two other little girls stood nearby, also weeping.
“Why are they crying?” said A. “Is he biting her?”
“Well,” I said. “I think he’s kissing her.”
“But why is she crying?”
“Because she doesn’t want him to.”
“Then why is he doing it?”
I hadn’t really come mentally prepared to explain rape culture to a five-year-old at 9:00am on a Monday morning, so I wasn’t sure what to say.
“He’s, like, teasing her,” I said. “Does your brother ever tease you? Or your sister — or do you tease your sister?”
A gave me a dubious look. “Did he bite the other girls, too? This is weird.”
“Yes,” I said, spying my escape hatch. “Yes, it is weird, very weird! In fact, it’s a dumb poem, my least favorite of all of these. How stupid! Let’s read something else.”
Deflect and minimize! Yes, this is an excellent way to avoid confronting a disturbing aspect of society when a small child asks you to explain it to her!
Anyway, we moved on to other things, and half an hour later, A went back to class and B came in, and guess what happened after we highlighted all the rhyming words in ‘I’m a Little Teapot’? Yep! B started leafing through the notebook to find Georgie Porgie, Frat Boy in Training and demand some sort of explanation.
This time I was a bit more prepared, and I wasn’t really interested in defending old Georgie on any level. I was throughly sick of him.
“What’s happening here is that this little boy is a terrible person,” I said. “And these girls all hate him. So they’re crying because they want him to go away. He’s trying to tell her a secret, but she doesn’t want to hear it, because he’s boring and dumb and his secrets don’t interest anyone. They should all just walk away and leave him all by himself and never go around him again.”
B seemed to accept this, and we moved on to other things.
Note that Georgie Porgie had not been the poem these little girls had read with their tutor the previous week. They both had just happened to see this illustration while flipping through the new binder. And it bothered them so much that they both remembered it all through the weekend, enough to bring it up again days later and want me to explain it to them. I don’t know these little girls all that well, but I can tell you that at this age, they don’t really seem to retain a great deal week to week. But they sure both remembered this. This little cartoon really, really bothered them.
A few weeks before the Georgie Porgie incident, one of the books I read to A was a picture book version of Disney’s recent reinterpretation of The Frog Prince. I remember The Frog Prince being pretty disturbing when I was a little kid, but I didn’t recall how awful it was until I was reading it to A.
If you don’t remember The Frog Prince, it is the story of a princess who is playing with her ball by a well. The ball falls in, and a frog appears with it. He tells the princess that he’ll give her ball back to her if she will be his friend. She agrees, but she finds the frog gross and creepy, and she doesn’t really mean it. As soon as he hands over the ball, she legs it back to her palace, ignoring the frog calling after her. That night while she’s eating dinner, the frog shows up at the door and tells her parents about the promise. Naturally, they take this weird stranger’s side immediately, chastise their daughter for not keeping her word, and force her to share her plate and cup with the frog, and then to take him to bed with her and let him sleep on her pillow. The princess feels a deep revulsion to the frog, she’s horrified by his very presence, and yet the people closest to her in the world ignore her wishes entirely and force her to incorporate him into her life in every possible way. When she finally kisses him, he turns into a handsome prince.
As I read this illustrated manifesto by some 17th century red pill Nice Guy, I grew more appalled with every page turn. But as far as I could tell, A was not engaging critically with the text. Unlike Georgie Porgie, this story did not seem to be upsetting her; she was just looking slightly intrigued or slightly bored based on the picture, same as always.
Still, I felt obligated to say something.
“You know, A,” I ventured. “Just because someone does something nice for you doesn’t mean that you have to be their friend if you don’t like them. And just because someone likes you a whole lot, that doesn’t mean that you have to like them back, even if other people think that you should.”
A stared at me blankly.
“Well, anyway,” I said. “They want you to write the word ‘hat’ five times now.”
I think I might have kids one day, and I’ve sometimes thought about how I would handle their media consumption. I watched a lot of stuff when I was little that I think taught me some really bad ideas about life, especially about how women were supposed to be and what love was supposed to look like. I’d like to keep this from happening to my kids, but I also wouldn’t want to be a controlling buzzkill about every little thing or make them feel bad about enjoying things that they like. I myself enjoy a lot of really ugly and misogynist things that I fully know I shouldn’t (for example, Game of Thrones). I wouldn’t want to forbid my kids their own mindless entertainments just because we don’t yet live in a perfect world.
My coworker Joen recently wrote about watching My Little Ponies with his four-year-old daughter and not being best pleased with the societal structure of Ponyville. In the end, he makes peace with the fact that to his daughter, for now at least, a pony is just a pony. Maybe you just have to follow your kid’s lead. Both A and B were really bothered by Georgie Porgie; it clearly disturbed them and they wanted an explanation. But although I was horrified by The Frog Prince, A didn’t notice anything off about it. To her, it was just a princess and a frog, not a metaphor for a woman’s obligation to make herself sexually available to whatever man decides he ought to have her. When she’s 19, I’m sure her women’s studies professor at Barnard will set her straight, but until then I can probably let it slide.
(Still, were she my daughter, I have a feeling that book would go mysteriously missing in the night, and god help any frog who fished it out of the trash and brought it back.)