Thursday, March 19, 2009

commentary: Horton the Elephant



Horton the Elephant Hatches an Egg was never one of my childhood Seuss favorites as far as I can recall. I dimly remembered the book, mainly through phraes like "lazy bird Maisie" and "I meant what I said and I said what I meant, an elephant's faithful 100%." So watching the 1942 cartoon as an adult, a theologian/mom/feminist adult, is pretty interesting: I wish I could say I liked it--or disliked it--100%, but I'm not Horton.

First off I'm struck by how misogynistic the characterization of Maisie the Bird is. She's a completely despicable character and soundly condemned by adjective in the text: Lazy Bird Maisie. Her opening monologue is a self-pitying rationalization of how she really needs a rest because she's tired of sitting on her egg, it's boring, it's too much work, and she would rather play. Of course we hate this deadbeat mom who lies to the faithful Horton. But who hasn't watched Toy Story or Nemo or Horton the Elephant for the zillionth time in a row and thought "this is boring," or cleaned up vomit from bedsheets and blankets and child in the middle of the night--twice--and thought "this is a hell of a lot of work," or just wished that for once, you could sleep in or (dare I say it) head for Palm Beach? And if there's nothing wrong with the sentiment, what is it about saying it, or even doing it, that is so dastardly? I mean, outside of seducing and lying to a poor dope and totally ditching your egg. But the fact is, judgment is passed on Maisie before she commits that crime; she's already the villain simply for doing a little bitching about her life. Which IS, let's be honest, totally boring. Even Horton the hero thinks so when he ever so faithfully takes it on.

Whic brings me to the next complaint--the cartoon actually in some sense upholds Lazy Maisie's view of the burdensome nature of motherhood, because Horton confirms it repeatedly, and on top of that, Horton is, bluntly, a dope. So despite the overt moral regarding 100% faithfulness, apparently, you have to be a little bit of a dim bulb in order to voluntarily take it on and do it right. Yeah, that's the image of SAHMs I've been looking for. Just flippin' great.

Not to mention the completely random fish that commits suicide by shooting himself in the head with a gun after beholding Horton sitting on the egg.

On the bright side, when the egg hatches, of course, not only is the little offspring loyal to Horton, who despite adversity cared for this egg he inadvertently inherited--subverting myths of blood ties, inherent maternal nurture, etc.--the little thing's a hybrid: it looks like an elephant but with wings like a bird. Oh how I love me a hybrid little elephant bird who prefers a non-traditional parental unit over the uncompelling tie of biological kinship. What's so spectacular about it is Horton's initial objection of being biologically unsuited to hatch the egg is completely subverted; he hasn't feathers (boobs?) and he hasn't wings (womb?), but not only does Horton show, through the act of hatching the egg, that biology doesn't make the crucial difference in the act of nurture--the elephant bird understands that Horton is the real mom. And in undoing the biological essentialism of motherhood with regard to Horton, it's also by extension undone with regard to Maisie--whether the narrative itself goes there or not.

(Should gay parents adopt? Is Horton faithful 100%?)

6 comments:

Elizabeth said...

Should gays adopt? Should singles adopt? Should couples able to have biological children adopt? YES, YES, YES!

JTB said...

of course; it was really a parenthetical rhetorical question. but I think one of the reasons some don't agree is this essentialist-motherhood complex we've got as a culture. that's what I think is brilliant about the ending of this (1942!) cartoon...it dismantles that perception of women-as-natural-mothers and makes nurture, not genetics, the criterion for determining parenthood.

Elizabeth said...

I completely agree - so much so I couldn't leave it rhetorical :) I want to see the value of nuturing to take all of us past genetics - not just those needing alternative routes to parenthood.

Richard Beck said...

As someone who appreciates writing intellectual screeds about cartoons, this is one of the best posts I've read on a blog in a very long time. Thanks.

JTB said...

Thanks for that!

I'm hoping to follow up with smth on the original Horton Hears a Who! but just haven't had the time yet. There's some interesting personhood theory happening there...

allison said...

let's all adopt.