Sunday, January 8, 2012

My Jihady-Crusade Against the Giving Tree's Sexism

this tree has two friends.
You read the title correctly: I freakin' hate Shel Siversteins's "classic" (in the same manner that Birth of a Nation is a classic film) children's book. And I don't use hate too often either, but this book has earned my abiding disgust. For those of you who haven't read the book the story is about a codependent relationship between a boy and a tree over the span of decades. At first, the boy simply lounges under the shade of the tree and enjoys an apple or two. As the boy grows so do his demands of the tree, which the tree is only too happy to meet. The tree is ultimately whittled down to only a stump. The boy, now an old man, still wants more, but there is nothing more to take, so he sits and rests on what remains of his "friend".

Why this diatribe against the Giving Tree? I opened up the Boston Globe this morning (Saturday 1/7)and saw that the front page of the Living section. Giving Trees was the title of the main story. It seems that a 13 year-old boy was inspired by the book and setup a charity event where artists created mini-trees to be auctioned off. The proceeds are going to fight illiteracy. The article has this line about the Giving Tree: ..."the Giving Tree", which has an underlying message about generosity (p10). I'm happy that the boy was able to misconstrue the book's message (much like Christians who reflect on the genocidal flood story as a love letter from God to his elect), and in doing, light a candle in the night. However, the book is still deplorable, and not to be taken seriously as a moral tale (again, just like a vast majority of the Bible).
Some of you may think I'm overreacting, that a book about a little boy getting whatever he wants to the detriment of another is a dandy story to tell kids. But there was another noxious facet of the book that I wasn't aware of. Two months ago I had a conversation with the Wife and her BFF. Somehow the book came up in conversation.
Me: God, I hate the Giving Tree.

BFF: Oh yeah, its totally a sexist book.

Me: What do you mean?

Do you the look you give theists when the theist says something completely off the mark? That was the look they gave me.

Wife: The tree in the book is female.

Me: Really? Are you sure?

They give me the look again.

Obviously, I was a bit... resistant, let's say about the tree being female. I found it odd that I could have missed such a point. I've looked through the book a number of times, but how did this major aspect of  the story slide pass me? Could it be that, that my being a guy somehow blinded me to the fact that the boy/man in the story slowly decapitates the female character? And she likes it?

I had to look at the book again. If there were only one reference to the tree being female, then perhaps I wasn't completely blinded my penis (more politely referred to as a male bias). Confidently I walked into the library with my daughter, and as she was looking at her own book, I peered into the Giving Tree.
Well, it appears that I was blinded by my genitalia. There were a few references of the tree being feminine in the book. Though I love to be right (ask any of my close acquaintances, I practically shiver with delight when I'm told I'm right about something) I was woefully ignorant.

If nothing else, the above story is an example of how the practice of skepticism can trump our species tribalism and predilection to defend beliefs regardless of whether said beliefs are based in reality. New data on any subject should not simply be ignored simply because it does not confirm our pre-existing  beliefs.




  1. I too hate the Giving Tree. And I didn't even notice that the tree is female. It is enough that it is a tree. But it seems very much a Christian story. It has that patriarchal mindset. There's a strong element of narcissism. And, of course, there's the whole the Earth was given to Man to be exploited, shit upon and otherwise used up and as greedily as possible mindset that seems to get a rubber stamp pass from various bible interpretations. Oh, ugh, The Giving Tree, I LOATHE it.

    I worked, years ago, in a specialty bookstore that sold children's books. And I can tell you, no one is neutral about The Giver Tree. And you and me? We ain't the only haters.


  2. I actually read it to my kids as a lesson on selfishness. I teach my kids not to be a doormat like the tree.

    1. That's a great way to deal with this book!

  3. I've read The Giving Tree many times and the very first time I read it, when I was very young, I knew that the tree was labeled female and that the boy was, well, male (and yes, I'm a male, too). I never felt that this book was sexist or patriarchal or anti-environmental, if that's a term, in any way because the book always seemed to be about generosity, selflessness, and, in my mind, parenthood. The aspects of the book that are considered sexist and selfish on the boy's part are largely unfounded, and stem only from the fact that he's a boy and the tree's supposed to be female, as if any time a woman selflessly gives anything to a man then the man is taking advantage of her, which obviously isn't true. (And the fact that the book starts out with the little boy makes it seem allegorical of nothing but a mother's unconditional love for her child.)
    To assume that Silverstein wrote this book with that intent is to say that you were there, reading his mind when he wrote the book, and to criticize all the people who haven't been convinced by your bizarre theory and to call them blind because they're not cynically trying to find the supposedly-discriminatory aspects of well-loved books is a much greater narcissism that the boy in The Giving Tree could ever have.

    (And I don't understand why one would think that Shel Silverstein would write a Christian allegorical book when he himself was Jewish, and probably wasn't devoutly religious.)


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