Thursday, January 31, 2013

Responses to Soc Images. Re: "Children's Books and Segregation in the Workplace"

I really do like SocImages. Really. I do. Even though I often critique the articles written there.

No. I'm being honest: I like the site.

However, I sometimes think that there is a bit of jumping-the-shark that goes on with the stuff that they write about. Recently, there was a post titled, "Children's Books and Segregation in the Workplace" in which the post author wrote the following summary of a book:
As children, many of us encountered Richard Scarry’s book, What Do People Do all Day? A classic kid’s book, it uses animals to represent the division of labor that exists in “Busytown.” The book is an example of a brilliant piece of analysis by sociologist John Levi Martin (full text).

To oversimplify greatly: Martin analyzes nearly 300 children’s books and finds that there is a marked tendency for these texts to represent certain animals in particular kinds of jobs. Jobs that allow the occupant to exercise authority over others tend to be held by predatory animals (especially foxes), but never by “lower” animals (mice or pigs).

Pigs in particular are substantially over-represented in subordinate jobs (those with low skill and no authority), where their overweight bodies and (judging from the plots of these books) congenital stupidity seems to “naturally” equip them for subservient jobs. Here, see this additional image from Scarry’s book, showing construction work being performed by the above-mentioned swine.

In effect, Martin’s point is that there is a hidden language or code inscribed in children’s books, which teaches kids to view inequalities within the division of labor as a “natural” fact of life – that is, as a reflection of the inherent characteristics of the workers themselves. Young readers learn (without realizing it, of course) that some species-beings are simply better equipped to hold manual or service jobs, while other creatures ought to be professionals. Once this code is acquired by pre-school children, he suggests, it becomes exceedingly difficult to unlearn. As adults, then, we are already predisposed to accept the hierarchical, caste-based system of labor that characterizes the American workplace.
This seemed to me to be a - to put it mildly - "odd" assessment to make. And so I wrote my first reply:
Yes, in the Babar series, it's all about this exact "hidden language or code inscribed in children's books". In the Babar series, we learn that elephants "ought to be professionals," because "jobs that allow the occupant to exercise authority over others [like Babar the king] tend to be held by predatory animals," which we all know elephants to be!

... oh, wait.

Okay, that one's an exception. Definitely, though with the Frog and Toad series, we can see two laze-about predators who represent upperclass toffs who go about just talking, reading, and riding bikes. Never an example of hard work between the two of these predatory animals who - since we know them to be predatory - must be characterized as being able "to exercise authority over others".

... oh, wait.

Okay, maybe the author is talking about the Berenstain Bears, you know that series with the corporate executive father and university professor mother and their two children who are in officer training school. Oh, wait... that's not right; the father is a carpenter who is clumsy and bumbling, the mother is a homemaker that gardens and makes quilts. You know... just like your average bears: in jobs that exercise authority over others.

... oh, wait.

Okay, maybe the author is trying to talk about how My Little Pony would be subservient to Thundercats? (I mean, I knew this to be true when I was a boy, even if my neighbor kept saying that I was stupid and a poopoo face for thinking that sort of thing. Still, what did she know?) The findings of this article indicate help indicate the inherent truth that - of the popular 1980s cartoons - Thundercats was the one that held the greatest authority over other animal-based cartoons, which were (in descending order of authority): Thundercats and Care Bears (and effective tie, since these are populated by top-predators), Garfield (who comes in next, since he's a tame predator that doesn't actually predate), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (they totally destroy those peperoni pizzas), and finally My Little Pony (sorry, but they're all indolent herbivores).

... oh, wait.

I'm starting to scrape the barrel on my memories of childhood storybooks with animals making up the majority of the cast of characters... Does Curious George count? Or does he not count, since he is a monkey in a human world, and not an anthropomorphized monkey in an anthropomorphized world? What about Finn Family Moomintroll? Nah, those are fantasy creatures. And anyway, they're not majority-culture American, either. Probably, the Southwest Native American stories about coyote also don't count, either. Nor the Japanese stories about tanuki, swallows, or the animal companions of Momotaro. Nor Chinese stories like children's adaptation of the famous Journey to the West, which had two anthropomorphic animal characters (Sun Wukong and Zhu Baije) Nor German stories like the Brementown musicians.

... oh, wait, I think I get it now:

I must have been given the wrong books to have read to me as a child.
Yeah, kinda snarky, even for me. However, another point really started to itch in the back of my mind: the problem of categorizing animals into the simplistic "predator/prey" dichotomy. This categorization is not useful. It's a bifurcation that mean that an animal is either a predator or it is prey. It provides too much agency to the predator, and the prey is only given the option of "receiving" the predator in order to die. It's replete with cultural bias and ecological fallacy. (Not surprising, this last part; many cultural biases are scientifically erroneous.) It also leads to (what I think of as) lazy thinking, and what precipitated me to write out my critique of this categorization was a comment by "Lori S.": Gender correlation is even stronger. I'm thinking children's clothes here. Boys get to wear (and be represented by) predators: lions, tigers, T. rex. Girls get to wear (and be represented by) prey: giraffes, zebras, bunnies. It's kind of disturbing after a while. (We are all aware of the associations between gender and agency, yes? Okay, moving on.) With that in mind, I wrote:

After thinking about this for a bit, I've come to realize that there is a major problem of ascribing these animals into the categories of "predator" and "prey" instead of "carnivores," "omnivores," and "herbivores." (Let alone talking about them in finer shades, such as making distinctions between "obligate carnivores" and "facultative carnivores.")

I find the generalized implications of "predator" and "prey" (as seen in the comments section and in the article) to be simplistic and kind of sloppy. Collapsing animals into only the categories of predator and prey fails to recognize the more complex nature of inter-species dynamics, such as:

A) evolutionary strategies of carnivore avoidance,
B1) presence of danger incurred by carnivores when hunting,
B2) ability of many herbivores to kill carnivores, and
C) social cues among groups of animals.

Where, then, are the omnivores? They're completely missing from the above assessment. What are the assumptions of the social roles that they play? For example, pigs are not merely docile, objectified "prey" species, but can be predators and scavengers themselves. Indeed, the very concept of a pig being a "prey" species is ludicrous when you think of wild and feral pigs: those suckers are dangerous to almost any hunter, much like hippos can easily tear up any potential threat, and are far from any idea of "prey" species that you can imagine.

What's Martin's justification of collapsing his assessment into the false dichotomy of "predator/prey"? Where are the assessments of the different types of carnivory (that then precipitate to the various forms of predation), herbivory (that make certain animals less or more prone to predation from the other locally present fauna), omnivory (are these animals "predator" or "prey" or both, but how could they be both if it's a binary classification?), and scavenging (recognizing the thorny point that you can't classify vultures, condors, and hyenas so easily into the "predator" OR "prey" categories)?

Furthermore, animal behavior is far more complex than functional feeding group (which I focused on here), but also include group/herd/pack formation vs. individual, levels of matricarchy vs. patriarchy, and a whole slew of things that animal behavior scientists study and any half-way interested 8 year old would already know something about. .... and which appear to be completely missing from Martin's "assessment".

So maybe there also ought to be an assessment of the ecological validity of the illustrators' (assuming that Martin looked at multiple illustrators' works) depictions of animals in conjuction with the pigeon-holing that Martin forces these illustrated animals into.
Yes, I understand that depictions of anthropomorphic animals are likely to rest heavily on our socialized assumptions of the animal in question as well as the socialized assumptions of gender (and the gender that we might most commonly apply to that animal). It's why we think that Santa's reindeer are male (even though male antler retention among male caribou is highly unlikely when the night of December 24th rolls around), and why we have films that completely balls up the gender and social roles of animals (especially anthropomorphized insects, most infamously in Antz and Bee Movie, but also - strangely - with the male cows in Barnyard).

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