Another Feminist Reponse to Horton Hears a Who: Why is it always the mother’s fault?

A year ago, when the Jim Carrey/Steve Carrell version of Horton Hears a Who came out, feminists responded (see here and here and here) to what they saw as the blatant sexism within the movie’s over-emphasis on the single son as the hero and the 96 daughters as invisible. Why couldn’t one of the daughters save the day? Why does the mayor care more about his one son than his daughters? Why would the filmmakers add this sexist storyline?

I agree with this assessment of the film and do find the emphasis on the son at the expense of the daughters to be disappointing. Typical, but disappointing nonetheless. However, when I first watched the movie at the Riverview Theater in South Minneapolis with my kids (and again today on dvd), what angered me was not this reinforcement of the male-as-the-only-hero-that-matters. No, what angered me was how the movie perpetuated the classic take on who was to blame for all of the conflict and crisis: the smothering mother.

Why does the Mayor’s son need to save the day? Because the kangaroo mother is afraid of change in the jungle of Nool. She is afraid of things that she cannot see or hear. She is afraid that all of Horton’s “troublemaking” (yes, she uses that word in the film) will lead to questioning authority and eventually anarchy. While other animals may help her realize her plans, it is her fear alone and her disdain for that which challenges her simple worldview that leads to the crisis in the first place. She will stop at nothing to make sure that Horton doesn’t corrupt the children of Nool. She is so concerned with the corruption of her own son that she “pouch schools” him. And, she manages to stir up the other parents into a frenzy over the supposed threat that Horton and his “free thinking” pose.

Unlike the storyline about the son and the 96 sisters, the idea of the fearful kangaroo was present in the original version. But what is different in the earlier version is that the kangaroo was not alone in her fear or her disdain of Horton. Her son was a willing participant in the mocking and criticizing of Horton. In fact, he helped to instigate it. He was not trapped in her pouch, smothered by her “love” and her need to protect. So, why did they add this smothering mother theme? What could it possibly add to the story?

Horton Hears a Who was originally written in the 1950s and, according to this wikipedia entry, was inspired by Dr. Seuss’ desire for the U.S. (in their occupation of Japan post WWII) to treat the Japanese better. The book serves as an allegory and, as such, has a political message: Every person counts. Even the Japanese. The 2008 version seems to have its own political message. With its rhetoric of change good/staying the same bad and its villifying of traditionalists (and the Bush Administration) as home-schoolin’, fear mongering, anti-thinking conservatives, Horton Hears a Who is a liberal response to what is understood to be a radical shift towards conservative, fundamentalist beliefs. The message seems to be less that every person counts (because a person’s a person no matter how small) and more that close minded conservatives who see change as undermining important traditions and values are crazy freaks who are willing to kill an entire world (the cute little whos in whoville by boiling it in oil) just to protect their own. The film seems to be saying (or screaming or bashing its audience over their heads) with the message: They must be stopped! Free thinking, imagination, questioning authority must win out!

Hey, that sounds like what I am trying to promote in my own vision of troublemaking as a critical and questioning approach to the world and our understandings of it. I am all for promoting imagination and encouraging people to move beyond their limited perspectives (and their belief that anything that they don’t see or that they ignore doesn’t exist). So, what’s my problem? My problem is that the person standing in the way of all of this great thinking and imagining and saving little worlds is an overbearing, smothering mother. That’s right. Once again, the mother is to blame. Not the government. The city council of Whoville only makes a brief appearance as a bunch of idiot jerks who are more interested in ensuring that the annual Whoville celebration occurs than protecting the interests of its citzens. Not the evil vulture Vlad. He is tricked by the Kangaroo into stealing the flower that houses the Whos and Whoville. Not the other animals in the jungle. They like Horton, but the Kangaroo bullies them into being afraid of his non-conformist behavior and approach to life. Nope. It is the evil, nagging, overbearing, ignorant, close-minded, fear mongering Kangaroo that is to blame (Do I sound a little harsh here? She is such a caricature of the smothering mother role that I am not sure that she has any endearing qualities).

The filmmakers in this 2008 version shifted the message away from valuing everyone (as emphasized in the book) and towards critiquing those who fear change and are afraid to challenge tradition. To emphasize this message, they went with one of the most popular ways to show the conflict between tradition and innovation: The mother who refuses to let her child grow up and who wants to make sure that tradition is respected and adhered to. So, what’s the big deal? Here is one reason that this is a big deal:

This movie vilifies mothers. This isn’t something new. It happens all of the time in movies (in many kid’s movies mothers are not present–usually dead–or they are clueless or they are the problem). But, when I am sitting in the theater with my two kids watching Horton Hears a Who, I get very angry at being reminded of how I, as a mother, am represented in movies. What images and damaging stereotypes are my kid’s wittingly and unwittingly absorbing as they watch the mean kangaroo try to destory Horton and Whoville? She is the ultimate bad guy (don’t get me started on how they oversimplify the good guys/bad guys and good vs. evil in these films).

As I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, feminists have been quite critical of how the girls (the mayor’s 96 daughters) are ignored in favor of the boy (the son). By ignoring the girls and not allowing one (or all) of them to save the day, the movie reinforces the idea that boys are still the heros and reminds kids, as they are watching the film, that “boys rule, girls drool” (sorry, my son likes to chant that. Of course my daughter flips it so that “girls rule, boys drool”). In some ways, this part of the story is an easy (and obvious) target for criticism. But, if we focus all of our attention on this example of sexism (which seems to be indefensible for many these days), we fail to see some of the deeper, darker and more insidious forms of sexism and mysogyny that this film taps into and reinforces. Why is it still okay to blame the mother for our problems? For our own inability to embrace change? For our desire to not think critically? Why aren’t we all responsible for this ignorance and our hateful responses to a fear of change, the unknown, or different ways of living?

When will we ever grow up?