Arthur the racist, heterosexist aardvark

Children’s books with anthropomorphic animals reproduce “racist, colonial, consumerist, heteronormative, and patriarchal norms,” according to paper presented at the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, in Victoria, British Columbia, reports the National Post. Arthur the Aardvark lives with his married parents — one male and one female — and two sisters in a suburban home.

Most animals portrayed in children’s books, songs and on clothing send a bad message, according to academics Nora Timmerman and Julia Ostertag: That animals only exist for human use, that humans are better than animals, that animals don’t have their own stories to tell, that it’s fine to “demean” them by cooing over their cuteness. Perhaps worst of all, they say, animals are anthropomorphized to reinforce “socially dominant norms” like nuclear families and gender stereotypes.

Children’s books should present animals kids really encounter in their “full richness and ambiguity,” Timmerman argue. Kids 0 to 4 won’t value their own experiences if the books they read are full of talking tigers, cuddly bears, elephants, rhinos and toucans, instead of ants, bees and perhaps squirrels,  she believes.


Arthur the aardvark and his family

When Franklin the turtle, Arthur the aardvark and the Berenstain Bears wear clothes, talk and live in nuclear families, it teaches cultural stereotypes, she says.

Authors are often trying to convey good social values in children’s books with animal characters, whether it be acceptance or generosity or inclusivity. But Ms. Timmerman wishes these authors would acknowledge that “animals themselves may have lessons to teach us.” For example, bees buzzing around a hive or ants in an ant farm can teach the importance of community and teamwork without having to be anthropomorphized, she said.

“Billy the Bee doesn’t necessarily project any kind of cultural bias unless we ignore, for example, that worker ants are mostly females and we call them male because we tend to think of workers as male,” she said.

Billy the Bee would be a drone, who lives only to impregnate a new queen bee, not a worker bee. (Not sure how the ants got into the last half of the sentence.) Or is it Bilia the transgender bee? There’s not all that much ambiguity embedded in the life of a real bee, ant or squirrel.

Via Ace of Spades HQ.

In another paper, Bums, Poops, and Pees, University of Alberta professor Ann Curry confirmed that children love books with scatological content, while parents do not. Many librarians said they used such books as Walter the Farting Dog to encourage boys to read.

Perhaps a book on how worker ants give their all for the collective would be a better choice.

About Joanne


  1. J. D. Salinger says:

    Academics have much too much time on their hands.

  2. …that “animals themselves may have lessons to teach us”

    When my children woke me up at 5AM today to wish me happy Father’s Day. I told them the story about how real daddy bears eat baby bears who don’t leave them and mommy bear alone.

    They’re old enough to get it; they went off to watch the more wholesome Bearenstain bears.

  3. Well, we certainly wouldn’t want to imply that having a married mom and dad, living and raising kids together, is a good thing. After all, there’s no evidence that it is a good thing. Sarcasm off.

  4. You know, Arthur’s kinda tough on single parents. Look at Buster. Hyperactive, only eats junk food and plays video games all the time, mom has to work long hours to make ends meet, Dad’s always off trotting the globe somewhere.. occasionally shows up for the summer, but never comes when he promises….. I mean, it doesn’t make divorce look happy and fufilling for the kids! We need more books about how Peggy Porcupine loves having 2 bedrooms at 2 different houses!

  5. She really doesn’t understand a lot about children and children’s literature, does she? Non-fiction books about animals and how they behave are great. But they are not the same thing as fictional stories about anthropomorphized animals.

    Reminds me of the literary trend back in, oh, the 1920s (just about 100 years ago, guess it’s time for it to come around again) when pedagogues believed that fantasy of any kind was terribly unhealthy for children, and they should read only strictly realistic books about the people and things they would see in everyday life. Diana Wynne Jones, the ultimate queen of children’s fantasy literature, said: “I always think it is significant that the generation that trained my mother to despise all fantasizing produced Hitler and two world wars. People confronted with Hitler should have said, ‘He’s just like that villain I imagined the other night,’ or ‘He’s as mad as something out of “Batman”,’ but they couldn’t, because it was not allowed.” (DWJ lived through WWII and thus this is not a Godwin.)

  6. Were they ever children? And I really hope they don’t have children. What killjoys they are.

  7. Sharon R. says:

    Someone needs to point out to this academic that, in addition to the JP (kid picture books) and J fiction sections there is also a large NON FICTION section in most libraries all full of books for kids about real animals and every kind of family group (and the Grand Canyon, and Forklifts, and every Native American tribe in California, and Screws, and Endangered Frogs, just to name a few we’ve seen recently). She obviously needs help finding her way around the children’s section.

  8. BadaBing says:

    Do Nora Timmerman and Julia Ostertag write for The Onion?

  9. Foobarista says:

    It looks like the lit crit types are paid for the total of “ists” and “isms” they can stuff into book reviews.

    But she should remember that some animals are more equal than others.

    • You’re probably right.

      Time to resurrect “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” and put all those with pretensions of intellectual substance properly in their place.

    • While may be the case, I think she isn’t a lit crit person herself. The article said she’s a “PhD candidate in educational studies focusing on environmentalism.” Which does kind of explain it. Publish or perish!

      • Mark Roulo says:

        “Which does kind of explain it. Publish or perish!”
        THIS. One thousand times, this!


        Sharon R suggested above that, “She obviously needs help finding her way around the children’s section.” But she doesn’t. She won’t get a paper accepted if the paper is one paragraph long explaining that the children’s section in the library has non-fiction books, too. And she needs a certain number of papers published before she gets her PhD (she needs a thesis, too, but she also needs non-thesis papers …).


        Now, in theory she could have selected a field (even in education) that allowed for non-garbage papers. But once she picked the field she did, she’s kinda stuck unless she is willing to give up on the PhD hope.

        • Yeah, that pretty much covers it. And, sadly, it is easy to write a paper like this. All you have to do is accuse Literary Item X of sexism/racism/imperialism/whateverism. Couldn’t be simpler, and wins PC points.

          A really great blog post I read the other day by a lit prof pointed out that “Sometimes it feels like criticism in the humanities is a kind of game where we hope to be able to yell: “Gotcha!” once we see the human frailties of gender, class, and race hiding behind the appearance and rhetoric of universality. It is not clear to me why this is considered hard intellectual work. When it is done poorly, which is most often, it is conspiratorial and it wants to see people as predictable by virtue of their gender, race, nationality, class, profession, etc.” He goes on to say that the really good work is in finding the truth that is in there anyway. (Link: although much of it is about something else)