Stories matter

Earlier this week, my daughter, H, came home from school with a little homework. For the record, H is happily not swamped with homework this year. She occasionally brings a short assignment home for return to school the next day, but nothing that has been at all onerus. She is also expected to learn spelling words, read independently 20 minutes a day, and memorize her addition and subtraction facts 1-20. This is not homework anyone checks up on, but notice that if we did it all every day it would total about 30-40 minutes. So we don’t do it every day, but we try to hit these things lots of days.

Anyway, H came home with an assignment on Monday. She was supposed to tell a family member the story of the “magic pot,” and then work together with one of us to make up a “magic pot problem.” So we asked her to tell us the story. I wish I had recorded it so that I could quote it in her own voice, but I’ll tell it as I remember it, sticking as close to her version as I can.

There is an old man who is poor. He is a farmer and digs things up. One day he digs up a pot. The pot isn’t good for anything to him but he thinks that he will bring it home for his wife so that she can use it for cooking. He puts his wallet in the pot as he carries it home. When he gets home, his wife sees that the pot is too large for cooking in and too small for bathing in. But she also sees that there are two of the wallet. Then they put gold coins in and those also double, so they get rich. One time the wife falls in and there are two of her, and then the old man falls in and there are two of them, and they decide the two duplicates should live together, so they make a second house the same as the first.

This is a nice story about doubling, and H has now done lots of “magic pot” problems, working on doubling, and I think they are moving from this to early work on functions. That’s terrific, but I object strongly to the use of this particular story to teach doubling. Mathematically, there is nothing wrong with it (although I hope the curriculum also finds ways to present non-magical examples of doubling). But mathematics is not all that matters in this story.

This story is about a man who does things out in the world, and we know some things about him. He’s old, he has an occupation outside of the home. The other character in the story is known only by her relationship with him. She’s his wife. She provides companionship to the old man, and appreciates the wonder of his discovery. It’s the kind of subtle sexist framing of an otherwise benign story that makes me nuts.

Maybe I could have let it go if it were not for the fact that yesterday I was at the library with my son R, and he found a book that he had heard at library story hour, and we checked it out so we could read it at home. The book is called The Skeleton Pirate. The Skeleton Pirate is male (of course), and his big thing is that he “will never be beaten!” But by the second page of the book he is actually defeated, chained, and thrown off of a pirate ship. As he is sinking, he can’t resist the temptation to engage in a little microaggression as he passes a Mermaid and says “Hello there, my lovely.” The Mermaid smiles, covers her mouth with her hand, and unlocks him from his chains, after which he says “thank you, my dear.” As I am reading this to my 7-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son, I already want to punch both the Skeleton and the author.The Skeleton Pirate

The Skeleton and the Mermaid get swallowed by a whale, and while the Skeleton yells at the whale challenging it to fight, the Mermaid cries and looks completely incapable of processing their predicament. On the next page the Mermaid “gently” suggests that talking to the whale might help (the whale who is, of course, male). The Mermaid comes up with a plan that overcomes the Skeleton’s objection that the Whale cannot hear them, suggesting that they could speak in his ear, which is near his brain. Right after making her suggestions, the Skeleton says, “Come on! I’ve got a plan!” Oh really, is it the plan where you talk to the Whale, by finding his ear which is right next to his brain? What an amazing plan you came up with all by yourself!

Indeed, they do talk to the Whale. Of course the Skeleton does 90% of the talking, convincing the Whale to let them out because we learn that all of the treasure he has swallowed actually makes him feel ill. On the last page of the book we see the Skeleton proposing to the Mermaid, who is gazing at him demurely but flirtatiously. The text at the end has the Skeleton speaking:

‘You know,’ he said, ‘think I’ve been beaten at last.’

‘Oh my,’ said the Mermaid with a laugh.

So we see that the Mermaid’s purpose has been to use her feminine wiles to tame the aggressive Skeleton, defeating him with such a thorough passivity that all she can say is “Oh my.” At this point, I had to stop the reading and tell my children how disappointed I was by the sexism in the story. I didn’t even use any expletives.

You might think these are small things, and not worth getting worked up about. But stories matter. No, the sexism in the story of the magic pot isn’t going to keep my daughter from being an amazing mathematician, but the sexism of most of the stories in the world, and their subtle insistence that men (like the old man and the Skeleton) do things, and women (like the wife and the Mermaid) take care of men, that’s quite enough to be sure that my daughter struggles with her power and confidence in mathematics, science, engineering, and more.


3 thoughts on “Stories matter

  1. Angela Vierling-Claassen says:

    And I realize this morning that I forgot to rant about the messages these books are sending my son. Like the old man, his assigned role is provider and he will gain happiness and reward from the capitalist
    system through enacting role without question. Like Skeleton, he prefers violence and conflict and needs a female to express his emotions by proxy and to help him control his violent nature. Yes, he will see himself as a powerful actor in these stories, and he will be able use this view to bolster his confidence in many areas, but he won’t see himself as caring, following, and supporting, and he needs all of these aspects as well. How will he see himself as a listener that respects others and seeks their well-being? How will he see himself as a person that can feel emotion and express it?

  2. suevanhattum says:

    Thank you. I think this is an important issue.

    The skeleton story sounds hideous. But the Doubling Pot is a story I know and love. I wonder if the book we have, Two of Everything, would seem any less sexist than the telling you heard (which may have come from the book). Does it help to know that’s it’s a Chinese folktale?

    “Once long ago, in a humble little hut, lived Mr. Haktak and his wife, Mrs. Haktak. They were old and very poor. What little they ate came from their tiny garden.” And the first picture shows them outside at their garden.

    They both work, and the pictures seem respectful to me. If anything, there is the weird thing that you see on many TV shows (where the wife is smarter than the husband, the kids are smarter than her, and the pets are smarter than anyone) – the wife is definitely the quicker thinker in the story. However, he is the one to go to the village for supplies, and she is mostly at their hut.

    I liked this story for my son, and felt the sexism was minimal. I read so very many stories to him, I couldn’t escape all sexist stories. The ones I hated were Berenstain Bears, Scooby Doo, anything Walt Disney, etc. Those never came into our house by my choice, and when they did sneak in, I worked hard at sneaking them back out. I wrote a bibliography of lovely books with strong girls, people of color, gay themes, and more. Let me know if you’d like a copy.

    I’d love to discuss the sexism in math stories with you. I have a list of my favorite books at my blog. The Cat in Numberland, which I love, is also somewhat sexist, with Mr. Hilbert firm and somewhat grumpy, while Mrs. Hilbert is generous and nurturing. The smart one in that story is Zero, who is male. One Grain of Rice is a good doubling story. A wise girl name Rani outwits the greedy, oppressive raja. (Of course, that has the flaw that social change comes from one hero, instead of community organizing. But at least the hero is a girl.)

  3. Angela Vierling-Claassen says:

    My guess is actually that H’s school used the Two of Everything book, based on language she used and what I dug up about version of the story. I’ll have to find out. I’d much prefer a version of the story that started “Once long ago, in a humble little hut lived two farmers…”

    The trouble is that sexism is inside of the very bricks our stories are made of and I think they only way out is to craft stories that explicitly counter sexist narratives, not just try to write stories with no explicit sexism. I feel like the Mighty Girl shop does a good job of highlighting many of these books

    I also wish I had more faith in the school to call out sexist content since they really can’t avoid reading sexist books, it’s just not possible. I keep thinking we need a bechdel-type test for kids books…

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