Jul 20, 2011

The Giving Tree is a Sap

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

As a child, I loved The Giving Tree. I read it over and over. As an adult, a feminist, and a gratefully recovering codependent, I've long since given the book a rethink. So much so that I won't expose my daughter to it. It's not allowed in the house. What I once thought of as a sweet and moving story with a  moral about the beauty of altruism, I realized one day is an appallingly sexist book filled with poisonous ideas about the role of women and of earth itself.

I don't know why the book struck such a cord for me. Perhaps it had something to do with my profound fascination with trees. Perhaps it was something more prosaic like my nascent codependency. The book presents a dangerous message, overall: Imbalanced relationships in which one person sacrifices endlessly for the happiness of another are an ideal state. In fact, happiness can be derived entirely from pleasing someone else. This is the very definition of codependency.

Codependency is not necessarily a gendered phenomenon. There are plenty of male codependents. But girls are actually acculturated to be codependent, even in families where alcoholism and other major dysfunction aren't the issue. If we don't get it from our families -- and my family was probably more progressive than most -- we get it from our communities, from our schools, from movies, from books... books like The Giving Tree.

The gender dynamics in the story are fairly obvious. The tree is female. The child is male.The tree plays a very maternal and nurturing role with the boy. And she's the kind of mother who would definitely eat the Burnt Toast.

Up 'til now, I ate the burnt toast. I learned that from my mother -- metaphorically if not literally. I can't actually remember if she even likes toast or how she eats it. But what I know for sure is that although she was a loving and devoted wife and mother, she always took care of everyone and everything else before herself. This habitual self-sacrifice was well intended, but ultimately it's a mixed message for a child. It taught me that in order for me to succeed, someone else had to suffer. I learned to accept whatever was in front of me without complaint because I didn't think I deserved good things.

Like so many girls, Teri Hatcher learned the message from her mother that a woman's role in life is to sacrifice for others. Like so many boys growing up, the boy in The Giving Tree learned to profit from the sacrifice of those who love him.

The relationship between the tree and the boy is one based on give and take. She gives. He takes. He takes without gratitude. He takes without ever giving anything back except the occasional visit. And he only visits when he wants something. But the tree just gives, and gives, and gives, until she has nothing left to give... and then she gives some more. 

Even as a child reading that book, I was startled by the boy's effrontery: Give me some money. I want a house. I want a boat. What else can you possibly give me? But -- and this is the truly alarming part -- because the tree took it all with such aplomb and seemed so happy to keep giving, I accepted his behavior as normal. I could only really enjoy the story if I allowed myself to think that it was perfectly appropriate for someone to take endlessly and give nothing in return. The boy never even says thank-you. He just takes.

The implicit message to girls reading that book is that we are only really happy when we are giving something or doing something for someone else. This is how women are supposed to find fulfillment; not by expecting anything for ourselves. The boy's happiness is the tree's happiness. And no matter how many times he takes what he wants and abandons the tree, the tree is always happy when he returns so that she can give him more of her stuff.

That message is certainly not original to Shel Silverstein. It's one women have been wrestling with from time immemorial. For Virginia Woolf, that message was epitomized by the The Angel in the House; a narrative poem by Coventry Patmore that was all the rage in Victorian England. "The Wife's Tragedy" is one of the preludes in that poem.

Man must be pleased; but him to please
     Is woman's pleasure; down the gulf
Of his condoled necessities
     She casts her best, she flings herself.
How often flings for nought, and yokes
     Her heart to an icicle or whim,
Whose each impatient word provokes
     Another, not from her, but him;
While she, too gentle even to force
     His penitence by kind replies,
Waits by, expecting his remorse,
     With pardon in her pitying eyes;
And if he once, by shame oppress'd,
     A comfortable word confers,
She leans and weeps against his breast,
     And seems to think the sin was hers;
And whilst his love has any life,
     Or any eye to see her charms,
At any time, she's still his wife,
     Dearly devoted to his arms;
She loves with love that cannot tire;
     And when, ah woe, she loves alone,
Through passionate duty love springs higher,
     As grass grows taller round a stone.

Woolf found that her very survival depended on facing down this soul killing ideal of Victorian womanhood. The "angel" had to go.

“It wasn’t housework that distressed Virginia Woolf. It was the battle with an ideal that she called The Angel in the House. Such a woman ‘excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was a chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it — in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others.’ In order to become a writer, Woolf had to kill the Angel. ‘My excuse , if I were to be had up in a court of law, would be that I acted in self-defence. Had I not killed her she would have killed me.”

Even as social changes have allowed for more opportunities for women in every sphere of life, we tend to find ourselves in supporting roles in all of them. As we moved into the workforce, we found that instead of changing tasks, we just added more. We developed the Superwoman Syndrome, believing we had to be all things to all people both at work and at home. Structural changes to support the new opportunities for women have lagged behind those opportunities; the availability of good childcare, for instance. And we still constantly receive messages, both explicit and implicit, that it's all on us. If we want to work -- and for many women it's not a so much "a choice" -- it's up to us to find ways to manage both family life and work life.

One incident sticks out in my memory as emblematic of the kinds of hurdles working women have faced. The department head from an office adjacent to mine was waiting for the elevator at the end of the day. She was one of the hardest-working, most efficient and effective executives in the company. The marketing director stopped her in the hall and sneered, "Going home at 5:00 I see. That's what motherhood will do for you." He also had children but it never seemed to occur to him that this should create any conflict with his professional life.

The tragedy of incidents like that is that they will make most women feel guilty more than angry. They can trigger shame spirals in which we tear ourselves apart about whether we're doing enough for our children, our husbands, our jobs, and the world at large. We just know that it's all our responsibility because that's what we've been told since we were children; that if we wanted to pursue our own dreams someone else would suffer for it. So we keep eating the burnt toast and giving the perfect, lightly browned and lavishly buttered pieces away.

Ironically, feminism has provided whole new areas and opportunities for us to give over valuable parts of ourselves to other people. We have new vistas of codependency to explore. One of the most spiritually toxic arenas has been our sex lives. The sexual revolution has liberated us in some ways only to bind us to new-found levels of expectation.

Hugo Schwyzer addressed, in a recent post, how female identity as people-pleaser has informed our new sexual "freedom."

Ariel Levy, in her powerful and controversial Female Chauvinist Pigs, quoted Paris Hilton’s remarkably perceptive remark about herself that she was “sexy, but not sexual.” Hilton isn’t alone. My students today, who are mostly in their late teens (though I have many
older ones as well) were deeply influenced by Hilton, who was at the peak of her notoriety four or five years ago, when these now-college freshman were just entering high school. And sadly, not unlike many of their older sisters, they find themselves stuck in what we might callthe “Paris Paradox”.

Young women with the Paris Paradox were raised in a culture that promised sexual freedom, but what they ended up with looked a lot more like obligation than opportunity. It’s not hard to understand why the pressure to be sexy so often trumps the freedom to discover one’s authentic sexuality. As Levy and Martin and others have been pointing out for the past decade, we’ve begun to sexualize girls at ever earlier ages, as anyone who noticed the Halloween costumes marketed to tween girls will be aware. The explicitness — the raunchiness, to use Levy’s word — of this sexualization is relatively new. But when that sexualization (or pornification, to use another popular term) meets the far-older pressure on young women to be people-pleasers, we have a recipe for misery.

I read years ago that Marilyn Monroe was described similarly as one who did not seem to enjoy sex. For all her iconic sensuality, she was said to be very passive and not terribly enthusiastic. In a sense, this is probably a component of her sex appeal and of female sex objects more generally. Because that's what they are: objects. Objects don't have needs. They meet them.

This excerpt from Female Chauvinist Pigs describes the sexless sex appeal of the heiress who famously designed the "I'm Hot Your Not" [sic] t-shirt.

There is a disconnect between sexiness or hotness and sex itself. As Paris Hilton, the breathing embodiment of our current, prurient, collective fixations -- blondness, hotness, richness, anti-intellectualism -- told Rolling Stone reporter Vanessa Grigoriadis, "my boyfriends always tell me I'm not sexual. Sexy, but not sexual." Any fourteen-year-old who has downloaded her sex tapes can tell you that Hilton looks excited when she is posing for the camera, bored when she is engaged in actual sex. (In one tape, Hilton took a cell phone call during intercourse.) She is the perfect sexual celebrity for this moment, because our interest is in the appearance of sexiness, not the existence of sexual pleasure.

There is a very big difference between the preening, pouting sexuality portrayed for male entertainment and authentic female sexuality. A genuinely sexual woman can be a bit demanding. But in matters of sex, as in every other aspect of women's lives, the expectation is one of self-sacrifice. Schwyzer explains:

While both boys and girls may grow up hearing the old adage that it is “better to give than to receive”, girls are much more likely to be given regular instruction in how to give — and much more likely to be rebuked for “selfishness” if they show too much desire to receive. (Ask around. “Selfish” ranks right up there with “slut” and “fat” as an epithet with tremendous power to wound women. It only rarely does the same damage when applied to men.)

Dan Savage created an uproar, recently, when he opined in an interview with Mark Oppenheimer that monogamy may not be the best measure of the institution marriage and that in gay marriages, men will be far more tolerant of straying spouses. The last thing a lot of people want to hear, as gay marriage rights gain ground, is the suggestion from a gay activist that it will redefine marriage. Savage has a point in that infidelity has long been a part of traditional marriage.

“The mistake that straight people made,” Savage told me, “was imposing the monogamous expectation on men. Men were never expected to be monogamous. Men had concubines, mistresses and access to prostitutes, until everybody decided marriage had to be egalitar­ian and fairsey.” In the feminist revolution, rather than extending to women “the same latitude and license and pressure-release valve that men had always enjoyed,” we extended to men the confines women had always endured. “And it’s been a disaster for marriage.”

Yes. So many of our social institutions work more smoothly when women are willing to sacrifice their happiness so that men can do whatever they want. This is something women are very used to hearing; that the rules are different for men and that we only make ourselves more miserable when we are unwilling to accept that.

Historically, of course, while men had more license to enjoy their concubines, mistresses, and prostitutes, women faced such social penalties as battery, scarlet letters, and even death, for infidelity -- something we still see in the Arab world. And even in the modern world, some of the most unfaithful men still fully expect fidelity from their wives and girlfriends; even when they have both. That women embracing the infidelity path for themselves thing that Savage suggests tends not to go over so well with men. Men also crave fidelity from their partners. (I would specify heterosexual men here but I know too many gay men who have been emotionally destroyed by cheating partners.) At least a part of what underlies that male jealousy is that monogamy isn't so much in conflict with our basic impulses. Rather, our basic impulses around sexuality are in conflict. None of us can stop being attracted to other people but we also can't turn off the desire for genuine intimacy that can only happen when we feel emotionally safe in our relationships. There is an emotional component to our sexuality that we can't entirely shut off, as one of Savage's readers discovered when he and his wife opened up their marriage. He described his reaction to her having vaginal intercourse with another man: “It was as if all the air in the room was sucked out through my soul.”

Shutting off such feelings has always been harder for women than for men. In the same New York Times Magazine article, Judith Stacey explains:

“They are men,” she said, and she believes it is easier for them — right down to the physiology of orgasm — to separate physical and emotional intimacy. Lesbians and straight women tend to be far less comfortable with nonmonogamy than gay men.

Stacey, like Savage, concludes that there is no one size fits all solution on the monogamy issue and that different couples, gay and straight, need to define the parameters of their relationships for themselves. Throughout history and right up to the present day, however, these decisions have been made for women, not by them. The result has been second-class citizenry in sex and relationships. I find it telling that Savage pokes at feminism for failing to bring about egalitarianism in the world of cheating. I would posit, however, that the increasingly "fairsey" nature of marriage is a somewhat indirect result of the feminist revolution. Relationships are being redefined, not on men's terms, but on women's. Along with a plethora of other rights, women have been demanding the monogamy that is innately more comfortable for them.

I have long said that Bill Clinton's biggest mistake was his failure to notice what was happening across the pond with Prince Charles and Lady Diana. Diana did something that would have been unthinkable a hundred years earlier. She refused to tolerate her husband's infidelity. Women of her social position had always been willing to put up with mistresses and quietly accept that powerful men have powerful appetites. Diana simply refused to endure a miserable situation and take solace in the other contentments of her social position. In that respect, Lady Diana was something of a bellwether of a greater social transformation.

Fidelity, sexual or otherwise, involves consideration of another person's feelings, needs, and desires; something that has always been expected more from women than from men.

The giving tree is nothing if not faithful. She waits and longs like Calypso for the boy's occasional booty call.

The boy in The Giving Tree doesn't just exploit the emotions of the anthropomorphized tree. He selfishly strips the natural resources she embodies. Silverstein's messaging on ecology is horrible. Nature's gifts are man's for the taking, without consideration to reforestation, or even any real appreciation. What does the boy care? He's the self-described "king of the forest."

The analogy between woman and earth is extremely ancient going back at least as far the myths of the great mother goddess. In many of those myths, she is the earth itself. She is Gaia, Sophia, Tiamat. At her most reduced, she is "Mother Nature." In many iterations she is the original fire serpent climbing the tree of life to reconnect heaven and earth.

This, for me, is the greatest tragedy of the perennially adored children's story. The tree that gives so endlessly and to her own detriment is more than a mother figure taken completely for granted by an arrogant child. She's a trampled and disregarded vestige of the divine feminine. And like the vastly diminished serpent goddess Eve in popular myth (if not in the Bible) she hands the boy an apple.


  1. Fantastic! A great read. - Kent

  2. Wow, I have two grown kids and we have spent a LOT of time in libraries... how fortunate we never came across that book! I was pretty picky about what I read to them so it's entirely possible I did come across it but never brought it home. Some of our favorites were "Bear by Himself", "Goodnight Moon", and "Socks for Supper", hehe.

    I just found out that the guy who wrote "The Giving Tree" also wrote the song "The Ballad of Lucy Jordan" which is one of the most depressing songs I've ever heard. I loved Marianne Faithful until I got her album and heard that song. I'm glad to know she didn't write it but still, it totally ruined her for me.

    I had given an ex boyfriend of mine the boot back when and he was trying to understand why and said to me "I never made you do my laundry or clean the house"... as if that was his prerogative!!! I couldn't believe my ears. Arrogant fucking dumb ass.

    I've never been politically inclined or into 'feminism' or anything like that at all, but I did stop shaving my legs and armpits to remind myself that I was a 'natural woman' (who definitely enjoyed sex), but I was not a 'man-made sex object'. Granted, I've been celibate for a long time now, but I would rather have hairy legs and do without sex than to fall into the trap of feeling like my self worth was based on my sex appeal, which I was VERY inclined toward.

  3. "I never made you do my laundry or clean the house"

    Then did he tell you that it was because he wasn't like most men and really considered himself a feminist? I love when that happens!

    I think Silverstein mighta had some issues. You know his bread and butter was doing cartoons for Playboy. He never intended to write children's stories. He had to be convinced to do it. Kinda wish he'd gone with his first instinct. Not everything he wrote was terrible, or even inappropriate, but this particular book is pernicious.

  4. Yeah, I wondered how a guy who had done playboy cartoons for years ended up writing a kid's book. But at least he didn't do the kind of twisted cartoons I remember having seen in Hustler! I thought this one of his was pretty funny:


  5. File under: "It's always so much worse than you think."

    "Best known as the author of bizarre children's poems, Shel Silverstein also created a bootleg album called Fuck 'Em in the 1960s. Here, he sings songs like 'I'm Not a Fag' and 'I Love My Right Hand,' about masturbating, in which he rhymes 'some men prefer adolescents with sexual acquiescence.'"

    Yeah, that's exactly who you want writing for your children.



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