I saw “Where the Wild Things Are” this weekend, ducks. (One of the advantages of living in the Great American Metropolis is that movies tend to hang around a surprising length of time.)
I saw it because of Spike Jonze, and because I am just old enough to have grown up in the Golden Age of Maurice Sendak — that hazy, golden late afternoon in America when Sesame Street had become established, the children raised by Dr. Spock were raising their own children, and Sendak and Shel Silverstein dominated the bookcases of every “with it” parent. (I was too young to say things like “with it,” of course, but I had teenaged cousins, and was vaguely aware of things like The Disco… we are talking about that point in history when The Captain and Teneille had their own TV show, people.) It was an age brought to you by CTW.
I don’t want to talk too much about the movie, which is as good as you’ve heard, and as bad as you’ve heard — the inventiveness and bravura surrealism (Jonze’s trademark) dazzle and enchant (I was not the only one crying when Max left the island), and the other issues — the long-winded expansion of a child’s fable into a full-length movie, the natteringly irritating Dave Eggers-scripted personality complexes of each of the monsters, the scary issues of colonialism and kyriarchy — are pushed under the rug in a big lump that you can’t help but notice.
I’d rather talk about something else.
We talk about–we feminists and we women people and not-women people who nonetheless care about the women people — about the idea of the male as the default human being, about the stories — just about all of them, in any genre — being about male people with female characters serving as adjuncts or plot points or Things To Fight About. We talk about it, but I lived through it (not of my own choosing, understand, but there you have it). I was raised in the expectation that I would grow up into that world. And I alone am survived to tell thee. (Well, not alone. And why the hell am I quoting Melville in a piece about women?)
Growing up with that expectation — that I, too, would become a human being and not a woman–meant that it was easy for me to put myself, in my imagination, wherever I wanted to be, because The Stories All Looked Like Me. Or to put it another way–wait…let me demonstrate instead. Let’s take a look at our text:
Such a simple tale? Did you catch the wonderful, in media res opening line? “The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another…” Takes me back, that does.
Let’s try an exercise.
Close your eyes, picture that opening, and then think about what it would look like if it read “The night Maxine wore her wolf suit…”
A little harder to picture, yes? Or even harder to picture Maxine sailing to the island of the Wild Things, and being made their Queen, and then calling for a Wild Rumpus? Are girls even allowed to have a rumpus, even in children’s books, even if it was a quiet rumpus in the corner where everybody was invited?
I mean, could Maxine even tame the Wild Things with the magic trick of staring into their yellow eyes without blinking? And then order them about? Wouldn’t she end up getting this advice instead?
Explain to your daughter that when she asks for things in a demanding way, the other girls will not want to play with her. Help her to learn how to rephrase what she wants in a nicer tone, like “May I play with you?” She needs to learn to ask and not demand. When she exhibits demanding behavior at home, ask her to rephrase what she wants.
(Incidentally, doing a search on Bossy Girls turned out to be one of my more… depressing… internet voyages of recent note.)
Sure, nobody wanted me to bite people or run around telling everyone what to do. But I was allowed to imagine myself as Max (imagining myself as Maxine at that age was something I feared to do), free to sail to distant lands and subdue strange beasts and rule over them as king. And never, ever, be expected to ask politely for the Wild Things to not eat me.
Now, maybe it’s because I’m still infected by the soporifics of my Where the Sidewalk Ends childhood, but I don’t think that this is as big a problem in the book — which is so spare and carefully chiseled that only the very whisper of a story remains. But it did strike me in the movie, which by expanding the story and giving it flesh, gave it boy flesh and put it solidly in the genre of boy’s stories, the lone boy who goes off on adventures and — stop me if you’ve heard this before — finds girls who are either an inscrutable background menace or a mother-surrogate. It’s the difference between parable and fable, I guess — but fables are still meant to instruct, and I can’t help but feel the lessons are different between the two versions.
Of course, if the movie had been about Maxine, you would have had a fanboy whine rivaling the idea of making Captain Pike a woman. And nobody would read it, or at least not boys. And certainly not if it had been written by Maureen Sendak.