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Using Marginalized Folks As a Faux-Feminist Footstool With ‘Punxsutawney Phyllis’
Picture book, recommended for ages 6-8, with reservations
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I don’t mean to brag (which of course means that I DO)
…But I have personally met and conversed with one of America’s biggest celebrities, Punxsutawney Phil. I wanted to shake his paw, but his bodyguards wouldn’t let me. (Apparently he bites.)
Ahhh, finally… a kids’ book about gender discrimination in the workplace!
Uncle Phil is due for retirement, and it looks like one of the Punxatawney nephews is gonna have to step up to take over the family tradition.
Phyllis wants the job, but she’s not allowed. It doesn’t matter that all the boys in her family have little interest and are lazybutts. Phyllis, despite showing a lifelong passion for the family trade, can’t even apply, cause she’s a girl.
(Wouldn’t it be nice of gender-based hiring discrimination was blatantly obvious like that? And not coded in terms of ‘personality’ or ‘a good fit’ or ‘boobs too distracting for an office environment’ or ‘might get pregnant one day’ and other crap that gets thrown out of court?)
This gumptiony hogglet wakes earlier, works harder, does everything better, backward, and in heels – but no dice. Because SEXISM. Not until she proves her competence with overwhelming evidence does anyone even entertain the idea that Phyllis can do the job.
So this is a great book to discuss not only nepotism and sexism (this national position comes with influence and power – why aren’t we looking outside the burrow for candidates?!), but also how we place the burden of proving competence on targeted folks, while assuming mediocre legacy dudes are born for greatness.
Wait let me ruin this for you though
Perfect vehicle to discuss gender discrimination in the workplace aside – this book has several problems. This story serves double-duty – Phyllis’s story shows us how single-issue feminism (cough cough, white feminism) uses other targeted identities within the kyriarchy as footstools to compete for power
(CUT IT OUT! It doesn’t work! No one wins in a game of supremacy!)
Exceptionalism: “Phyllis was not like the other groundhogs”
Phyllis is not like the other groundhogs is because she likes to go out in winter and doesn’t hibernate. Even though we’re not supposed to see it as a ‘not like the other girls‘ gendered thing – it’s such a common, loaded phrase that I find it impossible to untangle ‘not like the other…‘ from the history of how it’s used to tear down women and other targeted identities.
We love to weaponize the ‘not like the other girls‘ trope to play into the supremacist notion of exceptionalism.
You’ll find this phrase most often in books about girls, written by men, such as Meltzer’s Ordinary People Change the World series. It’s a sneaky way to lift up one exceptional hero, an exception to the rule – while reinforcing the stereotype against everyone else with the hero’s identity.
Most often a girl, by virtue of her ability to assimilate into toxic masculinity, she proves that all girls really are frilly worthless garbage bags, or whatever.
Gender aside – Phyllis is not like the other groundhogs because she doesn’t hibernate. We’re arguing for unhealthy work practices in the name of productivity over self-care (PHYLLIS, YOUR #RESTISRESISTANCE!!!). Despite the deviation, toxic work compulsions are a shitty thing to reinforce – suggesting that girls who work 100x harder than anyone else are the only ones who should be admitted into the boys club.
That ‘not like the others‘ rubbish has done so much damage in the service for respectability over dignity, why does it need to be there?
Ageism & Ableism: “Phil’s still asleep! I’m afraid he’s getting too old for the job.”
Is Phil truly unable to do his job anymore? Or are we just assuming he’s no longer equipped because his slower pace and aging senses make him unfit to work? What about his years of on-the-job training, the wisdom he’s gathered from years of experience? Are we just gonna ignore those?
Given the way our society treats older adults as disposable, burdensome barriers to cheap industry – we should be talking with our kids about how we force older adults to retire in poverty so we can replace them with newer (cheaper) workers – and the wider harm this causes to the inter-generational community.
When we see some people as worthless, and burdensome, it gets a little easier to do horrible things to them, including excusing elder abuse and patricide. So when Phyllis comes up with the asshole plan to punish uncle Phil for needing extra sleep by dumping a bucket of snow and slush on him (that is elder abuse!!!) her family thinks that’s just brilliant.
The author goes on to prove Phil’s incompetence by loading up that boring old 1-2-PUNCH of ableism and ageism. Need more sleep than other people? Are you experiencing deaf gain, or need to bump up your glasses prescription? Having trouble with your sense of smell? ALL OF THESE ARE FORMS OF ACQUIRED DISABILITY. And none of them are grounds for coerced retirement!
If we’re gonna argue that older adults are worse at their jobs because of their aging bodies and acquired disabilities, are we also arguing that every groundhog with Phil’s disabilities should also be rejected for the job?
DUDE, we have technology now! There is more to meteorology than smelling the air! I know this sounds like a slippery slope argument – but seriously, folks with disabilities are effective at their jobs. Needing accommodations or an assistant shouldn’t preclude you from employment. And it’s certainly not a punishable offense that justifies abuse.
Fatmisia: Pete the incompetent fat cousin
Through the story, the women groundhogs are thin and waifish compared to the men. The men, however, range in body shape, from short and squat to tall and rotund.
Obviously, that’s messed up that all girls have to stay lithe while the men in the family can take any shape they damn please – but let’s pay attention for a moment to who gets to be fat.
Uncle Phil – who we already covered has committed the punishable offense of sleeping too late (lazybones!) is a bit bottom-heavy. Phyllis herself is allowed a bit more chub than the adult women in the family (although that could just be her winter coat).
But the Pete, the fattest character, is supposed to draw our ire. Since we can’t hate on doddering old Uncle Phil, Pete fulfills the personification of our incompetent, lazy, trust fund cousin who relies on being born with blue blood and a dick to sail through life. Pete takes every chance to mock and belittle her. Pete does nothing but nap and hang out in the living room. Pete whines. Pete is at least three Grampa Punxsutawneys wide. Pete is unambiguously fat, and his fatness serves no purpose other than to show how undeserving he is.
And the illustrator gives us a fat Pete because ha ha, don’t you get it? Fat means LAZY and INCOMPETENT in cartoon humor land! :::DEEP FRUSTRATED SIGH:::
Unpack this book in rotation with…
- Daring Stories Championing Fat Liberation
- Why Young Activists Depend On The Fight For Elder Rights
- How inspiration porn humiliates women in ‘The Truly Brave Princesses’
- How We Reinforce The Model Myth with ‘Polar Bear Island‘
- Kids Books About Women’s History
- Unapologetically Kickass Girls
Is this #OwnVoices?
Author: Susanna Leonard Hill (she/her)
Illustrator: Jeffrey Ebbeler (he/him)
I mean… Leonard Hill is a college-educated white woman who had access to shit like horses as a child ($$$) working in kidlit publishing. The kidlit industry still subject to sexism, but still relatively accessible to wealthy college-educated white women.
However, to the best of my knowledge, neither Leonard Hill nor Ebbler are groundhogs, nor do they appear to identify with older adults, fat folks, or folks denied employment due to physical disability.
So I’m gonna say… sure, this an obliviously deep #OwnVoices story of growing up with the singular concerns of a wealthy white feminist doing the bare minimum to grab the family reigns of generational privilege, influence, and clout.
How we calculate the overall awesomeness score of books.
Stay Curious, Stand Brave, and Don’t Use Targeted Folks As Your Footstool
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