Are Sendak’s Wild Things Genderqueer?

After Maurice Sendak. © 2018 by Tim Warnes. Unused art from  The Big Book Adventure  by Emily Ford and Tim Warnes (Silver Dolphin 2018)

After Maurice Sendak. © 2018 by Tim Warnes. Unused art from The Big Book Adventure by Emily Ford and Tim Warnes (Silver Dolphin 2018)

How much does it cost to get to where the wild things are? If it is not too expensive my sister and I want to spend the summer there. Please answer soon.
— Letter to Maurice Sendak
 

There's currently a lot of discussion in the world of kid lit about gender inequality - in particular, the under-representation of female characters in children's books.

Online article The Gender Gap in Children's Books is the Real Monster in the Room claims that:

The ongoing celebration of Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, P.D. Eastman, and Jack Ezra, among others, as the greats in children's literature means that today's kids will inherit a canon that is similarly skewed towards male authors and characters.

- Samantha Grindell, The Gender Gap in Children’s Books is the real monster in the room

Now, whilst I recognise the need for diversity, and for all kids to see themselves reflected in books (and acknowledge that yes, the statistics clearly show a higher percentage of male to female lead characters), I do wonder if sometimes we are in danger of exacerbating the problem, making it more potent than it actually is, and potentially depriving kids of some great books.

Let me explain.

The author of The Gender Gap in Children's Books highlights the classic picture book Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (Harper & Row, 1963) as being problematic, stating:

[Max] enters into a wild world of his making where he has total control and there are no girls. … a land devoid of females.

- Samantha Grindell, The Gender Gap in Children’s Books is the real monster in the room

Well, that piqued my interest. Because in my mind, the wild things aren't assigned any gender. So I went back to the book to explore Grindell’s assertion that the land of the wild things really is 'devoid of females.'

(Incidentally, since originally publishing this piece, Jonathan Weinberg, Ph.D. of The Maurice Sendak Foundation e-mailed My Life In Books, pointing out that ‘many of Maurice Sendak’s protagonists are girls, including, Really Rosie, Outside Over There, and Higgelty Pigglety Pop! (a girl dog).’ To which I would add, Circus Girl, Charlotte and the White Horse and Maggie Rose: Her Birthday Christmas.)

Illustration © The Maurice Sendak Foundation

Illustration © The Maurice Sendak Foundation

Although not shown pictorially, Wild Things begins with Max's mother:

His mother called him "WILD THING!"

And Max said "I'LL EAT YOU UP!"

So he was sent to bed without eating anything.

Admittedly, this is before the forest grew up in Max’s room, before ‘the walls became the world all around' and before he sails away 'to where the wild things are.'

Yet once Max reaches the land of the wild things, nowhere in the story are they referred to as either male or female.

Which puzzles me.

What is it about the book that makes Grindell assume the wild things to be male?

How come they end up being made the scapegoat for her argument?

(Although I agree that, yes - the wild things do have a masculine feel to them.Whatever that means.)



Why is that?

  • Is it merely because they are monsters - strange, mythological blends of human and animal parts? Surely that is a stereotype in itself?

    (Another article from The Guardian - Must monsters always be male? Huge gender bias revealed in children's books - supports this idea.)

  • Is it because they are (at times) menacing, making a big show of how terrible they are?

    (So, too, are wicked step mothers; witches; Miss Trunchbull; Cruella de Ville.)

  • Is it because most of them have horns?

    (But so do female reindeer, cows, goats, and some sheep.)

  • Maybe it's because some of the wild things sport beards - a generally masculine trait.

  • Yet a few have long flowing hair, a generally female trait.

    (If you don't believe me, ask my boys how many times they've been assumed to be girls for having long hair.)

  • Or is it just that they are genuinely WILD - and they know it?

After Maurice Sendak. © 2018 by Tim Warnes. Development art from  The Big Book Adventure  by Emily Ford and Tim Warnes (Silver Dolphin 2018)

After Maurice Sendak. © 2018 by Tim Warnes. Development art from The Big Book Adventure by Emily Ford and Tim Warnes (Silver Dolphin 2018)

The name 'wild thing' was informed by Sendak's Jewish heritage and the Yiddish phrase, 'vilde chaya' (meaning wild animal or beast):

"It's what almost every Jewish mother or father says to their offspring. 'You're acting like a vilde chaya, stop it!'" he explained.

- Maurice Sendak, Huffington Post


The 'wolf suit-wearing hero, the temperamental Max', tames the wild things 'with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once.’ Then they acknowledge him as 'the most wild thing of all' and crown him king, after which Max - ‘the ultimate vilde chaya’ - proclaims those immortal words:


"Let the wild rumpus start!"

Illustration from  Where the Wild Things Are  © The Maurice Sendak Foundation

Illustration from Where the Wild Things Are © The Maurice Sendak Foundation

That glorious, wild rumpus - three wordless spreads where the pictures say it all. Perhaps it is those iconic images which cement the notion that the wild things are male.

We see them - Max included - in wild abandon, howling at the full moon, leaping ecstatically; swinging from tree branches; carrying their king high in a parade. As a father of two boys and uncle to six nephews, I can see their boyhood behaviour on display here (all they're lacking is a bush-whacking stick!).

It’s also true that I know some champion tree climbers who are girls. And I know some girls that can howl and wail like banshees, who can really make a ruckus! None of which gets us any closer to answering the question: why assume the wild things are male?

Consider this.

  • If the character of Max was a girl who was crowned queen, would we regard the wild things as female?

(Which got me thinking… Which female picture book character would be worthy of being crowned queen of the wild things? I'll reveal my answer in a moment.)

  • Conversely, does the fact that Max is crowned king somehow infer masculinity upon the wild things?

Illustration from  Where the Wild Things Are  © The Maurice Sendak Foundation

Illustration from Where the Wild Things Are © The Maurice Sendak Foundation

Here’s Maurice Sendak himself, revealing the inspiration behind the wild things in this radio interview from 1986:



… I didn't want them to be traditional monsters, like griffins and gorillas and suchlike. I wanted them to be very, very personal, and they had to come out of my own particular life. And I remember it took a very long time until that gestation occurred and where they began to appear on drawing paper and they began to be what I liked, and it was only when I had them all that I realized they were all my Jewish relatives.

They were all the adults who treated us in such silly fashions when we were kids, and these were the real monsters of my childhood. You know, people come on Sunday and wait to get fed, uncles and aunts, and you used to get all dressed up, and you have to sit and listen to their tedious conversation when you want to be with your brother and sister and listening to the radio or whatever.

And they all say the same dumb thing while you're beating time until food gets put on the table - how big you are and how fat you got, and you look so good we can eat you up. In fact, we knew they would because my mother was the slowest cooker in Brooklyn, so if she didn't hurry up, they would eat us up.

So the only entertainment was watching how - watching their bloodshot eyes and how bad their teeth were. You know, children are monstrously cruel about physical defects.

So my entertainment was to examine them closely, you know, the huge nose, and the hair curling out of the nose and the weird mole on the side of the head, and so you would glue in on that, and then you'd talk about it with your brother or sister later, and they became the wild things.

- ‘Fresh Air’ Remembers Author Maurice Sendak with Terry Gross

I think it’s safe to assume that the wild things - in Sendak’s mind at least (blended from memories and feelings of his 'unkempt' aunties and uncles), were both male and female. (A view supported by the fact that in 2009, Sendak worked closely with the live action film of the book, in which the wild things are fleshed out some more - and include two female wild things, KW and Judith.) Certainly not solely male.

Sendak’s decision to leave us guessing must have been intentional - perhaps to add to their mystery and monstrosity.

Maybe over time we’ll see the wild things become adopted by the genderqueer community as non-binary role models, since they display both male and female characteristics and are defined by neither:

genderqueer: any position in a wide variety of gender identities, spanning the spectrum between male and female.

-Urban Dictionary

genderqueer: of, relating to, or being a person whose gender identity cannot be categorized as solely male or female.

- Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Illustration from  Where the Wild Things Are  © The Maurice Sendak Foundation

Illustration from Where the Wild Things Are © The Maurice Sendak Foundation


Back to that original article, The Gender Gap, which incriminates another big name in kid lit for gender imbalance in their books -

Another example is Mo Willems, who's known for his anthropomorphic narratives about an elephant named Gerald and a pig named Piggie ... Willem's stories make reading fun and offer an endless number of surprises, but he deals almost exclusively in male characters.

- Samantha Grindell, The Gender Gap in Children’s Books is the real monster in the room

Again, this statement is misleading (which is a pity, since it undermines the author's argument). Because Willems' books (which really are a whole lot of fun!) include:

  • four Cat the Cat books (Cat’s a girl)

  • Knuffle Bunny (three books, featuring Trixie - named after Willems’ daughter - as lead character)

  • Hooray for Amanda and her Alligator!

  • Big Frog Can’t Fit In (girl)

  • Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs (includes Mama Dinosaur)

  • Nanette's Baguette

  • Edwina the Dinosaur

And ironically, in Willems' 25 book Elephant and Piggie series (the example included in the criticism), Piggie is - you guessed it - a girl! Referring to his character, Piggie, Willems has even said, 'there's a bit of my daughter, there's a bit of my wife there.'

To my mind at least, that gets Mo Willems off the hook.

Elephant and Piggie. © by Mo Willems (Source:  Entertainment Weekly )

Elephant and Piggie. © by Mo Willems (Source: Entertainment Weekly)


I’m not trying to deliberately undermine Grindell’s article, The Gender Gap. Whilst some of her facts are skewed, the underlying thrust of the argument should be taken seriously, and she raises some pertinent points.

If my books were put under scrutiny, I would be guilty as charged.

Because as far as my work is concerned, there are definitely more male characters to female in my oeuvre to date. When I have my own story ideas, they usually originate in childhood thoughts and feelings, so inevitably feature a version of myself - an issue that, in 2019 and beyond, I am aware needs careful monitoring.

The only books I have written that have a female lead are Can't You Sleep and Happy Birthday, Dotty (aside from a whole book of mummies in Mommy Mine.) Mummy Elephant, who appears towards the very end of The Great Cheese Robbery has only a supporting part, but she is the character with authority. Meanwhile, the Lumpy-Bumpy Thing from DANGEROUS! was deliberately not assigned a gender.

So you'll be pleased to hear that the story I am currently developing features a female lead!


Hey - I nearly forgot! Which female picture book character do I think is worthy of being crowned queen of the wild things?

Ian Falconer's Olivia, of course! If anyone could tame them, she could. Oh, how she'd love their wild rumpus!

Olivia, Queen of the Wild Things  © by Tim Warnes 2019. (Adapted from  Where the Wild Things Are  /  Olivia… and the Missing Toy ).

Olivia, Queen of the Wild Things © by Tim Warnes 2019. (Adapted from Where the Wild Things Are / Olivia… and the Missing Toy).

I'd love to hear your suggestions for Queen of the Wild Things!


Addendum

In terms of your piece itself, I appreciate your praise for Where the Wild Things Are and the fact that the Wild Things are potentially of both genders (or non-gendered), but given your subject you might add that many of Maurice Sendak’s protagonists are girls, including, Really Rosie, Outside Over There, and Higgelty Pigglety Pop! (a girl dog)….

- Jonathan Weinberg, Ph.D., The Maurice Sendak Foundation (via e-mail to My Life In Books)

 
 

Sources

Opening Quote: Maurice Sendak, King of all Wild Things by Jonathan Cott (Rolling Stone, 30 December 1976)

The Gender Gap in Children’s Books is the real monster in the rooM BY Samantha Grindell (Romper, November 14, 20180

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (Harper & Row, 1963)

Must monsters always be male? Huge gender bias revealed in children’s books by Donna Ferguson (The Guardian, 21 January 2018)

There’s a Funny Story Behind the Title of ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ by Taylor Pittman (Huffington Post, 29 June 2018)

Jewish Roots for ‘Where the Wild Things Are by Rachel Tepper (Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 20 October 2009)

Fresh Air’ Remembers Author Maurice Sendak with Terry Gross (NPR, 8 May 2012)

Urban Dictionary

Elephant and Piggies’ Mo Willems Talks (Entertainment Weekly, 27 October 2011)