Feminist Criticism – You’re doing it wrong

Lisa Rowe Faustino’s critique of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (PDF) is an amazing example of how very poorly an academic article can be written. The article appeared in the bookYou Are What You Eat: Literary Probes into the Palate and was called At the Core of The Giving Tree‘s Signifying Apples.

I’m assuming most of you have read The Giving Tree. If not, you should. But in case you don’t have it on hand, allow me to quote the synopsis from Wikipedia in full (it’s pretty quick and it won’t spoil anything for you since the book tells the story much, much better):

The Giving Tree is a tale about a relationship between a young boy and a tree. The tree always provides the boy with what he wants: branches on which to swing, shade in which to sit and apples to eat. As the boy grows older, he requires more and more of the tree. The tree loves the boy very much and gives him anything he asks for. In an ultimate act of self-sacrifice, the tree lets the boy cut it down so the boy can build a boat in which he can sail. The boy leaves the tree, now a stump. Many years later, the boy, now an old man, returns, and the tree sadly says: “I’m sorry, boy… but I have nothing left to give you.” But the boy replies: “I do not need much now, just a quiet place to sit and rest.” The tree then says, “Well, an old tree stump is a good place for sitting and resting. Come, boy, sit down and rest.” The boy obliges and the tree was very happy. (link)

Fraustino’s article is so fraught with error that I don’t even know where to begin. I suppose I’ll take it from the top. Page numbers are references to her article, which again, can be found as a .pdf here.

Fraustino’s starts off fine by making references to philosophical and psychological thoughts about how important food and mothering is in a child’s world. This is good because it forms the basis of her essay, which the introduction to You Are What Eat says is an examination of “how food is used [in The Giving Tree], both literally and metaphorically, in the reproduction of mothering ideology as defined by feminist theorists.”

But things quickly unravel from there. Fraustino is not wrong in reading Tree as sexist. That can be done and she’s not the first to do it. But her article takes so many cheap shots that it’s hard to give her any praise. I’ll just run through what is so upsetting.

Fraustino notes that some people read Tree as an allegory for God or Jesus and quickly points out how mistaken such a view is. But then she uses that view to take the first cheap shot at Silverstein for having published in Playboy and written “A Boy Named Sue” for Johnny Cash. In Fraustino’s view, anyone who writes for Playboy can’t be anything but sexist – a “man’s man,” as she calls Sliverstein (p288, emphasis hers). I wonder what Fraustino thinks of the other writers that have been published in Playboy, such as Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Jack Kerouac, and Margaret Atwood. Are they sexist too?

Fraustino sneaks this Playboy admonishment into her text, but I don’t think she’s trying to be deceptively clever. Her contempt for Silverstein and The Giving Tree is plainly evident and yet that’s another reason why her article is so confounding. Her arguments reach too deep with little or nothing to back them up.

Fraustino then launches into a confusing and convoluted account of the views of mothers by many writers including Eric Neumann, Kate Kane, Ellen Handler Spitz, Dorothy Dinnerstein, Jessica Benjamin, and more. Her idea seems to be that Tree somehow perpetuates the sexist ways that mothers are treated in society, but she never really explains what she means besides noting that in the story, the tree acts like a nourishing mother to the boy. She just reiterates a bunch of interesting but out of context quotes from each author. Fraustino has a problem with the notion of “the mother-child relationship [which] is intense, one-on-one, all-consuming” for the mother. She writes, “there’s no career for the woman, no interest in non-domestic activities” (p292) and she lists a few best-selling children’s books that feature this relationship. I can understand the problems this idea has for adults, but we’re talking about the relationship between a parent and their child. All children, male and female, are incredibly self-absorbed for at least the first three years of their lives. Is it so wrong to tell them that their mother is only concerned with them? The points Fraustino makes are good but irrelevant to the topic at hand, which is supposed to be The Giving Tree.

Fraustino then comes back to Neumann and his philosophy about spirit mothers, which forms the basis of most of her reasoning about Tree, but again she fails to make any convincing analogy between Neumann and Silverstein’s books.

Another aspect of Fraustino’s article which really irritated me was her use of snide comments at the end of paragraphs. Here are two examples, which have to be quoted in full (bolding mine):

The Giving Tree’s little “king of the forest” “would sleep in her shade,” between her roots drawn in lines that hold him like a Great Motherly lap, cores of her eaten apples in the foreground. In the end he is enthroned on her stump. Some king. (p295)

Adults feed children the same lessons they were fed, often without critical awareness, and often out of a misguided sense that “it’s just for kids” and “those books didn’t affect me,” as my college students often claim. “You’re reading too much into it,” they say. Even college professors to whom I have presented my research findings sometimes require lengthy proofs to see the problem of the Feminine in The Giving Tree. Tellingly, the most ardent defenders of the book in academic settings have been male; in fact, to them I owe the inspiration to write this essay because they have led me to think about the text in multiple ways and expand my arguments. I owe a particular debt of gratitude to one education professor who immediately after my presentation emailed me a web page about The Giving Tree that linked to other web pages describing the book’s many uses. He continues to defend the story as flexible, all interpretations as equally valid. As I recall the discussion, he was one of several male professors at my talk who expressed admiration for the tree as the kind of mother they have and that their wives are – the tree women ought to be. And these are smart men. (p297)

The second example above is particularly telling of the way Fraustino writes – “Tellingly, the most ardent defenders of the book in academic settings have been male.” Anything to back that up? No. Fraustino is “tellingly” telling us that. She doesn’t take the hint from students or colleagues that she’s “reading too much into it,” nor does she take the hint that the story is “flexible” and that “all interpretations [are] equally valid.” To her, only her interpretation is valid.

Fraustino goes on to cite a survey of readers aged eight to twenty which found that readers view The Giving Tree as “good and bad examples of giving and taking, development and change, love and materialism, [but] with no basis in gender.” (p298) Fraustino uses this as proof that people just aren’t getting it – “it” meaning her reading of the book of course. But all she had me wondering was perhaps her article and other critics are over-complicating matters or misunderstanding people’s ability to read Tree as a lesson in giving and taking. She quotes Spitz as saying Tree “perpetuates the myth of the selfless, all-giving mother,” but the reader survey perhaps just shows that they are able to see the negative implications of this myth. Or, perhaps the genders in Tree are meaningless and/or superfluous. I know this is anathema to gender scholars, but maybe the readers are able to see through the genders and the gender stereotypes. If they see it as a lesson into how love and giving should be, especially in a parent/child relationship, is making the tree a woman so bad?

I only have two final points to make about Fraustino’s article. The first is that I was dumbfounded by an appraisal Fraustino makes of two scholars. She says that Jacqueline Jackson and Carol Dell countered,

the profundity [of The Giving Tree] with a parody of the story that they use in classrooms to trigger critical discussion. Their version introduces the character of a second tree next to the Giving Tree. The second tree does give apples for the boy to sell when he asks but refuses all of the boy’s other requests until finally, in the end, the old boy gets hot sitting on the stump and asks to sit in the shade. The second tree agrees, ‘and the stump wept.’ (p298)

What the fuck is this? How is this OK? Are we just rewriting stories now to better fit our readings of them? Or just to totally fuck with children? I thought T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral was shit, but I didn’t fill it with a bunch of other characters to force other people to see things my way. Just the thought of doing so is obnoxious. Give me any story – any story at all – and I can do this by rewriting it. I could make the Bible seem pro-atheist if I was allowed to rewrite it. What if I were to add a few things to Fraustino’s article to make it conform to the views of all those “smart men”? Would she be OK with that? How Fraustino expects her readers to take her seriously after this is beyond me.

The second point I have to make is about one of her final paragraphs. She writes,

Notice: [the boy] does not fare well in the deal, either, as he winds up alone at the end of his life. Where are the wife and kids for whom he needed the house? Why did he have to sail away in a boat? “The result of this ‘giving mother’ is kids who themselves will make poor husbands, wives, and parents,” Strandburg and Livo point out. Only the primary bond remains to a boy who expects a Giving Tree wife. Had the all-giving Feminine ever given him some tough love instead of all her apples, perhaps he would have learned to make some real connections rather than having to revert to the symbolic primal womb.

Never mind the fact that this is offensive by implying that parents and spouses who like The Giving Tree are poor parents and spouses. What I wonder is whether Faustino knows that everyone dies alone? Going back to the tree is not reverting to the “symbolic primal womb.” It’s returning to a friend at a time when the boy needs a friend. It doesn’t mean the wife and kids are gone or that having to sail away was bad. It just means that the boy needs a friend. Apparently, Silverstein himself only thought of the book as “about two people; one gives and the other takes.”

Feminist criticism… you’re doing it wrong, Lisa.

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Author: Joe McVeigh

I'm a linguist who researches email marketing. I also teach at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. I write about language and linguistics on my blog, ...And Read All Over, and I write about language and marketing on my other blog, Email and Linguistics.

3 thoughts on “Feminist Criticism – You’re doing it wrong”

  1. I like this, it’s rare to see people challenge a feminist reading, I wish I saw it more often. Just wish it was with a book I’d actually read. But you gave me enough details about the Giving Tree that I understand what your arguing pretty well.

    I do think you get a little personal with the object of criticism yourself at times, which you criticize Faustino for, but as long as you aren’t intending to email it to Fraustino, I think that’s probably fine.

    1. Thank you, Jess. I didn’t mean it to be a challenge to a feminist reading specifically, just a reading that I saw as problematic. And I’ll admit that I was a bit personal with things. All I can say is this is my (personal) blog. If I was publishing my criticism in a journal, I would be much more objective.

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