Posted by Srija Mukhopadhyay and Purvi Tanwani
The importance of nursery rhymes in a child’s formative education cannot be dismissed. Apart from its academic significance, it also helps in developing certain images in the impressionable minds of the children. Deconstructing every single line of a literary piece may speak volumes about not just the societal structure of the times it relates to or is produced in but also the culture it sought to follow or projects as the norm. In our article, we will be taking up some of the popular nursery rhymes to show how the gender representations and roles are portrayed in these rhymes. For this, we would be looking at Early Modern and Modern European Society and culture to give some of the rhymes historical relevance.
Stereotypical Attributes Of The Characters
In the nursery rhymes, female characters are often portrayed as weak, servile who are helpless and heavily dependent on men. In the poems where the weakness of women is directly pointed out, there is a further dissection: physical as well as mental weakness. Such weaknesses are shown in the poem “Little Miss Muffet.”
Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey;
There came a big spider,
Who sat down beside her,
And frightened Miss Muffet away!
What catches our gaze in this particular poem is the concept of women’s brittle ‘brain and brawn’. Miss Muffet, a female character is projected as someone whose heart is threatened by a spider. Moreover women are being repeatedly compared with flowers, ornaments and all the things that are beautiful and delicate in order to set aside the idea that they can be possessor of manly prowess. This is seen in the poem “Mistress Mary, Quite Contrary”:
Mistress Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row
Here, Mary has a garden that grows with ‘silver bells’ and ‘cockle shells’; something that overshadows the heavy skilled job of a gardener. Here women are the elements of beauty and adornment. There are various historical linkages that can be made with this poem. One of them is the reference to Mary I or Mary Tudor, the female monarch of the Tudor dynasty of England. She was so cruel that she was called as the ‘Bloody Mary’. She married Phillip II of Spain but was denied a happy marital life. She could not bear children and died young. The poem might refer to her ‘barrenness’ as is evident from the line ‘How does your garden grow?’ She could not produce an heir for the English thrown. The line ‘And pretty maids all in a row’ could be in reference to the constant miscarriages that she was undergoing. It is true that during her reign, England saw one of the bloodiest Protestant persecutions, but what is surprising is that hardly any nursery rhyme that deal with English dynastic history talk about Mary Tudor’s plight that she had to bear since her childhood.
Another poem that highlights the invisibility of a woman is this version of the iconic “Jack and Jill”.
Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown,
And Jill came tumbling after.
Up Jack got, and home did trot,
As fast as he could caper,
He went to bed to mend his head,
With vinegar and brown paper.
In the nursery rhyme above, Jill follows Jack. In addition to this, Jack’s injury is dealt with seriously and discussed in the second paragraph of the rhyme whereas Jill disappears completely from the rhyme and there is an utter silence as to why she was ‘tumbling.’ In this poem, even though both the characters eventually fall from the hill, the struggles of Jack has been exaggerated. The other version of the poem goes like this-
Jill came in
And she did grin
To see his paper plaster;
Did whip her next
For causing Jack’s disaster.
These lines paint a very disturbing picture similar to the women’s predicament in colonial India. The societal taboos that assign gender behaviours point towards fragmented humanitarian values.
Biased Roles Of Characters
The roles that each person perform points not only towards the expectations of the society but also puts considerable amount of light on the stereotypes that work behind forming such expectations. Contrary to the feminine roles which are ‘soft’ in nature, the important roles that require special skills like that of a doctor, shepherd, cobbler are believed to be masculine.
In the poem “The Little Bo-peep”, the female character is shown having a sheep but she has lost it and is looking for it. There are very few rhymes where a female character is assigned a significant role like possessing a sheep, but this poem ends with a rather sad note and highlights the irresponsibility of a girl.
Another famous rhyme that has similar connotation is “Miss Polly Had A Dolly”. In most nursery rhymes, girls assume the role of mothers, caring and nurturing their dolls, while boys are seen playing with trucks and spaceships. There is hardly any poem that talks about the reversal of these roles. Thus, it is difficult for a young mind to harbour heretical ideas with respect to gender roles.
Miss Polly had a dolly who was sick, sick, sick.
So she called for the doctor to come quick, quick, quick.
The doctor came with his bag and his hat
And he knocked on the door with a rat-a-tat-tat.
He looked at the dolly and he shook his head
And he said “Miss Polly, put her straight to bed!”
He wrote on a paper for some pills, pills, pills
“I’ll be back in the morning with my bill, bill, bill.”
This rhyme could well have been presented with Miss Polly as the doctor and a man taking care of the doll. This would have subverted the gender norms.
But, early modern Europe was also the time of heightened anxiety about witchcraft that had given the women the freedom to go out at nights and perform mystic rites though despised by the society at large. Hence, as a punitive measure, witch-hunt soon followed leading to many women getting killed. Moreover, since the 16th Century, England saw a succession of female monarchs starting from Mary Tudor. At the time of Elizabeth I, England saw her golden age as culture and aesthetics flourished.
‘Little Red Riding Hood’ – the popular 17th Century nursery rhyme portrays women’s autonomy shrouded with fear. In the poem, the small girl goes in the woods all alone to pay a visit to her grandmother. She is noticed by a wolf who reaches her grandma’s place before her and engulfs her. When the girl gets there and finds a wolf dressed like her grandma, she gets scared. But, a woodsman who hears her cry comes to her rescue and makes the wolf spit her grandma out. The little girl promises that she would never speak to strangers and roam in the forests again. This story behind the nursery rhyme refers to why it is important to curb a girl’s autonomy to roam about freely all alone in the woods. The wolf can be personified as ‘a wicked man’ who puts her in danger, but it is again a man who saves her. There is no reference to her bravery. It becomes clear then that even if there was freedom for woman, it found no value when the fear of being hunted down by men and yet saved by other men dominated her autonomy.
The nursery rhyme ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ has several interpretations. Gender bias shows especially in these lines –
‘The maid was in the garden,
Hanging out the clothes,
When down came a blackbird
And pecked off her nose.
And, shortly after that,
There came a little wren,
As she sat upon a chair,
And put it on again.’
This nursery rhyme might be a reference to the king of England Henry VIII, his queen Catherine of Aragon (represented here by the maid) and Anne Bolyen (represented here by the blackbird). The king of England, Henry VIII who was in love with Anne Bolyen, decided to divorce Catherine by going against the church. But, here in the nursery rhyme, Henry VIII was not blamed for his unlawful behaviour. The brunt of the blame was borne by the mistress so much, that the ‘blackbird’ ‘pecked her nose.’ But, again, a woman’s freedom of choice is portrayed when the maid upon seeing the little wren, put it in the pie instead of a blackbird which was usually used in the Royal cuisines. Although historical references blame her to be manipulative, the Queen’s intelligence and power that makes her one of the iconoclasts in the history of English women, should not skip our observation.
It is necessary that children through the nursery rhymes should learn about a society that is egalitarian and not gender biased and only then can the future citizens act as messiahs and help in creating a utopian land.
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Srija Mukhopadhyay is currently a postgraduate student at the Department of History in Jadavpur University. Her research interest includes decolonization, diasporic studies, cultural diplomacy, international security and foreign policy, gender, feminism. She is also a Citizen Historian at 1947 Partition Archives. She can be found on Facebook.
Purvi Tanwani is a Co-founder and Director of Anahat For Change Founder in Kolkata, an organization working to disseminate knowledge regarding Sexual Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) , prevention of child sexual abuse, gender & sexuality to the underprivileged sections of the society. She can be found on Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.
This paper is a part of Rangeen Khidki project on Gender Sexuality and Violence which the authors had an opportunity to present.