Dr. Seuss and disability
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Dr. Seuss! Let’s just take a quick moment to say it again. All together now. Dr. Seuss! I don’t collect much of anything in my life. But I do have lots of cat stuff and lots and lots of Dr. Seuss books.
I loved this podcast by 360documentaries on Radio National from Australia called “Dr. Seuss and The Butter Battles.” (By the way, 360documentaries has the best radio documentaries I’ve found so far anywhere!) In that podcast–and in many other places I’ve come across Dr. Seuss praise–people talked a lot about his politics. He was a political cartoonist for a left-wing newspaper in the 1940s. And who can deny the anti-corporation, pro-environmentalist pleas of the Lorax as being political as well?
But there’s one thing 360documentaries failed to mention: Dr. Seuss, whether he meant to or not, tackled disability and ableism head on.
Have you read “Gerald McBoing-Boing” or seen the award-winning short film made from the book? At the age of two, Gerald is still not speaking in words. He makes amazingly life-like industrial noises like boings, train horns, and truck sounds. His family is disgusted and disappointed. The doctor is called right away to see what’s wrong with this “fool” child. Even the doctor’s so disturbed he runs out of the house. The first grade teacher kicks Gerald out after one day at school because he doesn’t communicate right. The kids tease him and call him names when they’re not busy running in fear at what a non-normal kid Gerald is. It’s clear from the story that Gerald doesn’t hate himself. But even as a young child, he knows what shame feels like. So he attempts to run away, but a radio station manager finds him and hires him. Who needs a sound effects team and props when this one lovely boy can make ALL the sounds?
So Gerald makes the perfect and delightful sounds on the radio. And he becomes a star because everyone’s very impressed by his special talent. Then guess what? Now that he’s a 6 year old boy making tons of money and riding in limos, his parents take him back. And this time, they love him! They beam with pride because their boy has a marketable skill. If that is not a scathing indictment of how capitalism creates ableism, I don’t know what is.
Watch. See what I mean.
But it doesn’t stop there. Surely you’ve heard about “Daisy-Head Mayzie”? A flower grew out of her head one day in the middle of class. She was shunned as a freak of nature and a law-breaker. After all, that’s simply not how flowers work. A researcher wanted her so he could get a grant. An agent signed her on to become a big star. She became rich but quite friendless there, center-stage with all sorts of people wearing little beanies with daisies on them. It looked like some kind of awareness-raising event with the little ribbon lapel pins. But it was about commodifying her difference. There was permission for everyone to not care one lick about anything other than her weird flower-head. Circus freak. Zoo exhibit. Encyclopedia entry. Never mind that there’s still a person there, under that flower.
I thought maybe “The Sneetches” would have a disability message, too. But I think that one is more like the objectification and exoticization of other cultures. Because the Plain-Belly Sneetches looked down on the Star-belly Sneetches. Until someone came along and literally sold them on the idea they should have stars because stars are cool! It’s like Pharell and others who don’t identify as Native who think it’s hilariously hip to show off in public wearing a Native war bonnet as an accessory. Don’t mind me while I condone subjugating you. Your bonnet is so lovely!
All three books are about capitalism. And you simply can’t really talk about disability without talking about capitalism in my book. So I’m glad that dear Dr. Seuss does. What’s different about Mayzie and Gerald is that no one wants to be like them. And that’s how I know that they’re about disability. Because we still live in a culture where no matter how much people talk about how wonderful self-acceptance and disability pride are, behind our backs, some of them are also saying “But why wouldn’t you want to go to rehab and get better?” And the ones who don’t support self-acceptance and pride are saying much, much worse about us.