My daughter just turned 20 months old, and she’s really starting to take control of her musical destiny: while we picked out the music she listened to when she was a baby, now she has her own preferences and can demand we sing or play the same songs over and over again. And she’s verbal enough now that she can actually sing along! As feminist parents, of course, we recognize that most traditional children’s music is a tool of the patriarchy, intended to mold pliant young minds into lovers of the status quo. But as helpless thralls of our adorable child, we make no effort to discourage her from singing the songs she loves. Still, why not rank the songs our daughter loves best from Least to Most Feminist? Here’s a somewhat arbitrarily-chosen list that includes most of her favorites.
10: “The Farmer in the Dell”
This terrible song, a favorite of our daughter’s when she was around 14 months old, figures the farmer’s wife and child as chattel and/or prey. In the terrifying hierarchy of the song, the farmer “takes” a wife, who “takes” a child; this unidirectional power relationship between taker and takee applies not only to the owner/pet relationship of child and dog, but also to the predator/prey relationship between dog and cat, cat and mouse. The last creature to be taken is, in fact, an inanimate object: the cheese who stands alone, capable only of being consumed and not of replicating its own oppression upon a person or animal lower on the totem pole. From “The Farmer in the Dell,” we learn that women bear the same relation to men as cheese bears to a mouse; further, we are taught that the appropriate response to patriarchal violence is to replicate it upon those with even less power. “Punch down!” saith “The Farmer in the Dell.” We fixed this problem by replacing the word “takes” with “has” and always letting our 14-month-old pick the next term in the sequence; since she had a very limited vocabulary and understanding of power relationships, she usually just named objects she could see, so the song would go something like “The farmer has a MAMA, the mama has an APPLE, the apple has a SHOE, the shoe has an APPLE” producing a fantasy of matriarchal power and distributed wealth that sat much more comfortably with our politics.
(PS: I apologize for linking to such a repellent YouTube video. What’s going on with the May/December romance between the aging clip-art farmer and his weird clip-art child bride, who also clearly came from a different set of clip art?
Ack, no, I’m serious, this screenshot is freaking me out. Why is the clip-art farmer leading the clip-art wife away by the hand like a tractable child? Because they go on to ride in a tractor? No, seriously, I don’t even want to make jokes about this terrifying farmer situation, and I’m sorry I showed it to you, but on the other hand you should know that this kind of garbage Flash animation fills up, like, the first two thousand hits when you search YouTube for any children’s song. Most of them are ads for iPad apps that will allow you to surrender your child’s cognitive development and cultural education to a company with a name like “Little Baby Bum,” so, like, please use that knowledge for good, if it is in fact possible to use that knowledge for good.)
9: “The Wheels on the Bus”
This song is pretty annoying to begin with, but the most annoying part is the version where the “mamas on the bus say shh-shh-shh,” while the “daddies on the bus say ‘I love you’.” It’s cool that the song showcases nurturing daddies, but as my wise and perceptive friend Jen pointed out, of course the mommies are dour fun-killers and the daddies are charming, insouciant wayfarers who delight in their kids and in life on the road. Also most versions of the song are pretty heteronormative and ignore lots of different kinds of families, unless you get a progressive version with a lot of grandmas and caretakers in it. Raffi has a perfectly nice version with “parents.”
8: “O Canada”
For some reason our kid is obsessed with the Canadian national anthem, and that reason is because we sing it to her all the time. “O Canada” is one of like three songs she knows all the words to, which is hilarious. “O CAN-DA STAND GUARD FOR THEE!” she yells from her car seat. This song loses points for being nationalist and imperialist, and also for the line about “true patriot love/in all thy sons command.” Ugh, just think about all those gross patriot sons lined up earnestly professing their love for Canada. Gross! Oh, but wait, they are probably all adorable Mounties and toothless hockey players; that kind of helps. I tried changing this line to “in all our hearts command,” but then realized that sounds redundant given that the next line is “With glowing hearts we see thee rise.” Feminist Canadians/-ennes, please feel free to weigh in on any feminist campaigns you know about to change this line.
7: “Do You Know the Muffin Man?”
This song is a big hit at diaper-changing time, for some reason. (Gross?) It’s fine, but, like, why are most children’s songs about men? Unless they’re about disapproving moms? Yeah, I know the Muffin Man. He’s the one keeping all the rest of us down, through his domination of the pastry industry.
6: “Rubber Ducky”/”Doin’ the Pigeon”
My husband has been encouraging our kid in her love of vintage Sesame Street tunes, and these are bathtub and breakfast favorites (respectively). I prefer “Rubber Ducky” because I like singing its classy Gershwinny bridge, and because I don’t understand how to do the “Doin’ the Pigeon” dance or make the pigeon noise. Both songs get points for imagining a friendlier, more respectful attitude toward alterity than “Farmer in the Dell” does, and Bert and Ernie’s adorable queer domesticity is pretty great. But man, the Children’s Television Workshop has always been a serious sausage fest. Another coupla songs full of dudes (unless you count the pigeons or the ducky, I guess? Women as objects, indeed.)
5: “Rockabye Baby”
Toddlers are obsessed with babies, because babies are weaker and dumber than them, which inspires confidence, and because toddlers are learning to be nurturers, and also because toddlers may actually still be babies. So my daughter is way more into “Rockabye Baby” now than she ever was as an infant. She especially likes it when I pretend to drop her at the end: “down will go baby, cradle and all.” Is this song feminist? Uhhhh. If you sing it to a baby girl you’re probably reinforcing nurturing gender norms? But uh that’s a developmentally appropriate interest for most children? Maybe imagining their kids falling out of a tree helped some historical moms work through anxiety about and/or rage toward their babies, so the song has been good for women? Maybe threatening your baby with a fall from a tree perpetuates cycles of patriarchal violence? According to this YouTube video there’s another verse where the nuclear family becomes some kind of fantasy royal court, and also all these doomed sleeping royal stock-footage babies are invariably white? I don’t know. While I was in the middle of writing this my kid decided to reject this song in favor of that “Mama’s Gonna Buy You a Mockingbird” song, which is a consumerist nightmare about planned obsolescence, so.
4: “Did You Ever See a Lassie?”
This song reinforces the gender binary, but at least there’s a lassie in it, and she has at least the illusion of agency (as does the laddie). I’ll take it! Also it’s vaguely Scottish? And my kid is obsessed with bagpipes for some reason? (I wanted to go into that more in this post, but I felt confused and daunted at the prospect of doing a feminist reading of her favorite airs for the bagpipe, “Scotland the Brave” or “Amazing Grace.” Anyway.)
3: “Part of Your World” from Disney’s 1989 film The Little Mermaid
My daughter loved this song from the first moment she heard it, when she was like a month old. It’s so high-pitched and melodic, which are qualities babies appreciate. As for its feminist value: as a nine-year-old second-generation second-waver, I was skeptical of media claims that Ariel was a “feminist” Disney heroine “for the 90s.” Ariel’s bratty defiance of her dad, credulous acceptance of a stupid seagull’s anthropological research, and helpless crush on a clueless bro-prince struck me as a cynical corporate appropriation of feminist ideals, a dumbed-down brand of cartoon feminism that would do nothing to change the world. But then I found myself singing this song–a song about a girl’s longing to walk, run, stay all day in the sun, and meet people who actually understand her–to an immobile newborn, and later to an infant desperate to lift up her head, to crawl, to walk, and to tell me what she needed and wanted. It brought home to me how moving the song could be, the ways in which the longings of the voiceless and the powerless throughout life and history and myth might be mutually informing and empowering. Also I like to sing this song at the beach.
2: “Let It Go,” from Disney’s 2013 film Frozen
I know every parent in the world is sick of this song, because all the kids in the world sang it all last year. I could have avoided it, since my child has no control over her own media consumption and almost no contact with kids who have ever seen a Disney movie. But I loved “Let It Go” so much that I willingly introduced it to my child. For one thing, my sister-in-law includes amazing Elsa and Anna dolls among her selection of nerdy feminist princess loveys, so Frozen has been on my radar. But it’s also just a great song about creative freedom and “letting go” of the internalized misogyny that tells girls any attention to their own desires is selfish. As a woman who constantly worries about whether I’m failing or disappointing or accidentally killing my friends and family, and who would also like to be able to create magic ice staircases just by pointing, I find the song very empowering. Further, this song is not about a dude AT ALL. It’s obviously easier to follow this song’s advice if you can make an ice castle for yourself protected by an abominable snowman, but there are lessons here for all of us.
1: “Swimming Around”
This is a song my husband made up about our daughter swimming around in the bath. The lyrics change depending on what she’s doing: walking, standing, sitting, splashing. She can sing it herself and add new verses. It was written by a dad, which is kinda patriarchal, but it’s a song about and formed by the will and desires and power of an amazing girl, so it’s a pretty feminist song, IMHO.