26

When I was eleven years old, right before the start of sixth grade, my mother told me it was time I started wearing a bra.

It was, at once, an exciting and scary moment. Exciting because—yay! Boobs!—I recognized that owning a bra somehow meant I was more grown-up than before; scary because … well, that strappy boobie prison just looked painful and unnecessary.

Like most girls, I started out with a training bra, and to this day, I still don’t understand the point of that exercise (what, exactly, was I “training” my breasts for?). But I quickly outgrew that one. My boobs just would not stop growing. And I wasn’t the only one who noticed.

My final class of the day was reading (essentially, English class). I sat on the far left side of the room, in the second-to-last row of seats. Behind me was a boy I barely knew (three different elementary schools fed into my middle school, so there were many strangers in my sixth-grade class). For the sake of privacy, let’s call him Bob.

Now, Bob very quickly developed a fun new way to pass the time in class. From the first week of the new school year, Bob’s favorite thing to do in reading every day was to lean forward in his seat, reach his fingers into the short sleeve of my shirt, grasp my bra strap, and let it go with a resounding “pop.”

The first time it happened, I turned around in my seat and harshly whispered at him to stop. He simply smirked in my face, and when I turned around to face the front of the classroom, he leaned forward and did it again.

I tried my best to ignore it, because every time I reacted to a popping incident, it only encouraged him to continue doing it. Over and over again, to the point where there were small red welts on my shoulder from the plastic tag hitting my skin.

After a couple of days of this, I told the teacher what Bob was doing. She looked at me with impassive eyes, then assured me she would “speak” to him. But whatever she may or may not have said to Bob had no impact, because the popping continued unabated.

When I complained to my friends, the general response was, “Well, at least he’s paying attention to you!” or “If he’s doing that, it’s because he likes you.” No one seemed to understand how utterly uncomfortable I was with the entire situation.

One day, after a couple of particularly vicious pops that left my shoulder smarting in pain, I had a brainstorm. If I wasn’t wearing the bra, I reasoned silently, Bob would have nothing to play with! I thought I’d hit upon something brilliant. So I sank down in my seat as far as I could, and slowly slid my hands up my back to the hooks on my bra. Inch by inch, I slid the straps down my arms, shoving them back into my shirt and pulling the whole blasted contraption down my stomach. I balled it up under my shirt and quickly shoved it into my backpack. (To this day, I still can’t believe I actually did this. Desperation is a curious thing.)

Mission accomplished, I sat back up in my seat, feeling a smug sense of triumph. I was certain I had finally figured out a way to foil Bob. With nothing left to pop, he’d soon have to find some other target for his attention. Sure enough, within a few minutes, I felt his fingers creeping on my shoulder. Then I felt them pause, and he started poking my upper back with his fingers, trying to find my bra. And when that didn’t work, he hooked a finger around the collar of my shirt, pulled it away from my skin, and, before I could even think to pull away, looked down my shirt to see what was going on.

Then I heard him snicker.

And the tears began to slide down my cheeks.

From a young age, girls are taught that when a boy hits you, it’s because he “likes” you. Boys show their affection through aggression and teasing, and girls are supposed to be flattered that such masculine displays are directed at them. That kind of behavior is excused as a simple case of “boys being boys.” It’s what guys do. Hitting, pushing, popping a bra strap—it’s all the same, harmless playground stuff.

But it is far from harmless. When a boy puts his hands on a girl without permission, in any circumstance, it is not cute. It is not flattering. It is, by its very nature, an act of sexual assault. It is not the case of a boy “being a boy.” It is a boy assuming a proprietary attitude toward a girl’s body. It is a physical attack. But it is also a highly emotional one as well.

I think back to the girl I was, barely eleven years old, subjected to this torture device of an undergarment, already uncomfortable with the changes my body was facing. To have this boy assume that he had every right to reach underneath the sleeve of my shirt, grasp my bra strap, yank it back, and let it fly in a sharp slap against my skin—it was not innocent. It was not funny. It was painful. It was humiliating.

For the first time (and far from the last in my lifetime thus far, I’m sad to say), I began to feel shame about my body, specifically about these mounds of flesh that had begun to protrude from my chest, the ones that drew so much unwanted attention to me. I squirmed under the leering eyes of schoolboys, the darting glances at my chest from men—some of them my father’s age or older. For the first time in my life, I felt that my body was not my own. I couldn’t put it into words, but even then, I felt threatened by the eyes of men, all of whom seemed to size me up in varying ways. Walking with my head pointed down, my arms across my chest to hide my breasts, became the norm. In my mind, if they couldn’t see them, they couldn’t stare.

This is where it starts. For many girls, it’s the onset of puberty, the beginning of development, which first exposes us to the gender politics that define life in this world. It’s the first time many of us begin to realize that our bodies are not necessarily our own in the eyes of those around us. It’s the first time we learn what it is to fear, and to be wary of walking in our skin. And it only gets worse as we get older.

Snapping a girl’s bra strap may seem like an innocuous thing in the overall scheme of things. But it is symptomatic of the entitlement that many boys are encouraged to feel toward the female body, and when that kind of behavior is brushed off or otherwise excused, it only serves to encourage that behavior—and the mindset it engenders—to continue.

It is that same sense of entitlement that, later in life, leads men to think that they are somehow allowed to yell obscenities at a woman, to slap her or punch her when she says “no,” to rape her because she “wanted” it, to shoot her in the face because she dared to reject a sexual advance.

Yes, all women—all girls—are subjected to the constant risk of harassment or harm, in some fashion or function, every day of their lives. It comes in many forms, some of them seemingly innocent—like the popping of a bra strap—but all of them part of the insidious thread of misogyny that winds through the fabric of modern society.

Maybe the first step toward correcting this problem should be not to teach girls tools on how to avoid harassment (as is so often the case now), but to teach boys not to harass or harm girls in the first place. And–just to reiterate–this includes not excusing the type of “boys will be boys” behavior that undoubtedly influences increasingly entitled male behavior in later years.

In other words … don’t pop my bra, “brah.”

4

Editor’s Note: Today, something a little different. The Giving Tree isn’t a girl–at least not in the human sense of the word. But she is she, and we read about her as children and as adults–we read her as she–those pronouns matter. We haven’t really covered much of the ways that animals (and less commonly, plants) are used in children’s books, but it’s a fairly common trope. Contributor Brandie has written an exploratory essay on allegoresis in The Giving Tree, and I think it works well for our “T.” You can find out more about Brandie on our contributors’ page.

T

Has there ever been a more deceptively simple story than Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree? In the years since its publication, this seemingly straightforward tale of friendship and love between a boy and a tree has fostered debate among readers about the multiple threads of interpretation evident within the book. In fact, as Silverstein related in a 1964 interview with The Chicago Tribune, the story faced difficulty on the road to publication because several editors believed the book, which defied rote categorization as a “children’s story,” was far too layered to be successful. Yet today, as we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the book’s publication, The Giving Tree remains a beloved story among readers, young and old, for precisely that reason: the varying levels of analysis which attract both a large contingent of fans and a long and enthusiastic discussion about the true meaning of Silverstein’s parable. Such diverse reader response manifests itself in a grand exercise in allegoresis, resulting in any number of interpretations of The Giving Tree ranging from religious to sociological implications and environmental and feminist critiques of the story’s underlying themes.

“Cut down my trunk … and be happy.”

Tree as Christ the Savior? The idea may not be far-fetched; parallels to the New Testament parables of Christ are evident throughout The Giving Tree. The protagonist, Tree, who continues to provide for Boy throughout his entire life, does so at great sacrifice to her own health and survival, ensuring the boy’s comfort while foregoing her own.

But is this truly a sacrifice on Tree’s part, or does she give Boy everything freely for the mere sake of giving? Our limited view through the eyes of the narrator indicates the latter; we see that Tree does not complain, nor does she think that giving of her bounty to the boy is anything less than what she should do as his friend. Her acquiescence mirrors that of Jesus as he is crucified without complaint; he gives freely of his life with the knowledge that he is saving mankind, just as Tree gives freely of herself knowing that she is ensuring Boy’s continued survival.

giving tree

As further indication of religious allegory within the tale, the very nature of the name “Boy” indicates that the child may not be meant to be viewed as an individual, but rather representative of mankind as a whole. If this is indeed the case, Tree takes on the broader persona of divine love, representing the possibility for enlightenment, protection, and salvation for Boy. As Boy grows older, Tree remains devoted to providing for his every need and want, and when she bemoans her inability to grant his final request (“I have nothing left to give you”), she still finds a way to demonstrate her devotion by offering up what little is left of her. In this way, the seemingly-infinite capacity of Tree’s love for Boy reflects the infinite capacity of God’s love for mankind.

Viewing The Giving Tree as an allegory of divine love presents a problem, however. While Tree gives Boy everything he desires, she does not provide the necessary spiritual education that ideally accompanies the benevolence of divine grace. In other words, Tree’s granting of Boy’s requests does not address spiritual and physical needs, but merely serves as an outlet for Boy’s greed. Tree therefore cannot be held up as a model of godly goodness because she fails in the fundamental duty to instruct Boy in basic life lessons such as respect and gratitude (after all, even though the narrator tells us, “And the boy loved the tree,” Boy never actually thanks Tree for her sacrifices). This interpretation of the story raises the question: is grace freely given along with the fruits of believing, or is its receipt qualified by lessons of humility (or lack thereof)?

“I want … I want … I want …”

So if The Giving Tree is not an allegory of divine love, what kind of love does Tree represent within the story? One fairly obvious interpretation of the plot is that it serves as an allegory of parental love. But if the story is meant to serve as a depiction of the archetypal mother-child relationship, the exact nature and role of that parental love remains in question.

In many ways, Silverstein’s parable relates the ideal characteristics of the give-and-take (admittedly, mostly give) relationship that should exist between mother and child. In attending to both the physical and psychological needs of the boy, Tree becomes an almost ideal mother figure, nurturing Boy throughout his life and ensuring not only his corporeal well-being, but the development of self-confidence and the ability to thrive despite the obvious hardships that approach him as he grows older. In this case, Tree is a willing martyr for Boy’s security, demonstrating the wisdom of the model mother who recognizes the importance of sacrifice in ensuring the happiness of her child. And indeed, Tree ends the story as happy as she began, despite any seeming loss of self, for she knows that it comes not with the price for her own life, but with the guarantee for the life of the one she loves best of all.

giving tree

Yet the mother-child relationship created by Silverstein is, at times, improbably imbalanced and unrealistic. While Tree’s motivations are pure, Boy’s are not; Tree gives and gives, while Boy takes everything that is offered without recompense or outward show of appreciation or emotion. The lack of reciprocity in this supposed mother-child relationship is problematic, as Tree’s selfless giving is consistently overshadowed by Boy’s never-ending desires. It’s easy to read Boy as a spoiled brat, and Tree, his overly indulgent mother. Still, one-sided though the relationship between Tree and Boy may be, Tree does not demonstrate any ill feelings about it; the reader is told Tree is happy with her sacrifice, and we are given no reason to doubt the narrator’s veracity regarding Tree’s state of mind, so to speak.

“I am just an old stump.”

If Silverstein’s tale is intended to be an allegory of the mother-child relationship, his choice of Tree as maternal figure creates an interesting dilemma for ecocritics examining the story. The concept of Mother Nature as a benevolent goddess granting favor to man during harvest time, for example, precludes any notion of Tree’s indiscriminate giving as being untoward or imprudent; she simply grants everything that she can give, as per her position as bearer and provider for men as reward for their labor. Accordingly, Tree nourishes Boy, not necessarily because he has labored for her, but because she loves him; his companionship remains the only thing she ever requires of him throughout the story, asking nothing else in return for the bounty she grants him.  Her gratitude for his attention, sporadic though it remains in his adulthood, drives her to strip herself bare for him, giving him everything he desires and even a place to rest when his journey is done.

But examining the story from an ecocritical perspective challenges that interpretation. Boy, symbolic of mankind as a whole, represents man’s continued degradation of nature, tearing down Tree to suit his own needs (regardless of her “permission”) and destroying something beautiful for the sake of selfishness. However, allegorizing the story in this manner fails to acknowledge the more prevalent themes of friendship and love that populate the story, possibly turning the broader impact of The Giving Tree into a one-note argument against the decimation of forests.

Do ecocritical allegories fit within Silverstein’s small Tree universe?  It seems unlikely that Silverstein is making a political point here; in order for Boy to represent the type of uncaring, destructive force that appears to “threaten” Tree’s livelihood, one would expect Tree to be less enthusiastic about giving away every part of that livelihood, or to at least show some trepidation in doing so.

“Take my apples, Boy.”

As a representation of motherly—and therefore feminine—sacrifice, does The Giving Tree allegorize the devaluing of the feminine? Looking at the story through a feminist lens, Boy becomes an exploitative and manipulative figure who uses Tree until she has essentially stripped away her identity. Boy exercises might over Tree, and Tree welcomes such subservience, literally bowing to Boy’s dominance and allowing him to use her from beginning to end. Such an interpretation argues that it is not “love” that motivates Tree’s glad sacrifices for Boy’s benefit; instead, it is the innate inferiority of woman to man that threads through Silverstein’s narration.

But Boy does not bend Tree to his will; instead, she offers what she can, and bemoans her inability to do so when she cannot. To give so freely does not speak of gender imbalance in the relationship, but rather the love behind the action. It is a mistake to fault the tree for her willing sacrifice, just as it is a mistake to say that Boy’s acceptance of Tree’s freely-given resources somehow devalues her as a representation of femininity. The fact that Tree is female and the Boy is—well, a boy—is inconsequential, almost an afterthought on Silverstein’s part, in light of the more predominant themes in the story. The fact that Boy remains a “boy,” name-wise, throughout the story indicates that he essentially remains the same person throughout in Tree’s eyes: not asserting his dominance, but claiming his “rightful” place in her branches, underneath her, beside her, and yes, sitting on her—exactly where she wants him to be, even at the end.

“Once there was a tree … and she loved a little boy.”

The opening line of The Giving Tree says it all. This story is not about Boy; it is about Tree, and Tree’s love, which stands for a greater love. And the definition of that greater love? Well, that’s entirely up to you.

My own views of the story range from the naïve to the cynical. Having grown up with Silverstein’s book, my interpretation of The Giving Tree remains colored by my childhood love for the simple truth at the heart of the tale: that friendship cannot exist without love, and that the greatest sacrifices come from the most unselfish of desires. Does this mean that The Giving Tree is a simple allegory of relationships—true, unselfish relationships, be they between men, women, animals, nature? In the way of a sociological response, yes: the story becomes a parable of the duties and responsibilities of mankind to one another, a lesson for children in a world that seems to appreciate such values less and less each day.

giving tree

Yet such a reading belies the truths that come with age and growth. Reading The Giving Tree from an adult perspective invites skepticism, because we know the world does not work in such a responsible, unselfish manner much of the time. In that light, it is easy to see why some adult readers disparage the story and refuse to expose their children to it: Tree becomes a twit, unknowingly used for everything she has to offer the world; or else she is a doormat, allowing herself to be stripped and degraded to a mere shell of her former existence. But such a reading of the story, while wise to the mocking adult gaze, belies the innate hopefulness of Silverstein’s leafy heroine, evident in every proclamation of happiness, declarations for which the narrator gives us no reason to doubt.

“And the tree was happy.”

Does The Giving Tree, then, ultimately become a question of placement?  Were those initial fearful editors correct in thinking that Silverstein’s story belonged in neither children’s nor adult’s literature? The story is undoubtedly meant for children. Yet the fact that Silverstein’s work transcends easy categorization, inviting increasing levels of comprehension and interpretation as young readers grow more adept at picking out the intricacies of nuance and subtext, defies any notion that “kiddie lit” lacks sophistication and can only be enjoyed by the pre-teen age bracket.

There are those who look at The Giving Tree with disdain, who find it either overly sentimental or overly simplistic. There are those who, because of the story’s deceptively simple nature, cannot help but analyze deeper, searching for meaning beyond the ordinary and the obvious. And there are those who grew up loving the story, having ascribed meaning to it from a young age, an interpretation unblemished by experience or ennui: unsophisticated, perhaps, but no less meaningful. In the end, the question of interpretation lies with the individual, for reading The Giving Tree remains an exercise in allegoresis, in attributing meaning not because of the inherent merits of the story, but because of the inherent merits of its readers.

6

This latest post comes from Brandie Ashe, a friend and colleague from college. Brandie is co-founder and editor of the classic film blog True Classics. You can find out more about her on our contributors page.

***

I was thirty-three years old when I found out I had cancer.

I am one of the lucky ones. My cancer was detected early. It took one surgery to completely eradicate the disease. I had a painful four-week recovery, and then I was fine. No chemotherapy. No radiation. No further treatment. It was a “get out of cancer free” card that I never expected to receive, one that, in fact, made me feel remorseful and almost ashamed when I saw other people suffering through longer fights than the one I was faced with, and left me weeping with guilt when others lost their battle in the brief time it took me to heal.

But in all honesty, there is no magical “get out of cancer free” card. I no longer have the disease, but I had to sacrifice something of myself to rid myself of it. I lost my uterus and my ovaries, and on some level, I can’t help but resent that loss. And the bitterness goes even deeper than that. Because of cancer, I’m now dealing with menopause. I’m in my mid-thirties and almost every day—sometimes multiple times a day—I’m subjected to hot flashes that make my entire body feel as though I’m roasting on a slow-moving spit. My hair has gone almost shock-white in places, with gray hairs starting to outnumber the normal brown ones.

For the first time in my life, I truly feel old, and I truly feel mortal. Death is no longer some intangible concept that happens to other people. I danced with the very real possibility of it, and it brought me down to earth. Harshly. I’ve always been one to fear death, because I’ve had little personal experience with it. But cancer is a sobering wake-up call that tends to crystallize such matters for you.

I’ve been cancer-free for seven months, and my prognosis is excellent. Still, every day—every single day—at some point as I go about my business, I wonder if I’ve only gotten a stay of execution. My chances of cancer returning are 3%, and that’s about the best odds anyone can ask for. I shouldn’t be so worried, so constantly on my guard that every twinge and bump makes me panic about the possibilities. But that’s the most insidious thing about this disease: it gets to you. It sneaks into your psyche, it infiltrates your subconscious, and it makes its presence known even when it’s no longer there.

And yet.

I do everything in my power not to dwell on it. To do so would be to prolong the suffering this disease can cause. I have to put the thought aside and move forward. That’s where the victory comes from—not the complete absence of fear, but the facing it down, acknowledging that it’s there, and then choosing to rise above it.

I will always have regrets about what cancer has done to me, about what I have lost, and what others have lost to this disease.

But I will not let it win, because I’m a goddamned survivor.

I look at my survival as a second chance to ditch the things that don’t matter and build the life I’ve always wanted. Not many people get that chance in a lifetime. And there are other good things to have come from this situation. I’m not bleeding to death on a monthly basis anymore—no more transfusions for me! I’m no longer anemic, and I have more energy than I have had in three years.

But perhaps most importantly of all, I’ve learned how very fortunate I am. Dealing with something like cancer makes you realize who you can truly count on. And I am beyond blessed to have family and friends who supported me, who talked me down from the ledge at my worst fear-driven moments, who sent messages of support and care packages and flowers and fruit baskets and, in the case of my awesome best friend, a “new” uterus crocheted in pink yarn, to replace the hideously broken one inside of me.

Love, love, love. It really is the best medicine of all.

Today is World Cancer Day. It’s a day to remember those who’ve lost their battles with cancer, and to celebrate with those of us who made it through, albeit maybe a little worse for wear. And I think there’s no better way to do that than to spread a little more love around.

For more information about World Cancer Day, check out their website. And to find out how you can help in the ongoing fight against all forms of cancer, the American Cancer Society is a great place to start.