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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Winnie the Pooh: slayer of feminist fantasies

I hesitated to insert this bit of commentary into my review of Winnie the Pooh because I’m dead serious about it, and I couldn’t find a way to make it work amongst the preposterous “complaints” about the film that filled my “screed.” (Though obviously not everyone can see sarcasm even when it’s staring them in the face.) But there’s this, too: what I’m about to complain about is not something that’s uniquely a Winnie the Pooh problem but yet another example of a problem that plagues our pop culture. So it didn’t seem fair to make it seem like I was piling on poor old Pooh.

Here it is now.

I was sitting there watching Winnie the Pooh and letting the silly, utterly inconsequential sweetness wash over me when suddenly it struck me, for the millionth time but with the power of a new ephiphany: Every single character but one here is male… and the only female character is defined exclusively by her motherhood.

Pooh? Male.

Piglet? Male.

Eeyore? Male.

Owl? Male.

Christopher Robin? Male.

Rabbit? Male.

Roo? Male.

Kanga? Mother.


Now, we’re not “supposed” to point out unpleasant stuff like this about kiddie movies. We’re supposed to just relax and enjoy them and let them wash over us and not think about it too much. But that’s why it’s so insidious — and yes, I mean that deliberately: insidious.

If our pop culture were pretty balanced among some stories that were mostly about boy characters and some stories that were mostly about girl characters and some stories that were about a fairly balanced bunch of both boy and girl characters and some stories that 75/25 boys/girls and some stories that were 75/25 girls/boys, and so on, it wouldn’t matter. But this is not how it is. The vast majority of stories are about male characters. The vast majority of stories about groups of character feature lots of different male characters — often defined by various traits: The Fat One, The Smart One, The Clumsy One, The Daring One, and so on — and perhaps, if we’re lucky, a single female character who is defined solely by her gender: The Girl One. Nothing beside femaleness is needed to define this character: she is not brave or cowardly, reckless or prudent, smart or dumb — she’s just the girl. She’s probably pretty, because that’s how you know she’s a girl: she’s there to make the world more pleasant for the male characters. She might need to get rescued at some point. She’s almost definitely the carrot dangled in front of The Leader One, with the prospect of her as the prize he wins if he succeeds.

Now, in the world of Pooh, Kanga does not serve this purpose… but she also serves no other purpose but to be mothering. She says and does pretty much nothing but deliver gentle maternal scolds to all the boys around her, who clearly — boys being boys and all — need it. (That’s sarcasm.) But there’s no reason in the universe why Owl could not be female: no story hinges on Owl being male. There’s no reason in the universe why Rabbit could not be female: no story hinges on Rabbit being male.

No, I don’t think that A.A. Milne chuckled evilly to himself and set out to exclude female characters from his stories because he hated women. He was only unconsciously regurgitating the biases of our culture: that maleness is the default, the neutral, and that there’s no reason for a character to be female unless ladyparts are required (such as, in this case, having given birth).

Here’s where the insidious comes in: When all children see are stories in which boy characters run the gamut of human potential and girl characters are only notable for their girlness, they internalize these notions. They learn that boys can do anything and girls can only be a narrow sort of “girlness.” Girls are never The Funny One or The Depressed One or The Wise One.

Kids see this in even the “inoffensive” children’s stories, like Winnie the Pooh’s tales. Like in the Toy Story movies, which grudgingly allow more than one female character in, but again only when they must be female — of course Bo Peep and Jessie the Cowgirl have to be girls — but never when the gender of a toy is absent or ambiguous: Rex or Slinky or Hamm or many of the other toys could have been female, but aren’t. Even the really good, really wonderful, really must-see stories follow the same plan.

It’s depressing to realize this, if you care about exposing children — boys and girls alike — to fairer, more humanist ideas about what they are capable of.

And that’s why it must be pointed out. When even the “nice” movies engage in this, these biases get deeply ingrained and powerfully reinforced in our individual subconsciouses and in our cultural supraconsciousness.

I’m not suggesting that anyone should have changed Milne’s characters in the name of feminism. I am suggesting that we need to be creating new stories that allow girl characters to express the full range of human experience to balance the likes of Milne out… and to make sure that when someone creates a “nice” new story, its Rex or Slinky or Hamm aren’t create male by lazy default.

  • Risa Romano

    This is interesting to me because I have a problem with Kanga in the movies after having read the books. Disney portrays Kanga as a kind and reserved moher. There’s nothing objectionable about that on the surface, until you look at the source material. She’s totally different. We first meet her when Pooh, Piglet, and Rabbit try to kidnap her son. She figures out what’s happening immediately, but plays along until she eventually turns the tables on them and it ends up as a wickedly funny prank, if a bit cruel (but again…they kidnapped her son, so…). The best chapter in either of the books and her character has as much depth as any of the others, but she happens to be a mother.

  • uhhhmmm. love?

    you DO know that A.A. Milne wrote the original Winnie the pooh stories from being inspired by watching and listening to his son (the real) Christopher Robin Milne, playing with his toys, right?

    Being a little BOY, of course Christopher Robin’s teddy bear (pooh) and his other toys would be predominantly MALE! Just as any little GIRL’s toys would be “female”, in her mind.

    PLEASE! I mean, honestly. must EVERYTHING be a flipping GENDER ISSUE??

    Look at how many books, cartoons and the like have predominantly female characters!

    Why is THAT not an issue of “sexism”? Because then it’s predominantly FEMALE characters, and, oh, THAT’S okay.

    Which is SEXIST, in and of itself! How would you feel if MEN’S groups constantly whinedabout TV shows, movies, books and so-on with predominantly female characters, and insisted upon shoving male characters in, where they are neither needed or wanted? (I doubt things like “Sex and the City” would have been quite the same).

    Can’t we just leave the guys alone, for a change?
    And we wonder why Western men are so sick of us, refusing to marry, and are going on shooting sprees.
    Anyone ever wonder about that??

  • please read what i say above, dear.

  • YES! Thank you!!!

  • Okay… Why is it, that when the characters on a show, in a book or movie are predominantly male, it’s always; “Ooooh!!! SEXISM, SEXISM, SEXISM!!!”??
    But when it’s the reverse, and the characters are predominantly FEMALE (or completely female), it’s all; “Oh! Now THAT’S progress, tra-la-la-la-la!”?

  • …and the problem with stories with mostly BOY characters, becomes a feminist target.
    Just putting that out there.

  • Yes. To what you said about A.A. Milne and his son.

    No, Just because J.K. Rowlings main character was a boy, doesn’t mean she is disguising her gender, in any way.
    I’m a writer, myself. Some of my main characters are male, some are female. So what does that mean?
    Oh, that’s right, it means NOTHING.
    What about male writers whose lead character(s) is/are female? Are they “disguising” their gender, as well?
    Oh, no. of course not. As with everything when it comes to these silly ‘gender issues’ it only works ONE way, eh?

  • “So we are making progress”
    …no we’re not.
    We are just replacing one extreme with another, and shouting victory. -_-

  • Nope. Roo is an “evil male”.

  • No…. he got the point, just fine, love.

  • BINGO!

  • Oh, for G*d’s sake!
    When I was a little girl and watched Winnie the pooh, I didn’t even notice or CARE that most of the characters were male.
    Why? Because not EVERY SINGLE LITTLE THING was(is) a GENDER ISSUE with me.
    Good grief, what utter bollocks!

  • Can’t we just leave the guys alone, for a change?

    Yes, they’re *so* put upon.

    And we wonder why Western men are so sick of us, refusing to marry, and are going on shooting sprees.

    Holy shit. Feminism makes men go on shooting sprees? Holy shit.

    And I’m not your “love.”

  • Uhmm… I used to BE a feminist.

    …they have no consciousness, outside themselves and their self centered little agenda.

    That’s one of the BIG reasons I left.

  • You’re new here, so I’ll give you the rules. Don’t be an asshole. Don’t be a troll. Play nicely and carry on a conversation like an adult, or leave.

  • Another rule: No strawmen.

    You’re off to a bad start.

  • And every sexist b–ch of a woman had a FATHER (unless the mother unlawfully refused the visitations of the father, as my Mum did with us) and it doesn’t seem to have done much for their HUMAN consciousness.

  • I say… You are so narrow-sighted, I am betting you can look through a KEYHOLE with BOTH eyes!

  • No. I simply disagree with all this horse shit.
    And of course, we can’t have THAT, now can we?
    Dictatorship cannot tolerate dissent, can it, love?
    (And I am BRITISH, so we say “Love” alot. Sorry.)

  • Why do men have to be “Feminists”?
    Why don’t you become a Masculinist?
    It’s basically asking the same thing, really.
    Here’s an idea, Become an EGALITARIAN, then you really WILL be for equality.

  • Mmm… but I see that misandrist Neanderthals are just ducky!
    No double standards here.

  • It wasn’t the name calling, I assure you.
    It’s because dictatorship cannot tolerate dissent.

  • Yes, Love.
    But you see?
    Feminists have to take such a non-issue and MAKE an issue out of it.
    Because… well… Feminists have Issues.

    …Did I say “Issues”. I mean they have the whole SUBSCRIPTION!

  • Thank you!
    FINALLY a valid point!

  • “Oscar can be cranky but if he were a woman he’d be seen as a bitch or a shrew.”

    Bollocks! That is simple assumption, mary, and you know it!

  • …and no. You are not my “love”, I rather suppose.
    (don’t hate you, either, but… yea)

  • “You’re new here, so I’ll give you the rules. Don’t be an asshole. Don’t be a troll. Play nicely and carry on a conversation like an adult, or leave.”
    Excuse me??????
    You’re rubbishing a cartoon bear, You’re rubbishing an entire gender, (Men) and you tell *ME *to “carry on a conversation like an adult”?
    Oh, please! Really! Come now!
    Get over your *special* privilege!
    Fine, though.
    I’ll happily leave your site.

  • Oh, One last thing before I go.
    I didn’t say that “feminism” is directly responsible for men that go on shooting sprees. Don’t take my words out of context and try to misrepresent what people say.
    I would elaborate on what I meant, when I said that, but your mind is so filled with Androphobic hate, it would be a waste of both our time. despite my harsh words, I wish you well, and i hope you can get past your hatred for half the human population.
    That’s a lot of hate.
    Take care. And goodbye.

  • I have (more or less) been asked to leave this site.
    I will do so.

  • qwerty

    the movies have male actors but in the books only Christopher Robin is male and only Kanga is female but the rest have no genders

  • Bluejay

    Except that all those other characters are referred to as “he,” “him,” etc. You’re seeing male as “neutral,” which proves MaryAnn’s point.

  • Do why do the movies have male actors? Because our cultural default is male!

  • Heliotrope

    Okay so officially they are these genders, but when I thought about it when i was little I thought it was:

    Pooh? Male.

    Piglet? Female

    Eeyore? Male.

    Owl? Male.

    Christopher Robin? Male.

    Rabbit? Female

    Roo? Female

    Kanga? Female

    It makes no difference to the story and isn’t often firmly stated. I always imagined my teddy bears as mostly guys, but it didn’t make a difference to my opinion that girls ruled.

  • Hello

    Isn’t Rabbit and Piglet female?

  • Bluejay


  • Danielm80

    No, but The Birds is coming.

  • bronxbee

    no. the only female is Kanga, Roo’s mother.

  • Vladimír Brada

    What the sh*t? It seems we already solved all problems of the world, when we invest time and energy to study gender of animals in fairy tales :-D

  • Danielm80


    It’s pretty easy to dismiss Winnie the Pooh as a mediocre kids’ movie, but when even very young kids are getting the message that women don’t matter, and that the girls stay home while the guys have adventures, I actually do take that kind of seriously. You can decide for yourself what you want to invest time in, and you can accuse me of being humorless, but I’d say that that message is responsible for a lot of the problems in the world.

  • Yes! That’s *exactly* how the world works!

    I hope you don’t go to the doctor when you break your arm because there’s no cure for cancer yet…

  • Joey Leggett

    Uhhhh… talking of missing the point here… not saying you have but you very well may have. There is a lot of debate about the gender of Pooh her/himself…. many opinions land on the decision the the character is actually based on a female bear…. just sayin

  • Danielm80

    And if someone wants to make a film out of Finding Winnie, then we can talk about its representation of women.


    This film, however, like Milne’s books about Pooh, has a largely male cast of characters.

  • Please do tell: What point have I missed?

    Or, is it possible that *you* have missed *my* point?

    many opinions land on the decision the the character is actually based on a female bear….

    That’s not opinion. That’s fact. So why isn’t Pooh *ever* depicted as female? Why does a woman *never* supply Pooh’s voice?

    Just askin’…

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