Winnie-the-Pooh: von Strassenbahn's feminist interpretation

A paper delivered to the Winnie-the-Pooh Society
Pembroke College, Cambridge
on Tuesday, 20 June, 1995
by Colin Wilcockson

I need hardly remind Winnie-the-Pooh afficionadoes and scholars like yourselves of the major splash in the pool of Winnie-the-Pooh literary criticism made by Claudia von Strassenbahn's 1985 book, Der feminine Untertext in Winnie-the-Pooh: Untersuchen zur Bärenmotiven. It seems apt to think again of her work a decade later. Von Strassenbahn promises in the opening paragraph that she will put the cat among the literary pigeons, and she certainly did. Ripostes appeared soon afterwards. You will recall with pleasure the response, packed with Gaelic wit, of Émile Jacques, `L'ours est l'ours: les bare facts', followed by a rash of British criticism: the very titles of these articles reflect their outrage at what they saw as a destructively absurd feminist approach. From Cambridge alone appeared Mark Wormald's touching piece, `Baby Roo: a Study in Innocence'; Howard Erskine-Hill's abrasive 'Leave Tigger alone', and (if I may in all modesty mention) Colin Wilcockson's trenchant analysis of von Strassenbahn's work, in an article with the challenging title `And Pooh to you.'. Von Strassenbahn's approach had, of course, already been signalled a few years before in a short piece written in English entitled `The foetal Beetle'. There is no time here to discuss that; but I have made a translation of some passages of the major work which I speak above. I shall comment very little, but I trust a reminder of this gloves-off critical fray may perhaps persuade some of the scholars at this symposium to =put pen to paper.

Claudia von Strassenbahn begins thus:-

In other children's books about animals, males and females appear: Potter's Flopsie Bunnies, Jemima Puddleduck, etc.; Lewis Carol's Alice books; even two human females (one good, one bad) in Graham's Wind in the Willows. In folk tales such as Little Red Riding Hood the courageous protagonist may well be a female who overpowers the devouringly wolfish nature of the male (who, let it be noted, dresses as a female, the grandmother, to disguise his rapaciousness). But in Winnie-the-Pooh all the animals but one (Kanga) are male. Furthermore they are stuffed toys under the control of Christopher Robin, who is himself under the control of the father's narrative. This we have two-fold male control, dangerously parodic of Judeo-Christian male dominated society.

Whenever the animals are in trouble they look to Christopher Robin to use his power and authority to resolve the situation. The book is written in the propaganda war of the sexes to boost the male ego:

`Was that me?' said Christopher Robin?' in an awed voice, hardly daring to believe it.
`That was you.'
Christopher Robin said nothing, but his eyes got larger and larger, and his face got pinker and pinker.

The author, Strassenbahn continues, tries to write a story full of the fey and the whimsical, but his aggressive male sexuality keeps breaking through. Male brutality with its typical assertion of power suffuses the text in a way that makes Foucault's studies in torture look like a Sunday school picnic. In the first sentence we hear that the superior male drags an inferior male down a flight of stairs, so that the back of his neck is struck time and time again. Half-mindful that the sadism is breaking through the surface of the text, the author attempts to trivialise the ritual stair-torture by using the baby word `bump, bump, bump, bump.' The horror is paradoxically made even more grotesque by this silent confession of shame.

Yet again on the first page there is a discussion of gender. The abused male's gender is questioned. Because he is beaten into submission he is revealingly, almost symbolically, given a woman's name, `Winnie'. `But I thought he was a bou?' the authorical voice questions. Then we are told that the definite article `the' in Winnie-the-Pooh, takes on a masculine form `ther' (cognate with German die and der). The subservience of the now androgynous bear (the very name of the animal in this dark subtext is a homonym for naked) is immediately reinforced in the ensuing chapter, where the subtext shows us the execution by firing-squad of the victim of torture. Here Winnie-the-Pooh is not just given the stair-torture, but is actually shot by Christopher Robin. Again we find the now familiar and guilty trivialising. The bullet has struck Pooh and he is allowed only the word `Ow!' to register his agony.

Other animals emerge from the author's deep subconscious, all the time revealing his obsession with male sexuality, a sexuality that is itself obsessed with power. It would be too obvious to mention the overt description of male dread when Eeyore looks between his legs and finds that he has lost his tail. Winnie-the-Pooh is horrified (male-bonding is here evident) and he finds that another male, Owl, has mockingly nailed it to his door, inviting visitors to pull it:

`Owl' said Pooh solemnly, `you made a mistake. Somebody did want it.'
`Eeyore. My dear friend Eeyore. He was - he was very fond of it.'
`Fond of it?'
`Attached to it,' said Winnie-the-Pooh sadly

When the tail is finally re-attached, we witness something like euphoria when masculine group identity is reintroduced by a rites of passage birthday party at which Eeyore is given a deflated balloon:

`Eeyore frisked about the field, waving his tail so happily that Winnie-the-Pooh came over all funny.'

Terror of marriage haunts even the very young male. This can be seen in such a passage as:

`The Piglet was sitting on the ground at the door of his house blowing happily at a dandelion, and wondereing whether it would be this year, next year sometime or never. He had just discovered that it would be never, and was trying to remember what `it' was, and hoping that it wasn't anything nice.'

Most tellingly, the exclusively male animals are terrified when the only female, Kanga, appears in the wood. Her femaleness is proclaimed by her baby. The female must be driven out. The baby must be kidnapped and replaced.1 Piglet is substituted, and there follows a scene which terrifies males. The female is clearly intelligent. She affects not to recognise that Piglet is not Roo, and gives him a symbolic cleansing:

`Bath first' said Kanga in a cheerful voice

And then with clear anti-masculine intention she adds:

`I am not at all sure,' said Kanga in a thoughtful voice, `that it wouldn't be a good idea to have a cold bath this evening..
`Can't you see?' shouted Piglet. `Haven't you got eyes? Look at me!'
`I am looking, Roo, dear,' said Kanga rather severely.

Here the author is some difficulty. Female superiority has been established almost in spite of himself. The last sentence in the chapter tells us that she taught Pooh to jump. Thus, the mother-figure reigns supreme, the purifier and the instructress

Little wonder that such opprobrium been showered on Claudis von Strassenbahn. Perhaps next year a member of the Winnie-the-Pooh Society, more learned in the works of Milne than I, will open up new channels of critical enquiry into the deeply complex structures of Winnie-the-Pooh.

1: We may notice in passing that Christopher Robin's mother is never mentioned; and in the poem `James, James, Morrison, Morrison' the mother clearly elopes and abandons her child.

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