Keeping Misogyny in the Family

Ye Cannae Shove Yer Granny off a Bus: Favourite Scottish Rhyme – illustrated by Kathryn Selbert
Floris Books, 2018

Actually, you can. That is, you can throw her off the bus if she is your paternal grandmother, but not if she is your maternal one.  That’s the message of this brightly illustrated board book, which includes “lift and slide” and “lift the flap” elements.  While Scottish culture is not the only one to mock mothers-in-law or make a distinction between your two grandmothers, this book is a specifically Scottish production; the back cover encourages us to “PUSH granny…SING ALONG to the much-loved Scottish rhyme, in this brilliantly bonkers board book.”

Aside from the clever alliteration, the message seems to be that the book is all in good fun. No one really expects children to internalize its message and take action based on its silly recommendation. That’s why it’s “bonkers!” In fact, one might assume that the book is really for adults; I would certainly not read this to my grandchildren, although I’m not Scottish.  Again, I want to reiterate that the book’s message is broadly encountered in many other cultures across the globe. This book, however, packages it in an appealing and funny way, if you’re willing to overlook its repugnant misogyny. 

The bus in question has plaid seats, a recurring Scottish motif in the book. The children on board are multicultural, which, in an insidious way, implies that the message is up to date.  We see a young mom with glasses and red boots, tending to her child in a spiffy stroller.  Then we see Granny, the nice maternal one whom we’ve been warned not to eject from the vehicle. She is wearing a red tartan, and the same glasses as her daughter, emphasizing her lineage to the grandchild sitting on her lap.

Then the paternal granny appears. She also has grey hair, but no glasses.  She is not wearing a tartan plaid, but rather blue jeans and a lilac-colored cardigan, making her indistinguishable from any ordinary person. She may be old, but is not particularly grandmotherly, in the supposedly maternal way. Then, some ambivalence on the part of the illustrator surfaces. Father and daughter happily wave and smile (the girl is actually laughing) as they watch the father’s mother all from the bus. Don’t worry. When we lift the flap we watch her magically spring up into the air on bouncy coils. She is unharmed. 

The next scene shows what might happen if the child ignored the book’s recommendation, and actually pushed the wrong grandmother off the bus.  Granny’s arms is twisted around the pole on the bus door, in what looks like a painful way, but she is smiling.  There seems to be a double message.  Don’t do this, but, since the book is “bonkers,” no actual grandmothers have been harmed in its creation.

In the final pages, the family is seated together on the bus, with the maternal granny standing. Again, everyone’s face is happy. Lifting the flap, we see her arms become magically elongated. With one arm she is embracing her granddaughter, and with her other she is able to reach her toddler grandson in his stroller at the other end of the seated group.  Granny is giving him a tiny book on a keychain; it represents “Ally Bally Bee” another book in the publisher’s series based on Scottish nursery rhymes.

Why am I calling this harmless board book misogynist? Maybe it’s just a humorous acknowledgement of a broad prejudice against paternal grandmothers, a phenomenon which has been noted and analyzed by anthropologists and psychologists. (If you google the topic, you will find many examples, such as this article.) Of course, individual families don’t necessarily subscribe to these expectations. There may well be maternal grandmothers who are tossed from the bus and don’t smile at the insult.  Some paternal grandmothers are privileged to have close relationships with their grandchildren, even when they don’t wear plaid.

What about grandfathers? Do they share the privileges and the stigma based on their lineage? Historically, since they were generally less involved in providing childcare, perhaps the difference seemed less important.  Yet their control of financial resources was generally greater than that of grandmothers.  Maybe the beloved nursery rhyme just reflects deep seated suspicion and hatred of women.  If your child is older than the book’s intended audience, it might be interesting to share it with her and generate a productive discussion. 

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