The Hundred and One Dalmations by Dodie Smith is a delightful children’s book that I read as a kid (many times) and haven’t read since. I decided to read it again to see if it held up and was still fun. It definitely was an entertaining read.
When I was looking it up on my favorite social networking site for books, Goodreads.com, I was surprised to see so many reviews complaining of sexism or anti-feminine views being presented in the book. This was certainly never anything I noticed as a kid, but then, how many kids are clued in to that sort of thing? I found myself reading to enjoy, and also to examine, and my findings are that this book is hardly demeaning of women.
To be clear, I mostly focused on gender roles and the differences portrayed between the sexes, and judged the book thereby.
What first caught my attention was the fact that Mr. Dearly was the primary caregiver to the newborn dalmatian puppies (beyond their mother, Missis). He crawls into the cupboard for two days feeding the puppies constantly while working long distance over the phone. If traditional gender roles are in play, shouldn’t this be Mrs. Dearly’s job? This is clearly an inversion of the binary. Secondarily, of the two female nannies, Nanny Butler insists on wearing pants after the Dearlys are married, and back when this written, this was hardly the social norm. Again, a seeming inversion of the stereotype.
What I looked at next was the differences between Pongo and Missis. Pongo can understand human speech, can read, and thinks faster and clearer than Missis. On a cursory reading, it does appear that Pongo is presented as superior, and Missis as inferior, but that isn’t the case. It is a clearly established conceit throughout the book that dogs differ in intelligence, and in human understanding. It is also quite clearly stated that Pongo played with alphabet blocks and volumes of Shakespeare (thus accounting for his English comprehension) and is even referred to as the “keenest mind in all of dogdom” which establishes his peculiarity in both intelligence and human understanding. If one considers that a dog learns English much as any other non-native English speaker, this lines up exactly with human experience and is not sexist at all. After all, how much English would you learn if the most common word you heard was your name, and the rest was in condescending baby talk? Probably not even as much as Missis. Also, she clearly seems to be personally disinterested: she simply does not bother or care to learn more, which seems to be a personal choice.
Now, one could make a case for sexism based on the fact that it is Pongo to whom these advantages are given and not to Missis, and if all the dominant traits were Pongo’s, I would agree, but in almost all other cases, the two dogs are equal. They share equal affection and concern for one another. They equally adopt and feel ownership for all of the other dalmatian puppies, they are equal in their strength and determination throughout their desperate journey. In fact, Missis even rescues Pongo when he is injured by the little boy who throws things. She restrains him from acting against the child in anger; she finds the haystack and forces him to rest; she finds the Spaniel and secures food and lodging for them both. Again, if this were clearly sexist, he would be rescuing her instead of the other way around. In this episode, she is the hero, not the male dog.
There is one instance with the Spaniel in which Missis tries to learn her right from her left and ends up horribly confused and unable to get the two straight, and that could be seen as an indication that the female possesses less intelligence, but abstract concepts are hard to grasp for someone that isn’t introduced to them from a young age. I am a male, and I am an adult, and I frequently have trouble telling my right from my left. This is humiliating to admit, but it is true. I never bothered to learn them when I was a child, and as an adult, the concept is more difficult to grasp. There is clear research showing that much learning is cemented in the early ages, and the brain becomes more rigid after that. I have managed to decrease my ambiguity about right and left, but it has taken practice and focus. In the story, Missis has much more on her mind, is emotionally stressed about both her husband and her puppies, and is short on time. It is no wonder, then, that during the heat of the moment she simply became frustrated and couldn’t grasp the concept. Again, why her and not Pongo? I think this is part of staying consistent to character rather than making a sexist statement about the inferiority of women. If anything, Missis’ lack of education is more Mrs. Dearly’s fault that her own for not providing her with Shakespeare to chew on, but then while Mr. Dearly is given barely a few sentences to round out his job and life, we are given almost nothing about Mrs. Dearly. This is, after all, a story about the dogs and not their pets, and so there is precious little from which to draw conclusions. In order to remain un-sexist, one does not have to always choose the female over the male, but must show equality and fair treatment. In all, Missis is Pongo’s equal in practically every way that matters. I get the feeling that if Pongo chose to teach her, Missis would learn quite aptly.
Lastly, some reviewers got upset about the fact that the one puppy who was obsessed with television was the youngest female puppy, Cadpig, who was also the weakest, and they called this sexist. I disagree. In fact, this lone, apparently weak female made for the narrator the most important observation of all. The narrator of the story appears to be religious. The last building in which the puppies take refuge is a church. Cadpig becomes more obsessed with the nativity on display than she ever was with the television. In the end, she concludes that whoever “owned [the church] – someone very kind she was sure” had set out that refuge for them, complete with puppy sized beds. Clearly she is misinterpreting the reality of a church, as only a young, uneducated puppy can (female or male) but the narrator is using her to make a statement about God: the kindest person who looks out for even the most lost and destitute soul, according to most Christian theologies anyway. It is not insignificant, then, that the smallest and weakest character, through her obsession to the television, is the only one to realize the ultimate reality of good triumphing over the “de Vil”. To the woman is given the realization of the theme, plot, and message of the entire story. Sexist? hardly. If it were, it would be Pongo making that realization. There is every indication that he missed the implication entirely.
Actually, for my own part, I thought that having the villain of the story be a woman, the colorful and deliciously evil Cruella de Vil, could possibly be the strongest argument made for sexism. After all, the woman is the evil one! However, as Cruella’s cat explains, her husband was no less evil, just weaker and less demonstrative, and in that is the deconstruction of the argument: Cruella is the villain because she is much stronger than her husband, who is made out to be a mostly sympathetic character until his true nature is revealed. The only reason he is not the villain is he is too weak to be flamboyant about it. Furthermore, the devil is usually portrayed as male, so this is really a reversal of the norm.
Therefore, between Mr. Dearly inverting the nurturing paradigm, Missis heroically saving her husband, Cadpig realizing the moral of the story, and Cruella trumping her husband’s weakness, this book is not sexist in the least. (At least, in my humble opinion). Read it with an open mind, divorcing yourself of pre-conceived ideas and agendas and decide for yourself.
Over all the book was entertaining, amusing, fun, and quite well written for what is essentially a children’s novel. As much as I enjoyed it as a kid, I enjoyed it probably just as much as an adult.