07 June 2008

Is the Cherub a Girl or a Boy?

In some ways, L. Frank Baum's John Dough and the Cherub is deeply rooted in fairy-tale traditions. It was clearly inspired by the folktales of a gingerbread man or other baked good running away from its makers, and there are stock characters like the dying little girl and the ruthless Arab.

But one aspect of this fantasy was revolutionary: the character of Chick the Cherub has no gender. Chick acts just as boisterous as a stereotypical male and just as loving as a stereotypical female. Living in a somewhat futuristic society, the Cherub is dressed loose pajamas and sandals, and the hairstyles of that decade (as well as ours) meant that long hair was no clue to a child's gender.

Furthermore, as I discussed in this posting, being gender-neutral isn't what makes Chick unusual. Rather, that appears to be a natural outcome of being an Incubator Baby--the equivalent then of a test-tube baby today. In essence, Baum was telling Americans that the same modern world that could now save their little premature babies was also rendering their notions of masculinity and femininity obsolete. Baum was the son-in-law of suffrage activist Matilda Joslyn Gage, after all.

Baum had played with the idea of switching genders in several preceding books. The young hero of The Marvelous Land of Oz becomes the young title character of Ozma of Oz. A fairy in The Enchanted Island of Yew experiences a year as a young prince. In Queen Zixi of Ix and the short story "The Witchcraft of Mary-Marie," magic-workers put on the form of the opposite sex.

But Chick is different. Chick isn't spending some time as a female and some as a male. Chick is happy and healthy with no gender identity at all. I don't know of any other example of children's literature asking readers to identify with such a child until the didactic Free to Be You and Me in 1972.

Baum and his publisher made this mystery the center of John Dough and the Cherub's marketing campaign. The first printings of the book included a form on which children could write essays of 25 words or less saying why they thought Chick must be either male or female. A reproduction of one of those now-rare contest forms appears in the new Hungry Tiger Press edition of John Dough. The newspapers that serialized the tale encouraged contest entries with ads like the one above.

And the outcome? According to Baum's son, Frank Joslyn Baum, the contest ended with the awarding of two prizes: one to a girl who said Chick was a girl, and one to a boy who said Chick was a boy. The younger Baum's biography isn't always reliable, but that sounds just like something his father would do.


Nathan said...

I have to say that, in that picture, the boy's clothes look more natural on Chick. But then, that's a much more gender-neutral outfit than the girl's clothes anyway. I know there are several Neill drawings of Dorothy with hats like that one.

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty confident that the Cherub's gender non-identity originated in the concept of the trouser role on stage. Baum clearly wrote John Dough to be transferred to the stage. Baum's obvious desire to repeat the success of the Broadway Wizard is glaring throughout the rest of his life. Unfortunately that desire spurred him to produce some of his weakest writing, including The Woggle-Bug Book and John Dough. We can be grateful that it also produced the Cherub's interesting lack of gender, but I suspect that was a by-product, not really the point.

J. L. Bell said...

I'm sorry, Nathan, but your argument about why Chick seems more natural as a boy is well over 25 words.

Seriously, I think the two outfits might have had different gender meanings to children in 1906. Many little boys still wore skirts for their first few years, though they would have gone into pants by Chick's age.

On the other hand, very few girls wore pants of any sort. Even the pajamas Chick wears would have been daring for that time.

For about a decade before four years ago, if we saw a child with long hair and pants, we'd probably assume that was a girl. Nowadays, with boys wearing their hair longer, it might be girl or boy. But back in 1906, the pants would have been a definite sign of a boy.

J. L. Bell said...

I'm sure Baum foresaw Chick played on stage by an actress, as young boys and girls both were at the time. But since audiences accepted actresses in boy roles, that tradition might have glossed over strict notions of gender rather than challenged them.

I think the first inspiration for the character came from the idea of an island of Phreex combined with Bok's insistence that Baum add a child. What sort of attractive child was then found at carnival sideshows? An Incubator Baby.

As an expert on raising chickens, Baum had known about incubators hatching chicks for a while—and that experience was a natural source for the name Chick.

And what could be different and modern about a grown-up Incubator Baby? Baum knew how hard it is to figure out the sex of chicks. Then there's the notion of a machine raising a child in its own image. Baum was already exploring gender switches, so all those factors seem to have inspiration enough for a character with no discernible gender at all.

And yes, such a character also lent itself to interpretation on the stage of the period.

Jay said...

Upon re-reading the book, Chick seems to exhibit some impetuous traits usually typical of a boy... or a tomboyish girl... which means I'm no closer to guessing it than anyone!

Nathan said...

Really, I'd say that Chick is either both genders or neither. I think a story that revealed Chick to be either a boy or a girl would be out of keeping with the character that Baum created.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, I think some characters—especially Baum's—are built around paradoxes, and trying to resolve that paradox erases the character.

Providing a definite answer for the question of whether Chick is a girl or a boy would take away a lot of the child's distinction. We'd probably end up sorting Chick's traits, such as slang, into gender images.

The Cowardly Lion nearly suffers that fate at the end of The Wizard of Oz; there's nothing distinct about him once he feels courageous.

Now that I think of it, John Dough isn't so interesting, either, once he stops having to worry about being eaten.