Karl Muth on the need to speak plainly when referring to lessons we still haven't learned from past clasics.
I’ve heard more than a few friends and colleagues lament the remaking of Watership Down (yes, it’s being made into Netflix miniseries, if you’ve not yet heard). The fantastic (I use that word as praise and as adjective) tale of a warren of adventurous anthropomorphized rabbits and their journey is a childhood classic and, along with Mutiny on the Bounty and a short list of other books, among the tomes that most shaped my young mind, imagination, and politics.
Many raise the issue of gender in Watership Down. Indeed, there is a point (spoiler alert for those who’ve not yet been children) in the book where there are not enough male rabbits and the inevitability of the group’s biological demise is contemplated. This is solved through the procurement of female rabbits from an overcrowded warren nearby. These female rabbits are treated as a route to reproduction, which in turn is treated as an inconvenience of the intimate sort.
Elsewhere in the book, important political concepts are addressed: totalitarianism, fairness, the nanny state, the police state, how to deal with crises of leadership, and so forth. The accomplishment of dealing with such a wide range of concepts in such a short story – and the limitations of that story – is worthy of acclaim. That the complex world of rabbit politics also features an exclusion of women from decision-making and some degree of misogyny should be marked as a win for realism, not given demerits.
If there is any time in the history of modern Western civilization when it is relevant to discuss the topics of Watership Down seriously and from multiple policy and philosophical perspectives, it is right now. And to censor from view one of the aspects of the story (the differential treatment of women) most relevant to the current conversation is a disservice to the viewer/reader and a malpractice of communication more generally.
The treatment of the female rabbits in Watership Down as inconvenient baby-makers accurately reflects the 1970s sentiment of English governments (national and local) and workplaces (and the warrens are meant to represent some hybridized amalgam of government and employer), with the fiscal and practical inconvenience of birth control and maternity leave, respectively, being hot conservative topics of the day.
And how little things have changed; today’s wage debates and questions of representation feature a whiff of this foul familiar.
If ever, this portion of the story – along with portions on the power of the state (various forms of government are explored) and the powerlessness of refugees (the main characters) – is deserving of contemplation by today’s young people whose first exposure (sadly) to this story may come via Netflix on a smartphone rather than in the pages of a book at school or in the local library. Regardless of its mode of conveyance, the story has aged gracefully and holds many lessons ripe for contemporary pondering.
So, next time you hear a policy-oriented person – whether from academia or the blogosphere – talk about the gender inequity in Watership Down consider whether the stories that person treasures are more realistic or simply more palatable. Because now is a time for realism in portrayal and frankness in debate and neither will come from the bland ingredients found in less poignant tales.