The Anthony Browne picture book, “Zoo” extends well beyond simply the entertainment of children. The book is told in the first person from the perspective of a boy who visits a zoo with his family. The family consists of himself and his younger brother, his father and his mother. On the surface this book appears to compare the visitors to the zoo with the animals that they are there to see. People within the park are characterised with distinct physical animal traits and the connection between captivity and freedom are common. This theme is directly related to the mother and becomes evident throughout the story through clever subtleties. The personalities and feelings of the family in the book are ingeniously depicted in the text and the illustrations, providing a deeper understanding of both whom the characters are and the insight into the reason for their behaviours. The gender discourses found throughout the text and illustrations are not unintentional but a representation of the dangers of modelling inappropriate gender roles and behaviours to children.
The cover of the book provides a perspective of the characters in the way they are presented. The father has a large build and is very prominent within the framing of the illustration, taking a major proportion of the space. The two boys are small and situated in front happily, and like their father depicted in bright colours. They are placed in the company of their father and are being shielded from the forlorn looking mother positioned in the distant background. The fact that the family is represented with three masculine and one female character also adds to the weight of male dominance inferred throughout this book.
The father is depicted as a controlling man with only two emotions, both on opposite ends of the spectrum. He’s interaction with his sons are either angry encounters or being boisterously self entertaining and oblivious to others reactions around him. After telling a joke to the family in the car the boy’s reaction was that ‘Everyone laughed except Mum and Harry and me’. The choice of the word ‘everyone’ adds to the commanding position of the father. His stubborn nature and failure to communicate effectively is best revealed during an argument with Harry where his final words are “Because I said so.” He fails to offer a plausible reason and again asserts his patriarchal power. Throughout the book he continues to be self-absorbed, angry, aggressive and dismissive of others’ views, predominantly those of his wife.
The consequence of these attitudes and behaviours is that the example the father is setting for his two sons are developing their understanding of masculinity and what it is to be a man. He is their role model and the visual image of both boys has been cleverly likened to monkeys, promoting a link to the adage ‘monkey see, monkey do.’ Fried explains that children are exposed to sex-typed models in child rearing practices, and attitudes of individuals. (Fried, 1982, as cited in Gooden, 2001, p.91) There are a variety of instances of this throughout the book to support this view. In one of the illustrations the boy is looking up to his father, who is standing next to a chocolate wrapper he has dropped. This indicates the attitude that males can do as they please, others do not matter. In this picture the boy has adopted the exact pose against the fence as his father, just as he has done earlier in the book when he is walking through the zoo, they both have the identical stride and stance, even though the boy is a pace ahead. The inference is that he is becoming his father, faults and all, albeit unconsciously. The examples provided to him within his family are becoming the framework for his understandings of the male role in society. The selfishness and ignorance of the father has been modelled as the appropriate behaviour and consequently set as the beliefs of the children, not solely in relation to masculinity but also their understandings of femininity. The strongest representation of this is found when the family are viewing the orang-utan enclosure at the zoo. The father and two boys are shouting and banging on the glass trying to encourage the lonely orang-utan leaning downcast in a corner into action. Their reaction to this inactivity was that, “It just ignored us. Miserable thing.” It is at this point there is a major connection made to the mother. While the mother stands depressed, looking towards the despondent posture of the dishevelled orang-utan, their link is demonstrated with their matching hair colour. The true ‘miserable thing’ is indeed the mother and the ignorance is only really coming from the father and his sons as they stand forefront and oblivious of the dejected figure behind them.
The femininity of the mother’s character is depicted as that of a subservient woman. The obligation is there that she has a role to serve and has no power within the family. That position has been completely filled by her husband. As described by Taylor, ‘masculinity is taken up as something which is oppositional to femininity and where femininity is denigrated. These gender relations are power relations.’ (Taylor, 2000, p.64). This is the depiction of both parents within this story. While the father is the controller and the dominant parent, the mother is the opposite. She is the nurturer yet plays the role to serve. She brought the chocolate, she took the boys to get lunch and to the gift shop. When Harry was climbing the signpost her reaction was that of worry. The father in contrast simply yelled, “Come down you little rat-bag!” While their mother shows her love and care towards her children, they still see her role in the same way of their father and treat her with ignorance and disregard.
The gender discourses that are depicted within ‘Zoo’ are that of dominant males and a dutiful, yet unhappy, wife and mother. While these examples are extremes, they set to detail that attitudes following these ‘stereotypes’ are restrictive. There is a broad range of emotion and roles, and not simply within the family environment but right throughout society in general, and it is this entire spectrum that can be experienced by both male and female alike. The book sets out in a cryptic way to promote the dangers of being a poor role model rather than providing discourse of model gender behaviour.
Gooden, A & Gooden, M, 2001, ‘Gender Representation in Notable Children’s Picture Books:1995-1999’, in Sex Roles, Vol. 45, Nos. ½, July 2001: ProQuest Central, p. 91)
Taylor, S. 2000, ‘Still a problem: Gendered school practices’, in Practising education: Social and cultural perspectives, eds D. Meadmore, B. Burnett, G. Tait, Prentice Hall, Sydney, p. 64)