The butterfly and the frog

I used to have this great shower curtain that was a big colorful cartoon of the life cycles of the frog and the butterfly.

Well, I thought it was great. For a while. But the thing with a shower curtain is that you see it every day. You look at it while you’re brushing your teeth and while you’re peeing and while you’re spacing out wondering what you came into the bathroom to get; oh, was it the sunblock you were looking for?

And then, at least if you’re me, you start over-analyzing the damn shower curtain. The illustrations. Word choice. Which words are explained in context (molting!) and which aren’t (spawns). And then you grow irritated at decisions and assumptions made by the people who designed this educational shower curtain, people trying to teach kids something about the natural world.

Let’s see if you react the same way I did. Here’s the text of the curtain.

The butterfly

A caterpillar grows inside an egg.*

When the egg hatches, she eats the shell to get nutrients.

She begins to eat leaves to get bigger.

She hides in leaves to survive.

As she gets bigger, she sheds her skin 4 or 5 times before she is fully grown. This process is called molting.

After the last time she molts, her skin hardens and she is encased in a chrysalis.

When the chrysalis splits open, a little butterfly comes out!

She pumps fluid to expand her wings. Once her wings are dry, she practices flapping them and then flies off.

*Would that make a better joke– What came first, the caterpillar or the egg?
No? Not the same ring to it? Okay.

And then: our friend the frog.

Frog eggs grow in egg spawns. A tadpole grows inside each clear egg jelly.

When the tadpole gets big, he wiggles out of his egg and starts eating the jelly.

The tadpole has gills to help him breathe under water.

As he keeps eating, he gets bigger.* Soon he grows a very strong tail for swimming.

A few weeks later, the gills move back inside the body and the tadpole grows two hind legs.

He begins to grow lungs and his gills disappear. Once the lungs are developed, two front legs grow.

With lungs, he can now breathe air. He can now start eating bugs outside the water.

His webbed feet grow stronger and his tail shrinks away. He becomes a frog! He will now spend most of his time on land.

*I also get bigger as I keep eating. I don’t have a tail for swimming, though.

So.

Did you notice a difference between the frog description and the butterfly?

The frog’s a boy. The butterfly’s a girl.

Because little boys like frogs and little girls like butterflies.

Butterflies are pretty, so girls like them. Frogs are too icky for girls.

Boys aren’t afraid of hoppy, bug-eating things like frogs. Butterflies are girly and boring.

Let’s reinforce stereotypes!

As if there aren’t boy frogs and girl frogs, boy butterflies and girl butterflies.

Sigh.

Only the caterpillar has to “hide in leaves to survive”; there’s no word on how tadpoles avoid getting eaten. Only the “little butterfly” is described as, well, little; there’s no mention of how tiny tadpoles are. That might undermine their tadpole-y manliness.

The caterpillar gets “bigger,” but only the tadpole – while still inside its egg! – actually gets “big.”

Once the butterfly’s wings are dry, “she practices flapping them and then flies off.” The frog, however, doesn’t have to practice hopping around on land once it’s grown legs, or learn how to catch bugs outside the water. The male tadpole/frog in this story can do everything he needs to. The female butterfly has to work at it.

So this is why I’m frustrated with the shower curtain. It’s educational – but not always in the best of ways. And it’s those subtle sexist messages that are so insidious and so easily absorbed.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The butterfly and the frog

  1. Your shower curtain left out the part about some frogs making the leap from a he to a she. It is clearly damaged goods. The shower curtain, that is. Not the frogs.

  2. The curtain did leave out that part – as did I, damn it. That’s what I get for relying on shower curtains for my education. Textbooks are really going downhill in this country.

  3. Jessica

    Nice catch! This is the kind of stuff I am always reading on Sociological Images, too (needlessly gendering, devaluing feminine, etc.).

    PS I found your blog!

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