Sunday, November 9, 2008

"Old Yeller" Is a Lie

I don't know why--maybe all this talk about the presidential puppy?--but this morning as I sat with my coffee and my prayer beads this came to me:

"The story of Old Yeller* is a lie:
You do not have to kill the thing you love to be a grown up."

Make of this what you will. I didn't think I thought that, but the amount this made me cry suggests I did.

* If you don't know Old Yeller, it's the children's book--and Disney movie--about a boy on the American frontier who has to, in the end, shoot his beloved yellow-colored dog, because the dog gets rabies and Pa is snake-bit or some such thing and can't do it. The underlying message is this act makes the boy a man. A Good Man.

Sort of as if John Wayne wrote "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" and your parents read it to you at bedtime.


momo said...

From presidential puppy to Ol Yeller--that's such a wonderful leap!

I think that's ahorthand version the poisoned narrative of masculinity in our culture because often what you have to kill is the feminine. and those women (and I think I am one of them) who have made their way rationally through the world, often through father-identification, suffer a lot from this as well because no matter how much we try to perform this, we will always be identified as that which we are exhorted to kill off. So I know I have spent a lot of time on this particular "knot" as the buddhists might say.
By the way, I just saw Mike Leigh's movie Happy-go-lucky last night which is in some ways a meditation on this whole problem (the destructiveness of certain narratives of "adulthood") GREAT movie, not a downer, although intense.

bink said...

HATED, HATED, HATED Ol' Yeller (the movie). I felt horrified, angry, and my mother had just brought me to get tortured...(though in fairness to her, she probably didn't know what an evil movie she brought us to, thinking "Disney movie...good for kids".

I agree that Ol' Yeller is a total lie and seeing the movie was just one more needlessly awful thing in a childhood full of uncontrollably dreadful things. I am not a better human being for having seen it, but rather a diminished one.

deanna said...

While I completely agree that message is a lie, I don't think that was the book's message (Disney, no doubt, promoted what had grown to be a cultural thing).

I read Old Yeller every time I stayed home sick from school (along with Charlotte's Web). Granted I was a weird kid, intrigued by stories of how people dealt with loss (animal tales tend to express what tends to happen with pets). The dog in Old Yeller dies, not because Travis has to kill him, but because he contracts an illness. Travis has to protect his family, because his dad is far away (the mom in the story is a strong person who protects her family, too. She offers to shoot Yeller, but Travis, caught as they all are in a horrible situation, decides he, being the closest friend to the dog, should do it. I don't recall the movie catching this important element).

After the father returns, he talks to Travis about what happened. He says, "It's not a thing you can forget. I don't guess it's a thing you ought to forget. What I mean is, things like that happen. They might seem mighty cruel and unfair, but that's how life is a part of the time. But that isn't the only way life is..."

I love Fred Gipson's story, because the whole thing emphasizes the other way life is, and it ends with hope. Sorry I'm compelled to leap to defend it, since I think you're really talking about something else. I'm glad you recognized and experienced some release.

fresca said...

Thanks for writing!

I never know what will touch people, one way or another.
A friend also wrote me a long e-mail saying what Deanna said--she found "Ol' Yeller" a loving, helpful story (the novel not the movie).
I'm interested to hear that; but Deanna--thanks--you really got it right when you say,
"I think you're really talking about something else."

Yes--it isn't "Ol'Yeller" per se I was targeting, but the message that Momo pinpoints:
" the poisoned narrative of masculinity in our culture."

What *I* remember of Ol Yeller is the message that killing off things we love make us stronger;
whereas, as Bink points out, it often diminish us.

Maybe a better example of glorifying the willingness to kill what we love is the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. (Genesis 22:1-19).

I think of Wilfred Owen's poem
“The Parable of the Old Man and the Young.”
The poet parallels Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son with the old men who obeyed the dictates of national pride rather than spare their children.

Of course in the Bible, God was testing Abraham--the final point being God doesn't want human sacrifice --but still the message remains that if God DID want it, obeying God is a higher good.
I accept this if we relentlessly identify God with Love.
Mostly, however we humans equate God with our own agendas. Therefore, I do not think this is a good story--way too open to misinterpretation and misuse by the human Ego, which uses it to its own ends.
As Owen points out.

In the Bible, an angel stops the sacrifice. In WWI, however, the poet says:

"But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one."

Necessity can be cruel.
I appreciate stories that are honest about that. William Styron's novel "Sophie's Choice," for instance, felt real to me.

But the many tales in American culture that propagate the message "what doesn't kill us makes us stronger" are lies:
more often it makes us into alcoholics, child abusers, suicidally depressed people, war mongers...

fresca said...

P.S. E-mailing with my friend, I clarified that when I say the John-Wayne flavored message that "taking itlike a man" is lie, I mean to target the lie that leads to repression, not authenticity.
But there can be an authentic version of it, of course!
The St. Francis prayer captures that, praying for
"the serenity to accept the things I cannot change".
["...the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."]
But that's not the American Hero talking.

poodletail said...

This 9 yr. old was tricked into reading Old Yeller by the brown-eyed dog on the cover. I loved the story until the moment when Travis puts the gun barrel to the side of Yeller's head.
To promote the idea that shooting his dog made Travis a Man is obscene.
Never saw the movie.
I'm confused by the popularity of stories like Marley & Me. You know the people will get a puppy, fall in love with it, have some good times, then the dog will die. My mom loves this stuff and I really, really don't.

fresca said...

I'm with you, Poodle. I believe it is some sort of release for others, but I HATE stories about dead pets.

Oh, wait--I do love "Charlotte's Web," even tho I sob eery time, when Charlotte dies. I'll have to think what makes that different.

bink said...

Charlotte was self aware...and her dying was sort of like an elderly grandmother dying, who is able to go with grace and a to a degree comforting those around her.

I just erased a long comment about the death of Bop (the dog) because, fresca, you know the whole story and I don't need to sob on your blog.

But to be clear, I did know that the boy is the movie Ol' Yeller was killing him for a good reason. But that didn't matter. Inflicting the story on me was cruelty. The stuff of nightmares.

As a child I would look at horrible stories-- like stories of the holocaust--and think it my responsibility to learn about these horrors because they really happened. But fictionalized horror designed to teach me lessons--like Ol' Yeller, or the Little Match Girl--seemed outrageously cruel. I felt like there was enough horror in the real world without having to snuck into children's stories.

Sal said...

I love this. Why should we have to do hurtful, destructive, sacrificial things to be considered whole and grown-up? Sounds like this sentiment opened an internal door for you, Fresca ...

fresca said...

Bink--you're right about Charlotte! Thanks for untangling that for me.
You hit it square about the cruelty of using horror as a teaching tool too.
Though I understand that some love(d) it, I would not risk giving this book to a child--or an adult, either!

And thank you, Sal, for shifting away from the whole 'dead dog" issue! : )
(Not that I don't appreciate people discussing it--I do!)
You're right: the realization was like a door opening--some long-carried weight lifting. Hooray!

Lady P said...

I'd never heard of Ol' Yeller until this thread and, being of a fragile disposition, I shan't be expanding my acquaintance further.

The Ol' Yeller of my childhood was the Ken Loach film kes which I was taken to see at the age of about eight. This had such a devastating effect on my already skewed and depressed world view I can hardly bear to think about it even know.

Other unbearable things were Jock of the Bushveld and Black Beauty.

None of these things has child-doing-dreadful-thing-as-rite-of-passage trope in, just dead animals.

I was a feeble child.

Still am :-)

fresca said...

OMG, Lady P-- Merely reading about "Kes" just now (your link to Wikipedia) plunged me into despair. I'm surprised you survived past eight!

I cannot condone censorship in any form, but if I do think people are censoring the wrong books. Much healthier for a child to read "Lady Chatterly" and suchlike than these devastating tales---no focus on beloved dead animals in it that I can recall...

"Feeble" seems the wrong word, implying something wrong. "Tender" I'd say, which is a hard thing to be but contains the seeds of compassion.

Manfred Allseasons said...

Well, when we were youngsters, we had to listen to this terrifying tale - Albert and the Lion by Marriot Edgar.

its a bit long, be prepared for terror! (try and read it in a north country English accent...)


There's a famous seaside place called Blackpool,
That's noted for fresh-air and fun,
And Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom
Went there with young Albert, their son.

A grand little lad was their Albert
All dressed in his best; quite a swell
'E'd a stick with an 'orse's 'ead 'andle
The finest that Woolworth's could sell.

They didn't think much to the ocean
The waves, they was fiddlin' and small
There was no wrecks... nobody drownded
'Fact, nothing to laugh at, at all.

So, seeking for further amusement
They paid and went into the zoo
Where they'd lions and tigers and cam-els
And old ale and sandwiches too.

There were one great big lion called Wallace
His nose were all covered with scars
He lay in a som-no-lent posture
With the side of his face to the bars.

Now Albert had heard about lions
How they were ferocious and wild
And to see Wallace lying so peaceful
Well... it didn't seem right to the child.

So straight 'way the brave little feller
Not showing a morsel of fear
Took 'is stick with the'orse's 'ead 'andle
And pushed it in Wallace's ear!

You could see that the lion didn't like it
For giving a kind of a roll
He pulled Albert inside the cage with 'im
And swallowed the little lad... whole!

Then Pa, who had seen the occurrence
And didn't know what to do next
Said, "Mother! Yon lions 'et Albert"
And Mother said "Eeh, I am vexed!"

So Mr and Mrs Ramsbottom
Quite rightly, when all's said and done
Complained to the Animal Keeper
That the lion had eaten their son.

The keeper was quite nice about it
He said, "What a nasty mishap
Are you sure that it's your lad he's eaten?"
Pa said, "Am I sure? There's his cap!"

So the manager had to be sent for
He came and he said, "What's to do?"
Pa said, "Yon lion's 'eaten our Albert
And 'im in his Sunday clothes, too."

Then Mother said, "Right's right, young feller
I think it's a shame and a sin
For a lion to go and eat Albert
And after we've paid to come in!"

The manager wanted no trouble
He took out his purse right away
And said, "How much to settle the matter?"
And Pa said "What do you usually pay?"

But Mother had turned a bit awkward
When she thought where her Albert had gone
She said, "No! someone's got to be summonsed"
So that were decided upon.

Round they went to the Police Station
In front of a Magistrate chap
They told 'im what happened to Albert
And proved it by showing his cap.

The Magistrate gave his o-pinion
That no-one was really to blame
He said that he hoped the Ramsbottoms
Would have further sons to their name.

At that Mother got proper blazing
"And thank you, sir, kindly," said she
"What waste all our lives raising children
To feed ruddy lions? Not me!"

fresca said...

Bless you, Manfred!
Of course I had never heard of it, and not only does it delight me but it explains in part many differences between our nationalities--while little American boys were exhorted to shoot their animal, little Brits were being eaten by them--and in their Sunday clothes too!
Does this align, somehow, with modern foreign policy decision-making?

I think TTJ should record a version of "Albert"...