I'm either a terrible person or too analytical for preschool literature: I strongly object to Marcus Pfister's classic picture book The Rainbow Fish. Until going to the book's Amazon page to grab this link, I hadn't been aware that I'm far from alone in feeling uncomfortable with this story.
I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that Rainbow Fish perpetuates rape culture.
For those who have not read the story recently, go have Ernest Borgnine read it to you in the most endearing way possible, or settle for this summary:
Rainbow Fish was the most outwardly-beautiful fish in the sea, covered in shimmering scales. Everyone thought he was pretty, but he was too stuck up to talk to them. One day a little fish asked Rainbow Fish if he could please have one of his beautiful shiny scales; Rainbow Fish says "Who do you think you are? Get away from me!" The little fish tells all the other fish that Rainbow Fish is a jerk and they all shun Rainbow Fish. Rainbow Fish feels lonely: "What good were the dazzling, shimmering scales with no one to admire them?" A wise octopus tells him to share his beautiful scales with the other fish. He does, and the other fish love him, and he lives happily ever after.
Let's break this down:
First, Rainbow Fish is a snob. The other fish call out "Come and play with us," but Rainbow Fish won't even talk to them - he just glides past looking pretty, too cool to bother with non-shiny fish. This is no way to make friends.
Then one of those fish who only wanted to play with Rainbow Fish because he was beautiful asks Rainbow Fish to give him a scale - to rip out part of his body, to cause himself physical harm, to give up some of what makes him unique
Rainbow Fish says No.
The little fish respects Rainbow Fish's bodily autonomy enough not to assault him then and there and take a scale, but he tells all the other fish that Rainbow Fish won't put out. The little fish is basically a bro at a party who gets slapped in the face by a girl for getting fresh and then tells the guys at his frat house that she's a cock tease/whore/fat/ugly/bitch.
For saying No, Rainbow Fish is ostracized, an outcast. He seeks advice. "I really am beautiful," he says, "Why doesn't anybody like me?" Unpacking that further: The only value he sees in himself is his appearance; he feels that being pretty should be enough to merit having friends, regardless of how he has treated people (ie being too proud to talk to the fish who invited him to play).
Rainbow Fish goes on a spiritual journey. The local sage advises him to buy the friendship of the frat bros who call him a whore behind his back. He is advised to rip out chunks of his own flesh, to scar himself, to violate his body, to allow the whole frat to rape him. He is told that stripping himself of what makes him most special - the aspect of himself which he most values - is the only way to make friends. Don't save yourself for someone you love, if you really want to be popular just get drunk and lose your virginity in a gang-bang.
And he does.
Rainbow Fish is again propositioned by the original fresh little fish, and he rips out a beautiful scale and gives it to him; this makes the little fish treat Rainbow Fish kindly. So Rainbow Fish rips out more scales and gives them to more and more fish, buying their love by diminishing his own beauty. The other fish have successfully bullied Rainbow Fish into submission. Rainbow Fish now looks just like everyone else and is therefore socially acceptable.
- Bullying works.
- It is morally imperative to cave to peer pressure.
- Friendship can be bought.
- Sacrifice what is most special about yourself to be just like everyone else.
- Only outward beauty matters.
- Fuck your way to the top.
It is telling that while writing this post I had to keep reminding myself that Rainbow Fish is male, because everything about this story reads to me as a parable for how women in our society are treated and are expected to behave: nothing is more important that your appearance; take care of the needs of others before your own; popularity is more important than being true to yourself; if you think you're special society will find a way to knock you down a notch.
But hey, the illustrations are pretty and shiny, so let's just tell the kids it's about sharing and not think too hard about all this.
God, I hate this book.