Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Books from the Religious Right: ME TARZAN, YOU JANE

When I observed the 2011 Values Voters Summit in Washington D.C., I picked up a copy of Me Tarzan, You Jane by Janice Barrett Graham from the Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays (PFOX) information table. A children's companion book to Wild Elephant (alternately known as Chased by an Elephant), Me Tarzan, You Jane encourages children to think of gender in fixed, binary categories and adopt heteronormative views of romance and marriage.

The book begins with young Tarzan meeting Jane in the jungle and immediately recognizing that she is different from him because she is a girl. The text emphasizes that there is no other type of "normal" human being besides male and female, as this is how God created humans. (The world's sizable population of intersex people would strongly disagree.) The differences between male and female, the book insists, are necessary to human life, and respect for this "truth" helps one live in an "orderly" manner.

On the next page, we see a drawing of young Tarzan looking at himself in a mirror hung from a tree. The book tells readers that one's reflection has much to do with being a boy or girl, because if you're a boy, you're wearing "boy clothes" and have somewhat "boyish" hair. Likewise, if you're a girl, you're wearing "girl clothes" and have "girlish" hair. In doing so, one is being the male or female God designed, the text argues. How this passage would resonate with tomboys or gender-nonconforming kids can only be imagined. To boot, since children's clothing is becoming less gender-defined (i.e., children of both sexes wear pants, overalls, etc.), it's not always clear what constitutes boys clothes versus girl's clothes. In short, the text assumes that binary gender roles always apply to children's appearances.

Boys should treat each other as "fellow boys," the book instructs, and girls should treat each other as "fellow girls." This passage left me puzzled. Was it instructing readers not to recognize their peers as transgender or intersex? Was it instructing readers to encourage their peers to behave in traditionally gendered ways? I don't know. Additionally, Me Tarzan, You Jane teaches that boys should become interested in girls as they age, and vice-versa. By demonstrating such a preference for heterosexual feelings, the book disregards children who might discover that they are gay, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, or questioning when they grow older.

Me Tarzan, You Jane insists that being male or female is also reflected in how one thinks and acts. It admonishes children to start learning how to be a boy or girl as they grow up, reminding them that they can learn important ways to be "boyish" or "girlish" from their parents. This, it explains, is why children have both a mother and a father (thereby leaving out single parents, same-sex couples, and other non-traditional families). Children must learn the "right" way to think about gender and act as male or female, the book asserts, comparing it to learning how to eat with a fork and knife. Reading this, I wondered how truly "natural" such gender roles could be if they had to be taught.

Strong romantic feelings, the book insists, are only to be "used" between husbands and wives. The one chief purpose of romantic feelings is mating, which the book claims that only a man and a woman can do. Me Tarzan, You Jane bluntly states that two men cannot mate with each other, nor can two women (which would be very surprising news to millions of sexually active LGBT people worldwide).

The book warns readers that sometimes romantic feelings can be as strong and dangerous as an elephant, and thus people must understand God's rules and boundaries for those feelings. The world is filled with many dangers, including "wrong ideas" and "bad behavior" which come from people who oppose God's rules. Me Tarzan, You Jane encourages readers to think before they act, follow "good, trusty" thoughts, and use God's gift of free will to arrive at correct actions.

I'm not surprised that the PFOX table was distributing copies of Me Tarzan, You Jane, given the organization's stance on homosexuality and support for the "ex-gay" movement. I find it unfortunate, however, that PFOX and the author of Me Tarzan, You Jane would target children with these messages.

In effect, Me Tarzan, You Jane advocates for binary gender roles (without specifying what such gender roles should look like) and heterosexuality as part of God's supposed plan for humanity. The idea that gender is a flexible social construct that occurs along a continuum is not given credence, and the book refuses to legitimize homosexuality and bisexuality.

Me Tarzan, You Jane seems to be a reaction to society's increasing acceptance of LGBT people and new interpretations of gender. By expressing disapproval of these social developments and holding up traditional gender roles and heteronormativity as godly, the book attempts to shape the minds of children. As as much as this attempt to influence children troubles me, I question how effective it will be in moulding children's attitudes toward gender and sexual orientation in the long run. As young readers grow older, they will undoubtedly encounter LGBT people and people who do not conform to rigid gender roles. They will see that such people can be happy and healthy, and that the human race is breathtakingly diverse. As they grow older, some of these young people may realize that they themselves are LGBT, or that the stereotypical gender roles imposed by fundamentalist Christianity do not reflect who they truly are. Whether the messages of books like Me Tarzan, You Jane can endure in an increasingly open-minded society remains to be seen.


  1. Frightening frightening book. These people are just so RIGID in their thinking.

    My only complaint (such as it is) is that the use of various "politically correct" group identity terms (how many "intersex" people are there really in the world?)your essay downplays the very diversity in human personality,styles of presentation,interests, etc. That frightens me more than whether relatively small groups are hamred (as bad as that it , of course). The whole concept of slotting people into very narrow slots is the big problem.

  2. So sad. I think your last paragraph is right on, though. If this were taught in a vacuum, I'd be worried. Fortunately, kids have access to the big, wide world, and eventually many will see the truth. I just feel sorry for kids to who have to grow up with such faulty guidance.

  3. There is no going back.

    I used to teach my patients who were trying to make any sort of changes in their lives that the Change Model has predictable steps within a social system (dyad, small group, large group, gigantic social group). The first step is the action of new behavior. The second step is the system's strong "change back" push...the no-holds-barred movement to put things back the way they were and as quickly as possible. If the changer can hold out through this onslaught, which can be quite violent and apparently relentless, the change can be said to be successful.

    I repeat. There is no going back.

  4. Like any cult worth it's long history of murder and torture, conservative Christians like to start early, before their victims can think for themselves.

  5. B.R. -- That's the whole point of indoctrinating children in any religious system: they're too young and inexperienced to evaluate the message.

    Nance -- Your words make my heart bold. Knowing that society is changing for the better, and that there is no going back, gives me hope.

    Michelle -- Some fundamentalists do try to raise children in a vacuum (i.e., homeschooling), but they cannot maintain this forever. At some point, youngsters will encounter other points of view that they must evaluate.

  6. I don't know if the author is a Mormon but as I mentioned here before, "Chased by an elephant" comes from the Mormon Articles of Faith, number 13 to be precise: "We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent ..."

    "Chased by an elephant" is a silly memory device to help Mo kids remember "chaste, benevolent" (2 words they wouldn't normally use or even know what they mean). Both books sound awful and incredibly harmful.

  7. Cognitive Dissenter -- Yes, you pointed out the Mormon pneumonic device of "chased by an elephant" when I reviewed WILD ELEPHANT, for which I was grateful. Had you not pointed that out, I wouldn't have known about it.

    Aye, I strongly disagree with the content of both books.


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