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Is "The Tiger Who Came to Tea" Actually Sexist?

I get distracted by how incredible humans can be and interesting science questions.

Judith Kerr OBE (1923–2019), author and illustrator of "The Tiger Who Came to Tea"

Judith Kerr OBE (1923–2019), author and illustrator of "The Tiger Who Came to Tea"

Rachel Adamson's Claim

Can you really blame one children’s book for perpetuating attitudes that could lead to crimes such as abuse, harassment and rape? Well, that’s what’s happening in the UK right now.

A campaigner, Rachel Adamson, who I respect for at least trying to make the world a better place, has suggested that the hugely popular children’s book The Tiger Who Came to Tea, by the much-loved Judith Kerr (1923–2019) and published in 1968, is dangerous because it features gender inequality and stereotypes which could lead to the readers one day committing abhorrent crimes.

On BBC Radio Scotland, she asserted that "We know that gender stereotypes are harmful and they reinforce gender inequality, and that gender inequality is the cause of violence against women and girls, such as domestic abuse, rape and sexual harassment."

What Is The Tiger Who Came to Tea About?

The plot of The Tiger Who Came to Tea is that a non-aggressive talking tiger invites itself to dinner with a girl, Sophie, and her mother. He clears out the cupboards and leaves. When Dad comes home, there’s no food, so he takes the humans out to a cafe to eat. A happy resolution.

Apparently, this sweet book is meant to raise our blood pressure. Adamson has questioned why it is the man who saves the day. Why are the women unable to defend themselves against the tiger, who, according to Adamson’s assessment, must be male? (Why not female or gender neutral? she asked.)

She doesn’t want the book banned but would like it to be removed from nurseries, presumably because it isn’t helping parents, nurseries and schools to raise well-adjusted children.

Abuse Doesn't Come From a Book

Now, having been on the receiving end of coercive control, I can confirm that not once did I wonder if the root cause of the other person’s problem behaviour could be found in a children’s book. "Boy, I wish that X hadn’t read [insert title here] because it obviously had a disastrous effect."

We live in a democracy, so Adamson is welcome to her opinion, but there are enough problems in the world without searching for them in unlikely places. Adamson’s charity has recently completed an audit of 3,000 books available in nurseries assessing gender inequality and stereotypes. Only a few passed their stringent test.

I’m assuming that, as an intelligent woman, she has looked at the home environment, the community, the internet, the dark web, the films being produced, the soap operas and other programmes on TV and the succession of newspapers that roll from the presses. These are all probably far greater factors that create dangerous thinking errors and, therefore, lifestyle issues. One book, or three thousand, won’t kill or cure worldwide horrors.

Have Faith in the Next Generation

To suggest that a child will grow up to violate another person after reading a classic children’s book is like saying that they live in a vacuum with no support, no education, no peers, no society ethos and no appreciation of diversity and for other people’s qualities. That doesn’t sit well with me.

Are we so jaded that we don’t trust that children can use the sense that they were born with to look at a situation and recognise the difference between right and wrong? If they can't, that exposes an issue that runs far deeper than any book can be held partially responsible for. They should see that the cheeky tiger is taking advantage, that just because Dad comes home and offers to take them to a café, this isn’t an invitation to hero worship him and scorn or abuse the mother. What was he, or if the role was reversed, Mum, supposed to do when they came home to empty cupboards? Say that tough, no one can eat because the tiger ate everything, that starving seemed preferable to spending some money at a café? Please! This is ridiculous. There’s got to be a campaigner who’d want that version removed or banned too!

Learn From the Past, Educate for a Better Today and Tomorrow

Focusing on one book grabs the headlines, and no doubt some of the media are taking Adamson’s comments out of context and sensationalising them but I think that whilst her wish to end male violence towards women is laudable and sadly necessary, the victimisation of a book strikes me as a sign of trying to rewrite history and the current social issues.

You can’t bleach every subject or item from existence that may not suit the 2020’s sensibilities. What you can do is learn from them and educate others of all ages about why something was once thought of as acceptable but how with the passage of time we realised that a fairer way was possible. Strive for better. Accentuate the positive every day rather than zeroing in on one negative on one day. This is a huge issue, one that did not start or end with Judith Kerr. She wrote the book in good faith and with, I would imagine, little or no inkling that in 2021 it would be making news headlines. It’s up to all of us to make the world a better, fairer and peaceful safe place.


This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2021 Joanne Hayle