23 November 2013

Issues of Consent in Dr. Seuss's "Green Eggs and Ham"

This summer, while reading bedtime stories to my two-and-half year-old niece, I revisited one of my favourite books from my childhood: Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham.  I was pretty fond of Dr. Seuss in general.  At some point I managed to memorize The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and I remember really loving some of the illustrations and colours in Oh, The Places You’ll Go!  But Green Eggs and Ham is probably the story that I enjoyed most, and it was not until this summer that I realized just how troubling it actually is.

The central meaning behind Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham is pretty easy to tease out: you don’t know if you like something until you try it.  (I don’t know if you know this, but I studied English in university).  It’s not the worst message to instil in the minds of young children, but the method by which Dr. Seuss approaches this topic raises several serious concerns about the issue of consent and personal agency.

For any of you who are not familiar with the text, here is a brief summary: Sam-I-Am asks an unnamed character whether he likes green eggs and ham.  The unnamed character politely responds that no, he does not: “I do not like them, Sam-I-Am. / I do not like green eggs and ham.”  Sam-I-Am proceeds to ask the same questions in multiple different ways (“Would you like them here or there?”, “Would you eat them in a box? / Would you eat them with a fox?” etc.) that becoming increasingly threatening, coercive, and violent as the narrative progresses.  When presenting the scenario of eating green eggs and ham in a car, Sam-I-Am shifts from asking to demanding: “Eat them! Eat them! Here they are.”  The unnamed character refuses the green eggs and ham nearly one hundred times.

Not only is Sam-I-Am endangering the lives of those in the car
and the train, but also whoever might be driving that boat.
The story begins with the unnamed character peacefully reading.  Sam-I-Am invades his personal space and begins to ask whether or not he will eat green eggs and ham, and when the unnamed character declines, Sam-I-Am presents increasingly extreme scenarios to pose the same question over and over again.  But Sam-I-Am does more than merely ask whether or not this unnamed character would or could eat green eggs and ham in thirteen different scenarios; he actually puts him in those situations.  These are not hypothetical questions.  When Sam-I-Am asks, “Say! In the dark? Here in the dark! / Would you, could you, in the dark?” he has literally brought the unnamed character into a dark tunnel with him.  Many of these situations actually threaten the safety of the unnamed character and draw attention to the violence and coercion that underscore each one of Sam-I-Am’s questions and demands.  A particularly vivid example is the penultimate scene in which a Sam-I-Am, the unnamed character, a fox, a mouse, and a goat are together in a car—that Sam-I-Am has presumably illegally commandeered—on top of a train that careens off of a cliff and into the sea.

In the end, the unnamed character ultimately does try the green eggs and ham, and he likes them.  He even thanks Sam-I-Am for being so insistent.  But it’s important to point out that he does not try them because he wants to, but out of sheer exasperation: “Sam! If you let me be / I will try them. You will see.”
Here we see the evolution from resigned acceptance of defeat to mistrust and sadness at the reality of having to eat
green eggs and ham, and finally to the relief and jubilation of actually enjoying them.  Even if green eggs and ham
truly were delicious, it seems really unlikely that they still would be after all that Sam-I-Am put that open platter of
food through.  There's no way that that food didn't get wet when they crashed into the ocean, not to mention that
they're obviously cold by now. 

What troubling precedent does this narrative present to young readers?  What are the ramifications of such a story?  Why is it Sam-I-Am who is praised in the end for being so insistent?  Are we left with the impression that the unnamed character was too uptight, that he should have tried green eggs and ham sooner, and that this is all his fault?  And why does he have no name throughout the entire narrative?  Why is Sam-I-Am given an identity through naming that is denied to the other character?  How does this technique influence our sympathies?

Sam-I-Am, from the very beginning, is given a name, and implicit in his name is his own power to name himself.  At times the unnamed character refers to him as Sam, but the “I-Am” portion is also built into his name.  Sam is the first character we are introduced to in the story, and we are introduced to him by Sam speaking his own name.  This signals to Sam’s assertion of his subjectivity.  It is also worth noting that the name “Sam” is a very generic one, which serves to reinforce a sense of normalcy in Sam’s character.


These elements, taken together, contribute to some of the issues surrounding consent in the narrative.  Sam-I-Am is given a level of authority and power that is denied to the unnamed character.  This is demonstrated not only by his name and ability to name himself, but also the way by which he does so: he rides in to the scene on some cat-like beast, which highlights an ongoing trend in Sam's character to assert his dominance over others.

Issues of consent are often talked about in the context of medical ethics.  The general idea is that patients should have at least some control over their own care.  A patient's preference should be consistent over time and across multiple scenarios.  In "The Green Eggs and Ham Phenomena," Lachlan Forrow uses the Dr. Seuss text to question what he perceives to be an oversimplification of patient preference:
"There are three important lessons in this story.  First, although the Patient [the unnamed character] unequivocally states his preference seventy times in thirteen different scenarios, it becomes clear at the end of the story that the Patient has never known what green eggs and ham are like.  The fact that a patient can express a preference with utter consistency does not tell us anything about whether or not she or he understands what is at stake in the choice.

Second, the story makes it clear that the very process of being asked to provide a response, then reaffirm it over and over and over, leads the Patient to express a stronger and stronger sense of certainty about his preference.  Even if the Patient had started off somewhat uncertain about his preference, by late in the story he is absolutely clear and convinced in his own mind.

[...]

Why is the Patient in this story so ready to reject the offer of green eggs and ham from Dr. Sam-I-Am?  Why is he refusing something he seems to know nothing about?

The answer to that is clear in the opening pages of the book.  There, Dr. Sam-I-Am is seen racing back and forth around the Patient, clearly very busy, but paying no attention to the Patient himself.  In fact, unlike almost any other important character in Dr. Seuss' many books, the Patient is never given a name.  And Dr. Sam-I-Am certainly never gives any indication that he even cares to know this patient's name.  The opening words in the story, spoken by the Patient, are quite direct: 'That Sam-I-Am! That Sam-I-Am! I do not like that Sam-I-Am!'  In fact, the entire story as seen from the Patient's perspective has nothing whatsoever to do with his opinion of green eggs and ham (remember, he has never tasted them), but has everything to do with his relationship--or lack thereof--with the person who is offering them to him." (30-1).
Okay, Lachlan Farrow.  First of all, it's not necessary to have tried something in order to know whether or not you like it; having not tried something does not preclude the possibility of making informed decisions about it.  There are any number of ways to gather information on a given subject without having it in your mouth first.  For example, I haven't "tried" AIDS, but I know that I don't like it.  Secondly, it's not necessarily explicit in the text that the unnamed character has never tried green eggs and ham.  It's possible to infer that he hasn't, but he does not once state explicitly that he has never eaten them before.  His first refusal is simply, "I do not like them, Sam-I-Am. / I do not like green eggs and ham."  Thirdly, Farrow might be correct in stating that the unnamed character's refusal to eat green eggs and ham is influenced by his dislike of Sam-I-Am, but that's a totally valid reason to not try something.  Sam-I-Am is a self-centred asshole, and there's no reason to believe that he has the unnamed character's best interests at heart.  After all, we're talking about green eggs and ham, not medicine, and Sam-I-Am isn't held to an ethical code in the same way doctors areAnd just as a final note: it's likely that the ham and eggs are green partly to appeal to the market audience (children), but also for poetic reasons.  That said, I am probably one of the few people who really enjoys artificial colouring, but even I wouldn't eat that (obviously not the eggs, but not the ham either).


Green Eggs and Ham is, in the end, a story for children.  But what message does it provide them?  That you can't possibly know your own likes and dislikes, or that someone other than you has a better sense of your own needs and desires?  That you should give up your power of consent to anyone who asks you to do so?  Or more troubling yet, if someone says "no" to you, all you have to do is pester them and threaten them until they give in?  At the end of the day, it really doesn't matter why the unnamed character doesn't want to eat green eggs and ham and it doesn't matter that he ends up liking green eggs and ham.  What matters is that he doesn't want to eat green eggs and ham.  In order to build a healthy society--one that doesn't privilege the desires of some over those of others--we need to begin by empowering children to say "no."

I feel a bit weird posting something like this, because I really don't care about empowering anyone, ever.  But I do feel strongly about this, and not as an analogy for rape culture or medical ethics or the unnamed "Other" or whatever.  As someone who has spent a great deal of time over the course of her life refusing to try certain foods in the face of incessant harassment, I find it troubling that a book like this exists.  And what I also find troubling is that people's notion of consent only goes so far.  There are a few posts on the internet condemning Dr. Seuss's treatment of consent in Green Eggs and Ham (here and here), but both talk about the text in light of rape culture.  I feel like most people don't take the right of consent seriously when it comes to something as seemingly frivolous or harmless as trying new foods.  But for me, feeling the pressure to eat something that I really do not want to eat is actually traumatic, and right after I finish posting this, I'm going to start a petition on Change.org to demand that a big shiny "Trigger Warning!" sticker be included on all future copies of this book.


Forrow, Lachlan.  "The green eggs and ham phenomena."  The Hastings Center Report 24.6 (1994): 29-32.  Print.

7 comments:

  1. I assume there are no comments on this post because you have actually said everything there is to be said on this topic.

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  2. This is a well-developed and well-researched, albeit incredibly wordy, complaint about a children's book with no solutions offered, other than to slap a warning sticker on it for the future's bubble generation. Where is the parent's discretion or, more importantly, the parent's involvement in their child's education? Is one merely supposed to give a child a book and expect them to learn life from its pages, or should we continue to teach our kids ourselves, with our own words and our own actions, and use books the way they're meant to be used - as mere tools.

    I don't know what Dr. Seuss' intentions actually were, but I assume his simple and overarching message was to try new things and not be afraid, especially at an age where a child's parents are trying hard to open that child's mind and palate to mushrooms, seafood, brocolli and other horrible foods. But why stop at a 53-yr-old children's book? Why not take on Chaucer, Homer and the bible's authors? After all, didn't God and Moses use the same do-what-I-say-or-else tactics on Pharoh? Or cut to the chase and teach your kids to make informed decisions and stick to them in the face of peer pressure and bullying. But maybe wait until after they've learned to like brussel sprouts...

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  3. I think the most important thing to keep in mind while reading this blog post is that it’s a joke. I do think it’s weird that our conception of consent typically doesn’t extend to food (and often doesn’t extend to children either), but I’m really not holding Dr. Seuss accountable for that. I mean, ideally, yes, this text should be used as a tool by parents to teach their children about consent and making informed decisions. But I think an issue is that a lot of people don’t consider the problematic language that Dr. Seuss is using in this story; like any Dr. Seuss story, it’s just fun and whimsical.

    But also, I’m definitely not saying that no one should ever try anything new or that parents shouldn’t encourage their children to try new foods (although obviously not brussel sprouts, mushrooms, or seafood). What I’m saying is that if you ask someone, “Do you want to try this egg?” And they say, “No, I don’t. I don’t like that egg.” Then… leave it alone. Like, don’t drag them through a series of life-threatening scenarios until they agree to try it just to get you off their back.

    And I guess the main reason to stop—although “stopping” and “failing to mention several other texts due to length restrictions on one particular post” is not exactly the same thing—at Green Eggs and Ham and not mention Chaucer, Homer, or the story of the Pharaoh and Moses is that I read Green Eggs and Ham to my niece before she had turned three, whereas I don’t expect to read “The Wife of Bath” until her fourth birthday. And don’t even get me started on that story of Moses and the Pharaoh. It’s weird that the Old Testament God is supposed to the just one, because I thought He was really cruelly unjust to the Pharaoh.

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  4. I had always assumed that the book attempted to be empathic to a child's experience and that the ending was supposed to satirise the parenting techniques and expectations of the power figure who contests to know what's best. Dr Seuss was a hermit after all, hardly demonstrating an openness to new experiences, and in most of his books the sympathies lie with the child rather than the adults who are often portrayed as clueless (Cat in the Hat), power mad (Yertle the Turtle) or outright dangerous (The Lorax). From what I've read Dr Seuss seems far more interested in positively influencing the future politics of his readers than their current eating habits.

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  5. Have you ever dealt with a five year old at mealtime? A preference for bland, familiar food was a good survival mechanism when small kids could forage and find poisonous plants, but not so much now. You can be a five-star chef, cook the meal of your life, and the kid is going to cross his arms, pout, and demand chicken nuggets and fries. He's going to say he doesn't like your cooking, even if he's never laid eyes on it in his life. Every parent/grandparent/babysitter has had to deal with the bratty toddler who won't even try a bite of supper. And they're going to have to be as persistent as Sam-I-Am not to give into the kid's whining and demands for junk food when there's a perfectly good supper on the table.

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  6. Oh... Oh wow. seriously?
    "But Sam-I-Am does more than merely ask whether or not this unnamed character would or could eat green eggs and ham in thirteen different scenarios; he actually puts him in those situations."

    Actually if you read it WITHOUT THE PICTURES he is just asking him silly questions, but since there are pictures, and this is meant to be a book you read to a CHILD he drew pictures to SHOW what he is saying. This is like saying Shel Silverstien advocates or wants to sell kids into slavery because of "sister for sale" and even SHOWS THIS. Not to mention a few of his other poems, which are all for KIDS. Kids more often then not respond more to visual stimulus to respond better then just words sweetie, not to mention adults. People are visual learners you know.

    "In the end, the unnamed character ultimately does try the green eggs and ham, and he likes them."

    Yes because he actually TIRED them and thus realized they aren't poison or rotten food and thus can enjoy the meal. Remember first and foremost this is a TEXT. Not a bunch of pictures, it is a TEXT, that was written first, and after that came the pictures. So Again I have to tell you these pictures do not peril make.

    "He even thanks Sam-I-Am for being so insistent."

    I remember when I was young and my parents offered me blue cheese, I loved cheese but of course the moldy blue was disgusting to me and was on top of things MOLDY. I was taught that moldy things are gross and thus should be thrown away. Now here they are telling me this is "good mold". But now, as a twenty-five year old female, I can actually taste, and ENJOY blue cheese. ((Maybe taste buds dying, lol)) Then there were tomatoes, and onions I despised and would actively pick off my food, now however? I'll eat them, so long as they aren't the main course. This is about PICKY EATERS. Not about sex, or sexual contexts. THAT IS YOUR PERSONAL VIEWS. That this story can be about sex, its not. But hey, you can MAKE it be about sex. Or as you put it, "consent and informative consent" which more then often refers to sex. Anyways.

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  7. Maybe it's just about green eggs and ham though? Maybe it's an innocent, colorful, imaginative innocent story. Look, I can relate anything back to sex, consent, political issues, social issues...whatever. We could say that Belle from Beauty and the Beast had severe Stockholm Syndrome, we could say that Ariel literally had her female voice TAKEN from her. When those stories are stripped down there is a definite "yikes" factor. However, Green Eggs and Ham? A stretch. When I was a kid I thought about my preference for candy and my non-preference for vegetables. I at not point grew up to apply that to anything sexual, and truly don't know how I would.

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