Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss: Celebrating Unexpected Differentness

Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss: Celebrating Unexpected Differentness

By Emily Plackowski and Kathleen Bogart

“Those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small. You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.” (Dr. Seuss, 1961)

Every March 2 in the U.S., we celebrate two important and related holidays: National Read Across America Day, and the birthday of Theodor Geisel—aka Dr. Seuss, the prolific author and illustrator of beloved children’s books.

“What could be in his books?” you may ask your dog.

“What could be in his books that would fit in this blog?”

Good question! Studies show that media exposure—to books, movies, TV, video games, etc.—can be extremely influential for young children. For example, a meta-analysis by Mares and Pan (2013) showed that more exposure to Sesame Street positively affected international children’s “attitudes toward social or political out-groups.” (In fact, Sesame Street has been fighting against stigma and discrimination since its inception.) Many of Dr. Seuss’s books are morality tales disguised as rhyming children’s stories. Some of these morality tales teach about concepts like stigma—concepts directly applicable to the experiences of people with disabilities.

Words like “stigma,” “prejudice,” and “discrimination” have a shared origin that lies in the human tendency to notice and point out differences, and to use these differences to distinguish the beloved “us” from the vilified “them.” Stigma (from a root word meaning to mark or puncture) is an ancient concept that initially involved the cutting, branding, or tattooing of humans: literally marking certain people as a moral “other.” Although we rarely resort to the literal branding of stigmatized others in modern times, the psychosocial elements underlying the concepts of stigma, prejudice, and discrimination live on.

In 1963, sociologist Erving Goffman published a famous book about stigma. According to Goffman, humans in certain social situations have expectations for how people will appear and behave. When someone enters a situation and doesn’t meet expectations for how they “ought” to look or act—what Goffman refers to as “unexpected differentness”—other people in the situation may become uncomfortable, and try to figure out why this distressing differentness is happening. Usually, people end up faulting the “different” other for their discomfort, and assume that the qualities of different others are due to those others’ internal, personal flaws. To us, groups of different others become “them.” Since our priority is to look after “us,” we are automatically suspicious of “them.” Surely “they” are bad, right? Surely “they” are deserving of our ire, our negative attitudes and judgments (prejudice), and our punishment (e.g., discrimination)?

People may even hurl cruel labels at certain categories of “them,” thus engaging in specific forms of prejudice and discrimination that we who write scholarly papers dub with “-ism” monikers (e.g., racism, sexism, ageism, ableism). At this point, as Goffman notes, we have reduced “a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one.”

In 2001, Link and Phelan proposed that, for stigma to happen, five processes must occur at the same time: (1) noticing and labeling a difference; (2) associating the noticed difference with negative characteristics; (3) separating oneself from the labeled other(s) (i.e., “us” vs. “them”); and (4) the labeled others losing status and experiencing discrimination. Additionally, according to Link and Phelan (2001), (5) those doing the labeling must have a higher level of social power than those being labeled. When all these related components converge within a certain social situation, “stigma” happens.

As we can see, stigma, prejudice, and discrimination are complex, thorny topics that affect the lives of real people—a quality that makes them essential for all people to understand. However, to understand, one must be taught. Children who have not been taught about the value of differentness can become confused, scared, and/or ignorant adults.

Happily, we have not been left alone to come up with an exciting-yet-understandable song and dance routine to explain worldly complexities to children. Many creators of child-targeted media—including he whose birthday is today—have forged a path, giving us the means to explain difficult topics to children using fun, memorable, parable-esque storytelling. We can use Dr. Seuss’s The Sneetches (1961) to illustrate how stigma happens, according to Link and Phelan (2001). Perhaps more importantly, the book also provides us with a path for moving past stigma.

The story of the Sneetches begins with both the noticing and labeling of differences between groups (stigma component 1):

Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches

Had bellies with stars. The Plain-Belly Sneetches

Had none upon thars.

We soon learn that the Star-Belly Sneetches hold more social power in Sneetch-land than do Plain-Bellies (component 5). In addition to ascribing negative characteristics to the Plain-Bellies (component 2), the Star-Bellies make active attempts to separate themselves from the inferior Plain-Bellies (component 3):

… because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches

Would brag, “We’re the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.”

With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort

“We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!”

And whenever they met some, when they were out walking,

They’d hike right on past them without even talking.

Even the Sneetch children have learned that it is acceptable to shun and be mean to those Sneetches without stars:

When the Star-Belly children went out to play ball,

Could a Plain-Belly get in the game…? Not at all.

You could only play if your bellies had stars

Dr. Seuss describes the negative consequences of this labeling and separation for the Plain-Belly Sneetches. Plain-Belly Sneetches are shunned, ignored, exiled, and otherwise discriminated against by the Star-Belly Sneetches (component 4):

When the Star-Belly Sneetches had frankfurter roasts

Or picnics or parties or marshmallow toasts,

They never invited the Plain-Belly Sneetches.

They left them out cold, in the dark of the beaches.

They kept them away. Never let them come near.

And that’s how they treated them year after year.

Discussing the meaning behind the fun, colorful rhymes from the opening sections of The Sneetches can illustrate the complicated notions of prejudice, discrimination, and stigma (and its components) in an understated, yet effective, way. If children can understand that the Star-Belly Sneetches are being silly and mean, they can understand that humans who act like the Sneetches—devaluing others due to “differentness”—are also being silly and mean, and should stop. In this way — hopefully—we can prevent or lessen the development of “us” vs. “them” mentalities. Just like the Sneetches, children can grow to understand the value and import of treating people with “unexpected differentness” the same as those without:

… the Sneetches got really quite smart on that day,

The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches

And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.

That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars

And whether they had one, or not, upon thars.

Emily Plackowski, MS, is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Psychological Science at Oregon State University and a student in Dr. Bogart’s Disability and Social Interaction Lab.






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