To Those Who Like to Just Sit Quietly and Smell the Flowers: Combatting Hypermasculine Tradition with PacifismPosted: May 16, 2016
The Story of Ferdinand (1936) by Munro Leaf
Illustrated by Robert Lawson
“All the other little bulls he lived with would run and jump and butt their heads together, but not Ferdinand. He liked to just sit quietly and smell the flowers.”
Joe’s Rating: 5/5 (“Well, it’s perfect to me.”)
I was first introduced to this marvelous and indispensable children’s book by Elliott Smith in a 1998 MTV interview with Carson Daly. Daly asks a clearly uninterested Smith about his tattoo, who succinctly summarizes the short book, saying: “It’s a children’s story. It’s called ‘Ferdinand.’ It’s like a bull who doesn’t want to go to the bullfight, but he does.”
When I was three years old, my family and I travelled to Seoul to go visit some relatives on my mother’s side of the family.
To preface the following story, I would like to reiterate that I was only three years old at the time, and most people don’t remember a thing from ages three and below, so I am going to function as the unreliable narrator here, à la Chief Bromden: “It’s still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it’s the truth even if it didn’t happen.”
I cannot recall much from my trip to Seoul, other than the weird-tasting corn dog that I had eaten, the delicious grape slushie that I had enjoyed, the buttery birthday cake that my aunt had made (we celebrated my sister Helen’s fifth birthday at her house) and the extremely fun time that I had had at Lotte World, which is, in a way, like the Disneyland of South Korea. I also remember the locals asking my parents if they could take pictures with me and my sister, which I later learned was because they had never seen half-Asian and half-white kids before—though all of this, while remotely comical, is beside the point.
One of my relatives, Dong, worked at a school, so I had the opportunity to visit it and meet some of the schoolchildren. What I especially remember is that it was a sunny day. I was in the schoolyard. All of the schoolchildren were wrestling each other, and now it was my turn to fight. I remember looking up at the behemoth of a five year old towering over me with a mischievous grin on his face stretching from cheek to cheek, the sun burning my eyes.
“’Why don’t you run and play with the other bulls and skip and butt your head?’ she would say. But Ferdinand would shake his head. ‘I like it better here where I can sit quietly and smell the flowers.’”
And then I remember him grabbing me and pushing me to the ground. Everyone was laughing, and I was crying. I didn’t want to fight. I was scared. Why would I wrestle this kid in the first place? I just could not see the point.
Granted, when I got older, I practiced kung fu for about five years when I was in elementary and middle school, and I wrestled for four years (I was no Abe Lincoln or John Irving, but I was okay), so I cannot say that I am beyond fighting for sport. I love watching mixed martial arts fights whenever I get the chance, and in addition, I do take guilty pleasure in watching dugout-clearing brawls, fiery scuffles between NFL players, and heated altercations between NBA players—I’ve watched the video of “The Malice at the Palace” how many times now?
But I think all of what I have just written about goes to show how deeply engrained hypermasculinity and violence is, not only within Western society, but within Eastern society as well and presumably in many places all over the world.
For example, see Madrid, where The Story of Ferdinand takes place. It is no secret that bullfighting is a prominent tradition in Spanish culture, although banned in some areas of Spain now, and matadors have been participating in bullfights for centuries now. The pleasure in bullfighting arises from the fact that humankind—I’d say man here, but that’d be unfair and inaccurate as there are female matadores who exhibit hypermasculine qualities too—has prevailed over what it perceives as being a beast, that the supposedly superior species has exhibited physical dominance over the supposedly inferior species.
Which brings me back to my initial question: why would I fight this kid in the first place?
“What they wanted most of all was to be picked to fight at the bull fights in Madrid.”
People fight to defend themselves, but in this case, I would hardly say that I was defending myself, because I had agreed—even though I was scared—to wrestle this kid. I had become an active agent in this fight; I wasn’t merely being attacked against my will, I had agreed to be attacked.
I wanted to win. Deep down, I wanted to prove that I was stronger than him, but I wasn’t, so that made me cry. The primordial nature of fighting and how rooted in our biology it is fascinates me to this day. Our evolutionary ancestors, the hominids, had been fighting since their conception for survival and dominance.
Today, many men still place a great emphasis on dominance in the form of physicality and sexuality in assessing their own self-worth. I know men who work out either so that they can really hurt someone in a fight or so that they can impress their romantic interests, which is rather ridiculous in my opinion, because I think the most obvious reason that people should exercise is so that they can lead healthy lives—hence the nonsense surrounding hypermasculinity.
“All the other bulls who had grown up with him in the same pasture would fight each other all day. They would butt each other and stick each other with their horns.”
But we no longer live in a primitive world that requires this of human beings. So, why do we fight each other and how exactly do we survive?
We survive and thrive by forming meaningful relationships with others, by offering them help when they need it, by bringing some sunlight into the lives of those immersed in the vast darkness of the world. Of course, there are times where we have to physically defend ourselves, but there is a fine difference between initiating violence and responding to it. You can respond with action or by running away, and running away is not a sign of cowardice—it is a sign of intelligence. That is why in the United States assault and battery are crimes, whereas self-defense or running away from dangerous situations are not crimes.
“Ferdinand ran to the middle of the ring and everyone shouted and clapped because they thought he was going to fight fiercely and butt and snort and stick his horns around. But not Ferdinand. When he got to the middle of the ring he saw flowers in all the lovely ladies’ hair and he just sat down quietly and smelled.”
Which is why I love The Story of Ferdinand, because Ferdinand’s refusal to fight is an absolute rejection of anyone who subscribes to the idea of organizing fights for the sake of fallaciously and egotistically extolling the glory of humankind. More importantly, it teaches children—as well as adults—the values of pacifism and how closely it is associated with honor.
“He wouldn’t fight and be fierce no matter what they did. He just sat and smelled. And the Banderilleros were mad and the Picadors were madder and the Matador was so mad he cried because he couldn’t show off his cape and sword.”
Why fight when inaction and words are in fact our most powerful weapons? Any history class could teach you of the successes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi through their respective practices of pacifism and uses of well-grounded reason. To quote the Midnight Marauders Tour Guide (from A Tribe Called Quest’s amazing album Midnight Marauders): “You’re not any less of a man if you don’t pull the trigger. You’re not necessarily a man if you do.”
So that is why I have nothing but the utmost respect for those who like to just sit quietly and smell the flowers.
“And for all I know he is sitting there still, under his favorite cork tree, smelling the flowers just quietly. He is very happy.”