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Sugar and Spice And All Things Manly

Updated on March 1, 2010

You know the old nursery rhyme:

What are little boys made of?
What are little boys made of?
Frogs and snails
And puppy-dogs' tails,
That's what little boys are made of.

What are little girls made of?
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice
And all that's nice,
That's what little girls are made of

Now, let me put that in context. These verses are from a larger poem called 'What's the World Made Of'. It has been attributed to Robert Southey and dated at about 1820. Robert Southey never claimed it however, so it's a sort of random terrorist attack of gender assignation.

It goes on too, oh yes it does:

What are young men made of, made of?
What are young men made of?
Sighs and leers and crocodile tears;
That's what young men are made of.

What are young women made of, made of?
What are young women made of?
Rings and jings and other fine things;
That's what young women are made of.

And onto old age:

What are our fathers made of, made of?
What are our fathers made of?
Pipes and smoke and collars choke;
That's what our fathers are made of.

What are our mothers made of, made of?
What are our mothers made of?
Ribbons and laces and sweet pretty faces;
That's what our mothers are made of.

There are other characters in the poem too, soldiers, sailors, nurses (for whom the author appears to have a particular distaste, saying that nurses are made of 'bushes and thorns and old cow's horns.'
Interestingly enough, whilst women in the poem can only be little girls, young women, mothers, old women (all lovely) and nurses (horrid,) men can be little boys, young men, fathers, old men, soldiers, and sailors. It's a lyrical minefield of gender inequality and clearly written by a fellow who rather idealised women, but not those ones who worked and had some form of authority (nurses.)

It's tempting to denounce it as sexist clap trap designed purely to indoctrinate children into their given roles, to teach girls that they are only allowed to be pleasing and lovely and most certainly never be horrible nurses, and to say that men are only good for going to sea and killing other people, and indeed, that's precisely what the poem is. The author, whoever he may be no doubt did not intend it to be a piece of gender propaganda, it was probably, at the time a casual and fun little rhyme dreamed up over a pipe, or perhaps something more illicit.

However, no matter how causally we tell people what they are supposed to be, we narrow the boundaries of possibility and we cause ourselves more pain than joy. Still, 'What are little girls made up of? Meat and bones and two X chromosomes', that's what little girls are made of,' doesn't have quite the same ring to it, does it?

You can examine the full work for yourself here.


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      8 years ago

      Your rhyme fits well in a horror story:

      "A heavy storm was under way. Pitch black darkness was only violated by sudden flashes of light.

      In a shady corner of a lodge some kind of creature, deranged and dangerous looking, was lurking, its head pointed down, its face almost completely covered by long black hair. Eyes pointed to the front, its lips whispering something:

      'What are little girls made up of?', its raspy voice was medula chilling. 'Meat and bones and two X chromosomes', it continued.

      Something dripped from the creature's mouth. Its color deep red. It was blood, human blood, emerging from something resembling a limb. A sudden flash revealed it to be a female arm, ripped open by brutal force. Loud chewing noices couldn't be missed..."


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