[(essay date June 1998) In the following essay, Bradford studies whether Browne's depiction of father figures in his picture books is representative of his perspectives on masculinity.]
Anthony Browne's picture books are justly celebrated for their playfulness, which manifests itself in several ways: through the play of language and visual images, through the intertextual play by which he draws on a rich repertoire of texts, discourses, narratives, and symbols, and through the narrative and discoursal strategies by which he engages readers in playful reading by way of the multiple possibilities of meaning and the shifting reading positions that his texts offer. Nowhere is the playfulness of Browne's work more striking than in his representation of gender, and particularly in his treatment of masculinity: Willy the Wimp and Willy the Champ play with and subvert social constructions of gender by way of ironic inversions of masculinity; The Tunnel overturns gender stereotypes through the fantasy and symbolism of Rose's quest for her lost brother1 and Browne's reversion of King Kong contests the patriarchal significances of the 1933 film. For the purposes of this discussion, I propose to concentrate on the father figures in Browne's books and on the ways in which gender ideologies are encoded in works dealing with family relationships, concentrating on Zoo and The Big Baby but referring first to two books of the eighties, Gorilla and Piggybook.
In a number of interviews Browne has referred to his relationship with his own father, and especially to the impact of his father's sudden death when Browne was seventeen.2 Such references invite a partly autobiographical link between the gorilla figures in Gorilla and Browne's version of King Kong with his own father, who, he says, "in some ways was like a gorilla, big and potentially aggressive" but whose "ways remained gentle." Indeed, Browne's King Kong is dedicated to "my dad; for me, the original Kong,"3 and the representation of Kong can be seen to comment on the rigidity of gender stereotypes, which view physical strength and tenderness as mutually exclusive. While these references are interesting for what they say about Browne's reflection on his own work, I do not argue in this discussion for an autobiographical reading of his representation of fathers, because texts are produced and received not simply by authors and readers but by and through the cultural contexts within which, knowingly or unknowingly, they form their views about the world.
As I have said, Browne's work demonstrates an intelligent observation and representation of gender politics, and his treatment of father figures inevitably involves the consideration as well of his representations of women and the feminine, since many of his books are concerned with relationships and power structures within families. To frame this discussion, I will draw on three forms of feminist thought and discourse: egalitarian feminism (exemplified by the work of second-wave feminists such as Germaine Greer, Kate Millet, and Betty Friedan), which calls for equality of opportunity for women; feminisms of difference (exemplified by...