Andrea U’Ren, Pugdog (2001)*

Written and illustrated by Andrea U’Ren, Pugdog (2001) uses animal characters to to challenge gender stereotypes by revealing their absurdity.

Mike loves Pugdog, who he refers to as a boy for the first quarter of the picture book. The two have a great relationship. Pugdog enjoys belly rubs, squirrel chasing, and bone chomping. One day, Pugdog is injured at the dog park and Mike brings the dog to the vet.

The vet informs Mike that Pugdog is a girl. Mike is upset. He assumes that he has made Pugdog miserable by treating her like a boy dog. The image facing the text is of a panting Pugdog in the foreground with the vet and Mike in the background. Mike has a hand over his face in disbelief, his mouth makes a horrified ‘O.’

One might wonder how exactly Mike would treat a girl dog differently than he’s been treating Pugdog. That’s what the rest of the text shows us.

Mike’s relationship to Pugdog changes radically with the realization that she is a girl. He forces her to act lady-like and diet. He brings the dog to the groomers for a make-over that includes removing stray hairs and getting dressed-up in a frilly skirt. Not surprisingly, Pugdog is miserable. The dog no longer has the freedom to chase squirrels or the pleasure of chomping on dog bones. U’Ren paints a bleak portrait of life as a girl dog. Being treated like a girl dog means having things done to you and having things taken from you.

While curled up on her bed, Pugdog reminisces about the good old days when she was treated like a boy dog.

Pugdog’s clear unhappiness becomes the text’s central problem. Is Pugdog unhappy because she is a girl dog? Is she unhappy because of what it means to be a girl dog? Is she unhappy because she was treated like a boy dog for quite some time? Is she unhappy because she can’t be her true self? I think how the problem is understood likely influences the reader’s relationship to the text. To me, gender roles appear to be the problem, particularly femininity, which appears to be characterized as passivity and immobility.

Mike recognizes that Pugdog is unhappy and tries to take her to the vet. Pugdog escapes from Mike and enjoys her day chasing squirrels and acting unladylike. Activity, movement, and freedom make Pugdog happy. Within the gender opposition constructed in the text, the things that make Pugdog happy are for boy dogs. Then again, what dog would be drawn to a life without treats, belly rubs, and squirrel chasing?

Pugdog and Mike are eventually reunited, and Mike realizes his dog is much happy when treated like a boy dog. Oppositional gender roles are not challenged, although Pugdog is encouraged to be true to herself (aka chase squirrels).

It’s certainly an odd little book. I can see the work it’s trying to do, but it falls short for this reader. Perhaps, it’s the simplistic representation of oppositional gender that I find annoying. Maybe its that I don’t think Pugdog is ever really represented as an agent of her own desire. The dog has no interiority, no psychic life. As a result, I don’t see her as really able to claim a true self. It’s also unclear to me what the author is suggesting about the sexed body and it’s relationship to gender identity. I guess I didn’t get it, didn’t get what it was trying to do, since so many or U’Ren’s choices don’t seem deliberate or clearly motivated.

I don’t recommend this one, but it does occasionally show up on LGBTQ+ children’s book lists, so I thought I’d check it out. I wouldn’t identify it as an LGBTQ+ text.

  • I revisited this book and this review after some thoughtful back and forth with j skeleton on Twitter.

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