Unconsciously Enlightened

Frederique de Ridder

Subliminal messaging in the series of Pippi Longstocking

Welcome to 2020. The dawn of a new decennium encourages us to reflect on history individually and collectively. Those historical events which we have not lived through ourselves have to be told to us and we are compelled to trust the authority of our schools and universities to provide truthful information. Can we rely on their method of conveying knowledge? The debate about whether to trust their authority carries a history itself. The turbulence that was felt on the European continent in the 20th century fueled skepticism towards national governments amongst large masses of people, but one group in particular. Any educational institution under government policy, was not to be trusted, according to the supporters of the Deschooling movement. Deschooling was coined by Ivan Illich, an Austrian-Croatian philosopher who was born in Vienna in 1926. He openly criticised institutionalised mass education in 1971 in his book Deschooling Society, as a reaction to the way that education was practiced in modern societies. According to Deschoolers, knowledge should not be institutionally imposed, but chosen spontaneously and intuitively. A contemporary of Ivan Illich was the writer Astrid Lindgren, known for bringing the character Pippi Longstocking to life. Even though the series of Pippi Longstocking were written in 1944 and published in 1945, her approach on schooling was narrowly similar to the approach of the movement that was expanding during the 70s. In contrast to Illich, Lindgren’s criticism was implicit, but nonetheless radically effective.

More than seventy translations have been published to understand what message Astrid Lindgren wanted to convey. To target a domain this large, all the children of the world, conveying her message through songs turned out to be an adequate method. A child’s soul is easily poisoned after all. An innocent theme song may not impress one at first, but a second listen gives new insights. When one translates Pippi Longstocking’s theme song from Dutch to English, this is what is being said: “Two times three makes four, Widdewiddewitt and two is nine. I re-create the world, just the way it suits me”. Nobody, including Astrid Lindgren, ever took the liberty to elaborate what this re-creation of the world is supposed to look like. Yet what we do get to know is that the participation of the “re-creation” of the world according to how it suits Pippi, requires the application of specific uniform frame of thought: “I own a house, a monkey and a horse, and everyone who likes us, gets taught our basic maths”. Only if one can conform to Pippi’s ethos/practices, does this mean that one will be taught basic maths? Accepting a doctrine does not necessarily need the conscious approval of the person who is exposed to it. In other words, Astrid Lindgren’s mobilization only becomes apparent when reading between the lines. Different generations have effortlessly accepted and embraced the ideas of Lindgren’s character over more than eight decades. Astrid Lindgren has always emphasized in interviews that the emancipatory elements in her work of Pippi Longstocking were never her intention. Yet does it not become impossible to believe that, once you carefully listen to what you have been hearing in Pippi’s songs?

A regular day in Villa Villekulla probably marked a rupture in history. Pippi could not explain the definition of the term Spunk herself, yet she was determined to find it.


“Accepting a doctrine does not necessarily need the conscious approval of the person who is exposed to it.”

At the bakery she asks for “crispy Spunk”, but no one has a clue of what Pippi needs. The curiosity of Tommy and Annika grows, and they decide to accompany Pippi during her visit to the doctor to gain clarity about Spunk. Pippi underwent a check-up because it was Spunk that was bothering her. There was no sign of physical deviation. In the village, her research continues. A baby in a stroller caught the attention of the three children. Pippi asks Tommy and Annika: “Have you ever seen such a cute Spunk?” Tommy and Annika laughed, but the mother did not expect someone to talk gibberish about her child and she walks away angrily. Following their expedition, Pippi encounters an alcoholic on the street. She warns him about the danger of Spunk that could be inside of his bottle. The alcoholic did not really give a response. As time passes, Pippi seems to gain confidence about what she calls Spunk and she starts to label several acts and objects with the term. The episode, however, never gave a concrete answer to the question of the meaning of Spunk. Pippi seems to have control over new information. New information, that inevitably connected intimately to the re-creation of the world.  


“New information, that inevitably is connected intimately to the re-creation of the world.”


It is fair to say that the approval of authorities definitely feeds confidence. Institutional legitimacy has become a primary factor of our individual growth. Pippi showed that this confidence can be put at risk, when knowledge cannot be understood as soon as authorities fail to provide the tools to grasp it. Pippi seemed to be able to use a term without needing to define it. How come knowledge about Spunk is ensured by just one person? The only possible reason for this phenomenon is that the re-creation of the world has to start outside of the already existing educational institutions. The fact that Pippi sleeps with her feet on her pillow, rolls out cookie dough over the floor where her horse just walked, cuts off spaghetti with scissors only proves that point. It is namely obvious to everyone that social and cultural standards have never been introduced to her. She did not go to school, where people would have directed her to behave differently.

Without having knowledge about social conventions, Pippi never used violence to solve problems. She had the strength but she never abused it.

Ethical values obviously never needed to be introduced to her. If one would connect the dots, it becomes clear that Astrid Lindgren created a space in which the insight is emphasized that there is no necessary interdependency between values and standards. With an international audience from over seventy countries and targeting all ages, the basic maths can be taught. The standards being more concrete do not imply that they provide us with a stronger grip. A world without standards is imaginable, Lindgren showed us this through the story of Pippi Longstocking. But what would a world be without values? Is Lindgren telling us that we are losing them? We know at least for a fact that Lindgren has thrown the cat among the pigeons, by letting Pippi introduce us to Spunk. If we thought that we were enlightened, we have probably never been so blind. 2020 could be the year in which we can be freed from this humiliating ignorance: Spunk is coming our way, Spunk is approaching us soon.  

Some works are destined to be timeless. This definitely applies to Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking. From Boomers to millennials to Generation Z, there is something about Pippi that bridges gaps. Lindgren seemed to have had knowledge about where the world would be in 2020. Lindgren handed Pippi Longstocking Spunk, and Pippi handed it right back to us. It has made us look for something without knowing what it implies. It is everything and nothing at the same time. It is an unsatisfying quest for something that is predestined to be grasped by everyone but not to be defined by anyone. For once, let us get rid of the satisfying illusion that everything is in our power, or that power is depended on anything but ourselves. Spunk is hanging in the air and that is perceivable amongst us all. We got into something irreversible. Let Spunk overcome us.


First published February 2020. Volume 15, Issue 2.