19 January 2008

Papa knows worst

So our culture's hostility toward traditional manhood/fatherhood is no secret. We've come to expect that the father-figure in popular sitcoms, movies, etc., will be at best a good-hearted fool, at worst a bumbling idiot, absent, or even malevolent.

But it's always more disturbing to see the man-bashing in children's media. A collection of Berenstain Bears stories recently arrived in our mailbox, a late Christmas present from a well-meaning relative. When the boys opened it, I thought, "Cute. Harmless sort of kids' classic. Looks like lots of them have nice little "morals" about sharing, first trip to the dentist, etc."

Then we read some of the stories. I found myself editing almost every page as I went along (one of the few benefits of having kids who can't read for themselves yet, I suppose).

First, there's the annoyance factor--that there's Mama Bear, Papa Bear, and their two little cubs, Brother Bear and Sister Bear.

But worse is the portrayal of Papa Bear. For instance, in "The Berenstain Bears Forget Their Manners," Mama Bear is trying to civilize her cubs (a worthy pursuit in which we wish her better luck than we ourselves are currently having). As the story begins, Mama Bear "tried going to Papa for help (though it sometimes seemed to Mama that he was part of the problem)."

As I read this, I thought at first it was one of those little inside jokes that children's authors sometimes insert, knowing that the adult reading the story aloud may have a little chuckle, though the kids won't really get it. But as the story unfolds, the truth is more sinister: Papa Bear is shown to be a boorish buffoon who doesn't even realize when he's being hypocritical. I definitely stopped chuckling.

Then in "The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmies," Papa undermines Mama's every attempt at proper discipline, until the cubs get so unruly that they embarrass him publicly. Then he explodes at them with ineffectual rage, which he follows up with a cliched and equally ineffective lecture. Fortunately, good ol' Gramps and Gran appear on the scene in the nick of time, and a plan is finally worked out.

It's been years since I encountered anything in the BB series aside from the stories in this collection--so if there is anything worthwhile in the series, by all means let me know. But rest assured, this particular volume has been removed from our family library.


Gauntlets said...

Ach. Those Bears are terrible. We received a copy of that manners book and got rid of it as soon as we tactfully could and for the exact same reason you mention here.

What amazes me about the books is their obvious delusions about reality. Around here, Dad never screams ineffectually or blunders discipline. That would be my job. Perhaps, if there is a positive note to be struck, that is what the books are trying to do: balance out the perceptions of Mom and Dad in the minds of children. Or perhaps other families are blessed with more level-headed women than my family. Or perhaps:

"I hate the Berenstain Bears," Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer fumed in 1989. "The raging offense of the Berenstains is the post-feminist Papa Bear, the Alan Alda of grizzlies, a wimp so passive and fumbling he makes Dagwood Bumstead look like Batman."

Rebekah said...

Totally agree. I always steer clear of this shelf at the library. Nice that we're not missing out on any exemplary writing or illustrating in doing so.

Kelly Klages said...

I remember the Berenstein Bears' "Too Much Birthday" book. Papa Bear (against the cautions of Mama to keep things under control) keeps getting more and more birthday goodies for Sister, resulting in a hurtful climax. I've noticed your point about this series, too.

Rebekah said...

Hey, I think I remember that one too if it's the one where they play Spin the Bottle at a birthday party--which struck me as extremely weird, even when I was little.