So, first things first, we need to establish that I am “that person”. You know, the one who shouts things at the screen when kiddie shows get something wrong, like for example when there are, say, the wrong number of legs on a spider. They always get that wrong and it bugs the shit out of me. Or when the Wonder Pets saved a groundhog that was the spitting image of George R.R. Martin and nobody died. That one really pissed me off. I mean, it’s one thing to have missed the lesson that a) spiders are not insects and b) that arachnids have 8 legs. It’s a whole ‘nother thing to not have someone die when a GRRM stand-in is involved. I don’t care if it’s a kiddie show. Surely those silly preschool pets mess up from time to time. But I digress.
I’m also that person who composes theoretical Master’s Theses in her head regarding just about everything I view more than about 5 times.* This is a quasi-occupational hazard of majoring in creative writing and film studies. Roughly 80% of my undergraduate experience involved deep philosophical analysis of things most people perused for fun, like horror films or 70s porn (yes, really). But those highly marketable skills (*cough*) keep me sane while watching Finding Nemo for the 786,903rd time. Trust me, there’s rich material in that one.
And so it was that my 3 year old daughter recently discovered “The Wonder Pets”. In reality, we were home for some sort of illness or injury (not that there’s been a lot of those or anything) and she wanted something with an owl in it and through the wonder of internet enabled television, I was able to oblige. Over and over and over again. Something about those little critters really speaks to her. Of course, they speak to me as well, but it’s more along the lines of wanting to gouge my eyes and ears with sharp objects.
When I first encountered the show back when it debuted when my son was 3 it didn’t really tweak my intellectual sensors. At all. It was cute, vapid, and mostly harmless. Who can object to a message of working together to overcome obstacles? My son watched it for about a year and then abandoned it for Scooby Doo (a whole other blog post).
In the intervening 7 years, I’ve had a bit of a feminist reawakening. The degree to which I scream that from the rooftops varies, but a huge issue for me lately, some from feminism generally, some from having a son who doesn’t always conform to gender roles, a whole lot from having a daughter who is, let’s face it, my daughter, is gender essentialization and the portrayal of girls in the media generally. Through this lens, Wonder Pets is a whole new ball game.
Let’s look at these characters. All of them wear neutral (i.e., not stereotypically female coded**) colors and headgear. Nevertheless, Ming Ming the duckling is pretty clearly coded as female – if any of them wear a dress or other codes for girlhood, it’s her. I’m pretty sure they use female pronouns when describing her as well. Tuck, the turtle, is implicitly male. Honestly, I’m not even sure anymore why it is so abundantly clear that Tuck is male, but he is, trust me. But Linny the guinea pig is more ambiguous. I had coded this character as male in my head for a lot of reasons, most of them not very good ones, but definitely reflective of our culture. Linny is the leader and the book-smart know it all. Linny is also shown dancing with a female sugar plum fairy character in the Nutcracker episode if that’s any indication (as is Tuck, Ming Ming gets a male-coded partner).
Which kind of brings me to my point, which is that the Wonder Pets is a show that is seriously (sewiriously?) comfortable with gender ambiguity and non-conformity in a way that is completely and utterly age appropriate. In one episode, Linny (who is female, per a book my daughter was recently given; and, you know, Google) and Ming Ming both want to play with blue cars. Tuck wants to fit in, so he chooses a blue car as well. But he really wants the pink one. Both girls urge him to be true to himself, so he puts the blue car back and takes a pink one. Nothing is ever said about gender associations, it is never a big deal that Tuck wants a pink car because it’s pink. There’s no implication that he’s feeling social awkward about the implicitly gendered nature of his choice. He’s a kid, er turtle, who likes the pink car better.
And that, my friends, is why I will tolerate any amount of what my father calls, “The Wonder Rats” in my home. Because that is the kind of messaging that kids need to see – not just that it is okay to be who you are, but that kids are kids and toys are toys and no one has to wear glitter and sparkles to make up for being a leader, girls can dance with girls and it’s no big deal. Although it still feels like my brain is rotting out of my ear.
*Note, I will never be going back to graduate school. At least not until I get my law school loans paid off. Which I thought were on a 10 year plan. Since I graduated in 1999, clearly I was mistaken. Winning the lottery or discovering that I’ve inherited millions of dollars from a wealthy relative that I’ve most definitely never heard of are acceptable alternatives.
**Another whole ‘nother blog post and a rant I will get to at some point, but I can’t keep writing forever. At some point my children will want feeding.
Featured image by Flickr user Orangedrummaboy, via Creative Commons License.