Tuesday, December 01, 2009
Why I Like Caillou -- Max and Ruby Not So Much
One thing I've learned about children's TV programming is that parents have widely varying opinions about what they like and don't like. Most of my friends like Yo Gabba Gabba because it's got good music and has artwork that reminds us of the video games we grew up on. But those are just my friends. There are some out there who find the Cyclopes-ish, phallic tube creatures that populate the show disturbing. I happen to really like Oswald the blue octopus, but have a friend who can't stand the Backyardigans. There's no accounting for taste.
So I'm going to give you a few purely narcissistic reasons why I like Caillou, and one point of principle. Hopefully, you'll find the point of principle as persuasive, if not more so, than my own peculiar taste in kids' TV.
I like Caillou because it's Canadian, and I have a crypto-Canadian sensibility. It snows in Caillou-land, just like it did when I was a kid and where we live now. I go back and forth on whether Caillou's family lives in Montreal or Toronto, two of my favorite northern cities.
They live in a big old house like the one I grew up in, with a cat like I had, and Caillou is bald, or has a big round head, or maybe flesh-colored hair, sort of like my son for his first year. His grandparents are involved, the way mine are. They seem to be close to canoe country, and live in a city with good public transportation -- a subway, even -- two things that give me personal joy. I can relate.
Yet there are viewers out there who dislike the show. They think Caillou is whiny, and that if your kids watch the show they will become whiny, too. There are a number of comments to this effect on the show's website. Personally, I think this is nonsense: Caillou has a range of emotions, some of which include frustration, impatience, and anger, just the way one of the characters on each episode of Ni hao, Kai-Lan usually gets "mad" or "frustrated" in order to illustrate how people experience social situations.
But, as they say, whatever. The real reason Caillou is a cut above the rest is because -- and here's the point of principle -- he looks after a younger sister.
A younger sister? Big deal, you may say. In fact, however, it is a big deal. I admit here and now that I don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of children's television programming over the last 40 years, but my sense just from watching PBS and Nick Jr are that it's rare to see a show with an older brother nurturing a younger sister. Caillou doesn't always know what to do with little sister Rosie, but at least he gives it a shot.
He is older, he is the role model, he has the responsibility for watching after a younger sibling -- all things that are traditionally associated with female nurturing. Where else do you see this kind of male nurturing in kids' TV?
Let's go throw the Nick Jr lineup and find out.
Go, Diego? He has an older sister, Alicia who occasionally saves the day. Little Bill? Youngest child with an older sister April and a nurturing Japanese-American female friend, Kiku. Pinky Dinky Doo? A seven year old girl with a little brother Tyler, who "ends up with a lot of problems--problems that can usually be solved with the help of a made-up story from his sister Pinky." Olivia? "She is a 6 and 3/4 year old dynamo who believes she can do anything," who has a four-year old brother who "can quickly turn into an annoying "little bother" and "is interested in space, dinosaurs, robots."
Nick Jr programming, therefore, is populated with lots of pain-in-the-ass little brothers who need to be set straight by older female figures. A real-enough situation, with plenty of strong, precocious little girls -- but it is really as progressive as it looks to let the older sisters do all the work of socializing their younger (male) siblings? How would each of these characters come to view their roles as parents if we allowed them to become animated adults?
In this respect, the most egregious of them all is Max and Ruby. There is one little boy bunny, Max, and three older female bunnies: Ruby, her friend, and her grandmother. Max likes things that are "slimy, mucky, or sticky," whereas Ruby "spends time with her friends Louise and Valerie playing with their dollies." The show is pleasant enough, and has its own aesthetic appeal, but after viewing several episodes the overall formula jumps out at you: Max likes to get into trouble, make lots of noise, and disobey the rules, while Ruby tries to keep everything together and show Max how you're supposed to do things.
It's not all black-and-white: Max very often sees through the pretense of what Ruby is doing, or comes up with his own worthwhile contribution, and Ruby does more than play with her dolls. But, on the whole, he's a classic little boy who needs an older sister to look after him because, as we all know, boys and the men they become just tend to make a mess if left to themselves.
So I say: Go Caillou! You do your fair share of whining, have a preternaturally large, round, hairless head, and have a name that means, not coincidentally, "little stone" in French. Show us how you can help Rosie learn to find her way in the world, and how a boy is fully capable of taking care of a younger person. Caillou can do it, which means that when he becomes a man and has a wife or partner and children, he'll be able to take care of them, too -- without the constant presence of a female tutor.