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.

I understand.

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.


Anonymous said...

My wife is convinced that there is no Rosie. She's Caillou's Tyler Durden.

It doesn't help that the animation makes EVERYTHING look like a dream sequence.

He is totally annoying though, and Canadian as I am I cringe when it comes on. My daughter loves him, my wife thinks I'm crazy to call him a whiner, but I kind of hate him.

My wife says "He's not annoying. Imagine if it were your kids doing this stuff. You would love it." Maybe. But he's NOT my kid, now is he?

Ariel said...

Caillou's voice makes me want to kill myself. Other than that he's cool.

Will Tomkinson said...

I don't like either of them but I agree with your thesis. I am a "litle bear" fan myself. Just a note, "Aurthur" is an older brother with an impossible younger sister "DW". It is an example.

The Yummy Mummy said...

Let me begin by saying that I am writing this with Caillou actually playing in the background.

I personally find Caillou weird - he is 5 and bald - this requires explanation. His parents are very poochy. They are all very doughy people. I'm not sure why. Caillou's dad has bigger hips than me. Just sayin'

But what you said made me think...I think you're right - there are few really nurturing sweet male characters on kid TV and I think that kind of portrayal is vital. I have two daughters and I can honestly say that I hope they marry a boy who, even tangentially, connected with Caillou's nurturing side, his sweetness. Although with a more masculine voice. And maybe some hair.

I also like that Caillou has a sedative effect on my children. They stop jumping on furniture when he is on. Maybe this means they will pass up the guy on the motorcycle and a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon in his hand, for the boy with poochy corduroys and bad (or missing) hair. They could do worse.

Thanks for the thoughtful post. I'm glad to have found your blog (through Backpacking Dad)...


chicago pop said...

Arthur! I knew I was overlooking something. And Little Bear: haven't looked at that one closely. Thanks for the tips good to know.

buzz said...

Max is 2. How else would you expect him to behave?

The bigger question is: where are the parents??!

Gil said...

I agree!

We started reading the Max and Ruby books before seeing the TV show, and the books are all about Max. But, I am almost positive that the TV show is aimed at kids who can identify with Ruby, not Max. Max is an ever present obstacle who's always getting in the way. Ruby's dialog and actions pretty much lead the plot of the show, unless we take a break to see the mischief max is perpetuating that will get in ruby's way.

rtb.ink said...

I've been a SAHD for 17 years. So I've seen most of these shows come and go. Watching Caillou is like chewing on powdered sugar while listening to a violin being tuned. Though I always really liked Little Bear. I was disappointed when my youngest daughter stopped watching. ( There is an audio version spoken by Sigourney Weaver. I had it on cassette tape. You do remember tape?) The time your kids will be interested in these shows is really short. Two three years then it's over. You'll miss them more then you kids will. The wonderful thing with a lot of the animated children's shows is the art involved. In 15 or so years the kids will figure it out.

There is a long Wikipedia entry on Caillou. A lot of questions are answered there.

I really think the shows that come later have more of an impact. The ones where all the adults are losers and the kids all have snarky attitudes are a lot of trouble. You see them on Disney, The Suite Life for example. A few week of these and your kids suddenly have a nasty mouth. I had to ban them.

When my son was young I thought about how nurturing the male characters were in deciding what TV shows to let him watch, but abandon the idea. If he wasn't going to learn it from me, then TV wasn't going to help and if he did learn it then I didn't need the TV. By the time he was 6 or so he had moved on to Thunder Cats and TMNT.

Daniel said...

Well, at least on this side of the pond "Charlie and Lola" have the whole Responsible Older Brother/Role Model thing down too. (Though I think I once also caught the show on the Disney channel while in a hospital in the heart of Mississippi!)

It's all very good natured fun, that show is. I can't think of a single time when Charlie's been anything but sweet to his sister Lola.

Anonymous said...

Awesome. Never thought about it quite that way. I have two girls, and as a SAHD I want them to have a equal view of the value of men and women.

Anonymous said...

I agre that Cailou whines as much as Max does. Ruby acts that way because she is the older sister and to me acts much like alot of seven year old girls would to their little brothers...somewhat bossy. I know it may bother you about the gender differences between Max and Ruby, but it is so true in the real world. Boys like to get messy and him getting in trouble has more to do with his age than his gender. I think the show takes on a realistic point of view of sibling rivarly and shows how in the end they work out their differences.

Becoming Supermommy said...

First of all, let me say that I agree- Max and Ruby sucks. But not just because of the failings as a television show, for me it's that Max and Ruby are much-beloved characters from my early childhood in the form of VERY CUTE books, books that have been completely erased from history by this new abomination and the books that it has spawned. The genius of the old books was the way in which Max always outwitted Ruby, and that he wasn't intentionally bad or crazy, just... messy. Or afraid of his birthday presents. It used to be cute, now it's saccharine.

On to Caillou. I DESPISE Caillou! Not for the reasons you've listed (yes, he's whiny, but who cares?), no- it's because he's so effing GOOD. Caillou is desperate to please, he's good at making new friends, he's an ideal child.

And where is any fun in that? What kind of person wants to watch a kid just being perfect?

It would give anyone an inferiority complex. No matter what the situation, you can hold up Caillou as an example of what a child is SUPPOSED to do. And that's a character that I'm just not into at all. Rosie is WAY more interesting.

My favorite example is the episode where Caillou gets to ride the subway. Yeah, trains are really exciting. But what little boy who's CRAZY about trains is going to meekly walk away from that train without some sort of episode?

If my kids are going to watch some bizarre perfect version of a human being, I'd rather it was Mr. Rogers.

Anonymous said...

@The Yummy Mummy So what happens in your perfect world if 1 of your daughters becomes a nun and shuns all men and all sins and maybe yourself too? The other daughter shows promise and praise and comes out in college and marries her gf? My entire point is this:

I hope the best for my children, I watch what they watch and do little to curb what they would like to view within reason. That said no the 4 yr old does not sit and watch Friday the 13th. But if he chooses to like Max and Ruby over Little Bear its all good. I watch it and we discuss things while its on and after its over and relate it to real life events. I think we all should care less about what show is better then the other, though differing view points always makes it nice, but care more about interacting and conversation about interactions is more key and ideal. I also find it funny to see parents struggle with what the kid wants to wear. Example my friend has a 4 yr old and she fights with him all the time, she wont let him wear a long sleeve shirt with a pair of shorts and mismatched socks. Its what he wants let him be. I let my child wear all that and choose what his hair style will be for the day. If he is safe, its good by me. Like I said, I will not let him don winter coat and the like during a 100+ degree day. If he wants messy hair for the day, sure, go for it and maybe I will even join him. As far as my children growing up I dont care what they do for work nor do I care whom they marry, I care they are safe, and happy.