Childhood is a time of innocence, and it's easy to dismiss children's media as harmless because of the simplicity with which most of its audience will approach it. The truth is all media is created with a message, and the messages we send to our children may be the most important of all. The same innocence with which they approach the world leaves them less equipped to analyze the underlying intentions. As an offshoot to my main blog, See Jane Juggling serves as a place for some analysis on the messages children's media send. My perspective is admittedly biased toward gender and race concerns, but I would love to hear from you about your other viewpoints as well. Rate the media (explanation of ratings to the right) and leave a comment, and together we can shed some light on these complicated decisions.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Mighty B!

The Mighty B!
Rating: M (G, R)

Overview- There's a lot to like about the idea of this cartoon. Co-creator Amy Poehler voices the main character Bessie Higgenbottom, an excessively ambitious 10-year-old "Honeybee Scout" who aims to earn every merit badge (all 4000+) and become a super hero: The Mighty Bee.

Bessie is extremely loud and obnoxious. The qualities alternate between endearing and infuriating. The plot lines focus around Bessie's outcast status and her ambition. Each episode offers some dilemma (she's too short to ride the carnival ride, she needs to win a dog show to get the "Pet Appreciation Badge" but has no dog) and then shows a series of outrageous, obnoxious, and--above all--persistent strategies to overcome the challenge.

The Good-

Bessie definitely defies a lot of stereotypical portrayals of girlhood. She's clumsy, wears glasses, has buck teeth, and doesn't have any characteristics that are overtly "pretty" or "sexy." Her goal to become a super hero is a direct attempt to defy stereotypes that portray little girls as princesses, and this messages becomes even clearer when Bessie is shown interacting with the popular girls from her scout troop, stereotypical girly-girls that are portrayed as vapid and often cruel. The show does not glorify popularity, and it does not shy away from the fact that Bessie is mocked and ostracized by many of her peers.

Despite this treatment, Bessie is not anti-social. She has an enthusiastic and loving relationship with her mother, a tolerable relationship with her brother, and is clearly known and liked by adults she meets  as she zooms through town.

She also demonstrates qualities that girls are often discouraged from portraying: persistence, directness, curiosity, and the ability to use connections to get ahead.

The portrayal of Bessie's mom is also interesting. In the episodes I watched, there is no father figure in sight. Her mother is shown working often, sports a tattoo, and is overweight. Most cartoon characters drawn the way she is are portrayed as lazy and uncouth. But the mom, however tired and overworked, is a loving provider.

The Bad
 Bessie, for all of her powerful girl-positive portrayals, still exists in a world where stereotypes persist. Most of the other women (especially the popular Honeybee Scouts) still fit into stereotypical norms.
Bessie is only able to be powerful and ambitious by accepting outsider status and retreating into friendships with imaginary playmates and her dog.

Despite being set in an urban landscape, the show didn't have much racial diversity in the episodes I watched. What diversity I saw was disappointingly portrayed. In the first episode, Bessie enters a Chinese restaurant. The characters in the restaurant are crudely drawn Asian stereotypes and--as Bessie slips into one of her superhero fantasies--they transform into kung fu fighting enemies she must defeat before being rewarded by Mr. Wu with a dumpling. While I know that not every show is going to be able to work to actively dismantle both gender and racial stereotypes, it is very important that it doesn't actively promote them.

Bottom Line-
I like the idea of The Mighty B! more than the execution. The protagonist has a lot of potential to break down gender stereotypes, but the delivery falls short. While Bessie does portray a strong-willed, driven female character, she is only able to do so at the cost of being ostracized, so I wonder how much of a role-model she would be to older girls. And I do think this show is geared toward older children. The scenes change quickly and the messages are hyperactive and erratic, and recent research shows these fast-paced shows might not be good for young children's development. Finally, the show does a poor job of dealing with race, falling into stereotypical portrayals.

And, though this isn't really about the messages it sends, the hyperactive plot lines, high-pitched tirades, and general silliness make for pretty nerve-grating viewing experience.

What Other People Say-
You can see some reviews of the show from Common Sense Media and an Parent Guide.

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