Monday, April 1, 2013

Guest Post: The Berenstain Bears and the Original Sitcom Father

[Editor's note: This week’s post comes from Dawn of Red Pen Mama, and is part of a special day of blog posts from other Pittsburgh Bloggers. You can see my own guest post over on Yinz R Readin, where I talk about a book I grew up with and helped develop my unfortunate sense of humor. My wife, over at Tall Tales from a Small Town, has her own guest post over at Ya Jagoff! I recommend reading through all of the entries in the Pittsburgh Blogger group today; there is a lot of good content flowing all over the internets today.]

The Berenstain Bears and the Original Sitcom Father

Remember the book Inside Outside Upside Down?

That was the first Jan and Stan Berenstain book I remember reading.

It's very innocuous, a book about word play and adverbs. And, apparently, shipping yourself somewhere and what can befall you.

At some point, these primary reading books morphed away from "learn to read" to "buckle down to the morality of our times, you worthless heathens". Remember the fun and mystery of Bears in the Night? I loved Bears in the Night. If the Berenstains (God rest their souls, and I do sincerely mean that) wrote that book today, it'd be -- well, it'd probably be somewhat like The Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers. (In other words, the message would be STAY THE FUCK IN BED or DON'T VENTURE OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE.)

My younger daughter has brought home a few Berenstain Bears books over the past few weeks from the school library. This is all fine and good -- I am instilling a love of reading in them, and any excuse to sit down with my children (rather than chase them, bathe them, or yell at them) is more than welcome.

They are the latter style Berenstain Bears books. The Berenstain Bears Forget Their Manners. The Berenstain Bears and The Real Easter Eggs. The Berenstain Bears and Mama's New Job!

These books, listed as First Time Reader books, bug me. Like, a lot. In no particular order:

1. Morality with nebulous spirituality. The Berenstain Bears invoke an ethical morality (say please and thank you, don't be mean, etc.) while veering away from invoking religion. Which, I agree that one does not need to be religious to be a good person (or to raise good people). But, as with the worst political correctness: It's so painfully obvious. In The Real Easter Eggs, for example, the "real meaning of Easter" is "new life", not chocolate bunnies, jellybeans, and colored eggs. Here's the thing, though, "new life" isn't the real meaning of Easter, any more than "picking out nice presents" is the real meaning of Christmas.

They are skirting the secular appeal of a religious holiday. It gets under my skin.

2. Mama, Papa, Brother, Sister. Did it never occur to the Berenstain Bears to NAME THEIR CHARACTERS? Who the heck calls their sibling "Brother" or "Sister"? Also: Mayor Honeypot. Makes me stifle giggles every time, and I'm not about to explain to my children why. "Well, see, the authors picked a name for the mayor of Bear Country that would eventually be slang for vagina." Not going there with my 6- and 8-year-old. Nope.

3. Mama as the moral center of the family. Without fail, Mama Bear is the story's moral voice. She knows what is wrong with her wayward children and husband (more on this in a moment), and through gentle redirection and/or the use of charts (no, really), she sets them firmly back on the right course. Mama herself does no wrong. Even when she eventually starts to work outside the house -- still wearing that polka-dot housegown and cap -- there are no hiccoughs, no difficulties to her setting up her quilt shop (of course Mama is a crafty female). And, boy, that extra money comes in handy when the family wants to eat at a restaurant!

The fact that Mama Bear needs to be morally superior in every situation is my biggest complaint. In my former life, I was a woman's study major, and the classic idea that women are inherently better than men has always been a problem for me. That the female spirit is more gentle, more pure, more *eyes cast heavenward*. It's an old idea that at various times in history has been used to oppress women. As the mom of two daughters, it's not an idea I want to be planted in their heads, which is probably one of the reasons I continue to work and have a life outside of being mom.

4. Papa Bear, the original sitcom dad. We all know the trope: Competent hot woman/mother is married to bumbling, somewhat overweight, man-child. The Berenstains, knowingly or not, started this trend in the 1970s, at the same time that women started entering the workforce in large numbers. (With the exception that Mama is never portrayed as "hot".) Papa Bear is as badly behaved as the children, doesn't impose discipline or morality, and is probably incapable of doing laundry.

Because I do not believe in dictatorial censorship, I do not forbid my children from bringing these books home. When I read them, I try to keep condescending or snarky thoughts firmly to myself. The books can teach harmless, ethical behavior, and provide a civilized example of family life for our animal children.

Of course, there's a whole 'nother peeve: All we see in the Bears' family life is the traditional, nuclear family. Anyone know if the Berenstains, before they died, tried to tackle The Berenstain Bears Meet Tuffy's Two Moms? (Excellent opportunity for satire: The Berenstain Bears Discover Polyamory.)

This Guest Post brought to you by Red Pen Mama, who usually blogs at Thanks for letting me be cranky! 

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