Fri. March 2
The Berenstain Bears: A Disturbing Formula?
Irate enthusiasts of the Berenstain Bears series of children books have been pelting Slate writer Hanna Rosin with goldfish crackers all week, after her less-than-humane “good riddance” to Jan Berenstain, who died last Friday.
With her husband, Stan, Mrs. Berenstain created hundreds of short, instructive stories about the Bear family and the various teaching moments they experience. The Berenstain’s manner of illustration, with cartoon-like drawings and lots of gaudy color, made for a smooth transition to other media (tv shows, computer games, even a musical). Over the years the grinning faces of Mother, Father, Sister, Brother, and Honey Bear have been affixed to scores of child-related products because, as Ms. Rosin concedes, children love ‘em. It’s a source of wonder to many grownups (Ms. Rosin, Charles Krauthammer, me) that children can be so irritatingly content with cheap-looking, brightly-hued, formulaic entertainment, but, well, they are. The Berenstain Bears hit all three sweet spots, with emphasis on the formula.
Every Berenstain tale features Father making an absolute prat of himself as he tries to solve some problem that the children have presented to him. But Father is never equal to the task: he’s always too proud or impulsive or lazy or showy or whatever quality is required to demonstrate the way not to be. Each time the children begin by having confidence in him, but this drains away over the course of the story as Father fails to pitch a tent or ride a bicycle or discover a honey-laden tree (when there’s a honey store not ten feet from the Berenstain’s tree house).
Who saves the day? Why, Mother Bear, of course: she is wise and adept, she alone exerts appropriate parental authority. She is Woman, married to Boy. In an odd way, though, the Berenstain Bears can be helpful for parents—if the parents are willing to provide a little sly commentary. In the series, laid out page after page and book after book, we see the reaffirmation of one of our culture’s most pervasive and destructive feminist tropes: that only women and mothers are really noble and capable, that men and fathers are (if nothing worse) foolish overgrown boys with oversized egos who must be humored, but who wholly deserve the patronizing smiles of the women and children in their lives.