Irish Times

Monday, February 12, 2001

Better look out,
Bob! It's feminazis

By John Waters
Irish Times

If proof were needed of how silly is the idea that attachment to certain life roles is "socially constructed", you only have to look at the characters and storylines appealing to young children. The latest craze is Bob the Builder, perhaps the most recent spectacular cartoon character success.

Bob the Builder, six months old, is estimated to be worth £250 million. Sales of TV, video and merchandising rights have put HIT Entertainments among the top British media companies.

Bob's first single beat Westlife and Eminem to the Christmas No 1 spot, and the videos have demolished all opposition. A recent article in Investor Week attributed Bob's success to "pester power", described as the exploitation of young children's increasing "purchasing power".

Bob is based on fairly unreconstructed notions of manhood: a wrench-wielding, hard-hatted archetype who, with friends Scoop, Muck, Lofty et al, clears up messes, gets a grip on sticky situations, saves the day and gets the job done. Meanwhile, Wendy runs the office and answers the phone. (Although, one day, when Bob has flu and there's a major job to be done resurfacing the main road into the village, Wendy takes over and all goes smoothly until Dizzy gets stuck in some concrete.)

Children go mad for Bob in the same way as, in the past, they went mad for Postman Pat and Thomas the Tank Engine. These characters have in common their adherence to what might be termed the traditional male ethic of getting on with the job.

Having worked for CIÉ and An Post, what I observe, reading the exploits of Thomas and Pat to my daughter, is how faithfully they record the spirit of the life of working men - their esteem for values like reliability, duty, cooperation, hard work and getting the job done because it is your job. You don't find many cartoons about psychiatrists, social workers or professors of sociology at UCD.

BOB, in his cunning, exploitative way, is a simple representation of what Camille Paglia has called the "sublime male poetry" of construction. Bob, to paraphrase the (sublime) Ms Paglia, ties us to Ancient Egypt, where monumental architecture was first imagined and achieved.

He also brings to mind those beautiful words of Robert Bly, among the most moving ever written about loss: "Industrial circumstances took the father to a place where his sons and daughters could no longer watch him minute by minute, or hour by hour, as he fumbled incompetently with hoes, bolts, saws, shed doors, ploughs, wagons. His incompetence left holes or gaps where the sons and daughters could do better".

It is as though "pester power" is an expression of some deep hankering in the souls of our children, as though in these superficial cartoon characters there is recognition of some primal need in children, especially little boys, to encounter men who do and make things with their hands; who turn up, hail, rain or snow, and get the job finished; for whom the notion of service - to the public/customer/company - is a matter of pride and honour.

In his theory of language, the great American linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky illustrated that linguistic capacity, for all the perceived difference between languages, is an innate, biological feature of the human mind.

Observing that language structure follows the same deep-seated principles the world over, Chomsky demonstrated that the mind has a system of cognitive structures which develop in much the same way as the physical organs of the body.

Noting many characteristics in language use and perception by children, without any relevant experience by which such knowledge could have been learned, he established that children acquire language in a manner suggesting that they are born with a large part of the lingustic apparatus already formed.

Attempts to adapt Chomsky's theories to other areas have not moved far beyond the speculative, but his findings will surely have profound implications for many aspects of human activity and expression.

It is likely, as common sense would have it anyway, that children are born with many innate and primal needs and characteristics - including gender-based responses - and that these are reflected in the things they are attracted to.

Such insights render nonsensical and dangerous the contemporary emphasis on teaching which seems intent upon the deconstruction of certain unapproved elements of our culture - most notably masculinity - presumed to be "socially constructed".

But perhaps we had better not draw attention to Bob, lest the feminazis go after him. If you think this implausible, consider Babar the Elephant, targeted by the custodians of political correctness on account of the dangerous messages he is transmitting to the young.

You will recall that Babar, orphaned by a big-game hunter, runs away from the jungle and ends up in the city, where he befriends a nice old lady, drives a car and wears a fetching green suit. Teachers in Massachusetts have been warned against using Babar, because he "extols the virtues of a European, middle-class lifestyle and disparages the animals and people who have remained in the jungle".

You think I'm making this up. Could I? Believe me, friends, this kind of thinking is coming soon to a kindergarten near you.

© 2001