The Tale of Mr. Morton

This is the tale of Mr. Morton.
Mr. Morton is who?
He’s the subject of our tale,
and the predicate tells what Mr. Morton must do…

Okay, maybe I’m being a little unfair to complain that when it comes time to teach kids the subject and the predicate of a sentence, the subject is male.

The fact that the generic subject is almost always male is one of those invisible messages that I would normally be complaining about my kids’ getting from the programs they watch. The reason I’m ready to forgive this one is because The Tale of Mr. Morton is of course a part of the beloved Schoolhouse Rock series of educational songs from the 70’s. And although far more of the songs in the series have male characters as their subjects, overall the series did an impressive job of giving kids fun songs with female protagonists and of illustrating racial diversity as well.

Looking at the following statistics you can see that females are underrepresented, however essentially all of the songs contain multiple female characters playing interesting roles.

Here are the scores in number-of-songs, by topic:

Grammar rock:
2 with female main characters
6 with male main characters
1 with multiple main characters (both genders)

Multiplication rock:
2 with female main characters
8 with male main characters
1 with multiple main characters (both genders)

One of the female subjects in this batch is the charming Figure Eight, about a little girl learning math from her (female) teacher and skating a “figure eight.” This one is a favorite with my kids, prompting my little Leo to exclaim: “Oh look! She’s making an eight with her feet!”

America rock:
3 with female main characters
6 with male main characters
1 with multiple main characters (both genders)

All of the songs in this batch have female side characters though they’re few in number. There’s a whole song about women getting the right to vote — and it’s a good song — however outside of that song, only one female character is mentioned by name in all of American History (Sacajawea, who guided Lewis and Clark).

Science rock:
3 with female main characters
2 with male main characters
3 with multiple main characters (both genders)

This is the batch I’m most impressed by. Not only is the solar system introduced by the fabulous Inter-planet Janet, they also did a great job of illustrating generic body functions using female examples. I love the fact that in the song about bones, they do an illustrated diagram of how a human knee-joint works, and then they pan out and show us that this is the knee of a female athlete:

For the song showing how the nervous system works, two of the three example nervous systems we see functioning are in female characters. The circulatory system is illustrated by a female jogger. And in body machine — showing how your body systems work together — the generic character representing “everyman” ;) is a black girl.

All of this should be something perfectly ordinary — not noteworthy — but I think it’s exceptional.

(There’s also money rock, but I don’t remember any of those from my childhood, so I haven’t visited that menu yet…)

And what about Mr. Morton?

I wanted to mention this one because not only is it one of my kids’ favorites, but it touches on something that was discussed recently on the Hathor Legacy, namely the fact that unattractive men are typically paired with attractive women on television.

Such a pairing is not objectionable on principle, but it seems that the ubiquity of it is caused by an ugly prejudice: that a woman must be beautiful to be a sympathetic character, whereas a man can be loved for other qualities. Additionally, it says that shows are designed for the male audience, making sure that the male viewer can relate to the (not-necessarily-gorgeous) everyman (who wants a gorgeous wife), with nary a thought for whether everywoman can relate to any part of it. The sitcoms about families with teen or young adult kids in particular make me want to tear my hair out — the dad is expected to look wise, so he can look like his real age, and the mom invariably looks like she’s about ten years older than her kids…

Anyway, even though Mr. Morton is a fat-guy-skinny-lady story, I feel like they didn’t do too bad here, and packed a lot of complex nuance into this little two-minute song:

First, instead of showing that the woman’s beauty matters and the man’s doesn’t, they show him worried about weight issues:

Now I know you’re probably saying “Oh great, real progress! Now men can obsess about their weight too!” But it’s not as if the woman involved is a supermodel. Yes, even ordinary-looking people fall in love!!! And all is well when the female character (who liked him all along) takes the initiative in the relationship:

All of this is what we were raised on back in the 70’s. Could be better, but overall I’d give them high marks.

Comments

  1. Jennifer Kesler says

    You know, it seemed to me in the 70’s it WASN’T that big a deal. It was kind of accepted that now society was going to extend the same opportunities and privileges to women as it had men. I saw Schoolhouse Rock as fitting into the future rather than revolutionizing.

    But since then, we’ve had a serious backslide toward patriarchal values, and now SR seems revolutionary instead of merely a sign of the times.

  2. Ragtime says

    Okay, maybe I’m being a little unfair to complain that when it comes time to teach kids the subject and the predicate of a sentence, the subject is male.

    But that’s just the beginning! By the end of the story, he’s not the subject! She is, and then they are!

    Mister Morton was lonely
    Mister Morton was

    Until Pearl showed up with a single rose.
    Who says women can’t propose?
    Now Mister Morton is happy
    and Pearl and the cat are too

    They’re the subjects of the sentence
    And what the predicate says, they do!

  3. says

    BetaCandy — I think that’s part of the reason I’m glad I was a kid back then. Since this sort of thing was presented as ordinary standard fare, you grow up with the expectation that this is what it’s supposed to be like. The backslide is unfortunate, but let’s hope it’s just a dip in the grand scheme of things…

    Ragtime — That’s a good point, and I should have mentioned that from the beginning. Really, Mr. Morton is a cool song overall. It’s fun and catchy, too!!! The kids chose it as a fave, it’s not just some educational vegetables I’m forcing on them.

  4. MaggieCat says

    Hee! I remember Mr. Morton! Well, actually I remember Pearl, but close enough. (I had a very clear recollection of her proposing before I even got to the picture. Weird.)

    No, nothing of substance here. Just unabashed Schoolhouse love. (I still know the words to “I’m just a Bill” which…. is fairly sad and I shouldn’t have admitted to it. Never mind. ;-) )

  5. scarlett says

    I think television, and children’s television in particular, is getting worse and worse. Just look at something like Degrassi – you wouldn’t see that today.

  6. SunlessNick says

    This is the batch I’m most impressed by. Not only is the solar system introduced by the fabulous Inter-planet Janet

    Best name ever.

    All of this should be something perfectly ordinary — not noteworthy — but I think it’s exceptional.

    And these days would be derided as “PC.”

  7. says

    Scarlett — Do you really think it’s getting worse? The funny thing is that I was right in the middle of preparing a post about some positive recent developments, but maybe I should curb my optimism…

    Since we just do DVDs at our house (which we or friends have selected) instead of getting the full spectrum of what’s on television, I’m probably getting a limited view. I’ve never even heard of “Degrassi.”

    SunlessNick — So true. Those people who complain about “the PC police” when they “just want to call a spade a spade” are such whiners!!! It’s not as if the supposed “PC police” actually have the power to stop them from making asses of themselves. But merely pointing out to people that they should try to be considerate is apparently oppressive to some…

  8. Jennifer Kesler says

    BetaCandy — I think that’s part of the reason I’m glad I was a kid back then. Since this sort of thing was presented as ordinary standard fare, you grow up with the expectation that this is what it’s supposed to be like. The backslide is unfortunate, but let’s hope it’s just a dip in the grand scheme of things…

    What sucks is that equality has become a struggle again; not just for women. I think invisible privilege is part of the issue: for one example, some White Straight Men, blissfully unconscious that they’ve been getting their jobs based on skin color and gender for centuries, see other people getting job opportunities based partially on such criteria and flip out like a four-year-old who thinks his sister got a bigger bowl of ice cream. And now that everyone’s “allowed” to attend universities and pursue jobs in what used to be “man’s work” fields, these guys want to claim that equality has been achieved, and no additional attitude adjustments – like to the sort of attitude that makes a boss automatically see a white man as the better job candidate unless firmly proven otherwise – are necessary. And so on.

    Maybe that backlash is a natural, inevitable step in the march toward equality. We can hope. In either case, talking about it and shining a light on it is one way to ensure the opposing point of view isn’t completely lost in the noise.

  9. says

    I think television, and children’s television in particular, is getting worse and worse. Just look at something like Degrassi – you wouldn’t see that today.

    I think there is definitely television that is worse than anything that was around in my Saturday-morning cartoons heyday, but there’s also a lot that is as good or better. There is simply a whole lot MORE out there — Nick Jr., Disney, PBS, etc. My kids love “The Magic School Bus”, which is absolutely fantastic, and Dora the Explorer, which is pretty good (except maybe when Dora has a Princess episode).

    But beyond that, not only do they have 10 times as much new stuff than I ever had — good and bad — the ALSO have all of SCHOOLHOUSE ROCK on DVD whenever they want, and I never told them its 30 years old, so they don’t know it didn’t just come out yesterday. (I watched them live, but there were still a half dozen or so I never saw because, for whatever reason, I wasn’t watching that day.) And “Old School Sesame Street” and “Classic Electric Company.”

    It’s perfectly easy to pick on horrible, horrible TV shows for kids, but after I have pre-screened for quality to separate the “Blues Clues” from the “Crap”, I have no problem finding gobs more good stuff for my kids to watch than I ever had.

  10. Jennifer Kesler says

    Yeah, but the parents who want their kids to ascribe to patriarchal values also have no trouble finding plenty of, er, “programming”. Which is not to devalue any of what you’re saying, I’m just highlighting a different aspect.

  11. says

    I do not disagree, but I do not see that changing even if every new program passed every Feminist standard. If no new patriarchal programming came out, those parents could just buy box sets of “Leave it to Beaver”, or whatever.

    I’ve never seen the goal as ridding the world of crap — just to have sufficient quality content that a normal person could watch TV (or see movies or read books) for a normal amount of time without having to subject herself to crap.

    With TiVo, DVDs, and increased variety, my children are watching a lot less crap than I did at comparable ages, despite the fact that there is much more crap out there.

  12. Jennifer Kesler says

    I’ve never seen the goal as ridding the world of crap — just to have sufficient quality content that a normal person could watch TV (or see movies or read books) for a normal amount of time without having to subject herself to crap.

    I would agree with that. My goal is not to rid the world of crap, either, for the very reasons you mentioned.

    But additionally, one of my goals with this site is to reduce the power of accepted norms by questioning them in a forum where people can respond. So even if there comes a day when there’s more than enough “good stuff” for me to watch, I may well still be here questioning the bad.

  13. says

    I agree with Ragtime that even if there’s more bad programming out there, there’s also more good programming. And technology makes it easier for parents to keep track of what their kids are watching (to make sure their kids are exposed to good things, and discuss with them the points that require discussion).

    It’s true that the flip side is that parents who want to actively teach their kids values that I would consider bad values have new tools and opportunities to do that as well. Yet I don’t feel like it’s my place to try to prevent parents from teaching their values to their kids, even objectionable values.

    I like BetaCandy’s goal “to reduce the power of accepted norms by questioning them in a forum where people can respond.” I’d rather work to change the mainstream norms of what the average person considers acceptable. Just raising awareness by open discussion can change things for the better. It helps people get a clearer idea of what values and norms are being sold to them and their kids and how so they can formulate their own ideas of what they’d like to be getting and demand that the entertainment industry provide it.

    In my own case, as a kid I intuitively hated the “Dennis the Menace” model of childhood. However, it was from reading feminist materials that I picked up on some other models to look out for that I hadn’t noticed: the Smurf model (“girl” is one of the many categories of person along with painter, jokester, wise man, know-it-all, etc.), and the “Winnie-the-Pooh / Jungle Book” model (all characters are male, however some characters may have a mom or a love-interest).

    Encouraging people to think about what they’re watching is the first step towards seeing them demand better.

  14. Jennifer Kesler says

    How much stuff did you instinctively chaff at as a kid, but you couldn’t figure out why until you started reading pop culture critiques in a class or online? For me, it’s a high number and that’s part of why I started this site.

    Another embarrassingly high number is the number of things that offend me now that slipped right past me at one point in my life, because I was inured by repetition.

  15. says

    Re: “How much stuff did you instinctively chaff at as a kid, but you couldn’t figure out why until you started reading pop culture critiques in a class or online?”

    I’d have to spend time digging through my memoires for those various “Eureka!” moments where I read something that helped me understand my own reactions to stuff I saw in pop culture. The two I mentioned in my previous comment are the ones that jump to mind, but there are others.

    I actually had a fair amount of “feminist consciousness” even as a kid. My mom is something of a feminist — yet she’s also a devout Mormon — so I was raised on a bizarre combination of feminism and anti-feminism as I described here: Girlhood dreams.

  16. says

    But additionally, one of my goals with this site is to reduce the power of accepted norms by questioning them in a forum where people can respond. So even if there comes a day when there’s more than enough “good stuff” for me to watch, I may well still be here questioning the bad.

    Oh. I certainly do not question your overall goal of pointing to crap and criticizing it in order to make it less acceptable.

    I was only responding to the idea that in the 1970s, a higher percentage of programs produced were quality shows. I agree with that view, but I nevertheless think that now is a better time to view media, because there is a higher total number of quality shows (including, though not limited to, those exact same shows from the 1970s), even if the percentage is lower.

  17. Jennifer Kesler says

    C.L. – My mom was a feminist and a devout Christian. That made for a really odd combination until I dropped the Christian part. Sorry, Christians – I think Jesus respected women, but the church? Got a long way to go.

    Ragtime – DVDs have revolutionized TV watching, and undermined TV’s ability to help set norms and standards and influence politics. That’s definitely a good thing.

  18. SulessNick says

    How much stuff did you instinctively chaff at as a kid, but you couldn’t figure out why until you started reading pop culture critiques in a class or online? For me, it’s a high number and that’s part of why I started this site. - BetaCandy

    I remember being disappointed for no reason I could pinpoint when I read Lord of the Rings, and Eowyn’s story ended with her giving up her warriorhood.

  19. Griz says

    What made Schoolhouse Rock exceptional was the fact that it didn’t talk down to kids…so many “educational” shows now talk to kids like they’re idiots. Yes, we have a short attention span, but I’m almost 40 and I still remember Conjunction Junction, I’m Just a Bill, the Preamble, and more…I remember having to learn the Preamble of the Constitution for a class and struggled not to sing it.

  20. Patrick J McGraw says

    Absolutely. One of the most influential figures in my childhood was Fred Rogers, and a huge part of that was that he spoke directly to children, addressing them as people, and directly addressing their concerns and fears.

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