The hugely popular “Wild Kratts,” broadcast on PBS Kids, features two enthusiastic, bouncy middle-aged brothers named Martin and Chris Kratt. The show, which features Martin and Chris turning into cartoon characters and flying around in a giant turtle-shaped airship with their imaginary cartoon friends—I told you things would get weirder—takes “the natural appeal of animals,” at least according to PBS, “and harnesses it toward the goal of teaching science concepts to children ages 6-8.”
All sounds good, right? To make a long story short, “Wild Kratts Live” was everything every crazed 8-and-under American in that auditorium dreamed it would be. Martin and Chris, live and in the flesh, bounced around in various absurd animal suits, pretended to dodge evil animal-hating robots, and threw in a few good-natured pratfalls to boot. All the while, a giant screen broadcast their imaginary cartoon friends above the stage—cartoon friends that, intentionally or not, provide a powerful snapshot of the increasingly strange “girl power” craze sweeping the nation today.
Among the “Wild Kratts” supporting cast, there are two highly competent and knowledgeable females (Aviva, “a cool, fashionable, twenty-something who is well on her way to becoming the most accomplished inventor this planet has ever known!” and Koki, “an accomplished computer whiz with a sharp tongue and an even sharper wit”) paired with one hapless male, Jimmy, who is “insecure, hesitant, and unsure—that is until he gets a video game console in his hands!” Jimmy also, somewhat suspiciously, bears more than a passing resemblance to Shaggy from “Scooby-Doo.”
Just to hammer the “girls rule” message home, at one point during “Wild Kratts Live,” apropos of absolutely nothing, a crazed cartoon Aviva suddenly shouted to the crowd: “GIRLS ARE GREAT AT SCIENCE!” There was a moment of puzzled silence from the audience; then, of course, a smattering of obligatory clapping. Finally, after this awkward spurt of well-intentioned propaganda, the show mercifully moved on.
I looked down the row at my three children, all boys. I looked at the many boys sitting around us, raptly staring at the stage. “Hey,” I whispered, poking one son. “Boys are great at science, too!” He nodded, noncommittal. Some cheap-looking robots, surrounded by billowing dry ice fumes, had invaded the stage.
Unfortunately, in its earnest quest for female empowerment, America—never quite good at moderation, and always quite good at fighting the last battle—is quietly and methodically marginalizing boys. Every day, through various media campaigns, America’s boys absorb countless messages that girls can do anything—and that they deserve our unending attention and adoration. When it comes to boys, however, the cacophony of “dream big” media encouragement falls oddly silent. The assumption, one supposes, is that the giant, sinister swath of oppressive male “privilege,” supposedly inherited by young boys, speaks for itself.
Spend any Saturday watching the Disney Junior channel—I actually don’t recommend this, as a general life rule—and you’ll see countless reruns of a promotional ad for “Dream Big, Princess,” a new, three-year ad campaign celebrating girls and the thousands of remarkable things they can do with their lives: Science! Karate! Gymnastics! Traveling to the moon! Running for president! Promotional signage for “Dream Big, Princess” has already appeared in some Target stores; in the television ad, as the music swells, triumphant girls are celebrated as “champions.” Any young boys watching the ad, amid its quasi-messianic strains, could be forgiven for thinking they were born into a far inferior, far less magical sex.
Chevron, for its part, recently announced the “Doers” campaign, which aims to encourage girls to move into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers. “Girls do remarkable things with STEM!” their ad declares, after showing a bevy of bright, spunky girls changing the world. Say what you will about the need to encourage more girls to go into STEM—and that’s a whole other conversation—but to an impressionable child, the message of the campaign is quite clear: Girls are special. Boys don’t merit attention.
Brawny paper towels, not to be outdone, recently launched the “Strength Has No Gender” campaign. “The brand chose women who embody strength and resilience in male-dominated fields,” AdWeek reported. “Each woman stars in a short documentary showing how she has overcome adversity. They all sport the traditional red and black Brawny Man flannel, too.”
Here’s a question: If strength really has no gender, why are we obsessively promoting one gender, over and over and over again? Sadly, many of America’s “empowerment” warriors, woefully stuck in the past, can’t quite seem to promote a message of true inclusiveness. It’s really quite simple: Both girls and boys can change the world. Unfortunately, I guess, that makes for a really boring ad.