In Disney’s new Winnie the Pooh television show, “My Friends Tigger and Pooh,” set to debut next year, Christopher Robin will be replaced with a six-year-old, “tomboyish” girl. Pooh Bear might not be the first place you would look for a broad societal malady, but a change this drastic signals one — not for girls so much as for boys — because Disney did not make it arbitrarily. Disney has too much money on the line, making $1 million annually off the Pooh franchise. Corporations like Disney are our shrewdest sociologists. They have the most at stake in their theories.
“Earnest” is the best word for Pooh. When Pooh improvises songs and hums, inventing games like Poohsticks, we see someone tumbling in puppy love with his universe, unafraid of being caught. Pooh’s “expotitions” overflow with wild activity — the kind that springs from curious love for the world, not a desire to dominate it. The bear genuinely likes helping others, scouring the Wood for Eeyore’s tail, inviting Piglet to live with him during the “blustery day.”
If his soul makes him silly, it also makes him wise. With all of Pooh’s spirit, none of us could weather the adult world. But those who love Pooh long after childhood love his earnestness, for we wish it for ourselves. Pooh is a humbler Don Quixote: We call him silly for doing unusual things, and for those things we admire him. But Pooh’s got one on Quixote, because Pooh can invite the reader along. “Pooh” is a children’s story, and Christopher Robin is a space into which any little boy can place himself, like the life-size wooden cut-outs at theme parks. I don’t think there was ever a barrier for girls because Christopher Robin was a boy. But for boys, it did make the stories special. It suggested that earnestness is boyish.
Earnestness is in higher demand with girls now, Disney believes. The wooden cutout is a girl’s body.
Who are Disney’s new cartoon male heroes? The title character of “Get Ed,” a futuristic crime-solving cartoon, is “part kid, part alien-tech, and all attitude,” according to Disney’s Web site. When he’s not taking lessons from his mentor, “Ol’ Skool,” Ed is “too busy speeding … on his rocket-board to worry about the future.” Even this blizzard of computer-animated vitriol will tire the attention spans of some boys, and for those chosen few, there is also “The Emperor’s New School,” whose illness-faking star, Kuzco, boasts the catch phrase, “I thought this was all about me!” (The model, no doubt, is the wildly successful “Shrek”: biting, occasionally vulgar — light-years from Pooh.) These are the characters in whose place Disney reckons little boys will want to imagine themselves. Christopher Robin is out.
Literature provides a cultural litmus test, changing colors when our culture changes. Today, more women read than men. The numbers send booksellers reeling, begging writers for novels friendly to women’s book clubs. More women apply to college today than men, leading to male affirmative action, so-called “spermative action.” There is a link between reading and applying to college, and the inquisitive quality in Pooh’s little poems and games.
Alone, such observations seem trivial. Connected like dots, they reveal a broader cultural trend – one that played on an epic stage in the 2004 election.
Tagging John Kerry ’66 as excessively thoughtful, naive about the post-Sept. 11 world, and pensively indecisive, George W. Bush ’68 punctuated his speeches with tough-guy jokes about “flip-flopping” and paraded his own unshakable principles. One might call that trait stubbornness, and many women in friction-filled marriages wish their husbands would be a bit less unshakable in admitting to mistakes. Some less-than-sensitive men find vacillating reflection to be what most frustrates them in their wives, admiring Bush’s consistent will as manly courage.
Cheney played right to the frat-house crowd, responding to Kerry’s reasonable call for a more “sensitive” war on terror with the jab, ” … as though al Qaida will be impressed with our softer side.” In case that was too subtle, uber-macho Gov. Schwarzenegger dubbed the Democrats “economic girly men” as frequently as possible. With these folk, the only thing worse than femininity is effeminacy: hence talk show host Dennis Miller’s vaguely bigoted quip that John Edwards should “get a room” with Kerry, whose home state is the only state to recognize gay marriage.
If Bush could admit his mistakes, we might not still be in Iraq, slashing taxes for America’s richest families, depriving detainees of legal rights, “staying the course” — the wrong course. But Bush rode the male vote to victory, while Kerry relied on the female vote, as had Gore. The Republicans lie in Disney’s debt. A generation of boys who aspire to be “part kid, all attitude, too busy to worry about the future” will produce the fighters to keep the Reagan legacy ruling America indefinitely, while the girls who admire Christopher Robin’s replacement will be reduced to writing “sensitive” columns about the mess that will ensue.
Noah Lawrence is a freshman in Saybrook College.