When my daughter got into Berenstain bears, it was all my fault. I remembered loving the series, associating them with my old school library and a particular comfort there. So I bought her book after book when she was three. As I read them with her, she was fascinated. Here were books about real struggles with family and friends. But I was horrified. I’m not the only one to express the surprise at how regressive these books read (see Sara Petersen’s Washington Post article about it) these days. And like others revisiting this childhood favorite, I too was able to see little else besides the misogyny.
For those less familiar with the series, here’s a rundown: Mama Bear runs the house. Papa bear is completely inept as a parent, oftentimes working against Mama Bear’s efforts to teach the children manners, or get them to stop eating junk food, or to cut back on TV. In fact, Papa Bear is often her biggest challenge. When she stops cleaning the house, fed up with no one helping her and then telling her she’s nagging them too much, Papa Bear and the cubs let the house get so disgusting there are creepy crawlers in the bathtub and dog shit (“Little Lady’s Calling Cards”) everywhere. Don’t worry, throughout this standoff, Mama Bear still vacuums “once in a while.”
In perhaps what was an attempt to be progressive, the books make sure Mama has a job—but it only lasts one book (running a quilt shop). She also runs for mayor, which also only lasts one book. Both instances describe anxiety and sacrifices on the part of the family, which obviously they wouldn’t have to make if Mama stayed home.
Not only are the gender dynamics cringe-worthy, but there are other issues to pick on too. Many of the books seem to value conformity above all else. “The Berenstain Bears and The Messy Room” is a good example of the tone of many of these books: a clean, well-behaved child who gets good grades is more important than anything else. And don’t even get me started on Too Tall, who my daughter had a hilarious crush on when she was three. He is the “bully,” the bad kid who also happens to be clearly from a lower socio-economic class—his family owns a junkyard.
And yet despite all of these issues, this series was widely popular in its day—and remains in our cultural imagination. There’s even a pretty substantial internet conspiracy involving BerenstAin Bears and a hypothetical BerenstEin Bears as evidence of a parallel realities and “The Mandela Effect,” (summarized well here by Discover Magazine). And now, perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s a meme on Reddit even more overtly racist than the book “The New Neighbors,” with the cover edited so that as the Bear family gazes at their new and different neighbors—a (cringe) panda family—in this version they wear masks. While this meme is uncomfortable to say the least, I would be lying if I said I hadn’t wondered what a Berenstain Bear book would look like in “these times,” as my daughter calls the days since we first went into lockdown for COVID-19.
The first question I have wondered is, would Mama Bear have to convince Papa Bear and the cubs to wear a mask? It’s likely that she would not. The values the book espoused are all about helping your neighbor—”The Berenstain Bears Lend a Helping Hand” features Mama Bear staying up late fretting about the cubs’ selfish attitudes, to which Papa Bear snores in response and which ends in them helping an elderly neighbor clean her attic and host a garage sale. In “Berenstain Bears and The Trouble With Money,” the cubs furiously earn money and surprise their Papa by giving it to him. Over and over again the Bears learn to put others and community first. So even if they aren’t progressive, I can’t believe they’d be anti-maskers. So what would they be up to?
My daughter, who’s now five and somewhat an expert in the Bears thinks that right now “They would just quarantine in the tree house, order groceries and stuff.”
So let’s say she’s right. Then “down a sunny dirt road, deep in bear country,” Brother and Sister Bear are remote learning and Mama Bear is home, reforming her kids and Papa Bear, and of course taking care of Baby Honey.
We can assume Papa Bear would be of no help, probably telling the kids they can skip remote learning, or turning the TV up in the middle of their studies.
We can also assume that she wouldn’t yell at her kids to get on Zoom for class, even if they were crying because they wanted to do something else. They most likely wouldn’t cry anyway because she would have taught them the joy and value of learning online. She would make sure her daughter was muted on Zoom before she swore at the dog for the whole kindergarten to hear. She wouldn’t burst into tears at virtual Back-to-School night and have to stop her video for a minute because She. Was. So. Overwhelmed.
She wouldn’t hoard toilet paper, start drinking more, or snarl at some “entitled prick” for parking in her driveway and then mansplaining her without a mask on.
But even perfect Mama Bear might get worn down. Surely, even Mama Bear has her limits (which in previous books she has expressed through passive-aggression – like in “The Trouble with Chores”). She might start grumbling. She might let the vacuuming go. Or retreat into her quilting.
Because the linchpin that would undo the white, middle class, domestic bliss of the Berenstain Bears under the stress of these times is likely the very thing that held them together: Mama Bear.
Women have been disproportionately affected by COVID. And I’m not talking about the virus, which actually slightly favors men, but the large wake the virus leaves in its path.
Women lost almost twice as many jobs as men (1.8 times as likely as reported by the McKinsey Global Institute).
The Washington Post reports that “[o]ne out of four women who reported becoming unemployed during the pandemic said it was because of a lack of child care — twice the rate among men.”
The National Bureau of Economic Research predicts a widening gender wage gap, favoring men, as a lasting impact of COVID-19.
Women are also more likely than men to be shouldering the burden of homeschooling and childcare. And many are still working full time and trying to help children learn online. Which, speaking from experience, is a little like trying to simultaneously cook risotto and paint an exact copy of the Mona Lisa while also trying not to sound like an idiot on the phone to your colleagues.
So let’s imagine a version of coronavirus Mama Bear, where she kept her quilting business up after “Mama’s New Job.” Perhaps she had to close up shop for a quarter of the year while still paying rent, or reduce her hours/customers to fit social distancing guidelines. She’s stressed about the business surviving.
Best case scenario, she’s moved her quilting business online and it’s booming because we are all stuck at home and crafting more, so she is trying to keep up and work remotely, with Papa Bear hammering away in the garage at carpentry, also his home-based business, and Honey Bear needing a snack, and Brother Bear needing help because he accidentally closed the Seesaw app and can’t remember his password, and Sister Bear crying because she misses her friends and her teacher “muted me for no reason,” (really, Sister, are you sure it wasn’t because you were trying to do show and tell with your banjo in the middle of math?), and now Papa is either shouting in the background or is asking for Mama Bear to come and make him lunch because he can’t remember where the kitchen is (really fathers should probably be more offended by Papa Bear than I am by Mama Bear—he’s not even really a functioning adult), and What! Here’s another one of Little Lady’s “calling cards.” Best case scenario.
So yeah, I’m pretty sure while stay-at-home Mama Bear would be unhappy, working Mama Bear would lose her shit. And I’m not talking “The Berenstain Bears and The Slumber Party” lose her shit, wherein she lays into Sister for disrespecting Lizzie’s house by joining other cubs in a “popcorn-throwing, soda-squirting” wild party, I’m talking burn-down-the- treehouse lose her shit.
And while it’s overdue and I want it for Mama Bear, this redemptive moment, it also means that on the Berenstain Bears family politic barometer, women are more in trouble than ever. And it’s the stress that worries me. I went to donate blood recently and my blood pressure, usually low, was up 30 points. Whether Mama Bear is working or not, whether she’s lost her business or trying to make it work, whether she’s just taking extra-long on that grocery pick up to sneak a cigarette or she’s completely come undone, she’s under more stress than she’s ever been under. Because while all women are reporting more stress than men related to coronavirus: “57% of mothers vs. 32% of fathers say their mental health has gotten worse because of the pandemic.”
Because even before the pandemic, we already knew Mama Bear was more typical than not in how much of the domestic workload she shoulders, regardless of her employment status. (And perhaps that’s why she’s so frustrating, it feels close to home. Sometimes, in fact, I wonder if the pressure to be a perfect housewife is really a relic of the 1950s, or if it’s just moved to Pinterest.) Even before COVID, women took on three times as much of the domestic workload, according to the United Nations. Add to that worrying about your children’s health, education, and the long-term effects of a drive-through birthday party where all the moms are crying—not to mention our own health and isolation as well as that of our more vulnerable loved ones.
It’s a lot. And it makes one wonder: It will be years before all the negative effects of this pandemic, economic and emotional, shake out, but where will women be on the other side of that? Besides imagining a thicker glass ceiling as COVID increases gender disparity in the workplace, we are also looking at the negative health and social impacts of stress. And while Mama Bear and her cubs have always seemed to be cut of the “resilience” cloth, she’s never been through anything like this before.
None of us have.
So what should we do? Can we do anything? Will Mama Bear survive?
I do want her to, I do. She tells us a lot about ourselves, after all. Where we are going, and where we have been. But I think if she’s going to make it she has to undertake some adjustments. So this is what I want to happen in “Berenstain Bears and The Coronavirus: Trouble in the Treehouse,” in plot summary form:
After setting the couch on fire in a fit of rage, Mama Bear decides it’s okay during a pandemic to let the rooms get messy, let the kids’ grades slip, and for once not worry about who is learning what lesson. She and the cubs get a little silly, they have tickle wars and buy something impractical like a foosball table. Mama Bear starts online yoga classes, and lets the cubs stay up a little later. She forgives herself for letting her kids remote school in their pajamas. She asks Lizzie Bruin’s mom to meet for a coffee outside, six feet apart, and lets herself cry in front of someone else. She finally says to the cubs: Let’s just get through this. No need to pretend we are perfect anymore. And she finally, finally takes that bonnet off. In this delightful tale about deciding to not give a fuck about Every. Single. Thing in the face of adversity, Mama finally quits trying to teach someone a lesson, and learns a lesson herself.
(Note: Papa Bear is not in this one because he practically belongs in assisted living. Mama Bear needs a partner she can count on right now, and “feigned incompetence” just isn’t going to cut it in 2020.)
Now that’s a book I’d read aloud to my daughter. Especially in “these times.”
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