When I process a topic, I do so through layers of growth and years of lived experiences and identities. I see dots and make connections so that a bigger picture can come into focus. I try to practice this with my kids and often the best time to analyze a fine point found in a larger structure is when we are reading stories before bed.
All three of my kids love The Berenstain Bears books; I loved them too as a kid and several of the books we read have my name proudly written in my childhood hand on the back of the front cover. My twins and I have been reading The Berenstain Bears each night for several weeks, and a couple of things hit me: Mama Bear is actually pretty progressive and Papa Bear is a dick who comes off as Mr. Nice Bear. The problem is that Papa Bear is all cisgender men and Mama Bear represents the women who enable, support, or ignore their behavior despite their claims of feminism.
Whether it’s trouble at school, disciplining the cubs, or claiming, “Manners are all well and right for cubs and mama bears, but we papa bears have other things to think about,” in Forget Their Manners, Mama Bear is constantly and patiently explaining to him why and where he messed up. She even lets him think her ideas are his when he finally understands something!
There are several examples in The Berenstain Bears where Papa Bear can’t control his anger so he shouts to get Brother and Sister to stop shouting (Get In A Fight); he can’t admit he is wrong when his great idea turns out to be garbage (Too Much Vacation); he can’t realize Mama is right when she suggests the kids need to be better about budgeting their money until he sees it as his money (Trouble with Money).
Papa is racist and judgmental when the Panda family moves in next door in New Neighbors. He doesn’t trust them because they are “different.” And when Mama Bear wants to turn her quilt making hobby into a business in Mama’s New Job, his instinct is not to support her but to cling tighter to his patriarchal role when he declares they only need one business bear (him) in the family.
As I read this to my twins—daughter and son—I am verbally adding footnotes and explaining why Papa needs to do better. I don’t want my son to think he can act like an emotionally insecure and ignorant man who, with a little bit of training, can be made better by a woman. And the last fucking thing I want is for my daughter to ever settle for a nice guy who just needs “a little work.” No one is worth training, and no one’s work should include it.
Stay with me, because here is where I process. These books are dated, and some of you will argue that things are so much better now. I will argue in a minute that they are not much better, but unless you are actively adding new narratives to classics like The Berenstain Bears, you are continuing to perpetuate the tale that as long as men are good providers and not abusive to their family members then they should be excused for their shitty behavior. This idea is so ingrained into our culture that popular children’s books that we grew up on normalized this over and over again. Papa Bear is a pretty low bar.
People continue to read these books to their kids without pointing out the flaws because that would mean pointing out the flaws in their own parallel lives. And this is where I want to argue that some things never change.
I am a LGBTQIA+ advocate and educator. I have public social media accounts focused on my life as a queer person, the queer community, and what needs to be done to make life better and safer for us. I get a lot of direct messages and emails. It’s a pretty balanced mix of thanking me or asking for advice and telling me that I am trash and should die. But a recent message wasn’t about either. Out of nowhere a man sent me a message that simply read: slut. I was hit for no other reason than to be hit. He didn’t have an argument or complaint, just anger — and he felt justified directing it at me. After some investigating by my partner, we learned that his wife is a member of Pantsuit Nation, a Facebook group page dedicated to equality, equity, and speaking up for marginalized voices. Because my partner is protective of me and affirming as fuck, she sent this woman a message to let her know what her husband was up to.
She already knew.
In this case, she didn’t know this particular example of his nonsense, but she “struggles with his comments and point of view” and doesn’t know how to handle it. She has asked him to stop “trolling” people but “can’t control him.” He sent me a few more messages looking for a fight, but I ignored him.
It was never this woman’s responsibility to change his instinct to message a complete stranger and call them a slut. I didn’t expect her to, nor do I think it’s possible to control him, especially when a misogynistic and patriarchal society still controls justice systems, higher education, and the workforce. The man who called me slut is a fine point in a big picture. He is Mr. Nice Bear who smiles for the camera, takes care of his family, and seems to be an upstanding citizen, all while sending threatening messages to a complete stranger who his wife supports—in theory, at least. And she is the woman who stands by him, ultimately hurting herself in the process. If she has any responsibility at all in this, it was to never have married him in the first place.
Until cisgender men can admit cisgender men are a problem, I am not convinced this world will be better for anyone. When it comes to their ego, lack of active allyship for marginalized groups, and their continued need to be hand-held through feelings, men are exhausting and take away from valuable work.
I am part of a group of dads who are actively trying to change this Papa Bear narrative by holding other men accountable. I asked my friend Doug Zeigler to compare the way he parents versus how he was parented by his father. “There’s no doubt that fatherhood today is vastly different than when I was growing up,” he says. “My dad followed the standard of his time – forever stoic, the rock, the one to mete out punishment when we acted wrongly.” While that image is typical, Zeigler is thankful that his dad was a good listener compared to the other fathers he was surrounded by when he was growing up. “I’ve taken that to the next level. I try to listen as much as possible to our kids. I certainly fail a fair amount of times, but the intent is there. They know they can talk to me about anything, and they have.”
Too often, men and dads get the results they want using intimidation or violence. When a man lets go of that need to control, the script flips. It shouldn’t be seen as losing power, but gaining space and vulnerability to do the shared work that needs to be done to make change.
Aaron Gouveia wrote Raising Boys to Be Good Men: A Parent’s Guide to Bringing up Happy Sons in a World Filled with Toxic Masculinity because he wants to go beyond the stories from men who had absentee dads or dads who gave terrible advice. He wants his kids, his sons specifically, to know and do better. Gouveia says, “Convincing parents of boys to stop limiting their potential by pigeon-holing them in arbitrary boxes and assigned societal lanes is the reason I wrote my book. Because loving your kids and giving them that gift of foundational and unconditional support is how we’ll start to reframe modern masculinity.”
Of course, not all men, but until all cisgender men can admit they are the problem, we are going to continue celebrating the Papa Bears in the world who don’t deserve half of the credit they get for being “good guys.”