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Lynn Messina

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Let's Talk About Dav Pilkey, Captain Underpants and Misogyny

Posted: 10/25/2013 1:37 pm

This is the sentence that starts the crusade:

We need a "lady" monster so we can boss it around.

It's uttered by a mad scientist who's explaining to his dull-witted lackey the kind of DNA they need to make their Frankenstein-like monster out of a deranged toilet. If it's a lady, he says, "she'll wash our dishes and iron our shirts."

It can't be just any lady, though. She has to be pretty and young and thin.

The dull-witted lackey finds the perfect specimen: a young woman who's not only pretty and thin but also dumb, docile and vain. She stands obligingly as he points his laser at her, which she's too thick to recognize as a laser, and takes out a mirror to primp. Even with this promising arrangement, the dull-witted lackey -- in the grand tradition of dull-witted lackeys everywhere -- manages to get the wrong sample and the mad scientist transforms the DNA of an ugly woman.

Cue monstrous female abomination who destroys everything in sight.

***

The 6-year-old to whom I'm reading the book -- my son -- laughs because the image of a giant hairy toilet bowl on a murder spree is funny. I cringe and wonder how quickly I can make the book disappear.

The book in question is The All New Captain Underpants Extra-Crunchy Book o' Fun 2, which, along with word finds, mazes and stickers, has a comic-book adventure called "The Night of the Terror of the Revenge of the Curse of the Bride of Hairy Potty." For a story with a genuinely funny, whimsical title, it's one of the most horribly misogynistic things I've ever read.

Knowing nothing about the Captain Underpants franchise but troubled by this alarming strain of female bashing, I investigate. I ask two librarians about it. One concedes women are given short shrift in the series; the other complains about the facile potty humor and bad grammar. Jessica Roake, in an essay on Slate, writes that "girls have no place in the Captain's world." This observation is a minor aside in an otherwise admiring essay. It's literally a parenthetical.

Google likewise turns up nothing. I get a lot of hits about how Captain Underpants topped the American Library Association's list of most-challenged books of 2012 for offensive language but not a single one in which a person expresses concern over the withering misogyny in this series targeted at young readers.

In her Slate essay, Roake calls the series subversive and lauds its creator for the way he's able to relate to kids (well, boys) on their level. In Dav Pilkey, she says, "young readers recognize a kindred spirit... an adult whose sympathies, anarchic energy and sense of rebellion stand with misunderstood troublemakers everywhere."

It's these troublemakers -- two fourth-grade boys called George and Harold -- who "wrote" the Frankentoilet adventure I'm reading to my son. It's they who believe that women can be bossed around. It's they who believe that women should be bossed around. It's they who believe that woman are only good for cleaning and ironing. It's they who believe that pretty women are docile and dumb and that ugly women are mean and aggressive, already monsters in spirit, if not in fact.

The problem with this line of reasoning, however, is that none of this misogyny rings true for a contemporary fourth-grade boy. Fourth-grade boys in 2013 know better. First-grade boys do. My own son knows that girls can do anything boys can do. It's not even a question.

No, this list of ugly stereotypes is the casual misogyny of my generation. It's the aggressive petulance of a man who grew up during the second wave of feminism and believes a woman deserves only as much dignity as he's willing to confer on her. Dav Pilkey, like Slade Smiley on The Real Housewives of Orange County, who devoted part of a stand-up routine to calling a woman he didn't like ugly (a woman who then got plastic surgery to prove him wrong), thinks making fun of a woman's looks is comedy gold. He's a 47-year-old man expressing his contempt for women by passing it off as the benign sexism of preadolescent boys. He's claiming to reflect their values while actually propagating his own.

Subversive indeed.

***

There's a moment in the story when the dull-witted lackey seems to call the mad scientist on his crappy ideas about women. "Ah, you know, that's not very politically correct," he says when the scientist explains why they need a lady's DNA. The scientist shrugs off his concern: "So what? We're the bad guys."

The tone is sly, the exchange is knowing, and the faux-naifery is at full throttle. Pilkey, rather than imply that his characters are wrong in their beliefs, doubles down on their being right. In invoking political correctness, he's saying that it's not their thoughts that are wrong; it's society's censorship of their thoughts. Harold and George are fearless rebels speaking truth to power.

So the crusade starts here -- with this post, so that the next time someone Googles Captain Underpants and misogyny, he or she will get at least one hit.

Maybe the crusade ends here, too. Perhaps The All New Captain Underpants Extra Crunchy Book o' Fun 2 is an anomaly in a series that otherwise kindly overlooks the female sex (a safely shunted parenthetical). I don't know because I haven't read other Pilkey books. If there aren't more examples, then let this one stand as a lone disturbing aberration. And if it's not, let's talk about it.

 

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