Bob the Builder and The Seamy Underbelly of Children’s TV
Mini is totally into Bob the Builder these days. Oh sure, Thomas is his first love, but there’s something about that catchy Bob the Builder punk rock intro song that takes a hold of him–takes ahold of all of us, in fact! The other night, Mr. Right-Click likened the Bob the Builder theme song to a taking a hit of heroin, something he has never done. But, I believe he meant to say that once you hear it, you just want more.
Mr. Right-Click now claims that he doesn’t remember saying that, and that he must have been asleep when it happened. Still. Can we fix it? YES WE CAN! Can we build it? YES WE CAN! Rock on!
Like all children’s shows, Bob the Builder is ripe for deconstruction. It was originally a British show, with British characters and assorted Britishisms. So, naturally, a linguist employed by HIT Entertainment hypothesized that the English accents, idioms, and Whadjyoumeansorree?s would be too much for little American kids to cope with, so they decided to dub the American version in American accents.
Which? OK. I do hope these people understand that we speak the same language here as they do across the pond. But yeah, OK, fine. It’s just that there’s a couple problems. For one thing, they don’t always remember to change the idioms and cultural norms. Like, in one scene, Spud, the talking scarecrow (!?) who is friends with Bob’s crew of construction machinery that talks (!?), refers to a soccer ball as a “football,” and then a few second later, Roley, the cement roller who talks (!?) refers to it a “soccer ball.” Hello? Claymation loopers? Shoddy Workmanship called–it wants its linguistic oversights back. Don’t you think it’s a little more confusing to the child in the midst of language acquisition to have multiple names for various objects than to have a different accent? Is it a football or a soccer ball? A FOOTBALL OR A SOCCER BALL, MOMMY?!
And back to the CAN WE FIX IT? thing. I get it. Bob the Builder is all about teaching teamwork. Together, we’ll get the job done. That’s swell. It is kind of distracting that Lofty, the talking crane (?!) always has to add his own insecurity at the end of the song–when all of the other characters say, “YES WE CAN!” Lofty is always saying, “Uh, I think so, yeah.” Which seems like kind of a strange message–a talking crane (?!) that has self-esteem issues? But what do I know? Maybe there’s some kind of purpose I don’t know about. Like maybe Lofty’s ambivalence shows that persistence in the face of doubt can lead to success? Yeah, that must be it.
A larger problem with the CAN WE FIX IT? CAN WE BUILD IT? thing is that Bob, the so-called “builder,” very rarely builds or fixes anything. He doesn’t really work, in fact, at least not as far as I can tell. The show should be called Bob the Invisible Laborer. Or maybe Bob the Project Manager. Or Bob the Delegator of Authority. Bob the Middle Manager? Because oh yeah, we see Bob going to a job site, getting materials, giving directions to the talking machinery (?!) and maybe, MAYBE, pounding in a nail. But beyond that, we never see Bob actually working. He’s more like the guy who comes and cuts the ribbon at the construction project with a pair of extra shiny scissors. Which you know, maybe is a perfect metaphor for kids to learn early on. Maybe they should learn that the dude who starts of any sentence by saying, “Can WE” do something really means, “Can YOU” do something. Like that woman I used to work for who would say, “Can WE get these papers graded,” but what she really meant was “Can YOU get these papers graded,” and I kept wanting to say, “No, WE can’t seem to do anything. WE don’t ever grade papers. All WE ever seem to do is sit on our ass drinking coffee and talking about when WE are going to get OUR new haircut.”
Maybe Bob is really teaching our kids how to deal with middle management without constant frustration and disappointment? Yeah. And to identify the sociopath next door–you know, the talking scarecrow (?!) who is always causing problems but then claiming that he was “only trying to help”?
Bob lives a European country town, complete with triangular shaped road signs (Do we drive on the right side or the left side, Mommy? THE RIGHT SIDE OR THE LEFT SIDE?!) and citizens with a penchant for drinking tea in the afternoon. Which is odd, if you want us to buy these are Americans, by the way. But more disturbing than that is the appearance of the town.
That’s right. The reason that Bob always has construction work (to make other people do) is because he lives in a town where the buildings are all piled on each other and crowded into half-lots. Bob lives in Southern California! Only it’s somewhere in the English Countryside! And, even more confusing to the toddler well-acquainted with Belgian Surrealism is the echoes of Magritte’s “La Poitrine” in the depiction of Bob’s town.
Yeah. What’s that about, do you think? Why would the makers of a claymation kids series make reference to Belgian surrealism at all, much less to a painting that depicts a pile of houses, shaped into a mound, and named after the part of the woman’s anatomy that gave them nourishment for their early years? Are Bob’s buildings actually just giant stack of man-made edifices that blur into each other, making him think, inevitably . . . of his mother? What am I teaching my child???!