Courtesy of Nickelodeon

March 22, 2017

Nickelodeon Tries to Join the Tolerance Bandwagon — and Fails Spectacularly

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Tolerance. Prejudice. These two concepts are on everybody’s minds nowadays. Racial, ethnic, political and religious tensions are flaring around the world — including in our own country. It’s an uncertain time for children to grow up in, and some aren’t learning about the importance of coexisting with others who differ from themselves. That’s where several media studios are stepping up. Disney’s Zootopia is the best example I can think of, giving both kids and adults a nuanced fable about prejudice that actually relates to the real world. Of course, other movies and shows carry a similar moral and, while they may not be as detailed, they still manage to impart the right idea to the audience.

And then there’s Nickelodeon’s new show, Bunsen is a Beast.

I cannot remember the last time I was so frustrated, so angered, by a cartoon. I spoke briefly about its crossover with Fairly Oddparents in my last column, but oh boy do I have strong words for the show on its own. In short, it wants to do what Zootopia did and focus on prejudice and tolerance. At the same time, it doesn’t want to do what Zootopia did and actually take the time to think about the premise, the conflicts that are being raised or how people actually act in real life. The result is a mess that actually ends up sending the opposite message!

Before I delve in, though, I want to preemptively counter an argument I KNOW is going to appear in the comments: “It’s just a cartoon! It’s just for kids! Don’t look at it too deeply!” That argument is complete and utter malarkey. First of all, can you think of any other industry where “It’s for kids” excuses poorer quality? (Who cares what’s in that Happy Meal burger, it’s just for kids!) Second, stories of all kinds are vital to us, and I do not mean in a romanticized sappy defense-of-the-arts way either. We have evolved to tell stories as a survival mechanism. Our species learns not only from personal experience, but also from the experience of those around us. The story of the man who went into a tiger cave and got eaten has simply evolved into the story of the man who arrived at work drunk and got fired. Third and finally, as I mentioned before, prejudice and tolerance are important issues, and the margin of error in delivering messages about them is very slight. For all these reasons combined, I assert that if Nickelodeon wants to play with the grown-ups, then it deserves to be judged as such. With that, let’s dive into Bunsen is a Beast.

The premise of the show revolves around Bunsen, the first beast to attend a human school. At school, he meets a boy named Mikey, who wants to welcome and befriend Bunsen. He also meets the hall monitor named Amanda, who is convinced that Bunsen is dangerous and should be kicked out of school. With Amanda, we get our first major problem in the show. She literally voices out her train of thought as “Beasts are different, and different is bad, therefore beasts are bad!” That’s not how racists and other hatemongers think; they try to logic out their prejudice based on evidence. The evidence is faulty and the logic fallacious, but the fact of the matter is that they still try to rationalize. Cartoony dialogue like this is not acceptable in a show dealing with bigger ideas. If we’re going to equip kids to encounter individuals who harbor discriminatory values, we need to tell kids where those values actually come from. On a similar note, look at this picture of Amanda:

Screenshot 2017-03-22 23.31.13

She has pale sickly skin, and with her braces she speaks with a strong lisp, to the point that she spits as she talks. In fact, in one episode everyone joins a team against her in dodgeball, leaving her alone on her side of the court.  It would almost seem like she’s a victim of bullying herself! That would make for an interesting character: demonstrate that the perpetrator of bullying may in fact be a victim, showing the cycle that violence can take. However, it’s made very clear that we are not supposed to feel any sympathy for her. In that case I would suggest that if you’re going to eschew any shades of grey from your morality, then at least don’t confuse the audience about who’s in the right and who’s in the wrong!

At the same time, we don’t know why beasts have never been in a human school before, or why they’ve never commingled in the past. A reporter brings up the last time a beast tried to comingle in human society, and the show cuts to a clip that shows a Godzilla-like beast rampaging in a city, until it’s explained to us that that was only a movie in-universe. What could have been a very important and meaningful piece of worldbuilding got reduced to a cheap cutaway gag with one line. Right there, in fact, is one of my biggest issues with Bunsen is a Beast: thoughtful and meaningful writing constantly gets shafted so that they can throw in some zany idea or unfunny joke. As a result, we know nearly nothing about this world and the general social patterns that exist. I’m not saying we need a grand treatise on the state of civilization, but at least some hints about what their world is like! This would normally be a nitpick that I could pass off, except that the show is trying to talk about prejudice. You can’t talk about human/beast discrimination without telling us the context of where that discrimination comes from! Zootopia opens up with exactly that: predators used to eat prey, until they evolved and came together in (relative) peace to form civilization. From there, the dynamics and mindset of each character can be approximated. Bunsen is a Beast fails to do anything resembling that, and is greatly impaired because of it.

Good grief, all this complaining and I haven’t even gotten into a specific episode yet! Well, besides the crossover, I watched two other episodes of Bunsen. One of them was the opener, “Bunsen is a Beast!”, which introduced our main characters and the premise. In this first episode, Amanda overhears Bunsen saying he can’t eat beets or he’ll turn into a monster. So of course, she spikes his water with beets, and when he drinks it he turns into a huge monster that rampages through the city and tries to eat Mikey. The plot gives animators an excuse to make all kinds of kooky designs for Bunsen’s transformation, but I fail to see how this relates to anything from real life. Sure, in Zootopia the Night Howler device doesn’t correlate to anything contemporary, but it can be loosely compared to the 1933 Reichstag arson (a ruler trying to paint opponents as dangerous in order to cement his/her own power). Bunsen’s beet problem can’t really be compared to anything. The closest analogy I can draw is certain religions forbidding the consumption of various foods, and that’s clearly a poor analogy because they don’t turn into rampaging monsters!

But, “Bunsen is a Beast!” didn’t frustrate nearly as much as “Bearly Acceptable Behavior”, which I found completely unacceptable altogether. It starts with the teacher telling the class that in honor of Mikey’s open-minded acceptance of Bunsen the beast, the week would be dedicated as “Mikey’s Open-Minded Acceptance of Bunsen the Beast Week”. Mikey is subsequently rewarded with a massage chair, a crown, a scepter and a cash check for $3,700—all within two minutes.

I am not even kidding.

Where do I begin with this? People aren’t going to hang banners praising you for being tolerant (except perhaps on Tumblr). You won’t get a crown or a massage chair or a check. At best, people will shrug and say “So? You’re doing what you should be doing.” Diversity isn’t a ride in a massage chair. It’s a constant work in progress, and it can be hard: being in a group with others who have different worldviews and different values than yours can make it hard to work sometimes. Conflict erupts, and some people will shout that it’s not worth it. Despite bumps in the road, though, having diversity in any kind of project or decision-making team will lead to an outcome that is of higher quality and better received by all. That’s what we should teach kids, not that they’re going to get financial incentives for being tolerant of others!

But this isn’t the central conflict of the episode. In honor of “Mikey’s Open-Minded Acceptance of Bunsen the Beast Week” (I hate having to say that), the class is assigned to befriend someone they wouldn’t normally associate with. Ignoring that delightful bit of wording, everyone presents their friends, culminating in Bunsen bringing a wild grizzly bear into the classroom. Not a cartoon anthropomorphized bear, a legitimate in-universe wild bear. Bunsen says that he normally lives in the woods “eating berries and documentary filmmakers.” Amanda sees the opportunity to get Bunsen kicked out. Let me clarify: Amanda, the villain, plans to have a man-eating bear removed from a classroom full of children and punish the student who brought the bear in. This is the “evil plot” we’re supposed to root against. There’s a point where she yells at the teacher, “As a responsible teacher, you need to expel Bunsen and his bear!” And… yeah, she would actually be correct! Now, they could have easily fixed this. Make the bear very clearly not a threat, don’t have him roar like a savage beast when he first enters the classroom, and then we may sympathize with it and Bunsen more. But oh no, they needed that HILARIOUS (read: groan-inducing) gag about him eating documentary filmmakers. That’s worth completely subverting the premise of the episode, right?!

I apologize that I’ve gotten so heated in this article. I’m a twenty-one year old man ranting about a cartoon, how sad. But this show just genuinely makes me angry. What’s so frustrating about it is that it could in fact teach the lessons it’s trying to teach! With “Bunsen is a Beast!”, just make it so that Bunsen gets sick or otherwise punished if he eats beets, instead of making him a monster. In “Bearly Acceptable Behavior”, make the bear actually docile. Instead, Nickelodeon is content to sacrifice proper writing for the sake of gags that are not even funny, and you know what? If this had just been another Spongebob Squarepants or The Fairly Oddparents, I wouldn’t be this angry. I’d be disappointed, but not angry. What angers me is that this show is nothing but a sad attempt to say “Hey! We care about prejudice and tolerance!” when Nickelodeon clearly does not. If they gave a damn about these issues, they would take the time to write it at least coherently. As far as Bunsen is a Beast is concerned, I’d rather have ten more seasons of Spongebob languishing from series rot than have a second season of Bunsen exposed to children. Nickelodeon… leave the social commentary to the professionals, will you?

David Gouldthorpe is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected].