The Hidden Feminist Messages in 'Schoolhouse Rock!'


Hidden? Sure, but certainly not accidental. I didn't notice it when I was a kid, but it sure jumped out at me when I watched the Schoolhouse Rock videos with my kids. 

And even small details are pro-girl. The nameless character who shows up in a mini-skirt and platforms in "Interjections!" is unbelievably excited not about a boy, but about an A+ in a report card:

Some of this consistent, cleverly feminist vision is due to Lynn Ahrens, the Tony Award-winning lyricist behind Ragtime, who wrote the music and lyrics for "Interjections!" "A Noun Is a Person, Place Or Thing," "The Tale of Mr. Morton," and "Interplanet Janet." -- Alyssa Rosenberg, The Atlantic

I love the Schoolhouse Rock series, and when my kids were younger they each went through a phase where they asked for the videos over and over again. It's impossible to miss the cultural messages embedded in the cartoons.   I realize that Rosenberg was reflecting casually on being home for the holidays, and not intending to present a thorough analysis, but there's much more to talk about than the "pro-girl" imagery in "Interjections."

I'm considering doing an exercise like this in my "Seminar in Thinking and Writing" class next term, so I'm going to kick this analysis into high gear and see what we can find.

In "Interjections," when "Geraldine played hard to get," the phrasing indicates that, despite what she says, Geraldine is not really offended when Geraldo "showed his affection, despite her objections."  Geraldo tries traditional macho displays of gifts and artistry, but only gets Geraldine's attention when he is cowering on the floor.  She bends over him and says he's cute, and the two share a smile -- though he does not relax his cowering pose. 

Then he turns into a frog.  

As a child, I always felt bad for Geraldo (though I misheard the lyrics and thought of him as "Rocco"). I perceived him as being gentlemanly and playing by the rules, and thought Geraldine was kind of stuck up and rude.  She only liked the man once he was cowering at her feet, and I thought she got what she wanted when he ended up turning into a frog, so I wondered why she looked surprised at the end of her segment. Looking at this segment today, in light of Rosenberg's recognition of a "consistent, cleverly feminist vision" in the Schoolhouse Rock series, I have to wonder.  The lyrics tell us that Geraldine "played hard to get," the two share a smile just before Geraldo turns into a frog, and Geraldine's exclamation point turns to a comma to show that "the feeling's not as strong" when she says the frog is cute.  So I'm perfectly satisfied with setting aside my childhood belief that Geraldine wanted a pet instead of a man. And I fully understand that throwing in a sight gag in a grammar cartoon is not the same thing as designing a "no means no" public service campaign, but the mixed message here is a bit troubling. Still, let's run with this idea a little longer.