Photo: Entertainment One
“Peppa Pig is a brat.”
An old friend of mine made this uncreative observation recently, and she's not alone in her thinking. I regularly see complaints about Peppa in my online parenting group.
It's true that Peppa’s loud. She’s direct. Some people might call her bossy. She oppresses her younger brother, George. She’s not humble (“I’m sure I can already do it,” she says while learning to ice skate). She regularly fat-shames her father and she breaks her mother’s computer.
But does this make her a brat? It makes her a kid, still figuring out how to have a personality and testing boundaries. So why are so many quick to label Peppa as problematic? Could it be the age-old expectation that girls are meant to be “good”?
Fiction, storytelling and anthropomorphised pigs learning moral lessons have long existed in human society. We look to fables and serialized stories to reflect our experience and help us process it. So, when it comes to media for kids, it’s important to have responsible role models, like Daniel Tiger.
But kids and grown ups also crave the messy protagonist. Think about it. We're in the Golden Age of the TV Antihero. For years, we celebrated flawed and dangerous men like Tony Soprano and Walter White, and now female and gender nonconforming antiheroes are getting their due. Those parents who complain online about Peppa? They're up past bedtime watching Killing Eve or Dead to Me. These are not your mother’s prime time role models. These are career women and mothers who fail to do the right thing, who struggle to hold onto their kids. They dare to be women who make mistakes.
In Peppa Pig’s world it’s not just kids with the learning curve; the adults are also confronted with their own shortcomings. They jump into muddy puddles as a family. Daddy Pig lacks humility and nearly embarasses himself at the School Fun Run. You can hear the change in tone when Mommy Pig gets cross and these instances makes me feel seen. I’m not Daniel’s mom—I’m Peppa’s mom, but without the lipstick. (While we’re on the subject, I want to know just how much therapy it takes to have the patience of Mom Tiger. Maybe her secret is that she lives in the Land of Make Believe?)
Recently, I was reading my daughter Robert Munsch’s classic story Love You Forever. The book delights in the chaotic days of early parenting. It reflects the feeling that the days are long but the years are short. Before you know it, you’re longing for the days your toddler flushed your watch. Criticism of the book tends to focus on the “creepy mom” and not the son, or dare I say, the brat who always said bad words when Grandma was over to visit. We remember his behavior as a phase, not a character flaw.
Gendered expectations are so deeply embedded in us that it’s easy to write off a female character as “bratty” for her tone of voice while overlooking or even embracing the slingshot-carrying Huck Finn-type as someone enjoying the freedom of youth. Much like the “model minority” stereotype hurts racialized youth, seeing only “worthy” female characters creates impossible standards. Girls deserve an unsupervised youth, free from stifling expectations to always be “good” or to know what’s “right”, as if female intuition is some internal moral compass.
We should be critical of Peppa for things like the confusing animal analogy for racial and class diversity. For the tiny elephants. We should be critical that for the most part we only see hetero, nuclear families with the exception of Danny Dog and his absent dad…who seems to be some kind of pirate? I relate all too well, dear Danny. We can also be critical of these elements while still enjoying the show.
So, yes, I let my daughter watch Peppa Pig. Is my kid sticking a hand on her hip and saying no because she watched Peppa Pig? Or is it because she saw me stick up for myself at the mechanic last week? Maybe I’m defending Peppa because I’ve been called the b-word many times, just for being myself. I have a feeling her sass comes from somewhere much closer to home, somewhere deep in her DNA.