On 'The Berenstain Bears' and When to Say Nothing at All

For at least one person, Slate's Hanna Rosin, The Berenstain Bears were horrid regressive devils, and Berenstain's death merits a contrarian essay about the books' awfulness, complete with the phrase "good riddance." Good riddance? Good grief.

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Jan Berenstain, co-author of the beloved children's book series The Berenstain Bears, died yesterday at the age of 88. So, the end of a little era, the death of a lady who wrote homey children's books about a family of bears. Not much more to say on the matter, right? WRONG. For at least one person, Slate's Hanna Rosin, The Berenstain Bears were horrid regressive devils, and Berenstain's death merits a contrarian essay about the books' awfulness, complete with the phrase "good riddance." Good riddance? Good grief.

This morning, Rosin updated the piece, which was published Monday evening, to issue an apology for saying "good riddance." So that's good, those were indeed poorly chosen words. But she didn't back down from her main thesis: there are gender politics at work in the series that are just plain terrible. She writes:

Mama Bear’s only pleasures in life seem to come from being the Tracy Flick of domesticity, making up charts for good behavior and politeness, encouraging her children to use pretentious British affections such as “terribly sorry” and “lovely, my dear.” Mama is particularly painful when she edges close to the profound questions in life, as in the book that is actually called The Birds and the Bees and the Berenstain Bears and begins with perhaps the most insipid of the opening poems: “When a mama bear’s lap slowly disappears she has some special news to tell her little dears!” Lap slowly disappears. That has to win some kind of prize for evasiveness. I recall that in that one Sister Bear actually dares to ask how the baby got into the belly but I don’t recall exactly how Mama elides the question. What I do recall is throwing the book away in a fury during my second pregnancy, lest my subsequent children find it and become as attached as the first one did and I find myself once again, night after night, speaking about butterflies as a stand-in for human sex.

While Rosin does have a point about tip-toeing around matters of sex, her particular anger at these particular books seems odd and overdone. They're not perfect books, to be sure. They keep Mama Bear in a fairly traditional distaff position, while Papa Bear goes off to work or acts like one of the kids at home. So they're a bit creaky, to be sure, but really the gripe is fairly mild. They're just The Berenstain Bears, after all, a series enjoyed by plenty of kids who grew up not irrevocably chained to a set of 1950s domestic morals. But Rosin insists that these books are bad and perhaps damaging, so she took Berenstain's death as an occasion to bang out a few paragraphs for her website. Ugh.

A piece like Rosin's is a frustrating example of the daily blogging grind's creation of an ever-growing vacuum that needs constant filling, more and more and more all day every day. In a desperate attempt to not only fill this yawning void but to stand out in it, many writers/bloggers/whatevers like Rosin (and myself, on many more than one occasion) take it upon themselves to offer up something contrarian or needling or exhaustingly over-analyzed — in order to shock, to titillate, to lecture in cultural correctness. They're increasingly ubiquitous and thus increasingly dull; they've become so expected and yet so unnecessary. We should stop doing them. (These post-mortem bits of contrarian droning are particularly odious.)

We shouldn't stop criticizing, or stop taking stands against things, but we should definitely stop filling up blog space, at least on the day an author dies, with 600-word finger-waggings about the gender dynamics of the freaking Berenstain Bears, for cripes sake. Rosin didn't commit some grand offense — she wrote a cringey blog thing for her job. Been there, done that. The real problem is this seemingly inviolable mandate — one that produces a like-clockwork internet scramble the minute Something Happens — to craft the ultimate response, the acme of "Well actually..." But even if it's not ultimate or acme, it's still deemed totally necessary and worthwhile to write something, anything, to weigh in just to weigh in. Did Rosin really have anything to say about the news of Jan Berenstain's death? Eh, not really, but she figured she ought to say something, so she did. Mama Bear always annoyed her, so that's what she went with, for four useless paragraphs. (With one potentially actually hurtful phrase thrown in.) It's frustrating that the internet has cultivated that particular urgency within the cultural conversation, one that encourages people to immediately speak out, as vociferously or hyper-analytically as possible, about any old topic that pops up in their Google Reader. Sometimes silence is best! I'm not saying say nothing if you have nothing nice to say, certainly not in most cases, at least. Criticism is good! Expressing a (well-reasoned) dissenting opinion is often admirable! But on the day that an old lady who wrote nice stories that millions of children adored died? Yeah, maybe Slate doesn't need to have a negative horse in that particular race. Or a bear, either.

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