The Hidden Feminist Messages in 'Schoolhouse Rock!'

One of the joys of coming home for the holidays is the chance to encounter your past cultural self: the once-beloved books on old bedroom shelves, the cassette tapes in dusty racks, the videos in obsolete formats. Sometimes, it just takes the raised text on a cover or the opening lines of a song or a movie. And sometimes, when you come back to art as an adult, you find meaning in it that you never realized you absorbed all those years ago.

I guess it's funny that the art that inspired that most recent realization for me is Schoolhouse Rock!, the educational music videos that aired on ABC from 1973 to 1985 and 1993 to 1999. Schoolhouse Rock! wasn't narrative, and it didn't have a set of endearing characters to give the sketches continuity, like Sesame Street. I didn't even see it on television. Instead, I fell in love with Schoolhouse Rock! through that goofiest of all theater nerd rituals: a middle school musical production based on the videos. More than a decade later, I can still sing some of the songs by heart, and I still hear the preamble to the Constitution in the sing-songy diction Schoolhouse Rock! used to turn those immortal words into an earworm.

But looking back through the videos on YouTube, I realized I didn't see at the time how many feminist lessons Schoolhouse Rock! snuck in alongside the reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Some of the songs are the obvious product of the feminist ferment of the era. The 1976 chronicle of the suffrage movement, "Sufferin' 'Til Suffrage," turns a pin-curled and blue-jeaned narrator into a voting-booth-commandeering superheroine who can turn the names of feminist advocates into a joyful chant:

And 1993's "The Tale of Mr. Morton" features a nervous male protagonist, and the neighbor who wins his heart. "Who says women can't propose?" the song reminds young viewers as a punchline, as the lovers head off into their happily ever after:

But it's the less obvious songs that are more interesting. 1978's "Interplanet Janet" places female astronauts front and center, repurposing the Superman tagline "It's a bird! It's a plane!" to make a cute, autograph-collecting girl explorer the center of the space race:

The adventurer who chastises a neighbor who is bad to her dog, survives bandits, and catches a friend when he slips and falls—and then goes to the soda shop with him to dance to the oldies—in 1973's "A Noun is a Person, Place or Thing" is another cheerful little girl:

There's another solo-girl camper who confronts bears and other dangers of the wilderness in 1975's "Unpack Your Adjectives":

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."

But across the authors and performers, these messages work because they're consistent and un-angsty. If Geena Davis is looking for more positive images of young girls in pop culture, as she told the New York Times this week, she'd do well to screen Schoolhouse Rock! for directors. The girls in these videos don't have questions about their capabilities or pre-determined senses of restrictive gender roles. They're strapping on their backpacks, hiking boots, and jetpacks, standing up to cranky neighbor ladies, and acing their classes.

Girls shouldn't get the message from their pop culture that they have to ask permission to pursue their interests, or to strike out boldly into the world—even if that permission is granted and that sense of adventure is ultimately rewarded. Showing girls just going about the business of being awesome shouldn't count as a new frontier. But as another Schoolhouse Rock! tune would tell us, we're never quite done trying to achieve what is manifestly our destiny.