Monday, June 24, 2013

Phineas and Ferb and Feminism

I adore the Disney show Phineas and Ferb. Unlike most shows currently aired by Disney, it’s brilliantly written, the plotlines are hilarious, the humor is sophisticated, the music is actually beyond amazing (I have numerous songs memorized), and the characters are all well-developed and funny. The depiction of female characters in Phineas and Ferb is a mixed bag, but overwhelmingly feminist.

The basic plot of every episode is that stepbrothers Phineas Flynn and Ferb Fletcher, circa age 10, create some extraordinary (and possibly dangerous) invention, and their 15-year-old sister Candace Flynn tries to bust them with their mother. Throughout the series, Candace is consistently shown as extremely single-minded, with her only goal being to bust her brothers. A common subplot involves her boyfriend, Jeremy, with whom she is constantly trying to please (despite Jeremy’s genuine insistence that he loves Candace for who she is). As a whole, Candace is a pretty one-dimensional character, with little substance outside of her relationship to either Jeremy or Phineas and Ferb. Although her perseverance is excellent - she tries to bust her brothers in every single episode, despite all of her previous failures - she would be much more of a feminist character if she channeled her strengths into developing interests outside of boys or her brothers.

Isabella Garcia-Shapiro, Phineas and Ferb’s friend, also has her flaws. Isabella is known for walking into the boys’ backyard and saying her trademark line, “Whatcha doin’?” Although I always eagerly await Isabella’s arrival in the backyard and say her line along with her, it seems unfair that she’s content to go along with Phineas and Ferb’s plans rather than spearheading her own projects. Her on-screen appearances do make it clear that she has a pretty rich off-screen life, though, since she’s a Fireside Girls troop leader with lots of friends who has earned what seems like hundreds of patches. I also suppose that the show is called Phineas and Ferb, not Isabella, so the writers have no need to introduce plotlines with Isabella as the main character. Nonetheless, I would love to watch a few episodes that focus more on Isabella’s capabilities.

In general, Isabella is a feminist character who is significantly more three-dimensional than Candace is. She exhibits the importance of multiculturalism, as she is half Mexican and half Jewish and leads a racially diverse Fireside Girls troop. As the head of her Fireside Girls troop, Isabella shows Phineas and Ferb fans of both sexes that girls can handle leadership positions with grace. Isabella and her troop members often shake gender stereotypes when they participate in activities that are not considered typically feminine, like building a plane or watching a comet in an observatory.

Another main female character in the series is Phineas and Ferb’s mother, Linda Flynn-Fletcher, a stay-at-home mom who never sees any of her sons’ inventions, despite Candace’s efforts otherwise. In the 80s, she was a one-hit wonder, Lindana, whose song “I’m Lindana and I Wanna Have Fun” is most likely patterned after Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” She’s supposed to be the typical American mom, who bakes pie for her kids and goes bowling with her husband. I’m not sure if it’s fair to label Linda as a feminist character, but she is certainly feminist-leaning, as she encourages Phineas and Ferb’s friendship with kids who are from various ethnic backgrounds and befriends their mothers herself.

The show goes out of its way to showcase non-typical family situations. Phineas and Ferb’s family is blended. Isabella is half-Mexican, half-Jewish. Another character, Dr. Doofenshmirtz, is divorced, and his wife pays him alimony. Fans never meet either Buford’s father. Considering that most kids’ shows stick rigidly to the male-female parent paradigm, it’s inspiring that Phineas and Ferb breaks the norm like this.

All in all, Phineas and Ferb teaches kids to harness their potential, follow their passions, and do something worthwhile with every moment - all of which are feminist goals. As the entire cast sings at the end of my favorite episode, “Carpe Diem” - “Cuz every day’s a brand new day / You gotta carpe diem.”

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