Wholesome TV for kids

Last week I was sitting around with my grandparents and youngest cousin (who has just started primary school). The cousin was watching TV, which is how I ended up seeing an episode of Chhota Bheem, a cartoon on Pogo.

Here are the main characters of the show:

Three of the people in this picture are villains. I bet you can’t guess which ones. It couldn’t have anything to do with that subtle colour gradation, could it?

This is what Bheem, the main character is like (taken from here):

(all pictures can be embiggened by clicking)

This is Kalia, the bad guy. His name, FFS, is Kalia.

Kalia also has henchpersons of sorts, twins called Dholu and Bholu. They’re not as bad as Kalia. Colourwise, they’re somewhere between Kalia and Bheem.

Incidentally, here’s the show’s main female character; a role model for little girls everywhere.

She is “simple” (always a useful trait in a woman), really likes housework, and is feminine even while being able to play with the boys – which is a relief considering she views the only other young female character in the show as a rival for Bheem’s attention.

This article in Mint quotes parents who applaud these new cartoons (including Chhota Bheem), not only because they’re entertaining and well made but because they apparently inculcate “traditional values”. I don’t believe that literature, television, or any other form of media directed at children is under any particular obligation to impart the right set of values, just because they’re children and impressionable. Nor do I think that Chhota Bheem is such a powerful piece of art that it’s going to singlehandedly convince my young cousin (who does not live in a household where this sort of thing is discussed/debunked on a regular basis) of the validity of traditional gender roles, or of forms of bigotry relating to skin colour and how melanin turns you evil. But that’s just the thing, these are traditional roles. Which means that Chhota Bheem doesn’t have to do anything singlehandedly, because all these ideas are already out there, influencing Young Cousin (and me, and you, and everyone) and all this show has to do is tap into this larger set of narratives about bad, dark-skinned people and fair, docile girls.

And the reason the previous paragraph reads like The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Ideology (assuming such a thing exists) is because I don’t know what level of basic political awareness I can take for granted anymore. Because it’s 2009 and the creators of this show are apparently both clueless and unchallenged.

23 Responses to “Wholesome TV for kids”

  1. Embiggened is going to enter my regular vocabulary. Also reading Prem Panicker's Bheemsen now. That might make for better children's TV!

  2. I'm about to start Bhimsen too, and really looking forward to it.

    I think you'll find very little support for the idea of giving children (or indeed adults) any sort of nuanced view of the epics! Look at that description of Kalia – he's based on Duryodhana and is therefore inherently wicked. And there's a child quoted in the Mint article who claims he likes Ram because "he kills Ravana". Sigh.

  3. I'm more appalled by the art than by the stupid 'values' this promotes. Ok not really but even aside the colour(wtf), very simple physical traits have been used to denote the villains' undesirability: Kalia is fat to the point of being unattractive,Dholu and Bholu on the other hand are short and presumably weak, and as identical twins are stripped of individuality…classic way to depict a villain which is beneath today's viewer, no matter the age.

    Incidentally as a kid I always disliked 'brave, intelligent and strong' cartoon characters and their frail and squeaking girlfriends. The light of glory that shone about them embarrassed me to no end.

    (disclaimer:just got here, starting to read, know next to nothing about the legends involved in this cartoon or the realities of your culture. Opinion could be irrelevant. Hi Aish!)

  4. Aishwarya: There is so much stuff like this that one wonders where to start. I love your post, though.

    And I read Bhimsen as soon as Prem Panicker blogged it… Loved the series! Have downloaded the pdf to read at leisure sometime.

  5. No, I think what you're saying is relevant because a lot of this visual shorthand is common to a number of cultures. I mean, we're told Kalia uses his physical strength to intimidate, but we see none of that – we're shown a dark-skinned, fat guy. I'd never thought about twins being a useful way of not giving characters individuality, but I can absolutely see how it'd work; and obviously denying as much of possible of a character's personhood is exactly how you fix them as a villain.

    (And hi! It's been ages. :) )

  6. It has been ages. I'm not…quite the same person I used to be (and I expect to change, still, though obviously I can't predict how. That's how it goes). Your twitter drew me here.

    The only time I've ever seen a cartoon give adequate time to twins was in one where they were the heroes. Also I think twins imply something mysterious, almost unnatural, which could be positive, but in villains is obviously going to be perceived as negative. How can you trust an entity who is physically two-faced?

  7. Hmm. Did you notice that Kalia is also *fat* ?

  8. Hi Aishwarya,

    My 3-yr-old watches Chhota Bheem almost obsessively, she's familiar with all the character names and all the stories we tell her have to include references to Chhota Bheem. By default, I've also ended up watching a lot of this show, and while I get the stereotyping indicators you have mentioned, I have to say that overall it's quite a fun show and not quite as unidimensional as you seem to believe. It is unimaginative to portray a 'bad' character as dark-skinned and fat, but I have seen episodes that show Kalia's softer and more helpful side. Sometime CB and K collaborate to get the gang out of trouble etc. I don't know, this discussion has left me a bit confused about CB, which I used to think was a fairly interesting, entertaining and informative show for kids my daughter's age. To be honest, I don't think the politically incorrect references in this show are so vicious or even insidious that they can influence my daughter into forming lasting stereotypes.


  9. I seem to remember having putting in a long comment here but I can't find it now. Oh, well. i was just saying that I loved Bhimsen and have downloaded the PDF to reread at leisure.

  10. Interestingly, these kids grow up to have weird ideas about sex too. So the docile, simple village girl must wear a ghunghat, not talk loudly etc.
    Can we ask the parents what the grown up forms of these characters will be like?

  11. In reply to what Shrabonti said, I don't know how how old you are and again I'm coming from a different cultural background entirely (Poland) but locally-made cartoons in my youth shared many common traits with this one (at least judging from the description on the page)- for starters, the gender roles. And if I watch them now, I don't mind, because that was reality when I was a child, that was what everyone expected- a girl character who didn't exhibit 'feminine' qualities such as an aptitude for housework and rely on the boy's protection would seem extravagant. But we've come so far from this point of view…it's not on anymore. It's demeaning to be told that part of being a girl is doing chores. So maybe you're watching this cartoon and going back to what you're used to- it doesn't seem so bad, because it wouldn't have been when you were a kid. But it sure looks bad now.

    I'm not sure how to compare what we saw in skin colour back then because non-white people were so uncommon in my country that they weren't anyone's first choice for cartoon characters, unless the main heroes went on safari or something (and even then, they were used more as the exotic mysterious foreigners, usually in danger from some greedy European). In fact if I recall most cartoon villains, they were depicted as pale, sickly-looking, skinny mustached types. And I have no qualms about that stereotype because pencil-thin mustaches are just plain evil :P :P :P

  12. related article?
    well, not directly but still interesting.
    I wonder how much all of this is due to early cultural brainwashing, like the preceived beauty of make-up and shaving etc.

  13. Madzia – I'll have to get back in touch with you over one of the many internet things through which we know each other. :)

    Madhat – I did, yes. I wasn't sure how much to make of that part – according to the site, Kalia is "Kalia Pehalwan" and his body is presumably expected to be indicative of his strength. but at the same time, all the negative stereotypes of fat people can also easily be invoked to add to his general aura of villainy.

    Shrabonti – As I mentioned, I've only watched very little of the show and I'm sure you know more about it than I do. However, I don't think these shows are ever really unidimensional. I certainly don't think, as I said in the post, that Chhota Bheem is going to influence anyone into forming lasting stereotypes by itself. It's just that all of these negative stereotypes are going to be corroborated for her frequently in the real world. I assume (based on what I remember of your blog and what friends we have in common) that in your household there will be plenty to challenge those stereotypes, but I don't know how true that is for most kids, and I know it's not true for the cousin who sparked off this post.
    And aren't villains in kids' TV frequently shown to have softer sides anyway?

  14. Unmana – I'm sorry, blogger didn't send me a notification for your comment and so I didn't approve it till I saw your second one! Bhimsen really is incredibly good.

    Rehab Chougle – I don't think you'd get much of an answer…

    Madzia – Indeed, the thing that amazed me most about this cartoon was not the politics of it (and I grew up on stuff just as stereotyped as this too, and I think I've managed to throw off most of it) but the fact that it had been made in 2009.

    Lytse – I'd assume most of it was cultural, though I'm willing to believe there's a tiny bit of evolutionary science in there somewhere. Incidentally, on the subject of shaving, see here. Depressing.

  15. She's very feminine since she keeps herself busy with all sorts of art and household chores. I hate that.

    I'm not sure about the role and obligations of TV. You say you don't believe that media is obligated to impart the "right" set of values to children; I'm not sure. There are extremes right: shows blatantly preaching racism or regionalism or communalism shouldn't be supported, right? That's why the lack of any black/brown Disney princess has been inviting a lot of criticism.

    But I'm not sure here: media doesn't have an "obligation", I guess, but do they have a duty? Who decides what the "right" values are, anyway?

  16. Not sure if I should be outraged or just plain sad that racist/gender biases are still being propogated in not-so-subtle ways.

    Am reposting this blogpost on my FB page.

  17. Oy.

    Curious that the "villain" is smiling amiably and the hero has a kind of pratty expression.

  18. I actually spotted the twins as probable villains first, before the 'check the skin colours' comment entirely sunk in, because the 'indistinguishable evil minions' trope is so familiar to me.

    Also perhaps because the other 'villain' character looks so amiable, as belle noted.

  19. such stereotypes have been a part of our movies for long. the villains in hindi movies were almost always fat and dark skinned. just look at the number of dark skinned actresses we have had in the recent past. Kajol, Konkona Sen, Bipasha Basu…and I think that's it. We have such a fixation with fair skin that we have actresses like Katrina Kaif, who know nothing about acting, right at the top in the film industry only on the basis of their looks while mindblowing actresses like Rani find their popularity dwindling!

  20. I must admit that I did not spot the details that you thrashed out. I thought that the only reasons for indigenous animation companies picking themes from Indian folklore was to make up for their pathetic quality and doing away with a necessity of a storyboard.I did not spot the more sinister details. There must be similar subliminal right wing messages that must have been put into Jungle Book perhaps that got to some of us. Thats why we need you to keep doing what you do! Great post!

  21. I don't disagree with any of what's being said here. I'm hoping, the same as everyone else, that some day, the villain will tall and fair and the hero short and dark.

    On the other hand, when I look back and see the criticism of Enid Blyton's novels (all smugglers are always "foreign", the girls are always left out of the "dangerous parts" of an adventure and so forth) and I look at how I turned out, it seems to me the books aren't as bad as detractors would like them to be.

    I think it's great that we're thinking about breaking all kinds of stereotypes but at the same time, I think we shouldn't go as far as to lean towards squeaky-clean-ness. Ultimately, a three-year-old brain doesn't pick up the same cues the adult brain does.

    Great post!

  22. This sure sucks! SUCKS SUCKS SUCKS! Wonder if educated us do as such, what about those who still never touched the books :=(


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