My wife just bought a potty training book for our daughter called Big Girl Panties which, I’m ashamed to admit, I find embarrassing to read. To be clear, I’m not one of those word-phobic people who rant about the squelch of moist. As a writer, I consider all words— including “panties” — to be useful and, as a dad, I feel that I should always be in the business of vocabulary expansion. And yet, Big Girl Panties is tough for me to read out loud because it feels somehow dirty. This is, of course, the point. The fact that I’m made to feel a little bit uncomfortable about the celebration of this word is actually why Big Girl Panties is so brilliant; it calls out my discomfort and might make me a little red. But it’s not about me, and that’s because Big Girl Panties lets my daughter learn and revel in a very useful word and concept.
One could argue that a movement to make kids’ media embrace “gross stuff has been underway since the 1980s when there was a noticeable uptick in children’s stuff referencing poop, pee, snot, underwear, and vomit. In the ‘80s there was the Garbage Pail Kids. In the ‘90s there were the Barf-o-Rama books. Now, Captain Underpants. Obviously, there’s a difference between Barf-o-Rama and Big Girl Panties, and yet, both the words “barf” and “pantie” have immature negative connotations that obscure their usefulness as words.
The true transgressive victory of the gross kids’ media trend is that, against the wishes of parents, Captain Underpants and his ilk send kids a very clear message: Authority is easily undermined by those willing to flout norms. Want to resist? Say the unexpected thing. Want to resist parents? Talk about farts. Does that mean fart jokes will save the world? Not exactly. But parents dismiss the importance of the odd flatulence rimshot at their own peril.
Still, there’s a price to be paid here. Increased exposure to coarse entertainment could well move the line of what is acceptable. Parents willing to take the excremental plunge might find themselves teaching an important lesson only to suffer at the dinner table for it later.
In Michael Chabon’s 2009 book Manhood For Amateurs, he admits that he hates Captain Underpants. And it’s not because he doesn’t think the books are good, it’s because he knows that the taboo humor blurs the line between what a parent can approve of and what parent should approve of. He writes: “I feel obliged to hate them [Captain Underpants books] even though hating them make me a hypocrite. I’m a father. Being a hypocrite is my job.” Though it sounds like Chabon is kidding (and he is a little) he has a more serious point. Obviously, what was once considered taboo for kids is becoming mainstream, but can children still enjoy stories about poop and underwear if their parents are gleefully approving of the stuff? Chabon thinks it actually might be our parental duty to roll our eyes a little bit because if we don’t, we might prevent Captain Underpants from being truly transgressive. How can our kids stick it to the old man if the old man is encouraging them to make poop and fart jokes?
Essentially, Chabon thinks the only way Captain Underpants can have the desired transgressive impact is if parents embrace reverse psychology. The parent is the authority figure, Captain Underpants teaches kids to question authority and social norms, ergo, a smart parent will at least pretend to roll their eyes about this kind of thing. For many of us, this isn’t hard at all. That’s because parents, like anyone who has survived for a while, are put off by any cultural shift.
Which is why it’s important to remember that Captain Underpants isn’t a slippery slope. There is nothing to indicate kids enjoying the books or Netflix series will pave the way for a kids cartoons called Admiral Shithead or Commander FuckFace. As a concept, something like Captain Underpants pushes the envelope without ripping it up. Or, to put it another way, Captain Underpants is still playing by the rules of kids entertainment. It’s not like the stories pretend potty humor isn’t gross. It’s just that it gives grossness the spotlight a little more.
Though I bristle a bit when reading Big Girl Panties, that’s my problem, not my daughter’s. And that’s a good thing. If kids keep consuming culture that sticks in their parents’ throats (or makes them vomit a little), it’s possible this whole child-rearing thing will get a lot more efficient. This way kid learns the art of provocation at speed — better than belaboring the point — and gets accustomed to discussing their body. Everyone wins.
In other words, the rise of Captain Underpants, or any other kids’ thing that makes parents uncomfortable shouldn’t be something parents fear. This isn’t a revolution of social norms; it’s an evolution of social norms. Every generation needs tools to figure out how to question authority. And if those tools come in the form of books and TV shows that teach kids to be a little bit rude, it doesn’t mean they will necessarily become rude people. Children are actually smart enough figure out that Captain Underpants stands for subversion in the same way that Captain America stands for, well… America. This doesn’t mean children will automatically want to become either Captain, though they can learn from both.
Still, I have no idea what I’ll do when I have to teach my daughter that burping in public or shouting the word “panties” very loudly isn’t polite. But who knows? Maybe we’ll eventually live in a world where no one cares anymore.