Recently, a few innocent questions on Twitter about the key plot points of PAW Patrol has pulled back the curtain on the deep well of conspiracy theories parents have developed about a much-loved kid’s show. Perhaps as a way to cope with the saccharine torture of the program, parents have spent a lot of time theorizing about how a small boy and his band of carefree pups essentially took over the community of Adventure Bay. Though some of these theories are cheerful — Ryder can be understood as a sort of cowl-free Batman figure — many are not. And there’s good reason for that. The fundamental political message of PAW Patrol is anti-democratic and faintly, worryingly, recognizable.
Who is Ryder? At first glance, he’s a child without a history, an inventor and engineering genius. Ruled by logic and reason, deeply individualistic, and uninterested in the opinions of the townspeople that “Yelp for Help,” Ryder controls his pack of working dogs and the town of Adventure Bay. He is, in short, a 10-year-old libertarian autocrat — the sort of boy Ayn Rand would have tried to raise if she’d been interested in that sort of thing.
On the surface, PAW Patrol is exactly as advertised, a lightly grating, exuberant half-hour of cute animals, meant to teach kids how to solve problems through teamwork. But look deeper and it’s a weird show about a weird, pastel town where Ryder is never questioned or pushed to account for himself. The fact that none of the residents ever talk about how he and his pack of pups rose to their prominent position in the town reeks of censorship or some deeply buried shame they’ve allowed themselves to be under a child’s thumb. So it would seem that on a daily basis, to a catchy ska-lite theme song, Ryder and his pups act out an anarcho-capitalist pageant.
Consider, for instance, the grand bridge that connects the town to the “The Lookout,” Ryder’s home base high on a hill. Then consider The Lookout itself, a massive red, white, and blue tower with 360-degree views, a twisty slide, an internal elevator, and a base that turns like the cylinder of a revolver, allowing Ryder to select dog vehicles and fire at will. This telescope-topped panopticon feels like it was proposed by Jeremy Bentham and constructed by the Animaniacs. Considering Ryder’s age, it must have been custom built very quickly and very recently. It couldn’t have been retrofit from a lighthouse, there is already one in the bay. And that compounds the strangeness of the situation. If it took even a few years to realize the initial vision, that would mean Ryder was dazzling enough to command the work at age 7. Ever hung out with a 7-year-old? He must have gone beyond dazzling to outright blinding.
But after spending some time with Ryder, that’s not particularly inconceivable. The boy is impressive, and not simply due to his impeccable style and gelled-up black bouffant. He surpasses Rand’s Gault, who went through University at 16 and invented an improbable engine. Ryder’s command of technology and engineering prowess is undeniable. The proof is everywhere your eyes might rest.
There are his dogs’ pup-houses that transform into working emergency and utility vehicles (one even become a whirlybird). His personal garage hosts an ATV, which would make James Bond blush with its ability to become a jetski and a snowmobile. And then there’s the Lookout’s tech, a fully wireless multiscreen communication system that provides two-way access to the smart devices of every Adventure Bay citizen.
But a dark question looms over Adventure Bay. What would happen if Ryder suddenly tired of the town’s seemingly endless, petty chaos? After all, you can only rescue the mayor’s goddamn chicken so many times. And dealing with the grating alliteration of Cap’n Turbot and his near continual screw-ups would surely become a source of unbearable boredom. Also, he’s 10.
What would happen if Ryder shrugged?
Cap’n Turbot would asphyxiate in his ill-conceived diving bell. Chickaletta would likely be devoured by predators, likely driving the mayor into a bottomless depression. Children and adults alike would almost certainly die due to their reckless decisions to drive dangerous vehicles. The town would be taken over by the villainous Mayor Humdinger, whom Ryder and his pups regularly thwart, and Adventure Bay would come to resemble the failing ghetto that is neighboring Foggy Bottom.
Adventure Bay’s public safety eggs are all in Ryder’s basket. And he is seemingly the only self-reliant citizen in the entire burg. He has charmed the local population into their lazy reliance on him with his permanent smile and his constant assurance that he has everything in hand. Do they blink when he outfits his police dog Chase with a video surveillance drone? Not at all. Ryder must be doing it for their own good! He consolidates power and sets up a surveillance state and no one speaks up.
And for the kids at home, of course, he’s the hero that they identify with. Yes, they tell themselves, adults are clueless buffoons and we know better. If the world were only given to the imagination and ingenuity of children it could be saved. Ask them, “Who is Ryder,” and they could easily answer, “We are!”
But they are not. More than anything else, they are the townspeople of Adventure Bay, who are not given enough credit. They are the business owners who, instead of relying on their own gumption and intuition, seek help from their benevolent benefactors. Those are the ones they should identify with.
Ultimately there is a huge problem in Ryder’s contention that “No job is too big and no pup is too small.” He’s wrong. There are jobs that are too big. There are pups too small. Ryder’s claim is that no matter what the challenge it can be bootstrapped with cleverness and hard work. But that completely discounts the fact that there are some barriers that can’t be overcome without a mass effort or cultural change.
Ryder tells the lies that autocrats tell. He exposes the truth about the consolidation of power into the hands of the outrageously capable: It will inevitably expose a dictatorial tendency or uncover a fundamental lack of empathy. The show is about a libertarian moment that is also an autocratic moment or an autocratic moment that is also a libertarian moment. It’s no small wonder people are looking into its politics and it’s no small wonder they’re doing so right now.
Maybe the ultimate danger of Ryder is that he’s duped the citizens of Adventure Bay into giving up their agency and America’s children into believing that exceptional people should be allowed exceptional power. And frankly, they shouldn’t.