Flic Everett (pictured) argues Adam Hargreaves’ Mr Men books are patronising
by Flic Everett, writer and mother
This week the Mr Men books were labelled sexist after a 24-year-old student complained that Mr Clever ‘mansplains’ the Forth Bridge to Little Miss Curious.
The original books by Roger Hargreaves were launched in 1971, the year after I was born, and as a small girl I adored them.
It never occurred to me that they were books about men — they were just red blocks, pink scribbles and bandaged blue circles, a jolly, colourful fantasy world reflecting the funny accidents and mistakes of little children.
I loved them so much I even had the recordings, lugubriously read by Arthur Lowe. They may have been called ‘Mr’, but they were no more sexist than any much-loved character who appeals to girls and boys.
It was only ten years later, when to assuage the growing demands of diversity the Little Miss books were introduced, that sexism crept in. I had no problem identifying with Mr Messy or Mr Bump.
But Little Miss Giggle and Little Miss Chatterbox didn’t seem like characters I needed in my life — or by the Nineties, my son’s. I also felt he could live without the insidious messages of Little Miss Bossy and her friends (there is no Mr Bossy, unsurprisingly). And while the Little Miss books encourage stereotyping, the range of merchandise they’ve spawned is even worse.
Even more depressing, the stereotypes hinted at in the books have been gleefully taken up by adult women who should know better. Racks of tiny, cropped, Little Miss Trouble tops for women may be fun for the Hen Do brigade, but their message is that women can be vacuous, childish and unreliable. It’s hard to teach your daughter to be bold and fearless if you’re dressing her in a Little Miss Princess T-shirt.
It comes as no surprise that there is not a Mr Bossy
Almost 40 years on, attitudes should have evolved. But it seems perhaps they haven’t. The offending Mr Men In Scotland book was written by Adam Hargreaves, son of Roger, who continued the series — and as a modern man, it’s a pity he chose to showcase Little Miss Curious as a hapless dimwit, quizzing a weary Mr Clever.
It’s lazy, patronising — and worst of all, terribly unfair on Little Miss Curious. Curiosity is an excellent trait for women or men. And I feel certain that the Mr Men I loved in my childhood would never have been so thoughtlessly sexist.
A 24-year-old student sparked a debate over the Mr Men books (pictured), arguing that Mr Clever ‘mansplains’ the Forth Bridge to Little Miss Curious
by Josie Dom, children’s author
Josie Dom (pictured) argues one book won’t teach girls to be ‘stupid’
Have people lost their sense of humour completely? The Mr Men books are the latest target of the PC brigade after Mr Clever is accused of patronising Little Miss Curious.
He says the Forth Bridge is named after the River Forth. Miss Curious asks: ‘What happened to the First, the Second and the Third Bridges?’ Mr Clever sighs and the narrator says: ‘It was going to be a very long day.’
It’s not the freshest joke, but children reading it will laugh. Adults will groan — or at least they should. I wonder if grown ups have forgotten how to laugh at simple things, and instead are spending too much time looking for reasons to be offended.
The book is about Mr Men characters visiting Scotland, and is clearly supposed to educate children about that country’s landmarks. So the explanation has to be got in somehow. Author Adam Hargreaves uses a familiar trick by having one character explain to another.
In this case it just so happens that the man is explaining to the woman. It would go against Mr Clever’s character if he didn’t already know this information, but it could just as easily have been Little Miss Brainy explaining to Mr Silly.
People are looking for reasons to be offended
But let’s be honest, if you call a children’s character Clever then they do have to live up to their name. Are we no longer allowed ever to portray a woman knowing less than a man?
In fact, these books have far more negatively named Men (Grumpy, Fussy, Clumsy) than Little Misses. And far more positively named Little Misses (Splendid, Helpful and Fun). There is even a Little Miss Inventor — the only one named for a profession, and a great role model for future engineers both female and male.
The original Mr Men books by Roger Hargreaves were launched in 1971, Josie argues it’s more important to write a story that children enjoy than to tick boxes
As a children’s author, it’s more important to write a good story that children will enjoy than to tick boxes. Once a story has been written, I’ll go back through it and consider what I’ve written.
And if, at that point, I thought my story was, for example, sexist, with the boys having all the adventures and the girls sitting safely at home, then I’d make changes before publication. But the characters and the plot have to come first.
One book won’t teach girls to be ‘stupid’, as some have claimed the Clever/Curious debacle will do.
And personally, I think there are more than enough positive influences in Britain to encourage girls to grow up into independent women.