The Hidden Feminist Messages in ‘Schoolhouse Rock!’

Hidden? Sure, but certainly not accidental. I didn’t notice it when I was a kid, but it sure jumped out at me when I watched the Schoolhouse Rock videos with my kids.

And even small details are pro-girl. The nameless character who shows up in a mini-skirt and platforms in “Interjections!” is unbelievably excited not about a boy, but about an A+ in a report card:Some of this consistent, cleverly feminist vision is due to Lynn Ahrens, the Tony Award-winning lyricist behind Ragtime, who wrote the music and lyrics for “Interjections!” “A Noun Is a Person, Place Or Thing,” “The Tale of Mr. Morton,” and “Interplanet Janet.” — Alyssa Rosenberg, The Atlantic

I love the Schoolhouse Rock series, and whenvmy kids were younger they each went through a phase where they asked for the videos over and over again. It’s impossible to miss the cultural messages embedded in the cartoons.   I realize that Rosenberg was reflecting casually on being home for the holidays, and not intending to present a thorough analysis, but there’s much more to talk about than the “pro-girl” imagery in “Interjections.”

I’m considering doing an exercise like this in my “Seminar in Thinking and Writing” class next term, so I’m going to kick this analysis into high gear and see what we can find.

In “Interjections,” when “Geraldine played hard to get,” the phrasing indicates that, despite what she says, Geraldine is not really offended when Geraldo “showed his affection, despite her objections.”  Geraldo tries traditional macho displays of gifts and artistry, but only gets Geraldine’s attention when he is cowering on the floor.  She bends over him and says he’s cute, and the two share a smile — though he does not relax his cowering pose.

Then he turns into a frog.

As a child, I always felt bad for Geraldo (though I misheard the lyrics and thought of him as “Rocco”). I perceived him as being gentlemanly and playing by the rules, and thought Geraldine was kind of stuck up and rude.  She only liked the man once he was cowering at her feet, and I thought she got what she wanted when he ended up turning into a frog, so I wondered why she looked surprised at the end of her segment.

Looking at this segment today, in light of Rosenberg’s recognition of a “consistent, cleverly feminist vision” in the Schoolhouse Rock series, I have to wonder.  The lyrics tell us that Geraldine “played hard to get,” the two share a smile just before Geraldo turns into a frog, and Geraldine’s exclamation point turns to a comma to show that “the feeling’s not as strong” when she says the frog is cute.  So I’m perfectly satisfied with setting aside my childhood belief that Geraldine wanted a pet instead of a man. And I fully understand that throwing in a sight gag in a grammar cartoon is not the same thing as designing a “no means no” public service campaign, but the mixed message here is a bit troubling. Still, let’s run with this idea a little longer.

Right after the Geraldine/Geraldo segment, at about 1:20, we see a brief series of visuals that go along with these lyrics:

  • So when you’re happy… (five girls in cheerleader outfits shout “Hurray!”)
  • or sad (a boy on a pitcher’s mound in the rain says “Aw!”)
  • or frightened (a snake crawls up to a little girl with bows in her hair; this girl is drawn with an unusual amount of detail, with a dress with puffy sleeves and a frilly hem, white knee socks and little black dress shoes; these details are clearly designed to emphasize her “little girlness,” setting up the gag: she makes a horrid face, causing the terrified snake to say “Eeeeek!”  Can, open; archetypes, everywhere!)
  • or mad (a race car driver’s wheel rolls off, prompting “Rats!” Compared with the detail in the snake girl, the visual gender cues of this character are hard to discern because of the helmet, but I’m going to take the helmet itself and the race car context as a sign of masculinity)
  • or excited (a mini-skirted teen gets an A+ and says “Wow!”)
  • or glad (a little girl with bows on her hair rides a bike and says (“Hey!”)
  • …an interjection starts a sentence right.

So in just this short sequence, we see two boys facing disappointments, and eight girls shown rejoicing or succeeding in various contexts. So what I see is a bit more complex than what Rosenberg called “small details [that] are pro-girl.”

Let’s look at the depiction of all the male characters in this cartoon.

  • Reginald drops a book, mittens, hat and coat, then gets into bed, coughing. He bares his bottom for an injection, covering his head with his pillow. His interjections express not only pain but indignation “Yow! That’s unfair, giving a guy a shot down there!”  Angrily confronting the word “Ouch!”, Reginald produces a sledgehammer and hits the exclamation mark… which turns red and doubles in size. (Hmm…. ) Reginald then kicks the exclamation mark, which shrinks into a comma. Shouldering his hammer, Reginald walks off, looking pleased. (I leave it to you to analyze that one.)
  • Reginald’s doctor gets knocked out of the frame by one of Reginald’s interjections, and is not seen again.
  • Geraldo persists with offers of candy, flowers, and singing, and dares to kiss Geraldine’s hand, invoking her ire. When he cowers on the ground with harms over his head, the two smile at each other… but then he turns into a frog.
  • The boy on the pitcher’s mound walks off in the rain, sad.
  • The character in the racecar (who is probably male) loses a wheel.
  • In the football segment, we see a crowd of anonymous football players, presumably male, differentiated only by their white or black jerseys.
  • The home-team player Franklin makes a bad play, causing the opposing team to score a touchdown.
  • An all-male crowd vents its anger at Franklin for the game-losing play.
  • A buck-toothed, bespectacled, bow-tie-wearing man in the back of the crowd shouts, “Hurray! I’m for the other team.”  As he looks around for approval, the home-team fans glare at him; the multi-colored, 3D pulsating exclamation mark over his head shrinks into a little comma. (Again, I’ll leave you to examine the Freudian implications.)

So, we have Reginald and the doctor, and we have Geraldo, whose segments we have already discussed.  Every other male character is seen expressing emotions in the context of sports, and of those sports-related emotions, only one expresses success or happiness. The “I’m for the other team” fan has buck teeth and wears glasses, a bow tie, and spectacles, all of which encode him as not manly enough to play on the team he supports.  His happiness is short-lived as the angry glares from the crowd chastise him for daring to voice a contrary opinion. At first glance, he may seem to be an admirable figure of non-conformist bravery, but his opinion is not really independent; if he were surrounded by like-minded fans of “the other team,” he would be another anonymous conformist. Overall, the message in this cartoon is that sports are sources of disappointment and opportunities for failure.

By the way, cheerleaders in their “H” jerseys are still cheering happily at 2:17, even after the angry fans, one of them wearing an “H,” blame Franlkin for losing the game (1:56-2:08). The “H” seems intended to tie the scenes together, but the cheerleaders don’t seem to be paying attention if they are still cheering after the “H” team has lost.

(Incidentally, yes I do know that I am over-analyzing this cartoon. That’s the whole point of this post.)

Now for the women.

There are no female characters in either the Reginald/doctor segment or the football segment. Geraldine is the only female character shown interacting meaningfully with any other character (unless you count the girl who scares the snake).

  • Geraldine ends her segment looking at the camera, with outward-slanting eyebrows indicating disappointment, as the comma in “Hey, you’re kinda cute” informs us that “the feeling’s not as strong” as her attraction to Geraldo. She has won the battle of the sexes, but is not happy with the frog.
  • The five cheerleader girls shout “Hurray!” in unison. In the 1970s, it would probably have been assumed that they were cheering for a male sporting event. They wear black shirts with a white “H,” and one of the fans angry with Franklin is also wearing an “H.” But whatever they are cheering for, the focus is on their happy exclamation.
  • The little girl, drawn with details that emphasize her femininity, scares the snake.
  • A little girl (possibly the same one?) succeeds at riding a bike.
  • A rejoicing cheerleader realizes the music has stopped and says, “Darn, that’s the end.”

Arguably, this last girl, the one who is saddened by the end of the cartoon, is the only female character whose segment does not end with empowerment. (And even then, her mild sadness is punctuated by a comma, not an exclamation mark.)

By contrast, every male character encounters disappointment or displacement. Reginald is the only male who winds up with some degree of empowerment, since we see him ambulatory and able to subdue a giant exclamation mark, thus asserting power over his own feelings of indignation and pain.

Okay, that was fun. I went into that analysis not knowing what I would find, and I was surprised to see just how much the pro-girl message of “Interjections” affects its presentation of male characters. (Can’t we get along?)

With The Great American Melting Pot and the inner-city focus in the Verb segment, Schoolhouse Rock made bold and welcome steps towards honoring cultural diversity. I’m proud to be an American when I see a fiftth-grader belting out Sufferin Till Suffrage for a middle-school musical.

All things considered, does “even small details are pro-girl” really capture what is going on in this video, or the series as a whole? I think there’s a lot more going on, and I think the message “Interjections” offers for boys (and me) about emotions and the value of sports is also worth exploring.