I recently started watching the PBS series Dinosaur Train on a somewhat regular basis. The show is obviously aimed at a younger demographic, but I was drawn to it, because, well, dinosaurs are awesome, and when was the last time a show all about dinosaurs aired almost daily? Of course once I started to watch the series I noticed sexism, some of it subtle and some of it not so subtle. Because I wanted to be sure that the subtle sexism wasn’t all in my head, I thought I’d analyze five episodes to see if my suspicions about the show’s trends were confirmed.
The show focuses on the family of Buddy, a young tyrannosaurus rex. The rest of Buddy’s family is made up of pteranodons—Mom, Dad, Tiny, Shiny, and Don. In a typical cartoon members of the Pteranodon family take the Dinosaur Train to meet other animals from the Mesozoic era. While on the train, a troodon called Mr. Conductor tells the family members all about the animals they’ll be meeting. At some point Buddy will say, “I have a hypothesis!” After each cartoon Dr. Scott, a paleontologist, interacts with children, and he expands on what they might have learned from the cartoon. During the Dr. Scott segments there is often a man who suddenly bursts through a door to make an announcement that begins with, “Point of fact,” and usually ends with a denial of one of the obviously fanciful elements of the show, such as, “Therizinosaurus did not practice the martial arts.” (Yes, martial arts. I’ll say more on this later.) Each episode consists of two cartoons and therefore two Dr. Scott segments.
Though it isn’t of much social consequence, there is something I see in every episode that bugs me: In the introduction a song recounts Mrs. Pteranodon’s experience of finding Buddy in her nest. According to the lyrics she explains why Buddy belongs in the family by saying, “You may be different, but we’re all creatures. / All dinosaurs have different features.” Pteranodons aren’t dinosaurs, dammit. Now I know there’s been at least one cartoon in which a character says that pteranodons aren’t dinosaurs, but when it’s insinuated at the beginning of each episode, it’s bound to create confusion.
With that out of the way I can get on with the meat of my review (which is available for everyone’s digestion, not just carnivores’): Even after casually watching a few episodes a few problems become immediately apparent. Though the show seems to offer something approaching gender parity—the Pteranodon family has an equal number of males and females, and there are a lot of girls represented among the children Dr. Scott interacts with—it is nevertheless male-dominated. Buddy is obviously the main character of the series, not only because t-rexes are more recognizable than pteranodons but also because he is the only character who always takes the dinosaur train. (This contributes to a problem with the PBS Kids block: When different characters appear during station breaks or on the web site to represent different series, there are often no girls among them.) Mr. Conductor, Dr. Scott, and the Point of Fact guy are also all males/men. Though the show welcomes girls to enjoy dinosaurs, it sends the message that it’s mainly boys who get to hypothesize and speak about them authoritatively.
Upon closer examination the show reinforces gender roles in other ways. In the episodes I watched Mom alone took the kids out in four cartoons, Dad alone takes them out in two, and Mom and Dad take them out together in one. (The other three cartoons did not have Pteranodon family members leaving the nest.) Dad only went out when he got to play the role of the great outdoorsman, as when he took the children out to go fishing and look for dinosaur tracks. On the other hand Mom’s primary motivation seemed to be that she was always eager to please the children. The one exception is when she has the opportunity to get the autograph of a cryolophosaurus patterned after Elvis Presley. It’s hard to see how the writers might justify this. I don’t know what the current scientific consensus is on pteranodons’ child-rearing tendencies, but this scarcely matters. The series already makes a number of departures from reality in an attempt to appropriately socialize children (I always have a very hard time suspending my disbelief when Buddy nonchalantly tells a herbivore that he eats meat and the herbivore doesn’t show a hint of fear). Why can’t we have more females/women actively involved in learning and teaching about biology?
The cartoon I found to be the most irritating was the therizinosaurus cartoon and not just because Mom’s expression of support was so over the top. (Mom is in the background, silent and motionless until one of the kids suggests to Buddy that they visit the therizinosaurus family “today”, and Mom suddenly leaps into action to say what a good idea it is.) Throughout the episode traditional Chinese music plays, and the viewer finds that the therizinosaurus family practices a martial art that looks like Tai Chi Chuan. Why? Well, often in the series a dinosaur will have attributes associated with the people who currently live in the land it was discovered in. For example, Archaeopteryx was discovered in Germany, and Arlene Archaeopteryx has a German accent. The therizinosaurus practice a Chinese martial art and are accompanied by Chinese music, so where was therizinosaurus discovered? That’s right, Mongolia. Wait, what? Yes, apparently the show’s writers find Chinese culture and Mongolian culture to be entirely interchangeable. I must confess that I was blindsided by this racism, which probably says more about my white privilege than the likelihood of its inclusion.
If it weren’t for the therizinosaurus cartoon, I’d be a lot quicker to endorse Dinosaur Train. There aren’t enough shows that teach children about a subject they’re already enthusiastic about. To the extent that gender parity is present in the episodes, it’s encouraging. Though the females of the series aren’t very well developed, the same is true of the males. I suppose some adults would gag on the simplicity and cutesiness of the cartoons, but I for one appreciate the occasional escape from heavy topics. I just wish there were less sexism and racism in the series; I prefer that my escapes be not so short-lived.