This past week marked the death of Jan Berenstain at 88. If you are a parent, you know that name. Jan and her husband Stan created the Berenstain Bears books. The lovable family of Mama Bear, Papa Bear, Sister Bear and Brother Bear lived in Bear Country, of course. Stan died in 2005 at age 82.
Over 50 years, they've been a staple in homes with young children. The books that chronicled the Berenstain Bears facing and overcoming one problem after another -- fear of a dental visit, an overfull family schedule, children who got cases of "the gimmies" and so on -- have sold hundreds of millions of copies. The family's problems were along the lines of those innocent difficulties encountered by the Brady Bunch -- no drug addictions, anorexic tweens or depressed preschoolers here. Probably the raciest they ever got was talking about online safety. But nonetheless, we parents found ourselves drawn to the books, perhaps precisely because of the innocence.
One thing I never understood was why the characters didn't have first names.
But what I really didn't understand was why Papa Bear was such an idiot. Yet, that was the case in almost every one of the Berenstain Bears books that I encountered when my children were younger. Whether it was "The Berenstain Bears and Too Much TV," "The Berenstain Bears Forget Their Manners," "The Berenstain Bears and the Trouble with Chores" or "The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room," Papa Bear was almost always as much if not more of a dope than his kids.
It was Mama who had to somehow fix the latest problem, which she did with wisdom every time. Many times, Papa had helped create the problem. Whether he watched too much TV or didn't mind his manners or shoved sweets into his mouth while Mama stood by with her hands on her hips looking at him like he was hopeless, he became essentially another one of the kids Mama had to correct and teach.
She must have been exhausted!
I'm not suggesting that the Berenstains had any deep-seated political agenda. But whether or not they knew it, they were cutting-edge. The series of books, launched in 1962, predated the modern assault on manhood, and fatherhood in particular, in the popular culture. Today, of course, television offerings -- including commercials -- routinely present the bumbling dad and husband. Men can be made fun of for being screwballs, in comparison to women, in a way no woman today could be portrayed compared to her husband or boyfriend.
It seems to me this is much more than just a pendulum swing from the "I Love Lucy" days. Rather, it may reflect a real aversion in the popular culture -- and much of the culture at large -- to traditional, positive notions of manhood.
The Wall Street Journal last year titled an article that dealt with this very phenomenon, "A New Generation of TV Wimps."
May Jan Berenstain and her husband, who gave a lot of children and parents a respite in a crazy world, rest in peace. They didn't create the anti-male bias permeating our culture, and it surely won't end with them, either. That's too big a problem to take on all at once, anyway. And it's always easy to point fingers.
Writers can leave legacies in all sorts of ways. To positively commemorate Jan Berenstain in light of her passing, it may be worth picking up a Berenstain Bears book. And, in so doing, we women might ask ourselves: "How do I treat the men, the husbands and sons in my own home? Is it anything like this?" Or, for the fellows: "Am I treated like Papa Bear -- and what can I do to constructively articulate to the wife and children I love why and how I need to be treated with more respect?"
We typically can't change the world. But that's OK. Often it's more important to focus on changing the world of our homes.
Jan Berenstain, RIP.
(Betsy Hart is the author of the new e-book, "From The Hart: A Collection of Favorite Columns on Love, Loss, Marriage (and Other Extreme Sports)." Reach her through hartmailbox-mycolumn(at)yahoo.com. For more stories, visit scrippsnews.com.)
FROM THE HART
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