Phineas and Ferb

April 6, 2012
By AWScienceGeek GOLD, Los Gatos, California
AWScienceGeek GOLD, Los Gatos, California
16 articles 0 photos 9 comments

I do not watch a lot of television. Typically, I never have time, so I only really keep up with three major shows: Doctor Who, Top Gear UK, and Phineas and Ferb. Phineas and Ferb, an entertaining cartoon show from Disney, portrays two young brothers as they explore their imagination throughout the summer. Their fantastical creations and the hilarity of the evil mad scientist, Dr. Doofenshmirtz, always keep me hooked. Something about the show’s pure absurdity continuously keeps my family engaged, episode after episode. Do not get me wrong, I love the show – it is one of the few shows I will even watch. However, the ways that certain characters are presented lead me to wonder: are some of these racial and gender roles acceptable for a show aimed at the younger generations? Applying a poststructuralist view to Phineas and Ferb shows that it is heavy with stereotypes in both race and gender.

The math-loving Indian stereotype is constantly portrayed as inferior to the genius of the Caucasian boys in Phineas and Ferb. Though several different cultures are presented throughout the show, cultural stereotypes seem to bleed into this cartoon. Baljeet, a shy Indian boy, is constantly shown as a math-loving nerd. He always feels compelled to receive good grades, and is the leader of science fiction fan convention. In the Halloween episode, Baljeet’s greatest fear is a failing grade on a math test; for the Christmas episode, he receives a calculator. In another episode, when Baljeet does not do well on a test, he goes home to hang up the drapes of shame in his room. Baljeet’s love of math, science fiction, and trivia consistently depict him as the ultimate Indian geek. In comparison, Phineas and Ferb, equally bright young boys, are not nearly as ‘nerdy’ as Baljeet. Phineas and Ferb are both Caucasian, and are never overly obsessed with grades or math. Baljeet is regularly shown with a stack of books or a whiteboard filled with equations, far more often than either of the brothers. Not only is Baljeet ‘nerdier’ than any of the other characters in the series, but he is also bullied by a Caucasian boy, Buford. Though Baljeet and Buford have a love-hate relationship, Buford has a habit of taking Baljeet’s underwear and displaying it on a flag pole. In many episodes, Buford has a sense of ownership over Baljeet, claiming Baljeet as ‘Buford’s nerd.’ Baljeet never addresses Buford as ‘Baljeet’s bully,’ demonstrating his submission to Buford. In addition, Phineas and Ferb, both equally smart as Baljeet, rarely ask for Baljeet’s advice. Rather, Baljeet often asks for their input or help on a project or a particularly difficult problem. Phineas and Ferb, superior to Baljeet’s ‘nerdiness,’ are always helping Baljeet, hardly ever the other way around.

The only major Asian character in the series, Stacy Hirano, has a stereotypical Asian ‘tiger mom’ and always lets her Caucasian friend make decisions. Stacy is often flighty, the reason why her mother insists that Stacy becomes more mature and focused on grades. Her mother, a dentist, also hopes that Stacy becomes a doctor or a lawyer, two professions that Asians are known to want in the family. In one episode, her mother forbids her from attending a concert with Candace, Phineas and Ferb’s sister, believing that Candace is too immature. In contrast, mothers from all of the other cultures in Phineas and Ferb would never consider such a punishment, especially based upon the immaturity of a friend. Furthermore, whenever Candace says that Stacy is a genius, Stacy asks Candace to call Stacy’s mother and tell her that. Stacy’s mother does not appear to think highly of her daughter, though many of the other characters do. This mimics the stereotypically high standards that Asian mothers set for their offspring. Like Baljeet, Stacy never really takes charge in the series. Instead, Candace always takes the lead, frequently dragging Stacy along with her. Rarely does Stacy ever stick up or do anything for herself, and she quickly makes up with Candace whenever there is conflict. The Caucasian leadership and Asian subservience leaves a bitter feeling that Caucasians are again superior to other cultures, seeing as none of the other characters take the lead.
Males are repeatedly rewarded for their creativity, while females are punished for their more adventurous behavior. Phineas, a talkative, outgoing American boy, typically leads the group of children in creating things from roller coasters to nanobots. He always directs the others when creating something, while the girls take the backstage. Ferb, a shy British genius, hardly ever speaks up. Both Phineas and Ferb are incredibly handy with building grand things, but Phineas takes charge, often representing Ferb due to Ferb’s silence. This represents the natural American male leader; no other culture, country, or female can be as creative or lead as efficiently. Isabella, the brothers’ best friend, never builds anything or comes up with any ideas herself. Unlike Phineas or Ferb, when Isabella attempts to become more ‘nosy,’ and becomes an intrepid reporter, the boys must save her, the damsel in distress. Throughout the episodes, Isabella is always less important in the viewer’s eyes. Isabella never builds a crazy contraption, and when she attempts to be more adventurous, Phineas or Ferb is there to help or save her. Candace’s boyfriend, Jeremy, has a job and is calm and mild mannered. In contrast, Candace is extremely high-strung and anxious to get her brothers in trouble. Candace is never able to get her brothers in trouble with her mom, and her dad has no problem with the boys’ fantastic creations. In one episode, Candace dreams that she does ‘bust’ her brothers, but horrible things happen as a result of it. Instead of being the passive and calm girl that society expects her to be, she is repeatedly punished for her focus on getting the boys in trouble. She constantly fails to show her mother the machines that her brothers build, for each time the mystical force of coincidence prevents Candace’s mother from seeing anything. Candace, a teenager, also never comes up with any of her own creative ideas; the one time she actually builds something is purchased from an infomercial intended for five year olds. Unlike the young male genius of Phineas, Ferb, or Baljeet, Candace never measures up to their imagination.

Throughout the series, Baljeet is stereotyped as the Indian nerd, Stacy’s mother as the tiger mom, and girls as less creative or capable compared to boys. Clearly, a show that categorizes its characters by race and gender may cause major concern among parents and guardians. I have always found Phineas and Ferb to be one of the best children’s shows I have ever seen, in terms of the values communicated. Creativity and imagination are greatly encouraged, and the sheer accomplishments these young kids attain give the sense that anything is possible. However, when we delve a little deeper, the successes are consistently achieved by the boys, specifically Caucasian boys. Maybe all Phineas and Ferb needs is more focus on the girls once in a while, or a test that Baljeet is not studying hours for. With a few more episodes, these stereotypes can easily be eliminated. Let us free Baljeet from his math test, Stacy from her tiger mom, and the girls from the calm and passive characters they have become. Stereotypes should not be all encompassing, so let us throw out the math test and throw in the girls.

The author's comments:
Cultural Artifact Essay for English Class

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