You may, like me, remember your first trip to the library in the first grade where you saw the long line of small white books with the thick-lined, geometrically shaped Mr. and Miss characters on the front. These characters are drawn as if they were meant to advertise generic kid’s cereal from the 80s, and in the spirit of hipster nostalgic consumerism, you can now walk into your cool local bookstore, or, god forbid, Urban Outfitters, to find a coffee cup with the red squared Mr. Strong on it.
My two year old son received three of the books in this series as a gift a while back – Mr Tickle, Mr. Messy, and Mr. Mischief. I hate reading these books because they’re long and annoying and not particularly well-written. When my son picks them out, I try to hurry through them by skipping lines, but we’ve read them enough times that he catches it and corrects me like he’s the one teaching me to read. However, as much as I dislike the books, the more I read them, the more I realized that there is some serious messaging going on here.
Ostensibly, these books were popular because they teach young kids what certain character traits look like in a person, so when they move on to chapter books or young adult books, they will be able to articulate that a character is not just “stupid” but she’s, I don’t know, “uppity.” The characters in these books by Roger Hangreaves fully embody whichever characteristic is on display. Mr. Messy is messy, and as such he is uncomfortable with cleanliness. Mr. Mischief plays tricks on people that are funny but destructive. And so on. At bottom each of these books is really about identity. Each character has one characteristic that defines them and nothing else.
Take, for example, Mr. Mischief, which is incidentally my son’s favorite of the three. Mr. Mischief goes around and plays tricks on people. He saws the legs of Mr. Happy’s chair so that he falls down when he sits; he tricks Mr. Greedy into eating a cake made of cotton, mud, and toothpaste; he fills up Mr. Funny’s hat with molasses and so on. Mr. Mischief can’t help it; he’s mischievous by nature. But when a wizard casts a spell on him, causing Mr. Mischief to suffer all the mischief he gave out to others, we think that maybe he’s learned his lesson. He refrains from mischievousness for a whole week until he can’t stand it anymore. He sneaks into Mr. Fussy’s house and cuts off half of his mustache. Mr. Mischief is and will always be mischievous. No lesson, no punishment, not even magic can change his identity. That one characteristic drives his nature.
Mr. Messy’s story is similar. When two ambiguously gay men name Mr. Neat and Mr. Tidy clean up his house and give him a bath, Mr. Messy says that he may have to change his name. But unless these two guys move in, we are pretty sure that Mr. Messy isn’t going to change. But the point is the same, and it raises the question of identity. If Mr. Messy changes his name, he might be a completely new person. Will the core of his being have changed?
It is important to note that the good characters are not encouraged to change. Their stories do not present any obstacles to their identity; they are encouraged to stay exactly who they are. It’s only the negative qualities that are met with disapproval and the need to change.
So, what’s going on here? Essentialism is what’s going on. Essentialism is a broad topic, but when it comes to the politics of characterizing people, it refers to the idea that every person has a core quality that makes them who they are. Strip away everything, change their environment, their historical situation, and you will not change the core of that person’s identity. Romantics and conservatives love essentialism because it deals in things like allegory, the idea that things on earth have a part in a bigger story, and the idea that things do not fundamentally change. Essentialism, however, becomes a real problem when it begins to justify class hierarchies, racism, and imperialism. When people define another group of people by an essential inferiority, it often leads to the idea they need to be conquered, enslaved, or exploited for profit. Southerners essentialized African Americans as inferior in order to justify a paternal master to take care of them. People today think that Muslims are essentially violent and that the only political system they respect is a brutal one. (See: Bush Doctrine and Zionist support of Israeli occupation.)
I am not saying that Robert Hangreaves is a racist, imperialist, or neoliberal. But these books raise issues about identity and character definition that are more complex than they seem on the surface. If Mr. Mischief can’t change, what does that say about people’s abilities to learn lessons? What does this message say about the person convicted of three consecutive crimes in California? Is it in the core of his nature to be a criminal? If Mr. Messy can change his messy habits but has to change his complete identity, what does this say about the consistency of a person’s identity? Does a person have to change their whole identity, the core of who they are, just because they decide to change one characteristic? This is a question that Evangelical Christianity have to deal with when a person converts, and it’s need not be coincidental that this is a story about washing oneself clean.
These books may be good at building vocabulary and providing beginning readers with an ability to articulate behaviors. But like all books, I don’t think that it’s too early to accompany these books with discussions that instill the idea that all people are more than one thing. We certainly don’t want our kids to grow up thinking that reducing people to the one characteristic that sticks out to them, especially because they will be inundated with enough reductive accounts of women, gays, immigrants, minorities, and Muslims in countless other non-book media.
Kids can learn about the differences between essentialist and deconstructive identities later. Oh, and why not just go ahead and explain to our kids that calling a person with dark skin and a big nose “uppity” is just something we don’t do anymore.