The Mr Men books have been accused of being sexist and supporting mansplaining by a PhD student, sparking a debate on the treasured children’s series.
Shelby Judge, a PhD student in Literature, Feminism and Mythology at the University of Glasgow, complained on Twitter that a passage of the Mr Men book, “Mr Men in Scotland,” contained an instance of mansplaining.
In the book, Little Miss Curious asked Mr Clever that if there was a Forth Bridge, the famous railway bridge over the River Forth in Scotland, what had happened to the First, Second and Third Bridges? Mr Clever’s sigh, and the narrator’s response that “it was going to be a very long day,” did not sit well with Judge, who labelled Mr Clever as “Mr Mansplain” instead.
Speaking to Metro, Judge said that Mr Men was being used to “enforce these ridiculous antiquated gender roles”:
It’s not so obvious, because it’s meant to be a funny joke but then it’s always at the expense of women – it’s punching down… Why can we not give kids stories that inspire them rather than punch down? This was in a Scottish heritage site and was about Scotland, why did that have to be included in that? They don’t need to rely on such tired gender stereotypes for a children’s story about Scotland. Why is that what you want to give as part of your souvenirs? It’s the very definition of a micro-aggression. Some might say “why are you making a big deal of this very small thing?” But it’s an example of these tiny things that build up to create a whole patchwork quilt of sexist iconography that every child of any gender is going to internalise.
Egmont, the publishers behind Mr Men, defended the book in a statement. “In Mr Men Scotland, the many Mr Men and Little Miss characters in the book get up to their usual antics. The book is a celebration of Scotland and its unique heritage sites,” they said.
The internet was divided – some feminists agreed with Judge’s interpretation, while others realised just how ridiculous the whole thing was:
Thank you @DailyMailUK for being the perfect example why @Judgeyxo, PhD candidate at @UofGlasgow, is exactly right. Good luck learning something from this story. We can't say we believe in you, but we all wish you the best. https://t.co/daUdxTWO4H
— Monica Vazquez (@ElectricNana) December 3, 2019
There's a Mr. Clever. Thusly this characterises the rest of the Mr. Men as not clever, does it not? https://t.co/vybO12edd6
— Tucker Oldfield (@TuckerOldfield) December 4, 2019
Josie Dom, a children’s author, excoriated Judge and others in an article in The Daily Mail, arguing that “grown ups have forgotten how to laugh at simple things, and instead are spending too much time looking for reasons to be offended”:
Are we no longer allowed ever to portray a woman knowing less than a man? In fact, these books have far more negatively named Men (Grumpy, Fussy, Clumsy) than Little Misses. And far more positively named Little Misses (Splendid, Helpful and Fun)… As a children’s author, it’s more important to write a good story that children will enjoy than to tick boxes.. If I thought my story was, for example, sexist, with the boys having all the adventures and the girls sitting safely at home, then I’d make changes before publication. But the characters and the plot have to come first. One book won’t teach girls to be ‘stupid’, as some have claimed the Clever/Curious debacle will do.
Even the left-wing newspaper, The Guardian, couldn’t take the claims seriously. In their column Pass Notes, an imagined conversation between two commentators, they noted that the original “Mr Clever” book is “a study in hubris”:
Mr Clever’s intelligence has made him smug and hard to love, and we watch as he gradually alienates himself from the world with his sense of superiority… The character was always intended as a means to demonstrate the importance of empathy over intelligence… By making the same assumptions without having the necessary understanding of context, those now calling out Mr Clever have effectively committed the same act of hubris that scuppered their archenemy Mr Clever.
It remains to be seen whether Egmont will take up Judge’s suggestion of introducing a Mr Mansplain character to the series.