Jocelyn Grant “Children’s Reading and Children’s Thinking are the rock bottom base upon which the future of the country will rise”1 and rise it will upon the foundation of Bob the Builder. Bob the Builder infiltrates children’s culture and media from all directions, television, books, video’s, toys and Internet to name a few. With a gang of friends like Dizzy the cement mixer, Loftythe crane and Muck the digger, Bob is reinventing the industrial machine and popularizing construction by bringing the dialogue of labour into children’s culture. Aimed at preschoolers this popular band of characters is busy solving problems and working together in the construction machines yard. Bob and friends chime “Can you fix it?” and the animated response is always “Yes we can!” and it is with this enthusiasm in a world of teamwork and friendship that the premise for these characters and their antics is based. But whether Bob and his pals deliver positive and constructive messages to their preschool audience, particularly in relation to gender roles and the importance of the relationship between work and play, could be contested and is.
Bob the builder’s official website is a wonderful interactive experience in which children and parents are encouraged to get to know Bob and friends and play some learning games in the process. This is a great place for parents to get acquainted with the products and programming. The premise of this product is described as “a world where people and machine respect each other, cooperate and resolve conflicts as they play and work together”2. In a time when media culture is so abundant and child’s play has evolved from a street culture to a playground culture to a period which finds children and play indoors more and more, this product seems to encourage a play which has gone out of fashion with the emergence of video games and computers. While the product itself exists within the realm of indoor culture, it encourages labour and physical work popularizing work in the trades, which has fallen sharply in popularity in light of technical skills in our postmodern culture. In contrast to the dominant contemporary ideology, which promotes and rewards technological skills, Bob the Builder with his friends who are bulldozers and steamrollers humanize industrial machines and man and machine work in harmony.
There is an implicit class commentary being made here through children’s culture, which portrays “blue collar” labour jobs like construction in positive and revitalized way. In an article entitled “Plumber Pete takes on Bob the Builder” the Plumbing Association of Great Britain with dismal employment levels in that trade have sardonically created Pete to essentially invigorate young people to enter the plumbing trade3. The creators of Bob the Builder realize that objects, toys and the particular programming that is given to children will help them adjust to and make sense of the changing aspects of their social world4. However, it is these objects and images, which have been criticized. Of Bob and in this same vein one critic writes: “In reply to the question "Can you fix it?" Bob always replies "Yes, we can!", never "Well, I dunno... it's going to cost you.5 This “considerate builder” has been accused at times as portraying the trade from an incorrect slant and glamorizing the construction business. Who knew that a children’s program would raise such a fuss and isn’t it wonderful that the archaic stereotypes about trade workers are being broken down and revitalized by a little character named Bob!
“Muck is a digger/dumper. She loves to work in the mud and get messy”6 and get right in there to work and play with the boys. Not just boys are builders either; Bob has a friend Wendy who also likes to build. Gender roles are defined but girls are not excluded from the construction yard instead they are an inclusive part of the story and are incorporated into the dialogue on labour and the division of labour that is inherent in the storylines, presenting a healthy view for both young boys and girls. Unlike some female characters like Charlie’s Angels and The Bionic Women who promised to offer women viewers “potentially powerful role models, but the shows simultaneously helped to reaffirm that women, while more capable than generally given credit for, were still less competent than men”.7 Comparatively women on the construction site are competent and included. Teamwork and gender inclusion are an integral part of the toys, stories and shows that present a healthy model for children.
The importance of Bob the Builder can not be denied for it provides a positive perspective of gender issues while it also encourages work and play as one in the same breath portraying a healthy view of an active lifestyle. However, it too has its problems the main one being that it does after all have to be read within the postmodern concept of Kinderculture and understood as a children’s product devised by adults for kids consumption and with this the commercial components abound.8 Beyond the message of Bob the Builder and healthy teamwork exists the commodification and corporate element of Bob the builder. This trademark has a plethora of products within it repertoire ranging from sleeping bags, Play station, character clothing like Bob’s overalls to Bob lunchboxes, the list goes on and on. Consumers are tuning in and pulling out the wallet to snatch up Bob the Builder’s over 600 products now on the market9. In the U.S alone since its release in July 2001 11 million Bob the Builder books have been sold10.
At the end of the day and beyond all the rhetoric about work and play in the builders yard the corporation of Bob the Builder has created commodities for mass indoor consumption. Not only have Bob and friends entered the realm of children’s culture and media but Bob is also an honorary member of the National Association of Home Builders for whom he has appeared in a home safety campaign11 which, is an interesting intersection of kid’s culture in an adult context.
The hype and praise surrounding the products extremely successful launch in 1999 in Britain and the seemingly successful relocation over seas and abroad has been resounding. Overall, this product seems like a valuable addition to any child’s collection and the message is positive, while not always realistic it is culturally responsible as well as educational. The processing of media characters and messages is an important part of children’s development and identity construction. The surprising and disturbing fact is that positive media messages are harder to find then one would hope. This product however does seem to succeed. Recently I asked a friend of mine about his experiences growing up and he told me that Lego was his favorite toy growing up. What’s he doing now you ask…he’s a builder! Coincidence…possibly but toys that you grow up with can often determine who or what you become.
1 Jenkins, Henry. “No Matter How Small” The Democratic Imagination of Dr. Seuss: 251.
2 http://www.hitentertainment.com/bobthebuilder/ All About Bob the Builder, 2003
3Ward, Helen. “Plumber Pete takes on Bob the Builder”, Times Education Supplement, Issue 4492: 2, 2002
4Kline, Stephen. “The Sovereignty of Consumerism”, Out of the Garden: toys, TV and children’s culture in the age of marketing, Toronto, Garamond Press, 1993: 17
6 www.nickjr.com/kids/html_site/bob_the_builder, 2003. This website offers descriptions of the characters.
7 Inness, Sherrie. “Semi Tough: Emma Peel, Charlie’s Angels, the Bionic Woman, and Other Wanna-Be’s”, Tough Girls: Women Warriors and Wonder Women in Popular Culture, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999: 32.
8 The idea of Kinderculture is derived from Shirley Steinberg and Joe Kincheloe’s “Kinder- Culture”, 1998.