Like all parents of young children today, I’ve sat through more episodes of Paw Patrol (and similar children’s programming) than I’d like. But as a philosopher, it gives me an interesting insight into how we as a culture use stories as a way to gradually bring our children into the moral world. See, Paw Patrol is a show centered around really simple moral tales, a place where the good people are obviously good – you can tell just by looking at them – the bad people are bad, and the right thing to do is always obvious and straightforward. Perfect for little kids learning the basics of the moral ropes. The complexity will come later.
Or maybe, at least for some, it won’t. In fact, too many adults, it seems, want to imagine that the moral universe really does work like Paw Patrol. That’s a problem.
For those unfamiliar, Paw Patrol is a show designed around a cute set of crime fighting dogs and their human owner. Each episode is an adventure where the team of pups saves their town of Adventure Bay (and its Mayor Goodway) from their evil nemesis, the appropriately named Mayor Humdinger, who resides in the rival town of Foggy Bottom. Mayor Humdinger has devised a weather machine to make it rain on Adventure Bay’s parade? The Paw Patrol will save the day, deactivating the weather machine and saving Mayor Humdinger when the weather device malfunctions. You get the idea. You can also see why I don’t want to watch more episodes.
But for kids, this is riveting stuff. Even though every adult damned well knows what will happen, kids are glued to their seats. One thing that arguably makes Paw Patrol work as a kids show is that it engages in what I increasingly call Paw Patrol Morality. The heroes and villains are clearly differentiated by a bright line, and you can identify each by looking at them. The heroes are always chipper and kind, their motives are always pure, and these motives plus action always equals good results. (They would never steal, for instance, even if it was required to save the day; rather, they’d find a way – via clever but implausible plot twists – to borrow.) The villains, of course, are the converse of this. No ambiguity, just a simple morality play.
This is great stuff for a kids show. Young kids are just learning about the moral world, and just like when they learn language, generalization helps. When a child learns to turn a verb into the past tense by adding -ed, she will apply it everywhere, oblivious to exceptions (knowed, seed, haved). Were we to teach all the exceptions to the rule upfront, we’d likely overwhelm them. Let them imbibe the generalization first, and only then complicate the picture.
Well, this is what Paw Patrol and other such shows seem to do, probably for similar reasons. Teach them the simple stuff first: here is good, here is bad, good people always have good motives that produce good results, etc. Adults – and the show creators – presumably know that this isn’t how the world really works, but it is a sweet and inspiring ideal that fits easily into kid-sized brains. Teach the generalizations first to allow the world to make sense to those brains, and when they grow older, start throwing in the exceptions, wrinkles, and caveats. Sometimes, hurting people is okay (if they are being punished or defended against), sometimes good people with good intentions can still do bad things, etc. But let them build the ground floor first before adding new layers.
Our six-year-old – thankfully, I sometimes think – is still in the zone of Paw Patrol Morality. I was reminded of this when one day, he tried to talk to his mother and me about politics. He’d seen political ads on YouTube and was having little-kid debates about them with one of his friends. He knows that the candidate Mommy likes doesn’t want bad people to have guns and knows that the other candidate wants everyone to be able to have guns. But in true Paw Patrol style, he knows there are good people and bad people, and we should only allow good people to have guns. I tried to explain to him – without tipping my own political hat – that you can’t just look at someone and tell whether they are good or bad and that it might be the case that making it harder for bad people to get guns also makes it harder for good people to have guns. When I tried to illustrate with the example of Spider Man and his nemesis Doctor Octopus, I saw the problem: in Spiderman, as in Paw Patrol, you know the good and bad guys just by looking at them.
Our son will soon get to that age where Paw Patrol Morality reveals its limits. He will gradually learn that even good-seeming rules don’t always produce good results; that people are mixed in their motives and capabilities; and that it isn’t always clear what the best course of action is. He is getting to the age where he and others care about social approval and status and what types of things even seemingly pure-hearted people will do for the pursuit of each. And some day, he will get the wind knocked out of him when some authority figure proves unworthy of the trust.
All but the most fortunate adults have learned these lessons. That’s what makes it so befuddling to come across adults who cling to some version of Paw Patrol Morality. I’d argue that at the extreme ends, Qanon and Antifa, the Trumpian right and certain militant variations of antiracism are LARP-ed out versions. There are the good people – our people – and the baddies, the difference being their purity of motive, and it is only the baddies who excuse their bad ways with the notion that the cause is complicated.
The adult version of Paw Patrol Morality can be found in some of the criticism levied against three recent films that (apparently, intolerably) thrive on ambiguity. The first is Blonde, a tense film that highlights the unbearable sexism and misogyny that Marilyn Monroe endured. The second is Tár, a story about a highly successful composer and conductor who falls from grace after being suspected (spoiler: we never find out) of abusing her power with sexual impropriety. Last is The Whale, a film depicting the miseries of a morbidly obese man who has become disconnected from all but a few loose “friends.”
To be sure, these films – the latter two more than the first – have achieved critical acclaim and will likely profit from the next round of film awards. But they have also evoked a kind of criticism that to my mind reveals the grip of Paw Patrol Morality. The problem is that all three films depict worlds where the main characters should be noble but aren’t, and where the antagonist is also the protagonist. Tár is about a very successful lesbian composer/conductor at the top of the classical music world, a characterization that I suspect would have been unimaginable even thirty years ago. Put bluntly, some have labeled the film “lesbophobic” because lesbians – a marginalized group, after all – ought not be depicted as having the same moral shortcomings as straight men, especially in the age of #MeToo. The Whale has aroused similar ire, in part, because the obese main character is depicted as far shy of a moral saint. We see him struggle with a food addiction and get frustratingly winded in daily life without either finding the motivation to change his ways or come to love himself and his body. And Blonde? Well, as the director put it in his admirably resolute response to critics: “Americans don’t really like you to monkey with their myths too much. They very often want to jump to the solution without actually looking at any of the trauma.”
I have no interest in defending the quality of each film here. What I can say is that these three films pose a serious problem for adult Paw Patrol morality. Main characters defy easy moral stereotype. Audiences experience conflicting sentiments about main characters. Good doesn’t always vanquish evil, and in some cases, it is not at all clear where the good ends and the bad begins, or whether the two need each other so fully that the one can’t exist without the other.
Sure, there is room for hagiographies of Marilyn Monroe and morality plays that celebrate fat acceptance. If one wants to see the adult version of Paw Patrol – what the aforementioned critics seem to want – the modern Marvel blockbuster is there for you. But when you see that blockbuster, part of the point is the suspension of disbelief. And seeing the hagiography is best when you recognize that it is a hagiography and was crafted as such. Art can be an escape from messiness, but it can also be a frank depiction or celebration or reflection of and on messiness.
There may be a reason to introduce children to the moral universe using the simplifying devices of Paw Patrol. But to the extent that morality is about helping people navigate real collective life, then there is reason to move on from those simplifying devices. The loss of idealism gets compensated for by increased understanding. The nuance hurts and makes the world bigger, which may be why Paw Patrol is the foundation we start with. But we put away childish things.
Or do we?