My daughter is two and a half years old. She doesn’t watch much TV, but when we bring up the Netflix screen, one of her first go-to characters is Curious George. I like to watch everything she watches, and talk to her about it. And as I get to know George, I love him more and more.
First, the scholars at Cornell University noticed something that sprang to my mind immediately. They put together an academic comparison between the great classic Chinese novel “The Monkey” and our lovable little friend (for third graders). Monkey symbolism in East Asia is always of a mischievous but honorable creature who gets into all kinds of trouble but always saves the day. George is a part of such a great tradition!
But aside from his significant contribution in the rich history of monkey mythology, I also see something very important going on in the show (and the books, now that we’ve started reading those). If your kid is like mine, he/she can really identify with George. As Margaret Rey herself observed, “George can do what kids can’t do… He can hang from a kite in the sky. He can let the animals out of their pens on the farm. He can do all these naughty things that kids would like to do.” He is the epitome of a child’s unbridled imagination, their sense of wonder, their innate need to learn, see, explore, touch, feel, understand – yes, their curiosity!
And if you’re the kind of parent I am, you can definitely identify with The Man with the Yellow Hat. “George….” he says, his voice reflecting the quiet exasperation of a very patient father. He always knows, in his heart of hearts, that George doesn’t mean to cause any trouble. He knows without a doubt that all the messes and misdeeds are good for his education. He’s not misbehaving, he’s exploring his world in the most hands-on way possible. George needs to be allowed to make mistakes, without being harshly reprimanded or punished. And in doing so, he always ends up doing something amazing. His mishaps tend to serve the greater good.
And George’s intentions are always pure and full of generosity (he is always a good little monkey). His nature has not been tainted by the fear of admonishment or retribution from a world bigger and more powerful than himself. In the Christmas special, the Man comes home to what looks like the scene of a mass murder – red dripping juicy tomatoes all over the floors, walls, ceiling. He pauses, takes a breath and then asks, “Trying to make your own ketchup?” As it turns out, George was trying to make the Man’s favorite holiday treat – tomato snowmen! And as we all know, creating is messy! And boy is he creative – in only the way one who is allowed to be uninhibitedly creative can be. (Now just imagine if George got punished every time he did something like that – his generosity and his creativity and curiosity would be gradually worn away. His love of learning and doing would be diminished.)
The Man in the Yellow Hat is, to me, the ideal parent. Always seeking to connect with and understand George, always asking what’s going on before going off. Patient, and joyful in seeing just what George will come up with next (even if it may be a disaster). He says it best in one of the Curious George movies. “Anyone can memorize facts and figures, but to really LEARN something, you’ve got to go out and do it for yourself. Just follow your curiosity.” In short, Curious George is the ultimate homeschooler/unschooler, and the kids who watch learn with him. And they learn that it’s ok to get messy, get involved, really get into learning!
Not to mention you can watch the Curious George movies and shows with your child knowing that there will be plenty of drama and resolution without rage, and without violence. Nothing too awfully scary will happen, even if there’s danger. It’s a very safe world, without being flat or boring. Lots of exciting things happen. Perfect for young kids.
And finally, it’s one of the only shows without that annoying high pitched “talking at you,” voice that so many kids’ cartoons have. It never condescends to kids, never talks to them in an exaggerated baby voice. The narrator has a mellow tone and even the music is not the typical hyped up and in your face crap that grown-ups think little kids enjoy. There are rich jazzy piano compositions in the background which expertly highlight the emotions of the characters, and the featured musical numbers are downright tolerable – catchy without creating annoying ear worms.
Now I know there are a few problematic issues with the show. The (very white) Man with the Yellow Hat is a bit of an over-the-top Afro-phile, and he did “adopt” George away from his home and family in Africa. OK, the premise is a little off-putting if you really unpack it. And I take issue with the Italian chef character, Pisghetti, who is always on the brink of a breakdown over something or other. The poor Italians, they really can’t get away from the stereotypes – either hyper-emotional chefs or mobsters. BUT, if you can set those aside for just a moment and see it as the playful children’s programming based on classic children’s literature that it is, you’ll find some amazing messages. It does a practically perfect job at avoiding every other racial and gender stereotype out there (there are lots of female characters in stereotypically masculine jobs for example, like firefighters, mechanics, scientists, etc.). All-in-all it’s a life-loving, positive, wonderful world for an ALWAYS good little monkey.