Race, gender, and representation in Bubble Guppies

Bubble Guppies

Clockwise from upper right: Goby, Molly, Deema, Oona, Gil, and Nonny. Center: Bubble Puppy.

Last month, we began giving The Daughter a bit more designated TV time. Bubble Guppies is her current favorite show (possibly her favorite thing in the whole entire world, right up there with Monkey and chocolate and apple juice). As a result, I’ve watched a lot of Bubble Guppies, spent a lot of time with the theme song or other musical numbers stuck in my head, and had the opportunity to reflect upon the social and educational value of the show.

The Bubble Guppies are a sextet of merfolk preschoolers. As co-hosts, Molly and Gil get a bit more screen time than the other Guppies by virtue of the introduction and transitional scenes; Molly gets a lot of solo numbers, so she edges out Gil. The rest of the screen time seems to be pretty well balanced between all the Guppies. One or two will see something interesting on the way to school (race cars, a house being built, scouts camping out, etc.) which will kick off the show’s main theme. Two, sometimes three, will be involved in a skit that features a customer/retailer interaction.* Three will be shown opening their lunch boxes. Everyone goes outside to play and two, sometimes three, will be involved in an imaginative skit, while another Guppy narrates. There are a couple musical numbers in the course of the show, classroom time (often satisfyingly realistic: pretending to roast block marshmallows over a campfire made of blocks, making pizza out of clay, etc.), and the culmination of the show’s main theme (building a dog house for Bubble Puppy, visiting a planetarium, going on a camping trip or a plane ride—their preschool has extraordinarily good field trips).

There are three boy Guppies and three girls, with distinctive characterization (“the natural leader,” “the sweetie pie,””the make-believer,” etc., in Nick Jr.‘s capsule descriptions). Three are racial tokens (one each with apparent Asian and African ancestry, plus the “ethnically ambiguous” Molly, definitely brown but not as dark as Goby), making half the classroom non-white, which is not bad for TV. I watch enough anime to take the hair color scheme in stride, but given the range of possible interpretations I don’t read too much into it.

I’m less than thrilled by the bikini tops Molly and Deema habitually wear. I don’t have anything against bikinis, and the boy Guppies are habitually shirtless; beachwear is de rigueur in the classroom. But the necessity of bikini tops on preschoolers, who possess no secondary sexual characteristics, brings to mind the sexualization of girls, the double standards to which they are subjected, and a host of other societal critiques that bother me in general, as a woman, and as the mother of a girl. Thus the bikinis, while in and of themselves unobjectionable in context, serve to harsh my buzz, and I wish the issue had been sidestepped altogether by having all six Guppies wear shirts.

In the shows I’ve seen, Nonny’s glasses are about the closest nod to a physically disabled character§ but they’re not remotely sufficient to count toward diversity cookies: first, because wearing glasses is ridiculously common and generally does not rise to the level of a disability, and second because Nonny is very much the stereotypical kid with glasses: smart, quiet, non-athletic, etc. Still, the character design sets him a bit apart, leaving only one character, Gil, as the true Default White Male.

Gil leaves me feeling conflicted. He’s a cute kid, easily startled, slow to learn and quick to laugh at himself. He does not deserve to bear the brunt of my displeasure with the ills of society; he is too young (and too fictional) to be at fault. But…part of me resents his status as co-host, particularly since I watched the introductions to “Build Me a Building!” and “The Legend of Pinkfoot” rather a lot. Molly is a responsible co-host, a diligent female working twice as hard as her male counterpart. The initial classroom scene in “The Crayon Prix!” makes me twitch, when the largely auto-centric conversation initiated by Molly and Deema is hijacked by Gil’s declaration of his favorite color.

My Gil twitches aside, I generally approve of the Guppy interactions. Gender stereotypes are often inverted: it is Molly and Deema who come to school pretending to be race car drivers, Nonny is the co-pilot to Oona’s pilot, and Nonny’s relationship with wildlife worthy of a Disney princess. (I suppose one could make an argument that this feminizing marker, along with the constellation of nerd characteristics, emasculates and diminishes Nonny, moving him farther from the Default.) Gil nearly costs the Guppies the race in “The Crayon Prix!” and Molly and Deema save the day with cleverness as well as driving skill. Oona fails to make a shot in “Fishketball!” so Nonny has the opportunity to save the day, à la every sports movie ever…but the moment also allows Molly to congratulate Oona on her effort, simultaneously modeling a healthy it’s-just-a-game attitude and girls supporting one another. Only four Guppies play on the field; Deema and Goby form a mixed-gender cheerleading squad.

In “Have a Cow!” Goby plays the farmer during the imaginative skit, with Gil as the farmhand. When other Guppies pretend to be animals Goby is not on screen (in a way that is natural rather than exclusionary). Small things, easily accomplished, probably transparent to most viewers…but sensitive choices, given the racist history of agricultural work and representations of blacks as bestial and subhuman. Using the same metric, there are some less than successful moments: anything involving the phrase “jungle doctor” is potentially fraught (though in that instance, unusually, it is the Bubble Guppies, and not their imaginary playmates, who learn something).

Overall I’m happy with the educational content (though The Daughter’s main takeaway thusfar seems to be that “Bubble Puppies ride airplane”** and that many other people—including her, Mommy, Daddy, grandparents, and friends—also ride in airplanes). I experienced a bit of an existential crisis when Mr. Grouper talked about the seven other planets in the solar system. Science is contested knowledge, our understanding of the universe changes continually, and The Daughter will grow up in a world different from the one of my childhood. The Spousal Unit, formerly in a marching band, gives “Ducks in a Row!” credit for identifying a sousaphone as a type of tuba and making an effort to correlate instruments heard to instruments seen in the episode. He was willing to give the show a pass on some musical inaccuracies.

Mr. Grouper’s a good teacher, guiding rather than lecturing. (Each episode will feature a question which he will address by saying “Let’s think about [whatever],” he participates in imaginative play, etc.) I feel torn about his gender. On the one hand, there is a dearth of males in primary caregiver roles and (vicious cycles) media representations of them, so in that respect it’s refreshing to see a male preschool teacher. On the other hand, by subverting the pink collar aspects of the job, we lose an opportunity to see a woman in a position of authority.

In his high-profile and recurrent role, Mr. Grouper is the show’s primary authority figure, but by no means the only one. Episodes feature adults in interesting roles—doctor, pilot, construction worker, farmer, cook, astronomer, mayor, etc.—and the show does a good job of presenting professional women. They are sufficiently normalized that, in a conversation about a doctor’s appointment, Deema and Oona use “she” as the default when describing a doctor. (Admittedly, it’s a bit less subversive since pediatrics skews female, and given the apparent size the community it’s reasonable to think the Guppies may share the same pediatrician—but the grace note is still appreciated.)

Race in a broader context isn’t as easy to suss out: aside from the Guppies, the cast consists of lobsters, fish, crabs, and clams, who all†† seem to exist as happy community members. There does appear to be segregation at play—every member of the construction crew is a crab, with minor color variation—but it’s unclear if that’s representative of a systemic issue or just a matter of sampling. The Guppies are well-acquainted with a number of adults and there does not appear to be any stigma about (or even recognition of) cross-species interaction, nor is class (as evidenced by occupation) treated as an issue (with the possible exception of the imaginative depiction of service professions).

And…that’s kind of more than I thought I was going to end up saying about Bubble Guppies, so I shall be signing off and looking forward to filling the DVR with new episodes for The Daughter’s enjoyment.

* The retailer is, typically, even more clueless than the customer. Perhaps this is intended as a warning about the need to assert oneself and have low expectations of the expertise of service personnel. Or perhaps it’s just a convenient excuse to drop the fourth wall, encourage audience participation, and involve the Little Fish in a scene.

In a twist on whitewashed marketing, Molly’s skin tone actually appears a bit darker in some of the online stills and icons than in the episodes.

I’ve watched all of the first fifteen episodes except, somehow, “Who’s Going to Play the Big Bad Wolf?” I wasn’t taking notes, but I’ve seen many of them multiple times, especially “Build Me a Building!” and “The Legend of Pinkfoot.” We watched those online a fair number of times before we started filling up the DVR.

§ A friend of Nonny’s and a patient in the hospital use canes or walkers, I believe, but they are minor characters and in any case their assistive devices served more as code for “elderly” or “injured.”

** She’s capable of making a “g” sound—”go” was among her earliest, and favorite, words—but really, really likes puppies. She was hooked on the show in thirty seconds, gleefully declaring “Puppy!” and “Fish!” when Bubble Puppy and Mr. Grouper appeared on screen.

†† The squirrels‡‡ are an interesting exception. They speak their own language and have their own government. Unlike some of the species treated as animals—cows, horses, dogs—their hind legs are not replaced with tails.

‡‡ Yes, there are squirrels living in deciduous trees. Underwater. Where they also have airplanes. It’s called suspension of disbelief.

23 thoughts on “Race, gender, and representation in Bubble Guppies

  1. I found your blog when, after my first viewing of this show, I was prompted to Google “Bubble Guppies horse.” It must have been my major in Sociology that made me wonder why all the horses the creatures were riding had two legs and a fin, but the horse toys they were playing with had four legs.

  2. Your dissection of a harmless children’s show that is fun and educational (really all there is to say) perhaps provides more of an insight into Western middle class females who perhaps have too much time on their hands / easily succumb to a hyper-parenting stereotype. My 3 year old daughter can name all the planets – goodness knows what will appen to her

  3. I have always thought that Nonny had a disability because he rearly changes his facial expression or tone, even in some happy situations, and I think its great that they included the character since the educational system is all about as much inclusion for LD students as possible

  4. Your issue with the bikinis is absolutely hilarious. They are mermaids… Every mermaid ever has either had on a bikini top, shells or nothing. The female bodies in this show are ambiguous and no different from the boys except for the lack of belly buttons (unless my eyes are just worse than I think). Girls their age actually wear no tops to the pool at times. But this design is absolutely harmless. They are in water, their wearing bathing suits. Do you want your child to think getting into the pool fully dressed is a normal activity? I just think it’s a natural association ie. bathing suits in water.

  5. This lady is looking way to into bubble guppies yes its ethnicly diverse but all the feminist stuff is rediculouse i couldnt tell if she liked the show or not just let the kid watch it to learn and enjoy

  6. Gil is the typical class clown and is a large part of the reason that children enjoy the show! I thought your other comment of the sexualization and lack of feminism was ridiculous… Mr Grouper is a Mr because they are promoting males being accepted as early childhood educators! There is such a stigma around men teaching children and obviously you couldn’t admit that, so tried to justify your feelings. Perhaps you couldn’t stand the class clown when you were in school so now you are taking it out on a fictional character. I hope you wont be so analytical of your daughter and every decision she makes…

  7. I quit reading this garbage at the bikini tops. Yep the must’ve sexist for having girls wear girl clothes. I am assuming you “as a woman” only wear tshirts. No blouses or bikini tops. So little girls at the beach should wear tshirts not bikinis. They did not give them boobs. Little girls wear those kinds of tops in real life. I get so tired of everyone just looking for things to be offended by. If you find nothing you just start making things up. It’s not like they gave them seashells or anything.

  8. A little bit of overthink regarding the clothing choice and Mr. Grouper’s position, but an interesting analysis nonetheless. As for Nonny, there are some kids who just have that serious disposition and are perfectly normal.

  9. Your desire to have women represented in more professional roles in the show makes me laugh. I have seen each and every episode on multiple occasions from start to finish, admittedly my fault for allowing my son to watch this trash, almost 90% of the professionals featured in high ranking or male dominated fields are represented by women. The pilot, construction foreman, doctor, policeman, archeologist, and zoologist not to mention the 3 girls are always saving the day or leading the show the majority of the time. It sounds to me that you would like the show to exclude men all together.

  10. I totally agree with Sonia!!!

    PS My son is afraid of the moon bear from “legend of pinkfoot” episode.

  11. I’m very impressed you had nothing better to do than write this, as a parent! I am betting that you hated Sesame Street as a child, as they had the nerve to reflect our country’s social norms of the time. (e.g. MISTER Hooper – had the store. Bert and Ernie had no sexuality to concern yourself with. etc) Children’s television is just that…CHILDREN’S television. It has no need to be dissected by an uptight feminist, apparently looking for imaginary problem to cry about. This reads like you must have been artificially inseminated and insisted on the man wearing a weighted pregnancy belly for 9 months, simply because you were “offended” that nature FORCED you into a “female role”. (of which I have happily lived for 45 years) As a woman, mother, and grandmother, I find your dissertation absurd, and worry for your daughter when she starts becoming a woman. It is easy to be offended by absolute silliness when that is what you want in the first place

  12. My honest assessment as parent to a child with disability is that perhaps Gil has Autism. It is not so much that he is slow to learn or that he hijacks conversations or even speaks in an even tone. These are things that Autistic children go through. As for Bikini thing it plays into the way that we have always seen merfolk.

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