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Deconstructing Daniel Tiger or Why Children’s Programming Is Freaking Me Out, Man

DanielTiger 300x153 Deconstructing Daniel Tiger or Why Childrens Programming Is Freaking Me Out, ManToday we deviate slightly from our usual rounds into the world of children’s literature to look at children’s television programming in the early 21st century.  Put another way, I have a new baby and a three-year-old so this is about the level of literary criticism I’m capable of today.  You’ll have to bear with me.

If you are unlike me and do not have a very young child then you may be completely unaware of this particular television show.  But if you do know of it then you’ll probably find that this seemingly innocuous little bit of pleasant programming has a kooky core that’s worth looking into.

First off, I’ve always admired the women of the Children’s Media Association.  Occasionally, because children’s books and children’s media intersect with great frequency, they’ll have me come in to moderate a panel or speak on a topic.  Years and years ago they had me come in and we discussed the fact that some of them were working on this new show that was a kind of spin-off of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.  All I really knew about it was that it was going to be called Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.  Beyond that, no information.  Years passed and nothing happened.  Then, in September of 2012, the show finally hit the airwaves.  Look at the Wikipedia entry and you’ll see that it was in the works since 2006 or so.

Now the premise of the show is what interests me the most.  Without knowing anything about it I just assumed it was an animated version of The Land of Make Believe with all the same Fred Rogers characters.  Not exactly.  Instead, the idea is that those characters all got older (didn’t we all?) and had kids of their own.  So this is the next generation of Make Believe children.  Daniel Tiger is the son of Daniel Striped Tiger, a fact reinforced as true when you notice that the dad sports a watch.  King Friday XIII is there with his wife but Prince Tuesday’s now in his 20s and he has a little brother that’s around Daniel’s age.  X the owl has a nephew, which is a bit confusing since I always assumed that he and Henrietta were an item.  You know.  The owl and the pussycat and all that.  Apparently not since she has a kid of her own and he doesn’t.  No word on who the father of her kiddo is.  I’m going to continue to hope it’s X and that the kitten shows owlish signs in the future.

Where it gets a little peculiar (and as you can see I’m already getting a bit weird about all this) is when you get to the origins of a little girl named Miss Elaina.  Those of you who grew up on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood back in the day will recall this figure:

LadyElaine1 Deconstructing Daniel Tiger or Why Childrens Programming Is Freaking Me Out, Man

That’s Lady Elaine Fairchilde.  Probably the puppet most directly influenced by old Punch & Judy shows.  Voiced by Fred Rogers (a fact that my mother attributes to his mental sanity, since it allowed him to cut loose a little) Lady Elaine was the antagonist of the show.  Not necessarily the villain, but she liked to stir things up.  She was sort of the closest thing they had to a bad guy.  Well credit to the creators of the show because somebody somewhere took a look at this . . .

LadyElaine2 Deconstructing Daniel Tiger or Why Childrens Programming Is Freaking Me Out, Man

. . . and said to themselves, “You know what she needs?  A hot husband.”  Batta bing, meet the new happy family.

LadyElaine3 500x476 Deconstructing Daniel Tiger or Why Childrens Programming Is Freaking Me Out, Man

Lady Elaine has been paired with Music Man Stan (who actually dates back to the original show).  They cut back on her eye make-up and toned down that red nose.  Then they gave her a daughter named Miss Elaina, which is sort of awesome since they’re essentially calling her Lady Elaine Jr.  Miss Elaina calls everyone “Toots” just like her mom did.  Seriously.

Am I the only one who finds the reinterpretation of Lady Elaine just a bit odd?  She sort of lost her drive, since this show doesn’t deal in plots long enough to include baddies.  Her daughter’s downright sweet as well.  In fact the whole show feels like a combination of Dora the Explorer and the original Fred Rogers creation.  Still and all, it’s interesting, particularly when you take into account the attention to detail the creators of this show have paid to the original.  At times it’s actually a bit unnerving.  It’s not just Daniel Striped Tiger’s watch.  Read through the Wikipedia page and you’ll learn that the neighborhood doctor is Dr. Anna and “Though human, she shares many characteristics of the platypus family of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: their patriarch, Bill Platypus was the neighborhood physician and spoke with a foreign accent (Scottish, in his case), and his daughter was named Ana.”  There are other examples as well, which means that somebody on the staff sat down and watched untold numbers of episodes of the original Mister Rogers program just to make these connections.

Anyone with small kids knows that if you watch enough children’s programming you start to create alternate narrative to the one on the screen so as to maintain sanity.  Back in the day my mother really rooted for Maria and David to hook up on Sesame Street, only for the show to go the predictable route of pairing her with Luis instead.  The same can be true for this show. For example,  Daniel Striped Tiger apparently works in the “Clock Factory” where he grew up.  Take that one step further and you can create a kind of Hugo Cabret childhood for him.  Living by himself in a clock.  Never really leaving.  Sad, really.

All told though it’s a good show.  We’ve actually used it with our daughter and it worked wonders when it came to getting a shot at the doctor’s office or waiting somewhere (though it was completely and utterly ineffective in terms of getting her to try new foods).

If you’ve other points about the peculiarities of this show, feel free to pass them along.  I’m all ears.

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Elizabeth Bird About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently New York Public Library's Youth Materials Collections Specialist. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of NYPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. Trying to decide if I’m genuinely horrified or delighted by this information. Must check it out.

  2. Jennie says:

    My daughter is just a week or two younger than yours. We watch A LOT of Daniel Tiger. With a father that travels a lot (and me going to ALA tomorrow), we sing “groooooooooownups come back” a lot at my house. And when we were at the doctor last month she sang “close your eyes and think of something happy” so many times she didn’t realize the shot was long over. (But yeah, I can sing “you gotta try new foods ’cause they might taste good” until I’m blue in the face, but to no effect. ALSO– she has no problem telling us (and other kids at daycare) “when you feel so made that you want to roar, take a deep breath, and count to 4″ when we’re upset, but woe to the person who sings that at her when SHE’S upset.)

    Other weirdnesses–Teacher Harriet has an Ana Platypus puppet. Also, what kind of economy is King Friday overseeing if his oldest prince has to take random odd jobs like babysitting and being a waiter? And they can’t afford a slide AND a swings for the playground?

    Lady Elaine’s eye make-up is variable. On some episodes, she rocks a pretty extreme purple smoky eye, especially for daytime. I do like that they made her and her family the super-fun wacky family. Who else brings a band to the thank you day party?

    I just want more episodes to hit Netflix. As this comment proves, I may have seen the ones that are streaming a few too many times.

    • Elizabeth Bird Elizabeth Bird says:

      THANK YOU! I had the exact same reaction to Prince Tuesday’s odd jobs. He has to be a waiter? Is he working his way through college? The economy is based on a lot of factory jobs, apparently. The clock factory. The crayon factory. Not sure what the clock actually does, of course. Do they make watches? I haven’t watched all the episodes so perhaps these mysteries are cleared up later.

      I had the same reaction to voting for a slide OR swings. And as my husband pointed out, why hasn’t King Friday realized the threat posed to his position by all this discussion of democracy?

      I’m not going to touch the weirdness that was Daniel’s parents staying over for a sleepover in the castle. Um . . . okay.

      • Jennie says:

        I just pretend it was so no one had to worry about being the designated driver. I mean, does the trolley run that late? It’s not like they don’t have extra rooms.

      • Elizabeth Bird Elizabeth Bird says:

        You have thought this through. I defer to you in this matter.

  3. This show is skewed very young, and one of those shows that’s really harder for adults to watch. But the little sing-song things have been really useful with the kids. My daughter picks them right up and usually responds when I use them.

  4. Karen Maurer says:

    The granddaughter loves Daniel Tiger and we Netflix sometimes. Funny, the “Gotta try new things, ‘cuz they might taste goo-ood” song has no appeal to grand-d either.

  5. Daniel says:

    Lady Elaine should be paired up Jane Lynch’s character from Glee, since they’re basically the same person.

    • Elizabeth Bird Elizabeth Bird says:

      When they turn the Land of Make Believe into a live action film (and they will) then we’ll know whom to cast, fer sure.

      • Daniel says:

        Who do you think will direct it? I’m picturing Baz Luhrmann, which horrifies and delights me.

      • Elizabeth Bird Elizabeth Bird says:

        I was going more the route of John Waters, but Luhrmann works for me.

  6. Rebecca Reid says:

    I love this post. My 2 year old loves to pretend she’s mad so she can count to 4. “1-2-10-9-4! I’m all happy again!” And the songs are definitely helpful. I think it’s pretty good programming compared to alternatives (Dora and Caillou!? No thanks.) I love how its the grown ups of the shows we watched. And I suspect that the script writers did not have to go back and watch episodes…they just remembered from their childhoods. It was all so familiar to me. Except for Lady Elaine, of course. She’s not quite herself.

    • Christina Vortia says:

      All of the songs work for my 3 and 1 1/2 year old! Tantrums are at an all time minimum in my house!

  7. Jennifer says:

    I’ve started posting kids’ movie reviews – haven’t found any other blogs that do so, although they must be out there. I thought Daniel Tiger was pretty decent, although there are some odd bugs in the animation that kind of annoyed me. http://animationotcartoons.blogspot.com/2014/03/daniel-tigers-neighborhood-daniels-big.html. You know what really, REALLY freaks me out though? Thomas the Tank Engine. I have never seen anything so creepy *shudder* http://animationotcartoons.blogspot.com/2014/06/thomas-and-friends-spills-and-thrills.html

  8. Belinda says:

    What’s confusing for me is that I thought Lady Elaine (on the original Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood) was an older lady, way past child-bearing years. But now we find that no, she got even older, married a hip young guy, and had a child. (??!)

    • Jason says:

      This. She’s actually pretty and nice now, which is totally backwards.

      I also noticed Queen Sara looks exactly like Lady Elaine with different hair, even thought they are not related.

      • Elizabeth Bird Elizabeth Bird says:

        Do we know that she’s not related? If she’s King Friday’s sister-in-law that could explain A LOT.

  9. Christina Vortia says:

    My mom thinks I’m nuts for watching my children’s television programming with a critical eye….but these things need critical examination! I’ve noticed some interesting things, but this takes it to a whole other level that I hadn’t realized!!! Now I feel I need to go back and re-watch Mr. Rogers! A lot of time and energy has obviously been put into the making of these shows.

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