Revisiting THE MAGIC GARDEN, or How I Plan to Keep my Girl Off the Pole

Paula, Sherlock, and Carole

One of the great joys of parenting young children is the chance to return to activities that you enjoyed as a child. Having a child gives you license to play with toys, watch children’s television shows, go to Disney World, and to eat unhealthy shit like Nutty Sundae Cones and Chee-tos because “It’s a treat for the kids.”

240 calories, 11 grams of fat. I like to eat two in one sitting

However, one thing that I have noticed is that certain cherished icons from my youth have changed a lot over the last few decades. For example, as a child in the 1980s I adored my set of My Little Ponies. They were anthropomorphic for sure — but still fundamentally “horsey.” They were pretty but also demure. Clearly, these were ponies who were not yet interested in boys or parties.

Squeee!!!

When my daughter was around 2 years old, she received her first My Little Pony. As we opened the package, I was horrified. This little pony is clearly hot to trot:

Tramp

So what’s different? First, the pony is skinnier. That’s right. Skinnier. Because little girls aren’t exposed to enough images of impossibly skinny women. Today even plastic ponies are paranoid about the size of their asses. Now take a look at that snout. This new breed of pony has had a nose job. Nose jobs for ponies? Rainbow Dash will probably tell you that she had a “deviated septum,” but we know the truth. Other changes: longer, more tapered legs (Pilates?), longer manes and tails (hair extensions?), and more body art (kids today love their tattoos).

Bu Hasbro isn’t the only company invested in defiling my innocent childhood memories. Let’s take a look at a Strawberry Shortcake doll, circa 1980:

Oh how I loved Custard the Cat

I have many fond memories of playing with this Strawberry Shortcake doll and her beloved cat, Custard (they both smell like strawberries!) in my childhood bedroom. I especially loved Strawberry’s big, floppy hat, which implied that she spent her days baking delicious strawberry confections for her pals Lemon Meringue and Blueberry Muffin. There is nothing “sassy” or “fierce” about this doll. In fact, she’s sort of a dork. Just like I was at age 6 and just like all 6 year olds should be. I am very wary of “hip” children.

Now take a look at the Strawberry Shortcake doll my daughter plays with:

I'm pretty sure that new Strawberry Shortcake doll would make old Strawberry Shortcake doll cry in front of the entire 3rd grade class during lunch.

As with My Little Ponies, today’s Strawberry Shortcake appears to have grown up prematurely. The doll I played with as a child was a child: fat cheeks, stubby legs, lame clothes, etc. My daughter’s doll looks more like a precocious pre-teen: she’s lost her gigantic hat, she’s wearing heavy make-up,  and she is dressed in the requisite preteen outfit of miniskirt n’ leggins. Oh how today’s teens love the leggins.

And here’s a nice comparison of the 1980s Strawberry Shortcake cartoon heroine and her contemporary manifestation on TV:

"I feel sexy!"

In her wonderful book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, Peggy Orenstein analyzes contemporary girl culture, focusing several chapters on the premature sexualization of girls. In particular, Orenstein cites the concept of KGOY or “Kids Getting Older Younger.” KGOY is the idea that “toys and trends start with older children, but younger ones, trying to be like their older brothers and sisters, quickly adopt them.  That immediately taints them for the original audience. And so the cycle goes” (84). This might explain why my daughter’s Strawberry Shortcake doll is so much sluttier than mine ever was! Orenstein laments the early sexualization of girls, who develop an appetite for make up, short “sassy” skirts, and rhinestones at an early age. For another eye-opening take on this issue, read Lisa Bloom’s short piece in The Huffington Post, “How to Talk to Little Girls.”

But why is this problematic? I mean, can’t my daughter wear some lip gloss and strut around in the clear plastic princess heels a well-meaning friend bought for her? Isn’t she just exploring a role and enjoying the fantasy?  In an interview with NPR’s Diane Rehm, Orenstein explains:

“We have confused desirability with desire, so that girls feel they’re supposed to be desirable. But they don’t really understand their own desire. And when I talked about that with a researcher who studies girls and desire, she said that by the time girls are teenagers, when she asks them how they felt about an intimate experience, they respond by telling her how they felt they looked. And she has to tell them that looking good is not a feeling.”

When I read these words, I actually get tears in my eyes (as should you). Why is this happening to our daughters? How can we stop it? Often it feels like a losing battle. I may not buy my daughter slutty-looking dolls or T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Pampered Princess,” but other people do. And what should I do with those dolls and T-shirts? Throw them away? Explain to my 5-year-old that Strawberry Shortcake shouldn’t be wearing make up yet? That instead Strawberry Shortcake should look inside for her true worth?

This little girl is 2. I can't even process this image.

One way to counter this early sexualization in popular culture is to never let my daughter watch TV or go to Target or have a birthday party or leave the house. But that’s not very realistic. So another option is to direct her towards popular culture that has nothing to do with princesses or prettiness or lip gloss or sparkles, but that still appeals to a child’s sense of wonder and fantasy. And that is just what I did for my daughter’s 5th birthday [pats self on back]. I purchased a DVD of the classic children’s television series, The Magic Garden.

For those who were not young children in the early 1980s or did not have cable, The Magic Garden was a children’s television show produced for New York City’s WPIX station, aka, channel 11. The show aired from 1972 until 1984, and, as the cover of the DVD proclaims, it remains “the most successful  regional show in the history of children’s television.” The Magic Garden centers on two women, Carole Dumas and Paula Janis, who reside in a “magical garden of make-believe.” During the course of a typical 30-minute episode, Carole and Paula will sing several songs (in beautiful harmony), perform a classic fable with the help of the Story Box, read a joke or riddle from the giggling garden of plastic flowers known as the Chuckle Patch, and teach a lesson to the show’s antagonist, Sherlock the Squirrel. There was not a lot of children’s television when I was a kid, so every show was precious to me. I have distinct memories of running into the den on weekday afternoons, panicky that I might miss some of The Magic Garden‘s glorious opening theme song (a panic my children will never know due to the DVR):

I’m not exaggerating when I say that I still feel shivers of excitement when I see this clip; I am immediately sent back to my childhood. I remember my joy at seeing the window open onto the cheesy, 1970s-era studio set (it even looked cheesy to me as a child), as the camera slowly tracks forward until it reaches the show’s harmonizing stars, Carole and Paula, sitting on swings and looking swell. As I child, I loved their fabulous hippie hair, always styled the same way: parted down the middle and tied into two long ponytails. And I loved how inviting these women were: they smiled and cajoled, but not in the syrupy sweet way that other children’s show hosts of the era did, like Mr. Rogers or Romper Room‘s Miss Molly. It didn’t feel like they were adults talking down to me. Instead they felt like the coolest babysitters ever who wanted me to come and play in the magic garden with them!

"I can see into your soul. You ate Play Doh this morning, didn't you?"

When my daughter opened up The Magic Garden DVD set on the morning of her 5th birthday, her face fell. “What is this?” she whined. “It’s The Magic Garden!” I exclaimed. “It was Mommy’s favorite TV show when she was 5!” My daughter glanced at the cover one more time and then dropped it on the table to see what else we had bought for her. I did not let on that I was crushed.

Later in the week when my daughter was about to sit down for her much-anticipated, daily 30-minute dose of “screen time,” I asked her “So do you want to watch the new DVD Mommy bought for you?” My daughter scowled, “I didn’t even ask for that!” It was not until I had to drive my two children from Greenville, NC to Charleston, SC by myself that I offered up the DVDs again. My 18-month-old son hates the car. He hates being strapped in to anything and he hates looking at the back of my head (all attention should be on him at all times, a reasonable demand). When I could not stomach his screaming any longer I decided to put The Magic Garden into my minivan’s built-in DVD player (God bless the Mensch who invented that technology). As soon as the opening strains of the theme began to play, my son stopped crying. He was mesmerized. And so was my daughter. On our return trip to Greenville, my daughter only wanted to watch The Magic Garden: not Cinderella, not The Little Mermaid, not even that perennial car trip favorite, Dora Saves the Crystal Kingdom.

Currently, my children are completely enamored with The Magic Garden. This surprises me because 1) my son has never really sat still long enough to watch a TV show and 2) compared to the slick production values and high-definition images of contemporary live-action children’s shows like The Fresh Beat Band or even Yo Gabba Gabba! (which even seems to strive for a low-budget aesthetic), The Magic Garden is positively low-rent. The image transfer is grainy and blurry and the set, with it’s astroturf and plastic flowers looks like a parody of a bad public access television show. But that is what’s so wonderful about this show.

In the above Story Box segment (a feature of every episode), Carole and Paula dig through a beat up old trunk and pull out costumes made out of construction paper. Clealrly these items were put together minutes before the cameras rolled. For the story of the “Fox and the Crane,” for example, Carole’s Fox costume consists of a set of little brown ears attached to a plastic headband and the Crane is signified by a bright yellow construction paper cone that Paula holds up to her mouth. So in order to follow the story, children had to … use their imaginations!

Carole can rock an embroidered, fringe vest like nobody else!

And let’s talk about Paula’s and Carole’s wardrobes for a minute. As I recall, the women never wore dresses or skirts. Instead they always wore pants or jeans (or what my Nana used to call “dungarees”). These women didn’t look like magical fairy princesses or even cool teenagers. They looked like my summer camp counselors or my babysitters — fun women who played “steal the bacon” with me or hid under my bed during a game of hide and seek.

Sherlock and Flapper

And how about the two puppets who regularly appeared on the show, Sherlock the Squirrel and Flapper the Bird? The prop department couldn’t even spring for glass eyes — both characters instead have either felt eyes or paper eyes with the pupils drawn in. This aesthetic has the curious effect of making it appear as if Sherlock and Flapper are stoned or at least very bored — even when their voices are animated.

But this is the charm of The Magic Garden. No CGI, no sparkles, no high heels or make up, no faux “girl power!” Instead, it’s two real women, singing in their real voices, beckoning children, to “come and see our garden grow.” The only complaint I have about this DVD set is that it only contains 10 episodes (as well as a bonus 6-song CD). When my daughter told me that she wanted to watch this show “forever,” I had to break the news to her and she was devastated. “What? That’s all there is?” There were, in fact, 52 episodes of The Magic Garden that aired between 1972 and 1984, but my guess is that the 10 that appeared on the DVD were all that WPIX had saved. After, how could they foresee the phenomenon of TV-on-DVD?

I don’t want it to seem like I am implying that by buying my daughter a collection of TV episodes from my youth that I am somehow keeping her from becoming sexualized at an early age. The Magic Garden alone will not keep my girl “off the pole” (to quote a great Chris Rock bit).  Orenstein concludes her (often frightening) book in this way:

“… our role is not to keep the world at bay but to prepare our daughters so they can thrive within it. That involves staying close but not crowding them, standing firm in one’s values while remaining flexible … The good news is, the choices we make for our toddlers can influence how they navigate [culture] as teens. I’m not saying we can, or will, do everything ‘right,’ only that there is power — magic — in awareness” (192).

Preach on, Peggy.

Indeed, all I can do is make my daughter aware of what the world is like, and what traps might lie ahead as she makes her way as a young woman. I will tell her that once a woman starts wearing make up she will find that she doesn’t like her face any other way. I will tell her that while I think she is beautiful, she should never be defined by the way she looks. I will tell her that envy is a sickness  and that she should therefore never compare her appearance to another woman’s. I will tell her that her body is first and foremost something that she should enjoy. I will tell her that she must love that body, because it is the only body she will ever have. And, while I wait for the day when she slams her bedroom door in my face, rejecting all of that advice, I can offer her a “magical garden of make believe, where flowers chuckle and birds play tricks and a magic tree grows lollipop sticks.” I like hanging out there too, preferably while eating a Nutty Sundae Cone.