Captain Underpants Sent to Principal’s Office
THE DEFENDANT: Captain Underpants (series), Dav Pilkey
THE VERDICT: Captain Underpants topped the ALA’s Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books List for two years running, claiming the title in 2012 and 2013. The series also came in at #8 in 2005, #4 in 2004, and #6 in 2002.
THE CHARGES: According to the ALA, Captain Underpants has been challenged for “offensive language”, “violence”, and being “unsuited to age group“, as well as “sexually explicit” and “anti-family content”.
THE REVIEW: In an effort to encourage us to read (and to read well-written things), my mother often would make deals with me and my brother that we could get [insert popular, less substantive book here] from the school book fair if we agreed to get and read [insert classic with literary merit here]. This arrangement allowed my brother to get several Captain Underpants books. Thus, though they were “boy books”, I did read a few of them in the early days of the series. My brother even read Captain Underpants and The Attack of the Talking Toilets to me past our bedtime one night. My mom decided that staying up to read to one’s little sister was not the worst crime an elementary schooler could commit and let it slide.
While the whole series is banned, I will admit that I have not read them all, as many came out long after my brother and I had moved on to bigger, less-toilet-centric books. However, I did reread the only one I could still find in the house, the first book. Given this, it is possible there is some scandalous material in the other books I am not aware of or do not remember. But, if the first book’s tame and long since outdated “violence” and potty language are anything to go by, this series shouldn’t even manage a blip on the controversy radar. Not in 1997 and definitely not in 2013.
These books are by no means great literature, nor are they the best that pulpy children’s books have to offer. However, they are exactly what they claim to be: silly books with a silly sense of humor and a few hours of entertainment (or less, depending how fast you read).
They read like a distillation of 50s-90s schoolyard tropes and wish fulfillment: two trouble-making boys who make comics in their treehouse full of snacks and art supplies are black-mailed by their evil, child-hating principal who confiscates their comics, so they mail away for a mind-control hypno-ring and accidentally make their principal think he’s their fictional superhero, Captain Underpants. The principal then strips down to his underwear and runs off to fight crime with “wedgie-power”. The boys try to stop him and end up stumbling onto and foiling an evil robot plot because 90s.
If underwear jokes, robot fights, and schoolyard revenge fantasies are your thing and you enjoy cartoony illustrations and vaguely clever near-breaks of the fourth wall, get this today. If you know a second-grader who enjoys these things, you just found the birthday/Christmas/Chanukkah present that will cement you as the cool uncle/aunt/cousin/godparent/etc. If not, put the book down and walk away. Perhaps the Wishbone books or The Boxcar Children or The Magic Treehouse are more your speed.
I enjoyed these books as an elementary schooler and remember laughing at the talking toilets. Rereading The Adventures of Captain Underpants as an adult, it seemed lame and far less funny, but I’m not at all the demographic it’s going for anymore and, at the very least, it made me keen for a simpler time on the playground when the worst thing that could happen was getting sent to the principal’s office and the best thing in the world was drawing with your best friend and eating junk food in your treehouse (I imagine, as I neither had a treehouse nor ate junk food and was never sent to the principal’s office).
The Adventures of Captain Underpants also claims to be the first book with “Flip-O-Rama”, where you flip the pages and the changing pictures appear to move as though animated. If so, then Captain Underpants paved the way for the iconic morphing action present in every Animorphs book, which blew the minds of several students in my fourth grade class. Ah, 90s nostalgia. Excuse me while I grab my Bop-It and Supersoaker and stay out until the streetlights come on with no cell phone or way to contact me yet somehow manage not to wind up dead in a ditch. I can practically smell the pollens seeping into my crumbling elementary school.
THE DEFENSE: Yes, Captain Underpants has a simplistic worldview populated by evil, stick-in-the-mud adults; meat-headed bullies; and lovable pranksters. But these one-dimensional tropes are so common that any anti-authority sentiment hardly seems noteworthy. They’re a staple of children’s books that have long since lost any potency, especially over fifteen years after the book’s publication. I mean, even Doug, perhaps the most inoffensive Nicktoon ever made, had an episode with a power-hungry principle confiscating Doug’s comics as part of his sweeping new set of increasingly draconian school rules.
And, for the record, perhaps trying to ban a book about an uptight principle who confiscates comics is not the best course of action. You’re only playing right into the tropes you take issue with and proving to kids that the book was right about you. Besides, the pranksters in question face consequences (whether earned or unjust) for nearly every action they take in the book. Far more so than characters like Tom Sawyer in classic children’s literature ever do, and drawing an irreverent comic is much safer than running away to become pirates, faking your death, or trying to remove warts in a graveyard and stumbling onto a murder plot.
As for the “offensive language”, if a couple of underwear or toilet puns are the worst your kid hears, you’re doing okay. I promise kids have heard far worse from their peers (and their parents) and still turned out to be perfectly well-behaved, respectable children. As I said, I read these books in my formative years and I was never sent to the principal’s office and have a grand total of one detention in my entire k-12 education (and that was a whole-class lunch detention issued by a teacher who should have retired 15 years beforehand). Once again, I don’t think anything in the book should have been an issue when it came out, but it seems especially mild now.
The same goes for the violence. While violence and action in children’s entertainment has long been the lightning rod of debate and censorship, be it horror comics in the 50s, Power Rangers in the 90s, or superheroes in the 2010s, Captain Underpants’s “violence” pales in comparison to just about anything else then or now. Superman-style sound effects and robots getting ‘the tar beaten out of them’ are hardly graphic. In fact, Samurai Jack, a Y7 show on Cartoon Network, avoids actual human violence by having every single foe Jack fights be a robot who explodes after one sword slash. This method of keeping the show child-appropriate while still having a swordsman fight some baddies was openly mocked in the Duck Dodgers episode “Samurai Quack” and Samurai Jack has far more graphic robot violence than anything in this book. Captain Underpants takes down the final boss by sling-shotting a pair of tighty whities at his head. He’s completely unharmed.
Some have argued that Captain Underpants is sexist. While I have not read the particular story accused of rampant misogyny masquerading as modern schoolboy bias, I don’t doubt it. The whole genre of “boy books” is outdated and sexist to me. I can’t tell you how enraged I was in 2013 to walk into a bookstore and see an anthology of Stories for Boys with dragons, knights, dinosaurs, and cowboys on its cover and its girly equivalent slathered in pink and covered in ponies, unicorns, and princesses. Yes, I want a pony, but I also want to be a dragon-riding paleontologist pirate, thank you. I don’t need your decades-out-of-date gender norms telling me what stories and characters and things I’m supposed to like.
Thus, I read “boy books” as well as “girl books”. Sometimes those boy books had unfortunate sentiments about girls (and sometimes the girl books did). Sometimes they didn’t bother acknowledging them at all. Like The Time Warp Trio and other “boy books” of yesteryear, girls are of no concern to the plot or characters of Captain Underpants, serving more as background scenery than characters, if indeed they are present at all.
I was aware of this in The Knights of the Kitchen Table (Time Warp Trio #1) as a child, less so with Captain Underpants. However, unlike Narnia and many of the Disney princess movies (though I maintain that Jasmine is an excellent role model), this did not stop me from enjoying the trio’s wacky time travel adventures. And, though uncomfortable in its treatment of girls and women, Captain Underpants is a far cry from one of the “most horribly misogynistic things I’ve ever read” (“Let’s Talk About Dav Pilkey, Captain Underpants and Misogyny“). Seriously, way bigger fish to fry. So many bigger fish. It’s Qui-Gon Jinn’s worst nightmare up in this library.
Anyone who has read this blog knows how strongly I feel about increasing and improving the representation of women and girls in all media, particularly that for children. However, that does not mean I think we should chuck everything sexist or non-inclusive on the shelves. If we did that, we’d be left with very little to read and pretty much every work in the Western canon would be out. I think balance, awareness, and context are far more powerful weapons than a razed Earth approach to the school library.
Due to both a sudden push for it in the 90s and my mother actively seeking them out, I was exposed to plenty of books with smart, brave, capable, agentive girls and women taking names and getting stuff done, whether it was saving George Washington from an assassination attempt, fighting an alien invasion, or lying to protect your Jewish friend when the Nazis burst into your living room in the middle of the night. This was enough that mixed messages from other books didn’t give me too much pause.
However, if you are concerned about what your son or daughter may be picking up, talk to them. Ask them what they think of Captain Underpants‘s attitude towards girls and women. Don’t interrogate or guilt them or make them feel bad for liking it. Just use it as a discussion starter. For example, most children’s books have things in them that are definitely not okay in a modern or non-fictional context. There is some seriously gross negligence and child endangerment running rampant in children’s media, but that’s kind of necessary to have child heroes doing much of anything. I mean, Robin the brain-washed orphan child soldier is a pretty horrifying concept with some disturbing implications in and out of world. Should they change it? No. Can I address how disturbing it is that billionaire Bruce Wayne keeps taking in children who won’t be missed, altering their appearance so they look more like him, and misplacing a few here and there? You bet.
Unlike child side-kicks, I don’t think sexism should be grandfathered into literature. I do think writers, directors, and artists should continue to strive to improve the quality and diversity of female characters and their roles in fiction, both in their own titles and as minor/support characters in someone else’s. Educators and parents should likewise make an effort of finding and integrating these works. Sure, have the classic Grimm or Disney fairy tales, but also grab a collection or two of other, lesser-known fairy tales/fables/folklore that have female characters doing more than getting kissed while unconscious or fitting into impressively small footwear.
If you don’t want to continue buying Captain Underpants for your child, whether because of sexism, a lack of literary merit, or its toilet humor, that’s your decision, but don’t pitch a fit with the school board to get it removed so someone else’s kid can’t read it. That’s not your decision. I mean, if it was being used as a text in the class curriculum as part of their Why Girls Have Cooties unit, then, yes, it is your decision and you absolutely should say something. However, sitting on a makeshift milk carton shelf in the corner of the classroom’s reading area alongside Pony Pals, Dear America, and Dinosaurs Before Dark or in the fiction section of the school library, it’s not an issue that needs a school board review.
As for the “sexually explicit” charge, I can only assume they mean the attractive woman in the aforementioned sexist story, because there certainly was nothing approaching sexual anything in the books I read. Yes, the principal runs around in his underwear and, after using it to defeat a supervillain, has to cover himself up with a barrel, but this is not remotely sexualized. If anyone has read the later books and wants to weigh in on their level of sexual content, by all means, please do. However, I would be very surprised if it was anything too scandalous, particularly these days.
I honestly don’t know what they’re talking about with the anti-family charge, as I don’t remember the boys’ parents ever being present. Again, in order to have child protagonists engaging in any kind of dangerous adventuring, parents either need to be out of the picture (hence the amount of orphans and foster children running around in children’s literature) or negligent. The books’ caricatured attitude towards adults and vaguely rebellious nature could be at issue here, but I certainly never defied my mother because I read this or any other book with nefarious, ridiculous, or out of touch adults. And, let’s face it, there are some nefarious, ridiculous, and out of touch adults out there. Like the ones with nothing better to do than try to get books like Captain Underpants, Strega Nona, The Wizard of Oz, The Hobbit, or The Diary of Anne Frank removed from our schools and libraries.