It’s a fairly familiar scenario: there’s a major female character in a predominantly male cast. She feels constantly overshadowed by the male characters, who by contrast seem to have all the advantages that she lacks; they can get away with anything, do anything they like, and receive almost universal praise, while she has to struggle and fight to achieve her goals, which seem always cruelly beyond her reach. Feeling frustrated and ignored, she sets out to prove that she is every bit as good as the men around her.
As I say, a pretty standard set up…except that, in this case, the girl is the antagonist and her attempts to one-up the male characters are presented as wrong-headed and ridiculous.
I hope everyone’s familiar with the show Phineas and Ferb, which aired on Disney from 2007 to 2015. At first glance, it doesn’t seem like much: weird-looking kids perform wacky stunts in their backyard while their bratty older sister tries to tattle on them to their parents and their secret-agent pet platypus battles an evil scientist. It seems at once too weird, too generic and thoroughly childish, especially when you learn that practically every episode features a musical number.
But first impressions can be deceiving. In truth, it’s a smart, hilarious, and heartwarming piece of work, bursting with creativity and endless goodwill. I’ve been wanting to write about it for a while, since there’s actually a lot of meat under the cheery surface, but today I want to focus on what I see as the hilariously countercultural message of Candace’s character arc.
The Face of Modern Feminism
Candace is Phineas and Ferb’s teenage sister, whose role in the story is to endlessly attempt to reveal the boys’ activities to their mother, only to inevitably fail at the last second (their mother is basically the only person in town who doesn’t know what they’ve been up to and dismisses Candace’s stories as resulting from an over-active imagination). This is one of many running gags that are endlessly played with throughout the series.
Her reason for continually trying to get her brothers in trouble is, more or less, because she’s jealous. Not so much of what they do, which she is at pains to dismiss as being childish and stupid, but of the fact that they get so much attention for it, while somehow never getting into trouble for breaking the rules (“Hi, Mom! I’m digging up the Northwest United States! You okay with that?!”). In other words, her envy stems, not from the fact that Phineas and Ferb can build a rollercoaster in the backyard over the course of a morning and she can’t, but just from the fact that they’re successful: that they’re more popular and admired than she is, that they excel at whatever they try while she doesn’t, and, most of all, that they never get caught. To that end, she will endure anything if only she can one-up her brothers just once and prove that they’re not as cool as everything thinks.
In all this, she’s missed the simple fact that…it’s not a competition. Though she’s continually trying (and failing) to outshine them, Phineas and Ferb aren’t trying to outshine her, or anyone else; they’re just doing what interests them. “We don’t do this to compete,” Phineas tells Candace in one episode. “We do it for fun!” (“And for the ladies,” Ferb adds). That’s the point: there is no conflict except in Candace’s mind.
Far from seeking to overshadow their sister, Phineas and Ferb actually admire Candace and want her to participate. They’re always inviting her along on their escapades and providing her with the means to join them (“We built [that rocket ship] for Candace; I don’t know why she took ours”). But Candace would rather show up the boys and spoil their fun than actually partake of it herself. As far as she’s concerned, the mere fact that Phineas and Ferb are involved immediately taints the activity for her.
Candace is focused on the personal aspect; she really, really wants to be able to one-up her brothers by ‘busting’ them to their mother, just to show that they aren’t as great as everyone thinks and (in her mind) make herself look better by comparison. Phineas and Ferb, on the other hand, are focused on the actual activity itself. The important thing to them isn’t who does it, or who’s better at it, or any of that nonsense; the important thing is simply that it gets done.
This dynamic is showcased in an early episode centering on their mom’s birthday. Candace once again sees it as an opportunity to outshine her brothers, refusing to help them with their preparations, growling about who has ‘won’ each part of the day, and even going so far to sign her card, “The child who loves you best.” Meanwhile, Phineas and Ferb culminate their multimedia birthday celebration by playing the song Candace wrote and inviting her up on stage to sing it live. Again, they don’t care who does what, just so long as their mother has a nice birthday.
Now, Candace goes through a lot over the course of four seasons, yet the show makes it abundantly clear that, to put it bluntly, it’s pretty much all her own fault. If she’d only let go of her petty jealousy and loosened up a little, she would be much happier, more relaxed, and be spared the numerous mishaps that she’s subjected to. In fact, on the odd occasion where she’s either cooperating with the boys or going on her own adventure, she tends to be very successful and to have a good time to boot. But, rather than learning to lighten up a little, she persists in her Sisyphean quest to ‘bust’ her brothers and so keeps bringing disaster down upon her own head.
This all should sound pretty familiar: it’s the attitude most self-styled feminists adopt. It’s the notion that men and women are in opposition, that men are the oppressors of women and that women must do whatever they can to escape the shadow of ‘the patriarchy.’ When, actually, most men (at least in the West) rather like women and want them to succeed at whatever they’re interested in.
For one particularly silly example, we hear a lot from feminists how we need to get more girls interested in STEM fields. They decry the ‘gender imbalance’ in such things, and in pretty much everything else where there’s difference between men and women (unless, of course, the women have the better share). Like Candace trying to outshine her brothers, though, this misses the whole point; it focuses on who is doing it rather than on what they’re doing.
If a girl wants to go into science, technology, or what have you because she’s interested in the subject, that’s awesome, and she should definitely be encouraged to do so, but because it’s a worthwhile endeavor in itself; not because her doing so will add a checkmark to someone’s imaginary ledger. If she’s going into the field to close the ‘gender gap,’ then frankly she’d be much better off doing something else: something she’s interested in for its own sake. No occupation or field of study is helped by anyone (male or female) who gets involved with an eye towards correcting social ratios, only by those who care about the subject itself (i.e. I’m sure Amelia Earhart would have wanted to fly even if every other aviator on Earth at the time were a woman).
You see, when someone sets out to do anything with an eye towards the societal aspect, her attention has, for that very reason, been taken off the thing itself and placed on an abstract social image. Most people (men and women) in whatever field she’s involved in will find this annoying, because their focus is on the work itself while she’s preoccupied with what the work means for her and her idea of society. This is what will make her unwelcome: the fact that no group of people likes it when someone who isn’t really interested in their subject imposes herself on them, even less if she’s doing it to make some kind of point.
More to the point, if you’re trying to go into space, would it make any difference to you who designed your rocket, as long as it worked properly? When Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, was anyone thinking about how many women versus how many men made that possible? Would that achievement have been any more outstanding if there had been an equal proportion of men and women at NASA?
As all this indicates, I think a lot of modern feminism is a big fuss over nothing: people who get furiously competitive over a conflict as imaginary as Candace’s rivalry with her brothers. Because, let me say it again, the ‘gender gap’ doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter who is doing the job, as long as the job is done well, and it doesn’t matter how many women or men are in any given field, as long as those who are genuinely care about their subject and know what they’re doing.
Candace is, in fact, living out a broad and, today, very popular worldview: that it is the identity of the person doing the act that matters; not the act itself. To her, the fact that her brothers are doing these things are what is important: her brothers who constantly overshadow her, who can get away with anything, and who are just so annoying. The fact that what they’re doing is amazing, fun, and often beneficial to others is secondary.
By contrast, Phineas and Ferb are focused on the act itself. They are close to the position described in The Screwtape Letters: of being able to design the best roller coaster in the world, know it is the best, and rejoice in that fact, and yet be just as happy if someone else were to design it instead. If Candace went out and built her own supersonic jet or a skyscraper to the Moon, Phineas and Ferb would just think that was awesome. Any reservations they would have would be based on the fact that they would have liked to have done that cool thing themselves, but the idea that they would object because their big sister is trying to overshadow them, or because she’s a girl, would simply sound weird to them.
Most people today (at least in the west) see nothing at all strange in the idea of women doing great things. We’ve been taught feminism all our lives and raised on a steady diet of tales of female empowerment. But, for that same reason, we find demands for perfect parity between men and women in all things to be childish and silly. Nothing seriously excludes a woman from pursuing pretty much any job she wants: why not just let her do what she wants and stop stressing over who does what? It’s not a competition, after all.
Candace’s urge to ‘bust’ her brothers is ridiculous because one, it’s obvious the effort she puts into it is ludicrously out of proportion to any kind of payoff she could receive, and two, because her rivalry with the boys only exists in her own mind. It’s funny, because she’s driving herself past the point of human endurance in pursuit of a purely symbolic victory that no one but herself cares about, much like current-wave feminists spend millions of dollars and countless hours of time advocating for things that either they already have (i.e. equal pay) or which simply don’t matter (i.e. the ratio of men and women in any given field). Candace herself, in her better moments, understands that her whole crusade really isn’t worth it. I only hope modern feminists might come to the same realization. I think they’d be much happier.