Ah, Phineas and Ferb, legendary chronicle of the immortal adventures of Phineas Flynn and Ferb Fletcher, it may have only been a year or so since you were yanked from the airwaves, but it feels like so much longer. Now that those halcyon days of eternal summer have passed into the rearview, I find myself longing for your exuberant celebration of creativity and the freedom of childhood. But as Phineas and Ferb have remained forever ten years old, I of course have aged like any other non-animated human being, and, as I look back on this—one of my favorite shows ever—my English major training is starting to kick in. It’s time to ask the real questions.
Namely, what does Phineas and Ferb have to say about the patriarchy?
Now, I know what you’re saying. Chris, that’s ridiculous, it’s a kids’ cartoon. Yes, yes it is. Chris, don’t you have homework to do? Yes, yes I do. Chris, don’t you know someone’s going to ask you why you have to bring politics into a children’s cartoon?
Hold up, lemme stop you right there.
It occurs to me that some of you (well, most of you) probably don’t know how literary criticism works. People who write about literature—mainly academics and professors—normally use various “theories” or “lenses” to examine different works, and one of the most common is feminist theory, which (boiled down) revolves around analyses of gender roles and how they’re portrayed. So no, this ain’t politics—just English major land.
Glad we cleared that up.
So let’s begin with an examination of exactly what the patriarchy is in the brightly-colored 2D land of Phineas and Ferb, and let’s start our investigation with the title characters. Who are Phineas Flynn and Ferb Fletcher? You might say they’re ten year-old children who are left way too unsupervised by their parents, and you might also say that they exhibit signs of uncommon genius and mild mania. But I would just keep it simple, and say that they are the literal embodiments of creativity. Think about it—they spend all their time building everything they can imagine out of anything they can either find around their house or order off Danville’s amazing instant-shipment version of Amazon (seriously, how do those parts get to them in under an hour?). They’re MacGyver’s of the greatest possible degree—representations of the best possible combination of absolute freedom and absolute access.
What does that have to do with feminist theory? Hold on, I’m getting there.
After the titular brothers, the show’s most prominent character is unquestionably their sister, Candace Flynn, who from beginning to almost-end is entirely, formulaically obsessed with “busting” her brothers for all the crazy things they build. Now, if you’re anything like me, you may have occasionally wondered why she always tries to bust them to their mom and not, say, the Danville police or OSHA (though everyone in the town does seem to know what they’re up to and just not care), but rest assured, I’m about to answer that question.
Now the lynchpin of this analysis of Phineas and Ferb is simple—traditional creativity, and all its offshoots and forms, is gendered in society as a feminine trait. As Gerda Lerner writes in The Creation of Patriarchy, “Generativity encompasses both creativity—the ability to create something out of nothing—and procreativity—the capacity to produce offspring,” and “we have seen how religious explanations of generativity have shifted from the Mother-Goddess as the sole principle of universal fertility to the Mother-Goddess assisted… by male gods or human kings; then to the concept of symbolic creativity” (180). Creativity—literally the act of creation—is associated with femininity but has been appropriated and suppressed by agents of the patriarchy.
So in this sense, are Phineas and Ferb feminine and Candace an agent of the patriarchy? Doesn’t that seem weird? Yeah, it does, and I think it’s a bit more complicated than that. Phineas and Ferb are—in the grand tradition of kids’ cartoon characters—largely ungendered. They’re still prepubescent, and still occupy the realm of childhood where the lines between gender are less heavily enforced. Candace, on the other hand, is fifteen—an age where she’s being forced to acclimate to the patriarchial structures that surround her, and she responds by attempting to quash the creativity of her brothers. Likewise, her development over the course of the series, and her exposure to that fountain of creativity helps her retain and even begin to rebuild some of her own, and by the very end she sometimes (though rarely) seems ambivalent or even opposed to the idea of busting.
But of course I’m omitting half of the series—the equally important adventures of Perry the Platypus and Doctor Heinz Doofenschmirtz. What do they have to tell us about the patriarchy?
Quite a lot, actually.
Consider Doctor Doofenschmirtz’s main antagonist, and the main target for his various Inators—not Perry the Platypus, but his younger brother Roger, the hugely popular mayor of Danville. In our analysis, Doctor Doofenschmirtz is almost an analogue for Phineas and Ferb—a being of unfettered creativity characterized by genius-level intellect and engineering skills and mild mania. But after a life of fighting to maintain his creativity, he’s been forced into sullen solitude, and instead concocts revenge plots against his clearest oppressor—his more popular, more charismatic, more handsome, but fairly dunce-y brother.
Now I know what you’re thinking—Chris, doesn’t that make Perry the Platypus also an agent of the patriarchy? Well… actually I don’t think so. I think OWCA definitively represents another iteration of the patriarchy—a more insidious, more intellectual version than Roger’s frat-boy persona—but Perry has his own game to play. And it’s quite simple.
Namely, what happens when Perry defeats Doofenschmirtz’s Inators? They will inevitably malfunction, miss their target, and wipe whatever Phineas and Ferb had built clean off the map just before their mother comes home to find it. Thus, by foiling Doofenschmirtz’s attempts to destroy his brother, Perry protects the still-flowering creativity of his companions from the watchful eye of the patriarchy.
And there you have it, an extremely (and I mean EXTREMELY) bare-bones feminist reading of Phineas and Ferb. Depending on whether or not anyone enjoys this one, I may write some others. A Marxist analysis might be cool. Deconstructionism is always interesting. A psychoanalytic (Freudian) reading would get extremely weird, but the thought is tempting. But we’ll just wait and see.
Now, off to do my real homework. Which, funnily enough, is actually a lot like this.