Daniel Tiger and the Politics of Difference
If you were a kid in the 1970s or 1980s, chances are you have at least a vague recollection of Daniel Striped Tiger, the sweet, high-voiced, feline inhabitant of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe on Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. And if, like me and my partner, you have a child under the age of 5, you might also be familiar with Daniel Striped Tiger’s offspring who now has his own spinoff, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, on PBS. The animated show stars four-year-old Daniel Tiger who lives with his mother and father (Daniel Striped Tiger) in a community of regulars from the old Neighborhood of Make-Believe and their kids (Henrietta Kitty, X the Owl, and King Friday all have little versions of themselves in their charge). The show has mainly been praised for the life-skills and independence lessons it teaches to kids (to wit, the oft-repeated song, “If you have to go potty, STOP, and go right away!” which has been a life saver—or, rug/pants saver—in my house), and for the way it urges kids to “express their feelings.” If online message boards are to be trusted (and when are they not?), the only beef people have with the show, apart from its maddening repetition of one-line songs, is that Daniel is whiny and, as one commenter put it, “neurotic.” But Daniel’s neuroses (if you can call being afraid of the dark at age 4 neurotic) don’t hold a candle to the psychological and emotional woes of Daniel Sr., who, despite his having grown into a full-sized, well-adjusted (and, astonishingly, heterosexual) tiger, was something of a nervous wreck back in the day when he lived in a make-believe clock in Mister Roger’s imagination.
In addition to dealing with the usual sources of kid anxiety (going to school and the like), Daniel Striped Tiger (voiced by Fred Rogers) spent a fair number of hours a day brooding in his clock about why he wasn’t like everyone else, and then discussing these concerns with his human friend/therapist Lady Aberlin. In one episode, Daniel laments learning that he is nothing like the tigers in the book on tiger history he has been reading. They’re mean and they growl, while Daniel is “tame.” Lady A gently explains to Daniel Striped Tiger, “You’re not an old, wild tiger; you’re a new, tame tiger.” Still somewhat suspicious, Daniel protests, “That’s not in any of the books.” “No,” says Lady A, “you’re an advanced breed of tiger…. If you were like one of those tigers in the books, I’d never come and visit you… I’d be too scared of you.” And from there she goes on to sing about how “I’m glad you’re the way you are!” Problem solved. Until, that is, later on when Daniel admits in a song to Lady A that, because he is not strong, because he gets scared, and because of how he talks, (get out the Kleenex, folks): “Sometimes I Wonder If I’m a Mistake.”
Being different from the other tigers is one thing, but the language of being a “mistake” raises the conversation to a whole new level of queerness, especially considering this exchange that takes place at the end of their duet:
Lady A: “I think you are just fine exactly the way you are.”
Daniel: “The way I look?”
Lady A: “Yes.” Daniel: “The way I talk?”
Lady A: “Yes.”
Daniel: “The way I love?”
Lady A: “Especially that.”
Daniel is different, in the way he looks, sounds, and behaves—differences that are coded in the song as feminine and, arguably, queer. And he is made to feel this difference, quite painfully, in the social sphere and in the production of knowledge (the books, after all, tell him that, historically, that tigers are not meant to behave like him) precisely because the ways in which he differs from others are socially devalued.
Daniel Striped Tiger’s representation of difference differs, as it were, from that of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood in two very important ways, which I’ll outline in more detail below. First, as the central character of these scenes (and of many Make-Believe sketches over the course of the series), Daniel Striped Tiger’s perspective is the point of view with which the spectator is meant to sympathize. Second, Daniel Sr.’s difference is never downplayed or denied—no one ever asserts that his difference doesn’t matter or that he is really just the same as everyone else despite his difference. Rather, what makes him different (his sensitivity, vulnerability, and affect) is cast as a positive, pro-social alternative to the tiger status quo. The message is one of affirmation, not assimilation, of difference.
While Daniel Sr. explored his very own feelings of “difference,” Daniel Jr., by contrast, operates as the normalized center of his neighborhood, with a supporting cast that is marched out to carry the old banner of inclusivity. O the Owl and his Uncle X represent the non-normative family structure, and in Season 2 we are introduced, in a two-segment episode titled “Daniel Makes a New Friend; Same/Different,” to Chrissie (Prince Wednesday’s heretofore unmentioned cousin) who walks with crutches and leg braces. In this episode, Daniel learns, through the power of song repeated ad nauseam, that “In some ways we are different, but in so many ways we are the same.” Daniel and his friends ask Chrissie all sorts of awkward questions, including “if we get too close will we need braces on our legs, too,” and make several social blunders that Chrissie cheerfully corrects (by asserting that she does not need help with everything, that she can play without them worrying about bumping her crutches, etc.). While the show should perhaps be commended for portraying with some degree of honesty the questions and concerns kids who don’t use mobility aids might have when interacting for the first time with a kid who uses crutches, the unsettling fact remains that the kid who uses crutches becomes defined by her difference—right down to the title of the episode, which itself proclaims that Chrissie is here for the express purpose of teaching all of us a lesson about difference. Just as Chrissie is a marginal character, difference is also made to be a quality belonging to the margin, with Daniel Tiger acting as both the normative center and point of view for the kids without a disability for whom this lesson is designed.
In the second segment of the show, Daniel discovers that he, too, is different because he has a tail while most of his friends do not (the friends who do have tails are conveniently absent from this scene, only to be revealed later when everyone is reveling in their wonderful similarities and differences). But this pat gesture falls flat. When Daniel remarks sadly that he has a tail and others do not, Chrissie and another friend respond “Oh, yeah,” and go on playing. While the show’s logic might have us take this response as a sign that the kids have learned from Chrissie that difference is no big deal, what it really reflects is the fact that some forms of variance do not carry the same social consequences as other forms. Daniel’s tail is the equivalent of having blue eyes instead of brown eyes—a noticeable variance but not historically a grounds for discrimination. For all the show’s well-meaning and positive lessons about interpersonal interactions (that Chrissie has the right to decide for herself if she needs help, that it is condescending to make assumptions about her abilities, that her personal space is her own, etc.), the fact remains that equating Daniel’s tail with Chrissie’s crutches is misleading. The musical refrain, repeated to both Chrissie and to Daniel, of “in so many ways we are the same,” merely reinforces a problematic erasure of differences and the sociopolitical meanings/material effects attached to certain differences.
By equating Chrissie and Daniel’s differences, the show enforces a sameness that does not exist. As political theorist Iris Marion Young explains, “rhetorical commitment to sameness of persons makes it impossible even to name how … differences presently structure privilege and oppression” (164). Behaviors and abilities marked as “different” are so marked because their variance is of a different stripe (pun!) from the dominant group—the group that claims to occupy the neutral/”same” position, defines what variances are marked as different, and enacts public policy that grants or denies rights to those others defined as different. To keep these kinds of differences hidden and then trot them out only when it suits the moralizing needs of the “same”/dominant group, well, that doesn’t make us feel very good, does it, kids? The logic that insists upon the sameness of two qualitatively different forms of variance forecloses the possibility of recognizing, and properly addressing, the processes by which one form of variance carries no social consequences while another (like physical ability or queerness, for example) is made into a social liability for the person who bears it.
It might be argued that these nuances are beyond the under-five set. But Daniel Striped Tiger did manage, at least in those few instances outlined above, to deliver a more complex message about difference, simply by voicing and affirming difference from the center. Daniel Striped Tiger reminded viewers that difference can belong to any of us—it might even belong to you. And there is real power in that acknowledgment, both for the kids who are made to feel their difference every day and for the ones who might not have otherwise seen the value of certain culturally devalued differences (such as Daniel Sr.’s gentleness in the hypermasculine world of tigers) and the appeal of recognizing such qualities in themselves. “For people to become comfortable around others whom they perceive as different,” writes Young, “it may be necessary for them to become more comfortable with the heterogeneity within themselves” (153). Accepting and affirming our own differences, rather than pushing the idea of difference itself into the margin, is an important first step toward addressing the use of difference in the public, political sphere.
Will my family stop watching Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood? No. True to the old Mister Roger's series, the animals/kids are kind, community-minded, and generally good role models. And thanks to Daniel the younger, my living room rug is relatively dry and my two-year-old now consents to having her “head fur” washed regularly. But I sure do miss that sensitive little cat who used to live in the clock…
Young, Iris Marion. Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990.