Content Warning: this episode includes discussion of police brutality
Part 1: ‘Round Adventure Bay
Consider, if you will, a town.
You have never seen a hospital in this town. You have never seen a school. Instead, prepubescent children work full-time jobs without adult oversight. It’s never really occurred to you that not one of them seems to have parents.
The political apparatus of the town consists of a mayor so self-aggrandizing she erects a solid gold statue of her chicken in the center of town, a move reminiscent of the dogs of the brutal dictator of Turkmenistan.
Otherwise, if you’re wondering where the town budget goes, direct your gaze to a tower (you can’t miss it) on a defensible island with a single bridge, a tower topped with a retractable periscope so that its residents might, Sauron-like, keep watch over their world. From within the cavernous subterranean garages of this tower pour forth a bewilderingly massive fleet of vehicles–cars, trucks, ATVs, construction equipment, hovercraft, helicopters, boats, submarines, snowmobiles, and jetpack-sporting aviators. And all of it, for some reason, under the command of a 10-year-old boy and his team of trained puppies. Every concert in town, every parade, every celebration seems to center around this circus-like emergency and law enforcement crew. Look now, there’s an underage Dalmatian behind the wheel of a fire truck with the entire team on board, a truck that would plow through cars in its way, if the roads weren’t conveniently empty whenever the team came through as if cleared in advance just for them. Look, the Dalmatian has hopped out of his truck, doing his work as the town’s only medical provider. A woman has an injured leg. Voice activated, from the dog’s backpack emerges a screen which flickers into life as a fully-operational X-Ray, and is applied to the leg without the least regard for safety, probably ensuring that everyone around will get cancer.
Why does such a small town need such an overfunded rescue and law enforcement operation outfitted with enough military surplus to defend a small nation? Because this town is constantly under attack, primarily by the mayor of a neighboring town who, aided by his underage nephew and crew of kitties, will twirl his mustache and steal anything that isn’t nailed down. And why not? He knows he won’t be punished, not really. After all, the show must go on.
No one ages here. Nothing changes. Nothing except the emergency and law enforcement service’s ever expanding surplus of high-tech, military-grade equipment, continuing to pile up within and beneath the tower.
Part 2: A World Without Irony
Created by a toy company literally called Spin Master, Paw Patrol continues the tradition of toy-commercials-as-TV-shows dating back to the Reagan-era repeal of regulations regarding product placement in children’s shows, which resulted in waves of shows based on toy lines including, for example, Transformers, My Little Pony, and G.I. Joe. And this is the true purpose of Paw Patrol: to function as the center of a marketing effort for an ever-expanding line of toys.
The most remarkable thing about Paw Patrol as a TV show compared to other shows of its type is just how unremarkable it is. It’s not merely anodyne, it’s actively backwards-looking; I’m not sure I’ve ever seen another show quite so unexamined and unreconstructed. The lead human character is a white boy and the core group of puppies are all boys except one, playing into the same self-fulfilling stereotypes of toy makers that boys don’t want girl cooties in their entertainment, and white people won’t tune into shows lead by non-white people. Girls are thus tokenized in any show not only aimed at a male audience, but a crossover on, just as BIPOC are. And of course, the girl’s color scheme is pink, because girl, and her femininity is signaled by extra-large eye-lashes, as if puppies use lash curlers and eye liner.
Among the pups, the defacto leader is the police dog. Of the main cast, there are two token non-white characters, both of whose ethnic identity has no bearing whatever on their personality or background. The ostensibly black Mayor Goodway plays washtub bass in hoedowns, a style of music literally popularized as a way of countering the influence of “black” music in the 1920s. Goodway was even played by a white actress until season 7, a form of voice acting blackface. As for Farmer Yumi, she doesn’t seem to have much personality to speak of at all.
The main villain, Mayor Humdinger, meanwhile, is a sissy stereotype straight out of vaudeville, his effeminate mannerisms linked closely with loose morals and cowardice.
The show is, in other words, mired in moldering tropes without the least self-examination or apparent knowledge of the larger discourse around these tropes that’s been going on for decades now. Where many other programs actively tilt away from this sort of thing, from Sesame Street to Bluey, and more progressive programs like Steven Universe actively work to undermine them, Paw Patrol embraces them enthusiastically and without the tiniest bit of irony.
But then irony doesn’t exist in the world of Paw Patrol. Where SpongeBob Squarepants crammed irony into every subversive frame of nautical nonsense, an adventurous Paw Patrol joke will at best consist of a pun. While SpongeBob characters might have complex, ambivalent emotions–Sandy’s simultaneous care for and annoyance with SpongeBob for example–there’s no room for such complexity in Adventure Bay. People are either good and trying to do good things, or they’re bad and trying to do bad things. Even when characters should be annoyed by another–Marshall slamming into and knocking over the other pups every episode for example–no such annoyance materializes. There’s no room for any negative emotions here. And while the characters in The PJ Masks, for example, might learn and grow with a proper character arc over the course of an episode, with villains sometimes even switching sides on a temporary or permanent basis, there is absolutely no possibility of this in Paw Patrol. At best, a character might learn to have more confidence in themselves.
Part 3: These Paws Uphold the Laws
At first glance, Paw Patrol isn’t the most obvious show at which to level the accusation of “copaganda”. It’s not about a police force, per se, it’s not Law and Order, or Blue Bloods, or Brooklyn 99, where a sympathetic portrayal of a police department is built into the show’s premise. Only Chase even has a police theme, while the other dogs have such inoffensive “occupations” as construction worker, firefighter, ocean rescuer, or (strangely) recycling truck driver. And much of what they do falls into the category of search and rescue operations as opposed to law enforcement. Even when Chase does get the spotlight, he’s often doing such unglamorous things as directing traffic or laying down traffic cones. In the early episodes in particular, the pups were more likely to help baby turtles cross a busy road or find a lost elephant calf than do battle with criminals.
But this actually gets at part of the problem with how the police exist in the public imagination. They’re frequently lumped in with firefighters, for example, as ‘real heroes’. (Meanwhile, other workers no less heroic like EMS workers don’t get the same treatment, and definitely don’t get anything like the pay, criminally underpaid and overworked.) Police are thus presented as just another arm of the municipal services that keep us all safe. Which is, of course, what they’re supposed to be.
And yet the police’s remit is different from that of firefighters, trash collectors, or construction workers. The police have power they don’t, a right to detain, imprison, and use violence. And the problem with giving any group power over other people is that you have to be sure they use it responsibly. That kind of authority, after all, will attract exactly the sort of people most willing to abuse it.
I’m not going to rehash the list policy brutality cases that set off the wave of protests last year, not going to once more subject you to horrifying videos. If you want that sort of thing, it’s not hard to find. But I want you to consider something.
Derick Chauvin was recently convicted after being filmed murdering George Floyd on camera. But there were three other police officers on the scene with him, who have also been arrested and are awaiting trial. Why didn’t one of them pull Chauvin off while he knelt on the man’s neck for nine minutes, a man who begged for his life and asked for his mother? Well, we know why. Police who issue complaints about other officers are called “rats” (as if the police forces were the very criminal organizations they’re supposed to be fighting) and shunned by their fellow officers, as famously in the example of Frank Serpico, or more recently Baltimore police officer Joe Crystal. This phenomenon is called the “Blue Wall of Silence” and is so well known it has its own Wikipedia entry.
Even after the event, the police released an autopsy report that said there was no evidence of death by asphyxiation and blamed “underlying conditions”. (A second, independent autopsy, found that asphyxiation was indeed the cause of death.) The police would rather lie than hold one of their own accountable. And to make matters worse, prosecutors are famously unmotivated to pursue police misconduct trials, or prosecute them fully, because they don’t want to alienate the same police that they have to work with.
In other words, if it wasn’t for the event being caught on film and the widespread public outcry that followed, Chauvin would have gotten away with murder because the whole system is built to allow him to.
The current culture of policing in this country and the apparatus of law enforcement and prosecution around it discourages the existence of “good cops”. A “good cop” would have pulled Chauvin off of Floyd’s neck and arrested him on the spot for assault. But everything about our current police system makes that unthinkable.
I have a friend on Facebook who complained of a neighbor harassing her. The problem was that the neighbor was a cop, and an internal affairs officer to boot. The comments to this post are a despairing glimpse at public perception of the police. The consensus was that she didn’t have a lot of options short of moving. Because everyone knows that the cops do not hold their own accountable, and that reporting a police officer for misconduct will more likely make your life worse than it will theirs.
The police are responsible for policing themselves, with predictable results, and meanwhile calls to have independent, civilian oversight of police departments, such as recently made by New York Attorney General Letitia James, are met with dismissal from those in charge and howls of “anti-police agenda” from the comically abhorrent police unions. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, police departments aren’t largely being defunded, or are being refunded after being defunded, and despite more rhetoric to the contrary, there’s been no correlation between cities that defunded police and a rise in crime compared to cities that did not.
Meanwhile, on television, we have show after show where the police are not only the incorruptible good guys, but often have to work “outside the system” in order to mete out justice. Police sometimes just have to rough a guy up to get the truth. Wouldn’t you? After all torture works. (Spoiler, it doesn’t.) It wasn’t that long ago that New York police officers abused Abner Louima by sodomizing him with a broomstick, one of a parade of egregious police brutalities going back literal centuries. We should really be more incredulous of positive portrayals of police brutality, but somehow we’re not.
Is it any wonder that so many police officers seem to idolize a psychopathic murderer of a fictional character like the Punisher instead of a more upright superhero like Captain America? Police are fed warrior mentality nonsense that tells them that they’re the only thing standing between innocent people and the wolves who are out to prey upon them. And whatever they have to do to stop the wolves is justified. Even if the “wolf” in question is just passing a maybe counterfeit bill or even just happen to be in a house in which the police mistaken think there is criminal activity.
Back to the matter at hand, plenty of shows have “good guys” and “bad guys”, of course, but few so clearly divide characters into categories of criminals, civil service law enforcement, and innocent civilians who need to be protected. So of course Adventure Bay should pour as much money into law enforcement as possible, outfit them with all manner of military gear, every high-tech gizmo imaginable. They’re the thin blue line that keeps Adventure Bay safe. (The fact that the real reason the Paw Patrol needs constant infusions of new gear is so that Spin Master can keep pumping out toys even lines up in its way with reality. The real reason American police departments are so flooded with surplus military gear is that the government constantly buys excess gear that the military doesn’t even want as pork barrel for military contractors who give heavily to political campaigns, and so it needs a way to dispose of it all. Everyone knows this about the military, and yet there is no will at all to do something about it in or out of congress. Isn’t capitalism grand?)
Part 4: A Shining City on a Hill
It’s been well documented at this point that conservatives don’t understand irony. I’m not being glib, there’s actual studies to back this up. I don’t mean that every individual conservative doesn’t get irony, but it’s a common trait to them as a group. This is why Liberals get comedy shows like Colbert, The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight and so on to skewer current events and show the emperor has no clothes. Conservatives meanwhile get unspeakably earnest, unhinged tirades from the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and, at worst, Alex Jones. (The fact that anything could be worse than the lightly veiled fascism of Tucker Carlson tells you how far we’ve fallen.) What does pass for conservative comedy is typically found in the smug dickishness of folks like Stephen Crowder or Ben Shapiro, where cruelty stands in where irony should be.
Conservatives also value hierarchy. Going back to Edmund Burke, the father of conservative ideology, conservatism has been concerned with maintaining existing social hierarchies and relations, particularly concerning class, race, and gender, and draping this defense of the status quo in clothing of tradition and through tradition, patriotism. Or as conservative YouTuber John Doyle put it, “Conservatives believe in hierarchy and natural law.”
In America, this belief in hierarchy and tradition usually lurks beneath the guise of “meritocracy”–the people who are wealthy are that way because they deserve it by merit and the poor simply envy them. Why aren’t there more women and minorities in executive suites, or in tech and finance in general? It can’t be anything systemic or cultural, it must be because they’re not naturally suited to it. The “small government” crowd, followers of Mises, Hayek, and Rand, will tell you that the invisible hand of the market will naturally sort the wheat from the chaff if it’s just allowed to without interference, no matter whose lives are trampled in the process. The evangelical Prosperity Gospel crowd will tell you the order of things is divinely ordained, except the parts they don’t like which are naturally the product of the devil. And the wealthy and powerful will bankroll millions of hours of talk radio and conservative TV programs, will put money into the coffers of politicians on both sides of the aisle, in order to make sure that their wealth and power continues to go unchallenged. After all if the poor deserved to be not poor they’d figure out a way enrich themselves. Giving them anything they didn’t earn just encourages them to stay poor. Forget the advantages the wealthy are born with, forget the systems and prejudices designed to disadvantage the poor and in particular minorities, forget that some types of work like teaching and elder care just aren’t rewarded on the level of others while still being necessary and valuable to society. No, poor people must be “lazy”, otherwise how could they be poor? And thus the order of things self-propagates and defends itself.
Where was I? Oh right, Paw Patrol!
Let’s look for a moment at the villainous Mayor Humdinger. His motivation generally consists of the fact that he’s the mayor of the dreary, fog-covered town of Foggy Bottom instead of the bucolic Adventure Bay, and he is envious. Oh boy, is he envious. Of course, he could devote his energy to self-improvement, or simply renounce his mayoralty and move somewhere else, but he won’t. Like a Liberal trying to tax the rightful wealth of the billionaire instead of trying to make a billion themselves, Mayor Humdinger simply wants to take what isn’t rightfully his. Almost all of his schemes revolve around larceny, after all. And everything about Humdinger’s dress and demeanor practically shouts “effeminate elite”.
Everyone on the show is happy with their lot except for the villains. There are no artistic types in Adventure Bay to speak of, save maybe a film crew that occasionally comes through with a giant robot. People work simple jobs, like mayor, farmer, restauranteur, and pet grooming salon-keeper. The pups do interact with genuine aristocrats, though, spending a number of episodes working for the royal family of the Kingdom of Barkingburg, fending off the queenly aspirations of the uppity royal pet who wants to take the place of the rightfully born.
It all lines up fairly neatly, even if unintentionally, with a conservative view of the order of things.
In fact, the main thing here that doesn’t line up with conservative ideology is that Humdinger and company are usually let off with little more than a slap on the wrist. At worst, he’s given a broom and told to clean up his mess, which is hardly being tough-on-crime. Of course, there’s two reasons for this–first that no one wants to depict prison on a show for young children, and second that they want the villain to come back and make more plots go.
And it’s ironically this second, metatextual reason that most resonates with conservatism in our world.
The purpose of the penal system for conservatives is twofold–to bestow punishment on criminals so that they suffer for their crimes, and to be able to use them in what is essentially a system of slave labor in which major corporations outsource their labor to prisoners who are paid pennies and generally don’t have much choice in the matter. While liberals fight for prisons be places for rehabilitation and education, so that prisoners can rejoin society and become better people (and leftists would like to abolish prisons altogether, which a completely different subject), conservatives tend to see anything for the benefit of prisoners (rather than their punishment) is mollycoddling the wicked, using up valuable resources on people who don’t ‘deserve it’. And yet, as is easy to see, if you let people out of prison with no skills beyond manual labor and no education beyond what they had when they went in, and you have a society that makes it difficult for people with records to get jobs, what you get is a recipe for recidivism. But in the conservative view, recidivism is simply the fault of the individual and proof of their poor moral character.
Mayor Humdinger has no backstory, he has no reason to steal except that he’s the stealing “type”. That’s just his role. And the role of the Paw Patrol is to defeat his larcenous plans, return property to its rightful owner, and restore the order of things. Everything must go back to the status quo by the end of the episode. And Humdinger must cause trouble again. It’s what he’s does. It’s what he’s for.
It’s almost too neat an allegory for the way police function in our society, and the way they should function according to the right-wing mindset. The purpose of the police might be ostensibly justice or law enforcement, but in reality they’re there to defend property rights and the status quo. And we know that police value property more than human life. One only has to look at the person they murdered because he was accused of passing a counter-fit bill. Hell, police will openly warn the public to do what the police officers say if they value their lives. Because apparently disobeying a police officer is a capital offense in the United States. At least, if you’re poor and particularly if you’re not white.
To reiterate, it’s probably not intentional that Paw Patrol so neatly presents a conservative worldview. I don’t think its creators sat down with the intention of doing anything more sinister than sell toys. But I think that by lazily using an incredible array of tired, unexamined tropes and constructing a world built around a rescue/law enforcement organization with a bewildering array of high tech gizmos and vehicles, they’ve accidentally made a right-wing paradise to rival anything Glenn Beck could’ve come up with. And even if we don’t consciously register how this presentation affects how we think of the world and the police, it does, and it especially does for our children who gleeful dress up as these characters and pile up their toys. It’s an easy example of the principle that every piece of media is political, and if you don’t think it’s political then it’s probably just defending the status quo. Or in some cases, defending actual regression.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
- How the regulations around tv shows as toy commercials were repealed in the Reagan administration
- How square dancing was popularized as a tool of white supremacy
- How EMTs are underpaid, overworked, and underrecognized
- About police officer Joe Crystal, shunned by police for trying to hold them accountable
- Wikipedia entry on the Blue Wall of Silence
- NYPD internal investigator called a “rat”
- Prosecutors don’t like to prosecute cops
- Attorney General Letitia James plan for civilian oversight of the NYPD
- Police departments aren’t largely being defunded
- Crime is rising in cities that did not defund their police the same as those that did
- How torture doesn’t work
- About Abner Louima who was sodomized with a broken broomstick by the NYPD
- The great Forced Adversity video about the Punisher/Police Problem
- Some More News video about the Warrior Mentality training given to the police
- How congress buys equipment for the military that it doesn’t want or need as pork barrel
- Study finding conservatives lack a sense of humor
- Last Week Tonight’s video about Tucker Carlson and his lightly veiled fascism and even less well veiled white supremacy
- Edmund Burke and the origins of conservatism
- Conservatism defending the status quo
- The myth of meritocracy
- Book about how billionaires are funding the radical right: Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer
- On prison labor in America
- The Thought Slime video that covers the video where John Doyle says that conservatives aren’t about equality, they’re about hierarchy and natural law
- Police will tell you to obey them if you value your life
- Republicans legalizing the automative murder of protesters
- Poor people can’t just get a better job
- Why conservatives are more punitive than liberals
- The penal system as slave labor