This post was part of a series I did for Bitch Magazine Blogs this past spring called “Revenge of the Feminerd”. I’ve made a couple of tweaks and updated the video below since the one I posted in the original article was removed from YouTube.
If there’s one show I watched as a kid (other than Star Trek) that made me the nerd I am today, that show was The Magic School Bus. In MSB, Ms. Frizzle’s class was a utopia where learning was literally a magical experience. Starting on PBS, it has also had stints of syndication on NBC, Qubo, TLC, and The Discovery Channel, making it the longest-running children’s science show to date.
In terms of representation, The Magic School Bus had a lot going for it. Like other ’90s children’s shows like Captain Planet and the Planeteers or Power Rangers, MSB had a racially diverse cast of characters. Like the Planeteers, the MSB kids were a bit tokenized, with approximately one kid representing each non-white racial group. However, unlike the Planeteers, the kids on the bus mostly avoided the obvious racial stereotype.
Executive Producer Deborah Forte says when she began work on MSB, she’d been hearing from parents and teachers about what might be needed to get more girls and children of color interested in science. The belief that science is a white, male domain has been documented as a key barrier preventing girls and people of color from taking on science careers. MSB made it part of its job to counteract those beliefs.
And so in addition to the white boys Arnold and Ralphie, we ended up with Carlos, the hands-on learner and class clown; and Tim, the artistic African-American boy who’s always saying, “We’ve been frizzled.” Everyone had distinct personalities that made them able to contribute to the team in different ways, including the girls.
The character I most wanted to be like was Ms. Frizzle. She was smart and kooky and proud of it. Definitely as a kid, though, I was more of a Dorothy Ann, the astronomy and book-loving girl whose catch phrase was: “According to my research…” (I may have been annoying at times). I definitely didn’t feel like the girls’ roles were confined. There was the adventurous, tomboyish Chinese-American Wanda; shy Irish-American Phoebe (potential future animal rights activist); the rational and occasionally sarcastic African-American Keesha; and Arnold’s annoying and competitive cousin Janet. In terms of diversity of girls’ representation, MSB was a big step up from most of the other shows I watched. The only thing all the MSB kids had in common was that they loved learning and science.
The show also had great guest voicing, including Eartha Kitt as Keesha’s grandmother, Carol Channing as the curator of the town’s Sound Museum, Dolly Parton as the recycling plant operator/Ms. Frizzle’s cousin, and Wynona Judd as Wanda’s favorite singer Molly Cule.
One of the other cool things MSB did was the “Producer Says” segment with the cartoon “producer,” voiced by Malcolm Jamal Warner. Unfortunately the intro to these segments, which shows kids phoning into the show, had a flirtation with racial stereotypes, including showing boy of ambiguous racial origin sitting in front of the Sphinx saying, “Magic School Bus?” in a caricature of a foreign accent. The producer segments were edited out for the show’s re-airing on commercial networks to make time for more advertising. I don’t miss the intro, but we also miss seeing how cool the producer character was. I always envied him for getting to hang out with Liz.
To finish off I’m going to share some links to some fun Magic School Bus fan art and other transformative works that I came across while doing research. The cartoon here is “Magic School Bus Gender Swap by Nebulan at Deviantart. I think it’s awesome that people have taken inspiration from MSB in many different ways. If you’ve come across others, feel free to post links in the comments.
And with that, I will sign off. Don’t forget: “Take chances! Make Mistakes! Get Messy!”