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Joe Brumm knew he needed to do something about the dad.
What, though? And how?
Brumm is a Brisbane-born animator. Until recently, his most high-profile work came on Charlie and Lola, a BBC children’s show.
But Brumm wanted to create his own children’s cartoon. In it, he wanted an Australian context. And he wanted storylines that revolve around family life, like in Peppa Pig.
But he first needed to do something about the dad.
As Tom Lamont writes in The Guardian, “Peppa Pig’s dad is hopeless. He belongs in the lineage of Fred Flintstone and Homer Simpson, archetypes positioned in their animated worlds to precipitate laughter or narrative action by being too vain, too thick, too status-obsessed to remember to perform the duties of a parent as well.”
So Joe Brumm created Bluey. And — perhaps most notably — he created Bluey’s dad, Bandit.
The similarities among cartoon fathers aren’t a coincidence. Almost every children’s television show adheres to a template. The storyline may change from episode to episode. But a well-established structure exists that rarely changes.
“Even great shows,” writes New York’s Kathryn VanArendonk, “like Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood or Octonauts or The Magic School Bus, are rhythmic and comforting, the nursery-school version of a grown-up’s procedural mystery.”
Brumm, though, sought to reject this conventional structure.
“Kids’ TV drives me insane,” he says. “So many people don’t treat it as a legitimate medium where you can have a bit of fun.”
The Atlantic‘s David Sims notes that “the primary imperative” for children’s television “is always to hold a child’s attention.” And almost every animator opts to do so through the same widely-accepted structure. Shows dating back to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood established that expectation, and animators today still largely conform.
“There is a history of major leaps in children’s TV,” VanArendonk argues. She adds, “The radical innovation of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was to see children as people, speaking directly to them and their concerns about the world. The revolution of Sesame Street was to weave educational material with a dramatization of a child’s city life.”
Joe Brumm’s show, Bluey, found its own novel concept: rejecting any pre-defined path for the show. The storyline changes from episode to episode. And so does the show’s structure.
Instead, Bluey‘s format depends on Brumm’s own desired outcomes.
His top priority was creating a show that mirrors his own family. And in doing so, he wanted to build “a sort of personal time capsule. Instead of letting [his experiences with his kids] slip away, Brumm would write them, immortally, into the culture.”
Pursuing this particular goal led to unexpected conventions for a children’s television show. But they worked. What if we adapted the same unexpected conventions for our financial decisions?
Each Bluey episode is only seven minutes. Its story lines “are often small and domestic, the stuff instantly recognizable to kids everywhere who have been bored on a long car ride or struggled with a group of playmates who can’t quite figure out how to play together.”
The way we manage our money could be instantly recognizable, too. That idea may feel unrealistic. But only because we’re not comfortable pursuing simple financial choices. We’re told, instead, to chase ever-complex ways to grow our wealth.
Bluey shows are almost entirely about play. Not adult-sanctioned play, though. Play that looks silly and trivial.
Brumm describes how you might identify this play:
“A lot of these games would just end up in these really weird, bizarre places, because [the kids] didn’t quite know how cafes worked and … would just sort of make up their own rules and words. It was endlessly fascinating to them and absorbing to them, but it was really quite funny to me, as well – just like being in a Monty Python sketch, where you walk into a café and you’re a completely normal customer, but it’s a bit of a bizarre world.”
As adults, we shy away from many experiences that make us uncomfortable. We don’t like unfamiliar rules and norms. We would rather not expose ourselves to the risks that might arise in these situations. But we can improve our financial decisions with more openness to trial-and-error.
Some financial decisions may defy convention. And those uses of our money often produce the most satisfying outcomes. But even when they don’t, we’ve learned from them. As with play in Bluey, the choice may not seem to “make sense.” The experience of making that imaginative choice matters, though. It looked silly in the moment, but it can be life-changing going forward.
Bluey is a show for both children and adults. And VanArendonk points out how unusual that feat is. Bluey has achieved a “true double-vision viewing experience for parents and children watching together.” In fact, for a while, “people didn’t know if it was Peppa Pig or Family Guy,” says one of the show’s executive producers.
But historically, animators have acted as if the only way to “hold a child’s attention” is to write exclusively for children. And we often think the same way with our finances. We assume that we can only save for retirement in a 401(k). Or we can only pay for college through a 529 plan. True “double-vision” financial thinking, though, ultimately would create more versatility for us.
Personal finance often feels confusing. So we understandably turn to structure for direction. We want to believe that the IRS created the 401(k) plan to give us a clear path to a stable retirement. We want to believe that buying a house will create more wealth for us than other options.
But this also creates the stereotypical “dad” in our financial lives. We assume that this is the way things need to be.
Joe Brumm’s willingness to embrace flexibility over structure solved his “dad” dilemma.
That solution takes form in Bandit, Bluey’s father. And one story, in particular, illustrates how flexibility can benefit us:
In 2015, [Brumm] made a one-minute pilot episode, the barest sketch of what the show would become. It features Bandit pushing Bluey on a swing. While he pushes, he plays a Fruit Ninja–style game on his phone and gets distracted enough that he accidentally shoves her too hard. Sailing through the air, in danger but ultimately fine, Bluey swings all the way around, circumnavigating the whole swing set. It’s a kid’s fantasy of the playground and simultaneously a dad’s fantasy of fatherhood.
At first glance, we may look a bit reckless when we spend or invest our money outside of widely-approved structures, like retirement and our company 401(k). Joe Brumm had the same experience. Almost every potential distributor of that pilot episode asked him, confused, “Who is this for?”
But Brumm was determined to explore through Bluey new options that interested him. And he suspected, rightly, that he wasn’t alone in his interest.
In the years since, Bluey has won numerous awards, including an International Emmy Kids Award. Critics have “lauded Bluey for subverting gender norms and outdated familial tropes while appealing as much to adults as kids with its wit, relatability and catchy music. Much of that adulation stems from Bandit’s willingness to not only play with his pups but also show or admit imperfections.”
Bandit doesn’t conform to an outdated structure. Instead, he performs his duties as a parent about as well as he can.
Most of us have at least one ill-fitting structure in our financial lives. It’s just not performing its duties as well as it should.
What could we achieve if we created our own character?
Hi, I’m Kevin. I’m a financial advisor in Washington, DC. I’m also the founder of Illumint, an independent financial planning company in the District that specializes in financial planning for Millennials like you. I empower our generation with the confidence to invest an inheritance, financial gift, or extra savings. If you’re new to Financially Well, welcome – you now have access to the leading finance podcast for Millennials. I encourage you to read, watch, or listen to the ideas I’ve shared about making your money work for you. And then when you’re ready, please send me your thoughts & questions!
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