The other day my youngest daughter asked me a question for which I had no answer. This post is all about my attempt to find an answer for her. Here is our conversation:
A: “I have a question. Why are there so many bears and babies?”
Me: “What do you mean?”
A: “All the stories have bears in them, but they’re not like real bears. You know, like the Little Bear stories and stuff like that.”
Me: (Light dawning) “Oh, you’re talking about how bears are always cute in stories . . . like Winnie-the-Pooh.”
A: “Yes. And Teddy Bears. They’re more like babies than bears.”
Me: (Getting excited) “Wow! What an insight. I don’t know why bears are sometimes more like babies than real bears, but I’m going to find out. I’ll let you know.”
As a mother, I’m happy that my daughter is so thoughtful. As someone who has more than a passing interest in children’s literature, I’m mortified that I don’t know the answer. Here’s what I’ve learned so far, although I’m sure someone has written a thesis on the topic. I just haven’t found it yet.
The sentimentalization of bears. When did it begin?
The short faced bear became extinct around 11,000 years ago along with the rest of North America’s megafauna. It lived in what is now the western United States and Canada and is thought to have been around long enough to have met up with the earliest people to inhabit the same areas. It is not known for certain how often the two species interacted, assuming they ever did. On a tour of the George C. Page Museum (La Brea Tar Pits) near Hollywood, California a few years ago, the extremely knowledgeable and entertaining guide told us that it’s possible that certain parts of North America never had a strong indigenous population because of this powerful predator. The people were eaten, frightened off or both.
Oddly enough, on the same continent about 11,000 years later, the idea of the Teddy Bear was conceived. It’s truly astonishing what a difference 11,000 years can make.
The Teddy Bear was named after U.S. President, Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt, an avid outdoorsman and hunter who, the story goes, when faced with a captured trophy bear refused to go through the motions of “hunting” the poor creature. The story quickly circulated and became a major news headline. Clifford Berryman’s political cartoon depicting the incident was likely the first time a bear was portrayed in print in a “cute” fashion.
The floodgates had opened. “Teddy’s Bears” were manufactured as quickly as they sold out beginning in 1902. A parallel interest in stuffed bears occurred in Germany, but those bears were more realistic than Teddy’s Bears. The popularity of the American stuffie went viral (thought no one would have used that term) and the name soon blurred to become the “Teddy Bear” with which we are all familiar.
From the opening of “Images of the Bear in Children’s Literature” by Anne Royall Newman (Children’s Literature in Education; Springer Netherlands; Volume 18, Number 3/September 1987, Pages 131-138):
We humans may be the only animals who question their place in the scheme of things, who even think about the scheme of things. We are always trying to define ourselves and our place in the world. To do this, we must recognize ourselves as part of the natural world; and as we think in terms of images, metaphors, and symbols, we use other creatures to help us see ourselves more clearly. Animals represent a side of us that we must come to terms with in order to be whole people, a side which we must accept and integrate with the more rational, thinking side of our nature. Animals are for us a cause for wonder; they seem to relate to the natural world with an immediacy that we, in our ‘interpreted’ world, do not. Early in our history, we associated animals with magical powers, as shown, for example, in totemism. We have had great reverence for them, as in the creation myths – Egyptian, American Indian, Eskimo. Although attitudes toward animals have changed throughout the ages, we have always learned about our own natures from our fellow creatures. Aesop, Chaucer, Swift, Kipling and Orwell are a few witnesses to our need to retain the animal as a constant imaginative source. Literary reference to the animal kingdom is universal and omnipresent.
I wasn’t able to gain access online to the full article. If anyone has information to share about Dr. Newman’s article, I would be happy to hear from you.
The following is a list I’ve compiled of bears in children’s literature and television. It is not an exhaustive list, by any means. I’ve organized it according to my own subjective analysis of the cuteness factor of each character. By cuteness I mean as far from being a real bear as possible. Some of the “cute” bears are attractive; others are not.
1. Corduroy (fictional character created by Don Freeman; first published in 1968).
2. Winnie-the-Pooh (fictional character created by A.A. Milne; first published in 1926).
3. Paddington Bear (fictional character created by Michael Bond; first published in 1956).
4. Rupert Bear (comic strip character turned fictional character; first created by Mary Tourtel in 1920).
5. Fozzie Bear (muppet created by Jim Henson; 1980s).
6. Care Bears (television characters; various entertainment companies; mid-80s).
7. Gummi Bears (television characters; Disney; mid-80s to early 90s).
8. Berenstain Bears (fictional characters turned television characters created by Stan and Jan Berenstain; first published in 1962).
9. The Hillbilly Bears (television characters; Hanna-Barbera Productions; mid-60s).
10. Little Bear (fictional character turned television character created by Else Holmelund Minarik and illustrated by Maurice Sendak; first published in 1957).
11. Yogi Bear and Boo Boo Bear (television characters; Hanna-Barbera Productions; first appeared in 1958).
12. The Three Bears (fictional characters first published by Robert Southey in 1837; possibly from earlier story told in the oral tradition; many variants have been published over the years; I recommend this link to Sur La Lune for further details).
13. Iorek Byrnison (fictional character created by Philip Pullman; first published in 1995).
14. Smokey Bear (iconic character, forest fire prevention campaign, U.S. government, sometimes called Smokey the Bear; created 1940s).
**Beginning of bear characters that don’t wear clothes or live in houses**
15. Old Bear (fictional character created by Kevin Henkes; first published in 2008).
16. Baloo (fictional character created by Rudyard Kipling; first published in 1894).
17. Gentle Ben (fictional character created by Walt Morey; first published in 1965; there were later television and movie versions).
The earliest story featuring anthropomorphic bears seems to be from “The Three Bears” tradition. However, those early versions depicted characters that looked like wild bears and did not wear clothes. The “cuter” versions all appear after the Teddy Bear revolution. Of course there are Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, bears in Aesop’s Fables as well as many ancient legends and religious traditions featuring stories about bears. I also haven’t included the wealth of Russian folk tales that feature bears. There is a whole world of bear lore to be explored.
Let’s get back to the passage by Anne Royall Newman. She states: “Although attitudes toward animals have changed throughout the ages [see the cuteness list], we have always learned about our own natures from our fellow creatures [Oh no].”
I have an answer that now satisfies my daughter, but I don’t feel particularly satisfied myself. I now know when the sentimentalization of bears began, but I don’t know why. Do you?