5 Feminist Lessons Little Girls Can Learn from Gravity Falls and Mabel Pines
I'm legalizing everything!
Aw yeah, the summer got a little sweeter in my house because Gravity Falls is back, baby! The Disney Channel animated series, which focuses on siblings Dipper and Mabel Pines spending the summer with their Gruncle (great uncle) Stan in Gravity Falls and exploring the mystical and supernatural activities occurring in the secluded Oregon town, finally came back this past Friday for season two after nearly a year since the season one finale. And when I say nearly a year, I mean the very next day marked a year since season one ended. Quite frankly, it’s been far too long since we’ve seen the Mystery Twins.
I gave the show a shot towards the beginning of season one almost solely because Kristen Schaal plays Mabel and she’s so consistently great that I’m pretty much down for any and all projects she’s a part of. (For instance, did you know I love Bob’s Burgers? Because I do.) Beyond Schaal’s voice acting, Gravity Falls sold me with its vague mythos being pieced together as the show went on (including coded messages in the story and in the credits) balanced with sharp humor and absolutely goofy plots. An episode was devoted to evil living wax statues at Gruncle Stan’s Mystery Shack with Coolio and Larry King playing murderous wax versions of themselves. Another episode featured the voice of Strong Bad (Matt Chapman, who co-wrote several episodes) playing a Hispanic merman named Mermando. In other words, this show is the best.
But what I might love the most is Mabel herself and the attention the show gives her. The more manic of the Pines twins, Mabel could have easily been regulated to wacky sidekick. Instead, the show gives her several storylines that are all about her and happen to have great positive messages for girls. Yes, all these messages can be applied to boys and the adult fans of the show, but these specific episodes are especially great for girls to see. It’s awesome when a cartoon can be hilarious and manage to be thoughtful in its messages, so why not celebrate it? In no particular order, here are my five picks for best pro-girl episodes of season one:
During the Falls’ Pioneer Day, celebrating the esteemed founder of the town, Dipper and Mabel decide the town’s history might not be as sunny as the founder’s descendants would have everyone believe. In a Nicolas Cage-esque series of events, Mabel and Dipper go deep into the veiled history of the town to discover the truth.
During this treasure hunt of sorts, Mabel struggles with her confidence after her snooty foil Pacifica (also one of the town founder’s descendants) calls her silly and makes fun of her in front of everyone. For the first time, Mabel starts to see her silliness as a bad thing. She says, “I thought I was being charming, but I guess people see me as a big joke.” This is big: up until this point we haven’t seen Mabel lose her confidence, and yet how many real girls out there growing up have had whatever unique aspect of their personality — especially when it’s not traditionally feminine — used against them and mocked? For little girls watching who might not fit the perfect mold (whatever they’ve been told that is), seeing Mabel upset and embarrassed makes sense.
As they work to solve the mystery, Mabel tries to show that she can be serious, and yet throughout the episode it is Mabel’s silliness that gets them one step closer to finding out the big secret behind the founding of Gravity Falls. When it’s revealed that the real founder (and also 8 1/2 President of these United States) was a man just as silly as Mabel, but also rather brilliant, it’s just further proof that there’s nothing wrong with her being silly. A nice touch to the ending is having Pacifica still not believe Mabel. The mean girl of the town still looks down on her for being a silly person, but this time Mabel shrugs it off her shoulders. Yeah, it might not be nice to know that jerks think you’re weird, but Mabel tells Dipper, “I’ve got nothing to prove. I’ve learned to see silly as awesome!” Did I mention Mabel is a congressman now? And she’s legalizing everything? We need more Mabels in this world.
As an aside, this episode is one of many in the first season that shows Dipper supporting Mabel. He’s right by Mabel’s side to comfort her after Pacifica embarrasses her, and his motivations for solving the mystery stem from him wanting to show up Pacifica for hurting his sister. It’s also the first episode where Dipper embraces the “Mystery Twins” title Mabel gave them.
“The Hand That Rocks the Mabel”
In “The Hand that Rocks the Mabel,” the twins meet kid psychic and town darling Gideon. Mabel thinks she’s found a new friend who just likes the same things as her, but quickly it becomes clear that he wants more — namely, for Mabel to be his figurative and possibly literal queen. There’s a lot of emotional coercion going on, and even when Mabel says as kindly as she can that she only wants to be friends, Gideon pushes her into trying out just one date. At the end of that date, he makes a big show of asking her out again, this time in front of the whole restaurant so she feels pressured to say yes. She is clearly uncomfortable but doesn’t want to hurt his feelings because she cares about him. Still, any talk of going back to being friends like she wants is ignored by Gideon, usually with him throwing more fancy gifts at her, which just adds to her guilt.
A key part of this episode is how much Mabel tries to smooth over the rejection. She’s a nice person who doesn’t like seeing people be sad, and she does everything she can to try to approach the topic without being cruel. This is how a lot of girls are taught to act — that they have to be nice to people even when they’re made uncomfortable. Dipper, who has been encouraging her to tell Gideon upfront how she feels, offers to break up with him for Mabel. Gideon loses it, accuses Dipper of turning Mabel against him, and then lures Dipper into his factory to kill him. Mabel finally calls him out on his toxic behavior. She doesn’t put up with his violent reaction to her refusal and cuts all ties with him.
“The Hand that Rocks the Mabel” takes the trope of “sweet, adoring male friend willing to push the boundaries to win fair maiden” and refuses to sugarcoat how toxic it is. It’s huge for kids to see that the blame is on Gideon for pushing Mabel into a relationship she didn’t want instead of on Mabel for not making Gideon happy by continuing to date him. This episode came out in 2012, but with the #YesAllWomen twitter campaign this year and more people questioning the problematic assumptions of male entitlement to women’s bodies, this episode feels quite timely to watch in 2014.
The main plot of this episode is Dipper using the magical copier to make copies of himself so that he can still work Stan’s party while also talking to his crush Wendy. But we’re not going to talk about that. We’re going to talk about how Mabel gets friends this episode. Early into the party, Mabel happens to chat it up with two girls, Grenda and Candy. Grenda has a pet iguana on her shoulder and Candy has taped forks to her fingers so she can eat snacks faster. As Mabel says in awe, “I found my people.”
“Double Dipper” is also the introduction of antagonist Pacifica, who immediately berates Mabel’s new friends. Of course, Mabel Pines doesn’t take that kind of crap and quickly tells her new buddies, “She’s going down.” The rest of the episode, Mabel and her pals are focused on partying the best (including rocking out to a satire of Journey) so they can win the “party crown” away from Pacifica. Pacifica ends up winning through cheating, but at the end of the night Mabel’s new friends stick around because they think she’s a total rock star anyway and ask to sleep over. “Maybe we don’t have as many friends as Pacifica,” Candy says, “but we have each other, and that is pretty good I think.”
It’s a pretty small storyline compared to Dipper’s in the episode, but the fact is that Gravity Falls gave Mabel two sweet, fun girlfriends. While perhaps not a lesson in the classic sense, the episode shows the power of sisterhood. We don’t always get to see main female characters with girlfriends when they already have guy characters to pal around with. It lets Mabel have more storylines that don’t depend directly on Dipper or their uncle — the two friends come back in several episodes (and were in the season 2 premiere, so they’re clearly staying in the show). And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Candy is an Asian immigrant (possibly Korean or Chinese, although the show hasn’t confirmed it either way) and Grenda is a larger girl; I like the smidgen of character representation that brings to the show. The episode also passes the Bechdel Test from the girl’s first conversation alone, because we have enough female characters that are just talking about themselves instead of the many male characters in the show.
Mabel is delighted to find out that she’s now slightly taller than Dipper. After a good amount of short jokes from his sister, Dipper goes out into the woods and finds a magic crystal that can shrink or embiggen objects and living beings depending on which facet of the gem hits the light. This ends up becoming a whole mess when Mabel finds out Dipper used it to make himself taller. They have a big fight as Mabel tries to grab the crystal for herself and it ends up in Gideon’s hands, of all people.
Their eventual plan to get back to normal backfires because they’re still fighting over who will get to be the taller twin. When Dipper finally calls out Mabel for making fun on his height, it’s revealed that Mabel had been feeling like Dipper was better than her at everything (or at least every activity they had been doing lately, like checkers and ping pong and chess) and Dipper had been rubbing his wins in her face. The jabs at her expense might have seemed harmless to him, but Dipper’s talents are pretty quantifiable things compared to some of Mabel’s best skills (thinking outside the box, being positive, and reaching out to others), so when Mabel found out she was officially taller than her twin, it was something tangible she could point to as a win for her. I liked this episode not only because Dipper learned a lesson about empathy and not taking someone’s feelings for granted but also because it teaches that even an extroverted girl like Mabel has insecurities about being good at certain things, and that’s okay.
While Candy and Grenda come back for several episodes in season one, the story I like the best involving them is “Boyz Crazy.” For one, it’s a good example of Mabel sharing interests with them that she can’t share with the other regulars at the Shack. Dipper and Wendy both tease her for being excited about going to the boy band concert but Mabel says, “You guys can’t ruin this for me. Mabel’s got back up!” just as her two buddies come through the door. Mabel is a goofy kid, but she also likes traditionally girly things; the show refuses to treat these two aspects of her personality as mutually exclusive and also gives her kooky friends who happen to enjoy talking about boys and pretty things.
Through some shenanigans involving pop star cloning and an inhumane giant hamster cage, the girls end up rescuing and housing their dreamy, girl-respecting boy band in secret to protect them from being slaves to their shady music manager. Mabel eventually decides she wants the boys all to herself even after the danger is clear, forcing Candy and Grenda to call her out on her hypocrisy and eventually help her make things right. Usually it’s Dipper calling Mabel out if she’s wrong, but I appreciated that it came from her girlfriends this time. Again there’s a good message here for girls in particular—how girls can both support one another and give each other some much-needed perspective.
So I said there were five feminist lessons here, but there’s a bonus bit of feminist greatness to “Boyz Crazy” that I need to bring up. The B story of the episode is Dipper convinced being that his crush Wendy (who is a teenager and clearly sees him as just a younger friend) is only continuing to date her no-good boyfriend Robbie thanks to subliminal messages in his music. After some trial and error, Dipper finds proof and interrupts their date to reveal it. When she breaks up with Robbie (incidentally not so much for the mind control but finding out the guy lied about actually writing a song for her), Wendy is visibly upset. But Dipper is too busy audibly celebrating Robbie being out of the picture to notice. He immediately asks Wendy to hang out, and you expect her to smile and give him a hug because in most shows and movies, Dipper would be rewarded for his actions during the story. He’s the “good guy” who saved the girl from the “bad guy.” But instead Wendy calls him out for only thinking about himself when she’s clearly heartbroken about being lied to by someone she trusted. Dipper ends up having to come to terms with how selfish his actions were, learning that breaking up a relationship so you as the nice guy can pick up the pieces isn’t being a nice guy at all. Kids get taught through so many shows and movies that the nice guy who exposes the mean guy will get rewarded with the girl’s affection. It’s so great to see a kid’s show like Gravity Falls blow that trope right out of the water.
I love Gravity Falls. I’m so glad it’s back. I can’t wait for more episodes like these.
Katie Schenkel (@JustPlainTweets) is a copywriter by day, pop culture writer by night. Her loves include cartoons, superheroes, feminism, and any combination of the three. Her reviews can be found at CliqueClack and her own website Just Plain Something, where she hosts the JPS podcast and her webseries Driving Home the Movie. She’s also a frequent The Mary Sue commenter as JustPlainSomething.
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