Captain Underpants flew into the box office faster than a speeding waistband, earning $23.5 million during its opening weekend.
In fact, this movie about a grown man fighting in his underwear that doesn’t take itself remotely seriously managed to gain a higher rating on Rotten Tomatoes in its first week than the movie about grown men fighting in their underwear who take themselves far too seriously gained during its entire theatrical run.
The popularity of this movie should come as no surprise, as it’s based upon an equally popular book series. Of course, if the box office earnings and reviews are any indicator, the movie managed to do well even with moviegoers who never picked up a single book.
By far, the greatest appeal of Captain Underpants, be it the books or the movie, is its fundamental understanding of its target demographic. Like other great children’s series, it doesn’t pander to children by pretending to know what they like. Rather, it speaks to them on their level by truly understanding them—and if there’s one thing Captain Underpants gets, it’s that children hate school.
The setting of Jerome Horwitz Elementary School is both bleak and dreary, feeling less like a school and more like a prison (but I repeat myself!), to the point where students tally away the days in chalk like prisoners.
Ruling the school with an iron fist is Mr. Krupp, an authoritarian principal who hates fun and values discipline over all else. To him, the steel-reinforced door to his office deserves much more funding than the school’s art program—a joke that would be much funnier if it didn’t accurately reflect the current reality of schools placing more value on “security” and over arts funding, the reversal of which has actually proven to benefit education!
Within this oppressive environment, where children consider it more tolerable to shove themselves into their own lockers, the only reprieve that protagonists George Beard and Harold Hutchins obtain within it are through the practical jokes they pull against the overbearing authority figures and the comic books they create after school—comics that are routinely confiscated and torn to shreds by the miserable Mr. Krupp.
The inspiration for the book series stems from the elementary school experiences of the author, Dav Pilkey, who, like his characters, George and Harold, also found solace from the mundanity of his schooling and the ire of his teachers by pulling pranks and creating comic books. As such, his books serve as a power fantasy for the many elementary school children who read them.
The movie perfectly encapsulate the crippling nature of the American public school system, but even more so, the books savagely eschew the system’s transparent oppression and authoritarianism.
In one book, both George and Harold are sent to a juvenile detention center, but don’t mind the stay, as unlike their school, it actually had a gym, library, and arts class. In other words, their school feels so much like a prison that it makes actual prison feel less like prison.
With such a value placed on creativity and individuality over blind authority worship, Captain Underpants has been the target of scrutiny and even censorship—to the point of becoming the most banned book in America over 50 Shades of Gray!—with the books being criticized for its vulgarity, offensive language, and promotion of “disrespectful behavior."
Yet Captain Underpants does nothing more than follow a longstanding tradition within pop culture of lampooning the American education system.
From shows such as Recess, to movies ranging from Rock n Roll High School to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, to songs like “School’s Out For The Summer” and “We Don’t Need No Education”, American media has long portrayed public schools as cold, heartless institutions where students suffer long hours waiting in longer lines and sitting in crowded classrooms, listening to droning lectures that teach them little to nothing, and where they remain under the constant supervision of callous authority figures who are more than willing to exert and often abuse their positions of power. In media, schools are nearly indistinguishable from prisons. (But I repeat myself!)
Obviously, such media portrayals are more than fiction. Stereotypical and hyperbolic as they may be, they are all at least based upon the shared collective experiences of fellow Americans raised within the education system. Even outside of the mainstream media, Americans will often make light of their own past educational experiences.
Most of us have at least cracked one joke about that one class we hated or that one teacher who we swore hated us. We share humorous anecdotes about losing sleep cramming for that one test, or about making excuses to our teachers about not doing our homework, or about being forced to give that one embarrassing oral report in front of the class. Even if we did fine academically, we at least joke about the other social aspects of public school that we dreaded, whether it be bullies, gossip, prom, or even being turned down by our first crush.
From jokes such as “I wasted 12 years of my life and all I have to show for it is a handshake and piece of paper!” to “all I learned from taking so many tests is how to take tests!” or “kindergarten was the worst five years of my life!”, our humor about our own educational experiences seems to serve as a coping mechanism for the bad experiences we suffered within the system, which, for many of us, did little to actually educate us, and more to instill within us blind obedience and conformity.
And yet herein lies the cognitive dissonance concerning the American education system: for as much as we Americans are more than willing to joke about the system, we are less willing to actually think critically about it. Making fun of it is one thing. Criticizing it? That’s quite another. One is a cultural traditional; the other, a taboo.
Here’s an example: The great comedian George Carlin, in one of his many insightful commentaries about American culture, once laid bare the real intention of the American education system, which was less about “educating” the populace and more about training them for their corporate and political masters:
There’s a reason education sucks, and it’s the same reason it will never, ever, ever be fixed...Because the owners of this country don't want that. I'm talking about the real owners…The big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions...As crude and hyperbolic as Carlin’s indictment may be, it is based on truth. The American public school system was first created in 1837 by educator Horace Mann, who was inspired by the Prussian education system—an education model that was created by the King of Prussia with the intent of molding citizens into obedient workers and soldiers. This is not conspiracy theory. This is historical fact. Our public schools were modeled after a system created for the sole purpose of indoctrination.
They want more for themselves and less for everybody else, but I'll tell you what they don’t want: They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interests. That’s right. They don’t want people who are smart enough to sit around a kitchen table and think about how badly they’re getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard 30 fucking years ago. They don’t want that!
You know what they want? They want obedient workers. Obedient workers, people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork. And just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shitty jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, the reduced benefits, the end of overtime and vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it, and now they’re coming for your Social Security money. They want your retirement money. They want it back so they can give it to their criminal friends on Wall Street, and you know something? They’ll get it. They’ll get it all from you sooner or later cause they own this fucking place! It's a big club, and you ain’t in it! You, and I, are not in the big club.
However, Carlin can get away with claiming that our schools are brainwashing our children because he’s a comedian performing a stand-up routine. If someone else were to give the same criticism with a more straight-faced, no-nonsense tone, at best, they’d be dismissed as a crazy “conspiracy theorist”, or at worst, accused of being a dangerous “radical” wanting to “undermine” and “destroy” public schools.
For example, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos gave a speech earlier this year in which she called America’s public schools a “dead end.” Anyone who has been paying attention to our poor school rankings would not consider such a criticism the least bit controversial. It wasn’t an opinion. It was a fact.
But alas, because our school system does not prioritize or even teach critical thinking skills, her criticism, which amounted to, “our public schools are not perfect and could do better”, received a flurry of angry responses through op-eds and social media posts, which amounted to little more than, “Nuh uh! I went to a public school and I turned out just fine!” (Ironically, this is the sort of knee-jerk justification former child abuse victims often give about their abuse: “I was spanked as a child and I turned out just fine!”)
Carlin mocks our public schools and receives applause. DeVos criticizes our schools and receives angry tweets. So why this cognitive dissonance? Why are Americans willing to have their schools made fun of but not criticized?
Part of the reason is American exceptionalism. We Americans have an overinflated ego about ourselves and our county. We believe that we live in the “Best Country on Earth™” and that everything about it is the best. We have the best economy! (We don’t.) We have the best healthcare! (We don’t.) And we have the best military! (We do, but only because we spend more on it than the next eight countries combined!)
So of course, we Americans also believe that we have the best education. Now anyone who’s been paying attention to international education rankings will know this isn’t true. Our public schools are vastly outperformed by other countries. In fact, the only thing “better” about our schools is our spending, as we spend more on education per student than any other country on earth—and yet we still manage to underperform behind our global peers!
Unfortunately, because we’ve been instilled with an undue sense of greatness—ironically enough, with the aid of our own education system (why else are we taught the Pledge of Allegiance before our ABCs or 123s?)—we insist that America is great, and anyone who believes otherwise is “unpatriotic” or “un-American.”
Don’t like war crimes being committed by our military? You must hate our troops! Support our troops! Don’t like the police brutality being carried out by law enforcement? You must hate our cops! Blue Lives Matter! Don’t like that our schools focus more on indoctrinating rather than educating our children? Then you must hate our teachers! Why do you hate our teachers?! Don’t you know they work long hours for little pay? (Not really.) If you can read, thank a teacher!
But perhaps the greatest obstacle isn't just national pride, but personal pride. While many Americans may have been educated through private school or homeschooling, most received their education from a public school. As such, they feel that any criticism of the schools isn't just an indictment against the education system, but an indictment against their own education.
No one wants to believe that they're dumb. They want to believe that they're smart, perhaps even smarter than other people. As such, they tend to overestimate their own intelligence, assuming that they're smarter than they actually are. In fact, there's a name for this type of thinking: the Dunning-Kruger effect.
If Americans are unwilling to admit to the shortcomings of their public education system, it's because they refuse to believe that the system may have failed them—because if it did fail them, then they may not be as smart as they previously assumed. So rather than admit this, they ignore any criticism and return to thinking that everything is just fine.
But everything is not fine. Our education system is broken. When we have a disproportionate of students receiving remedial education upon entering college, we have a big problem. And the first step into solving a problem is admitting that there is a problem. If Americans want to start fixing the system, they need to swallow their pride and admit that the system is broken. Sometimes it takes a grown man in only his underpants to recognize that!