I had the opportunity to watch the Mister Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, and one of the topics it discusses is the origins of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a kind of counter-programming to the fast-paced “bombardment” that was (and continues to be) a staple of children’s television. Mister Rogers was meant to slow things down, and give kids a quieter and more contemplative half hour for them to learn and grow. Fred Rogers’ decades-long show took on an important challenge, but there’s the seed of doubt about its efficacy on people like myself, who remember their young childhood TV experience more along the lines of action-packed cartoons like Transformers or GI Joe. How do you reconcile the allure of such shows with the noble cause of trying to help kids learn to be better people?
Especially in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a trend of including public service messages in those merchandise-shilling action shows—”Knowing is half the battle!” as GI Joe would say—but they would often come across as unbelievably hokey or even disingenuous. Going from watching GI Joe’s forces blow up an enemy Cobra base, to seeing kids learn how to install a smoke detector—it never felt right.
I began to think about if there were any children’s series out there that integrates a nice balance between satisfying action and good advice to children, and one answer popped into my head immediately: Precure. More than a few magical girl shows carry a strong sense of positivity and wonder—in fact, I once referred to 2001’s Princess Comet as being distinctly Mister Rogers-esque—but they often don’t hit that pleasure zone that comes with watching heroes vanquish villains the way Precure does. After all, its origins are built on “a magical girl show from the director of Dragon Ball Z, and while its staff has changed numerous times, it still more or less maintains that legacy. But when you also look at the various heroines throughout Precure, they serve as confident and inspiring role models for young viewers in ways that almost betray the heavy consumerism that it also engenders.
Consider Cure Yell in Hugtto! Precure, who’s all about giving support to those both looking for their dreams and those pursuing them. Or how Cure Flora in Go! Princess Precure overcomes a major problem by realizing that the power to change and improve comes from within. Or how Cure Heart in Doki Doki Precure! reaches for the stars in everything she attempts. These heroines are only the tip of the iceberg, as many individual episodes also try to speak to the concerns and worries of children, and how to deal with the complicated and confusing emotions they experience growing up.
I think this is why I am, and likely always will be, a fan of Precure. Its creators know the power of being a GI Joe, but it also knows the value of being a Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Striking that middle ground can come at a price—a muddled message, perhaps—but attempting that alchemy is valuable in a world where ideals and cynicism alike clash with each other on a daily basis.