Think of a movie or a TV show you watched when you were younger—maybe something that ran on Disney Channel or Nickelodeon—that features an adolescent protagonist with a kid brother. Is this little brother a calm, easygoing, honest, and well-mannered individual who respects and supports his older siblings? Is he the type of kid to do his homework, obey the rules, and maintain decent hygiene? Would you trust him to house-sit for you for a day, or would you be too worried he might let the cat loose, spill soda on the carpet, break a window, or set something on fire? Probably the latter, right?
Films and TV shows, especially ones intended for younger audiences, have a way of characterizing the youngest boy in the family. He’s mischievous, he’s a bother, he’s messy, he’s uncool; if you think about it for a minute, it’s a rather common trend. But have you ever considered the significance of this trend and what effects it has potentially had on young viewers, including your childhood self? A 1989 study on sibling interactions in popular TV families asserts that television is a powerful behavior influencer for its viewers (Larson 305). And not only that, a significant portion (over 40%) of sibling interactions observed in the study were negative in some way (309). Being the youngest male in my family and wondering about this media influence myself, I thought I would examine a few examples of younger brother characters in pop culture who I knew growing up, and what specific patterns exist in their portrayals.
Max in Max & Ruby
Starting with a young children’s cartoon that began its run in the early 2000s, Max & Ruby is all about the day-to-day life of the titular rabbit siblings. Since their parents or any other adults are very rarely shown, much more focus is placed on the sibling relationship between the two, and Ruby is frequently tasked with taking care of her younger brother Max, who is still too young to be able to speak in complete sentences. The stark contrast between these two characters is a major element of the show; the imagery in the opening of each episode demonstrates this when Max replaces a pink-frosted cake Ruby has made with one of worms, mud, and rocks. In the following bit, dressed as Count Dracula, he creeps up behind Ruby, who is wearing a pink dress and a tiara, to give her a scare. Basically, we get the overall impression that Max is constantly doing something to disturb his much more mature and earnest sister.
In an episode titled “Ruby’s Rainbow”, Ruby tells Max she’s going to paint a rainbow for their grandmother and then proceeds to explain what a beret and smock are. Max can only pretend he was listening and say “backyard!” to communicate that he wants to play outside in the rain. The remainder of the episode consists of Ruby encouraging Max to paint and learn about the colors of the rainbow as he repeatedly attempts to escape the house to play in the yard. In “Max’s Mudpie”, Ruby insists that Max stay out of the mud before their grandmother comes over to visit, but we all know Max can’t resist the urge to smear wet dirt all over his face three different times.
Throughout the series, Max and Ruby’s roles and interactions remain very much the same; Ruby acts as the one who takes charge and tries to teach her brother and accomplish specific goals, while Max goofs around and gets into mischief.
Matt in Lizzie McGuire
Disney sitcom Lizzie McGuire also ran in the early 2000s and features protagonist Lizzie and her younger brother Matt. This image from the episode “Bunkies”, during which Lizzie is forced to share her room with Matt, should give you a pretty good idea of how things often go between the two.
Matt completely fits the “annoying little brother” type. In this episode, we get a solid 30-second montage of him running around his sister’s room in the middle of the night shutting the door, turning lights on, and doing whatever else is the opposite of Lizzie’s preference. Matt’s repetitive and annoying behavior not only creates a pain in the neck for his sister, it’s even slightly irritating for the viewer to watch.
Besides what Matt does, Lizzie’s own words and actions emphasize the characterization of her brother. In between scenes and throughout each episode, a tiny animated version of Lizzie speaks directly to the audience and rants about things such as her brother being a “dorkhead” or a “weasel”. This more strongly conveys to the viewer the ideas we should have about Matt or whoever she happens to be talking about.
Still, Lizzie and Matt are not always in conflict with each other, but the way they sometimes make up is still telling of Matt’s character. Later on in “Bunkies”, Matt and Lizzie agree to pretend to like each other and get along so that their parents will free them of the punishment of sleeping on the floor; Lizzie later points out her brother’s skills in deceit by admitting he was a “good actor”. In another episode titled “Sibling Bonds”, Matt and Lizzie become closer to each other after Lizzie scares off a boy who once bullied Matt, while Matt tricks his sister’s nemesis, Kate, into opening a can of worms, sending her falling into a pond. The two siblings do similar things to help each other and ultimately form a closer bond, but the older sister Lizzie accomplishes this through power and intimidation, while little brother Matt employs cleverness and trickery. This interesting contrast highlights Matt’s mischievous character even at a time when the two siblings are able to hold back their hostility toward each other.
Harry in Freaky Friday (2003)
Freaky Friday, another product of Disney with a similar target audience to Lizzie McGuire, focuses on the conflict between teenage protagonist Anna and her mother as they struggle to get along and understand each other. Little brother Harry doesn’t get quite as much time on screen as his other family members, but we still get a clear sense of who he is from the very beginning of the film. Anna doesn’t want to get out of bed in the morning? Harry runs into her room, blows an airhorn in her face, then scurries off. Anna is being scolded by her mother on the way to school? Harry laughs and makes faces at her from the backseat. All the while Harry appears entirely innocent to his mother, never facing any consequences for his behavior. This contrast not only emphasizes the disconnect between Anna and her mother, being one of the primary conflicts of the film, but it paints Harry as a cunning, mischievous boy and perhaps even a frustratingly annoying character to watch for the audience as well.
Surprisingly, there is some character development for Harry later in the film, when Anna, without his knowledge, reads an essay he had written about her for school. The essay reveals that Harry deeply cares for and admires his sister, which clearly contradicts his behavior prior to this event. Also in this scene, however, he strangely confesses to enjoying fighting with his sister and being the pesky little nuisance he is, reinforcing the idea that even if there is no true malicious intent, younger brothers have this troublemaker type of role in the family especially when it comes to the treatment of their older siblings.
When children watch the television and see the interactions between a young boy and his older brother or sister, they are shown a behavioral model; whatever ideas and actions take place in a film or a show move beyond the screen and have at least some influence on the family dynamic or the way we view ourselves and others. Younger brothers are quite often characterized as troublesome, rascally, messy, and annoying, especially when it comes to the way they behave around their older siblings. Is this highly inaccurate in all cases? Does it automatically cheapen a TV show or a movie? Not by any means, but as a younger brother who tries to be a kind person—and has never at any point been interested in skateboarding in the house or rolling around in the mud—I believe only good things could come out of more frequent depictions of younger brothers as kind, supportive, and important family members in pop culture media.
One of the most interesting and impactful moments of the course for me was in week 3, which focused on the influence of advertising. Reading and then using the “Deconstructing an Advertisement” handout has made me begin to think about advertisements in many more ways (the purpose, the message, the assumptions being made, and specific visual elements). Additionally, John Berger’s Ways of Seeing was a fascinating documentary that showed me how advertisers create glamorous images to instill personal envy and ultimately encourage customers to purchase products. I am not only more careful not to be mislead by advertisements, but I am also now more aware of and interested in the ways ads represent our culture and can have positive or negative effects on society.
Also during week 3, some really interesting questions came up in the lecture which I still think about often, one of them being: “Does the media ‘cause’ or change our cultural attitudes or beliefs, or is it merely reinforcing existing ones?” At times I and probably many other students in the class have felt the temptation to place all of the blame on “the media” for certain problems in society (racial stereotypes, unrealistic beauty standards for women, et cetera). However, the media is of course to some extent simply reflecting all of our own ideas, beliefs, and desires, and we do bear responsibility for what is produced, shared, and shown to us. Although I have not arrived at a clear answer of how we can as individuals influence pop culture media to change society for the better, I have learned that there is much importance in discussion and analysis of media—whether it is the news, a televised ad, a film, or anything else—to determine the extent to which its content is socially responsible as well as what short and long term consequences could arise from it.
“Bunkies.” Lizzie McGuire. Disney Channel. 21 Feb. 2003. Television.
Freaky Friday. Dir. Mark Waters. 2003. DVD.
Larson, Mary S. “Interaction Between Siblings in Primetime Television Families.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 33.3 (1989): 305-315. Web. 2 May 2018.
“Ruby’s Rainbow / Home Tweet Home / Max’s Mudpie.” Max & Ruby. Nick Jr. 6 Oct. 2009. Television.
“Sibling Bonds.” Lizzie McGuire. Disney Channel. 3 Aug. 2001. Television.
“Annoying Younger Sibling.” TV Tropes. Web. 20 May 2018. <http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AnnoyingYoungerSibling>.
Kramer, Laurie, Sonia Noorman, and Renee Brockman. “Representations of Sibling Relationships in Young Children’s Literature.” Early Childhood Research Quarterly 14.4 (1999): 555-574. Web. 2 May 2018.