Friday, May 11, 2012

Thoughts on Diary of a Wimpy Kid; or, Greg Heffley is Kind of a Jerk

Earlier this Spring, I  read through the entire Diary of a Wimpy Kid series in about ten days, and I have to say that, taken together as a series, the books aren’t quite what I expected. The main character, Greg, begins the first book as the wimpy seventh grader we all know and love. He’s awkward and out of place. His best friend is still very much a child, while he’s looking anxiously toward teenhood. His older brother, Rodrick, is a huge bully, and his parents are comically out of touch, and focused mostly on his little brother, Manny. Greg is a bit sarcastic, but he’s funny, and the mood of the entire book is mostly light, poking fun at the annoyances of middle school without getting too bogged down in negativity.

As the series progresses, though, Greg Heffley stops being cute and morphs into someone who is anything but a wimpy kid. By the sixth book, Cabin Fever, I ran out of excuses for his behavior and started wondering why anyone wants to read about him, let alone spend time with him. The fact is, Greg Heffley is kind of a jerk.

For one thing, his treatment of Rowley - and the fact that Rowley always comes back for more - is a huge problem for me in these books. The reader hears Greg discuss bullies again and again. His older brother bullies him. Bigger kids at school bully him and other smaller kids. But the biggest bully of the entire series is Greg himself! He uses Rowley for his own purposes, and then just as easily tosses him aside when he doesn’t need him. And we never see anyone comment that this is wrong. Rowley does stand up for himself now and then, but it never seems to take, because he’s always right back there, showing up on Greg’s doorstep with cookies, or bailing him out of trouble. And worst of all - the books often use these moments to poke fun at Rowley. We laugh so much at Rowley for being such a nerd, and so babyish in his behavior, and the end result is that we glorify Greg’s bullying, while still vilifying bullies who pick on wimpy kids.

And it’s not just Rowley who elicits this jerky kind of behavior from Greg. He treats his family disrespectfully. He doesn’t take his schoolwork seriously. Often it seems like he is not even trying to improve himself, or to do the right thing. And I think that’s what has made me actually start to dislike him. Most heroes in children’s books are appealing because they have some innate good qualities that keep readers rooting for their success. The Dork Diaries series has a main character who is not always on her best behavior, but who is constantly trying to break out of the patterns that cause her problems. Dear Dumb Diary’s Jamie has a pretty abrasive personality, but it’s always easy to see that underneath it all, she wants to do well and to have friends and to be happy. Even a character like Horrible Harry has a sweet side, and his anti-social behavior can be explained by events from his life.

But what do kids see in Greg? Are they amused by him because his behavior is so over the top and unlike their own? Do they think of him as wimpy, or do they realize Rowley is being mistreated, and that this isn’t okay? I don’t like to criticize books for setting a bad example. Good behavior is usually boring to read about, and kids don’t automatically start doing things they read about in books. Kids who read a lot of books get exposed to a lot of different points of view, and usually they have their own opinions about right and wrong, which are informed by outside forces and then imposed upon the books. But children’s books also provide a lot of cues on how to read certain characters that help us know who are the villains, and who are the heroes, whose behavior society accepts and whose is reprehensible. My issue with Diary of a Wimpy Kid is that the cues lead us in a dubious direction. We receive the message that one type of bullying is wrong, because we call it bullying, and another type is okay, because we don’t call attention to it.

I think the bottom line is that Greg’s attitude is getting old. The success of a story is often defined by how a character grows and changes. I don’t see a real story arc for Greg. The jokes have grown stale, and what used to be funny now reads as a sad testament to immaturity and an unwillingness to start growing up and accepting responsibility for one’s actions. Middle school is a time of great change, and I think the books become less believable and less interesting with each story that comes and goes without Greg growing even the tiniest bit.

My hope is that Diary of a Wimpy Kid fans recognize that Greg is not a role model, and that they don’t internalize the mixed messages. I also hope that teachers, librarians, and parents, take the opportunities the books present to discuss some of the issues I’ve mentioned and to work on better, more practical, and more realistic solutions to the problems Greg faces. Kids read these books for entertainment, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but that doesn’t mean it would hurt to remind them of that line between fiction and reality and to teach them how to think critically about Greg's behavior and its consequences.



1 comment:

  1. yeah, not a fan of the Wimpy Kid books myself either - I prefer Lincoln Peirce's Big Nate. He's much funnier and more realistic - and his actions have definite consequences.

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