Not Your Shero: Carmen Sandiego and the importance of feminism in edutainment

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Aug 6, 2018, 1:00 PM EDT

Everyone loves a hero, but we worship a good villain. Strong women come in all shapes, sizes, and flavors, and sometimes that means looking up to a character who has no interest in being your role model. All this month, we're presenting Not Your Shero, a series that celebrates anti-heroes, villains, and all the women way too busy wreaking havoc to save you.

For a time, it seemed that Carmen Sandiego had briefly vanished from the public lexicon, referenced more for her classic red hat and jacket than for her history as a massively successful media franchise and one of the most important and influential educational video games of the last 30-plus years. Recently, the name has been appearing with promises of two upcoming Netflix properties starring Gina Rodriguez, one a live-action film, and the other a pending 20-episode animated series. Initially invented by the software company Broderbund, many companies now share rights as a result of the Carmen Sandiego Licensing Program, but some publishing rights now belong to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who is slated to launch a new series of books for the antihero in 2019.

Although many people are apprehensive towards more reboots, and each return to a former property tends to come with its own crowd of people insisting that their childhoods are being ruined, it’s unlikely we'll see such a response here because Carmen Sandiego was always surprisingly forward-thinking. In fact, it has been one of the most overwhelmingly positive, progressive, and diverse edutainment franchises in history, and it almost single-handedly defined what an educational video game should look and feel like.


Created by a group of Broderbund staff in 1985, the video game was surprisingly popular in classrooms across the country, so that’s where the company began to focus its product. Initially intended as a fairly straightforward “cops and robbers” tale, the story slowly formed into what we know it as today. Carmen Sandiego was a jet-setting thief, in charge of her own criminal empire known as V.I.L.E., which was constantly pursued by the ACME Detective Agency. This quickly spawned multiple television shows, including the original game show that ran from 1991-1996. While getting kids to watch an educational game show immediately after leaving a classroom in which they’d spent seven or eight hours might seem like a bit of a trick, it was a fun, interactive concept, while public school can be very much the opposite. In the words of Broderbund CEO Doug Carlston, who also served as primary designer of the original interface for the game, “We don't use the word 'educational' anywhere on any of our products. The term translates into 'boring' in kidspeak. I prefer 'explorational.’”

Beyond the video games and the game show, Carmen Sandiego had many appearances in various pop culture artifacts, including books, comics, and board games, but perhaps the strangest was a concert series that enjoyed a brief run through the last few years of the 20th century, a children’s event focusing tentatively on an inspector pursuing Sandiego that at one point featured Dudley Moore. There isn’t a lot of information easily available on the series, but it sounds intriguing, to say the least.

For many millennials born into a country with a public school system that seldom prioritized knowledge of the world outside of the United States, a great deal of what we know of geography was taught to us by one Carmen Sandiego and the gumshoes in charge of matching her crimes with their locations. Games like Where in The World and Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego had serious positive effects on a lot of young people in the ‘90s, although its history was at best selective. In general, the historical lessons kids are taught in the United States tend to avoid addressing problematic elements of America’s history at all costs. It doesn’t fall on Carmen Sandiego’s head to educate kids about the dark side of world history, and you can’t really fault a video game or cartoon for not being Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States, but when the franchise temporarily focused its story on history rather than geography, there were genuine efforts made to address things like Japanese-American internment camps during WWII. It's interesting to contemplate what role education will take on in the reboot. Part of the series’ importance to kids is in its inclusive stance on world history and geography, but the show has always focused more on dates, events, and statistics than anything else. In the present day, the concept has an opportunity to educate with a greater public access and acknowledgment of previously unaddressed parts of history. One of the biggest questions raised by the return of the property is how the show and movie will include the educational elements of the game show and video games, or if it will focus on Sandiego and those that track her down more as a drama, or even both, in the tradition of the animated series.

Carmen Sandiego’s real importance is that it speaks to a lot of different people and teaches not just facts, but empathy for other cultures. Carmen is a mystery, and her status as an antihero makes her equally intriguing to people of all genders. Besides that, it's important to note that both the detectives leading the case to find Sandiego and the criminal element of this game are both led by confident, powerful women of color. In its insistence on inclusivity, the game show served as one of the most progressive shows on television during its heyday in the ‘90s. (The cartoon was a bit more whitewashed, with the Chief appearing instead as a bespectacled, zany white man.) The Chief is still one of my favorite fictional characters, and she seems all the more important upon reflection. That there was a black woman in a position of authority on children’s television that kids could idolize and learn from is not to go unmentioned in discussions of the show’s diversity. Previous generations had that representation at times with shows like The Electric Company many years before, but it was, and unfortunately remains, infrequent. The actor portraying the Chief, Lynne Thigpen, had some of the best comedic timing on television, and she is missed by fans of the series.

The animated series still provided a heck of a lot of entertainment, as Carmen Sandiego took on a greater role and audiences really got to see her in action. It ran for five years with Carmen voiced by One Day at a Time's Rita Moreno. Moreno initially became famous for her roles in The King and I and West Side Story, and later went on to play Gina Rodriguez’s paternal grandmother on Jane the Virgin. Although little ado has been made about the subject, having women of Puerto Rican descent playing Carmen is a welcome consistency. Even now, after #OscarsSoWhite and full-fledged investigations by the ACLU into discrimination in Hollywood, American media is plagued by executives that, seemingly reflexively, whitewash entire franchises. There was a briefly considered film version in the ‘90s with Sandra Bullock as the proposed star, and, no offense to Sandy B, but I'm really glad that version doesn't exist. It's very much a matter of chance that Carmen exists at all, as she was initially proposed only as one part of a larger cast of villains when executive Katherine Bird latched onto her as the main character. The game was careful to make Carmen a villain that was relatable enough that she wasn't really a villain; at one point, players discovered that she was actually a former ACME employee, which added a lot of context for why the Chief was so interested in bringing her down once and for all. 

Not only is Rodriguez starring in the upcoming live-action rendition, she’s also producing it with her company I Can I Will. All women-owned production companies matter for the increased presence of women both in front of and behind the camera, but I Can I Will will likely prove to be especially important. Rodriguez founded the company in 2016 after the Oscars failed to nominate any people of color for major awards. Although it’s exciting in any context to see a reboot of such a beloved series, it’s even better to know that the character will continue to be represented by a Puerto Rican actor and that she’ll have such a major role in the creative direction as well. It’s too early in the game to say much for certain, but in the meantime, we're all pretty stoked at where this new Carmen Sandiego might go.

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