I grew up watching two science shows: Bill Nye the Science Guy and The Magic School Bus. When I was in elementary school, I was the child who took apart my pens in class. When I was older, a boy told me he didn’t know when he was supposed to kiss me if I kept talking about treatments for yellow fever during the epidemic of 1793. I figured (correctly) that it wouldn’t work out between us; I planned to talk about epidemiology a lot.
So I’m pretty sure I’m in the target audience for Netflix’s reboots of both these science shows. And I am excited to see Ms. Frizzle step behind the wheel again and say, “Bus, do your stuff!” But Bill Nye’s new show is breaking my heart.
Bill Nye Saves the World is a combination science show and variety hour, with a mix of reported segments, panel discussions, and strange live performances. It’s that last that sparked controversy recently, when Nye’s episode on sexuality featured a song from humorist Rachel Bloom titled “My Sex Junk” (content warning!). The song is crude and has little to do with science. Lyrics include “I'm down for anything, / Don't box in my box. / Give someone new a handy, / Then give yourself props.”
It’s explicit—and the wrong kind of explicit, at that. If a Magic School Bus episode were to tackle sexuality, I’d expect to see a lot more than Bloom and her backup dancers. The old episode on the immune system took us into the blood vessels and showed us the drama of white blood cells marking strep bacteria for death, then engulfing and digesting them. A Magic School Bus episode on sexuality wouldn’t talk reductively about “my box,” but would show, in detail, all the parts of the female reproductive system, from eggs floating into fallopian tubes to the way increased blood flow changes the appearance of the labia.
Such an exploration probably wouldn’t be aired on PBS, but at least it would demonstrate that the “Fleshlight in the cold moonlight” recommended in Bloom’s song isn’t comparable to the real thing. Reducing the female anatomy to “sex junk” is a mistake you can only make at a distance. And it’s the kind of mistake that The Magic School Bus exists to prevent. The school bus often shrinks the students so that they can observe what they’re studying on its own scale and in its own context.
Ms. Frizzle could never be accused of “unweaving the rainbow” or removing the wonder from the world by showing her students the hidden hows of everyday life. Her students already loved cake, but when they shrank in a bakery, they saw the hidden drama of baking soda combining with vinegar to create bubbles, leavening a cake and giving it its airy consistency when the fast-solidifying crust trapped the air inside.
Importantly, Ms. Frizzle doesn’t teach her students about facts alone. Their adventures are meant to unfold the scientific method, not just its fruits. Although The Frizz herself is fearless, and teaches her students to be bold in asking questions, their exploits are also a lesson in humility. Ms. Frizzle’s rallying cry is “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!” For her, science is the process of entering into something larger than ourselves. We try to wait with it, to see it as it is, setting aside our own assumptions and letting it introduce itself to us.
Instead of engaging in this project of curiosity, Nye’s new show is designed to rattle through settled facts, with little attention to how those facts come to be discovered. As a result, it undersells science and its opportunities for wonder. And, even evaluated by its own criteria—as a truth-telling vehicle—it overreaches.
Bloom’s song on sexuality was preceded by an animated sketch mocking conversion therapy. A group of ice cream cones rebuke a scoop of vanilla, which wants them to “pretend to be vanilla until they no longer have the urge not to be vanilla.” The other flavors assert their identities, and then go further, saying: “Come on, Vanilla. Nobody wants just one flavor of ice cream.” Eventually (I am not making this up), the vanilla scoop disowns his own identity and all the flavors mix together, in what must be a metaphor for either a dance club or a sex club.
The pansexual themes (which were also present in Bloom’s song [“This world of ours is full of choice, / But must I choose between / Only John or Joyce?”]) wind up making a plausible pitch for conversion therapy. If sexuality is a spectrum, and it’s either impossible or impolite to be purely homo- or heterosexual, then shifting your dating patterns must be easy: You must be able to be attracted to someone of whichever gender you’re trying for.
The ice cream metaphor and the “Sex Junk” song both went off the rails, in part because they were too remote from what they were meant to illustrate. Truly to understand what sexuality is, and how we should understand (and temper) our appetites, would require a series of Magic School Bus transformations. The students would need to shrink in order to observe the mechanics of reproduction and the fizz of hormones—but they would also need to speed up time, to observe the results of different sexual norms and expectations. They would need to be sociologists as well as biologists, to make sure that, in studying something that shapes so much of human life, they didn’t lose track of it at the level of a petri dish, or a generation, or an individual person’s character.
Once they had humbly gathered all the facts, they’d be ready to board the Metaphysical School Bus, and take on the queen of the sciences: philosophy. But until then, they (and Nye) aren’t ready to “Take chances, make mistakes, and get normative!”