I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy problematic entertainment. I’m a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race (the recent transphobia is disappointing & utterly inexcusable), I continue to watch Law & Order: Special Victims Unit even as it becomes more and more exploitative, and the less said about my extensive Disney collection the better. When you’re an adult, you (usually) have the benefit of hindsight and awareness of the world at large, although some of us still have trouble accepting the fact that we can like things that are kind of awful and not be awful ourselves. Some of the things we love are products of their time, many of which have aged better than others. The nostalgic favourites of our childhood present us with a myriad of awkwardness and offensiveness, making us question just what the hell we were doing reading them in the first place, often with trusted adults you assume would have known better. This list is barely the tip of the iceberg, and it doesn’t even touch the frequent casual sexism, classism and bogs of eternal bigotry that permeate through the stories we tend to view through rose tinted glasses.
Tintin: Hergé’s beloved boy reporter continues to be a favourite with the younger generations, many of whom were introduced to his adventures by the surprisingly solid if creepily Uncanny Valley Spielberg film. And rightly so, in my opinion. The comics are well plotted action tales with memorable characters, bag loads of plot twists and the timeless sense of excitement that’s key to a rollicking good adventure. Of course, they’re also products of their time; a time where the Democratic Republic of the Congo was still Belgian territory and colonisation by the nice white people was the norm. The Congolese characters in Tintin in the Congo are illustrated as thick lipped, almost ape-like with pitch black skin, broken dialogue and incredibly stupid. While scholars continue to question whether Hergé was deliberately racist or just blinded by white privilege to the point of condescension, the controversy surrounding the comic continues to this day. In 2011, British bookstore chain Waterstones removed the book from the children’s section, sparking a debate of possible censorship.
Peter Pan: I briefly touched on this in my previous Pan post regarding the whitewashing of the recent film casting, but it wasn’t until I re-watched the Disney film that I was reminded of just how shockingly racist JM Barrie’s tale is. The “redskin” Native Americans are slurred in every possible way, with the preferred term of “savage” being used repeatedly as well as one use of “Pickaninnies”. They, sadly unsurprisingly, speak in broken English, display frequently violent traits and are the playthings of the white Lost Boys. Tiger Lily, the princess, is beautiful and entirely devoted to Peter, a damsel in distress more than anything else. Barrie is writing from a place of ignorance, or naivety depending on how kind you’re feeling, and in an attempt to capture the imaginative fun & games of childhood make-believe, he ended up perpetuating the kinds of stereotypes that took far too long to break down. Got to give Disney credit though; it takes effort to make a racist thing even more racist when you adapt it. I’m not sure I’ll ever feel clean again after “What makes the red man red?”
Little House on the Prairie: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories are practically required reading for many American children, although it’s a craze that never quite made its way to my shores. Many have returned to the series to relive their childhoods and found themselves on the receiving end of a visit from Captain Hindsight. To say that the series thinks Manifest Destiny is the best thing ever is like saying that Vladimir Putin doesn’t really like gay people. Ma’s hatred for Native Americans is a constant presence throughout, and then there’s that time in Little Town on the Prairie where men done blackface to play “darkies” in a minstrel show. That’s entertainment!
Charlie & the Chocolate Factory: When we think of Oompa-Loompas today, our thoughts immediately conjure up images of orange face paint, green hair and gleefully malicious sing-alongs. While the coded racism and colonialism is still there in the Gene Wilder film, the book is less coded in its depiction of Willy Wonka’s faithful unpaid labour (chocolate doesn’t count. No union would accept chocolate as a solid offer from an employer). The book’s Oompa Loompas came from Africa, and the original illustrations are of black pygmies in ragged clothing. The more famous Quentin Blake illustrations are far more innocent and way whiter, although Tim Burton’s remake went back to the roots of the story.
Yeah, I can’t.
Enid Blyton: When I was growing up, you were either a Roald Dahl fan or an Enid Blyton fan. I’m not sure why this oddly mismatched rivalry existed since the authors don’t really have much in common. Where one is chaotic and morbid, the other is prim and traditional in a very British class orientated way. I always felt like the stories of Blyton’s worlds were too twee for me, and that perhaps I was just a touch too common for the adventures of Mallory Towers or The Famous Five. In hindsight, while Dahl was guilty of the same crime as Blyton, I think I made the right choice. Her nigh on obsessive focus on golliwogs in her stories makes the reader believe she may have a weird complex related to them (their mostly villainous roles contrasted to the heroic white blonde children certainly don’t help), while the straight up use of the N word only confirms that the times have changed so much in the past few decades. Blyton’s work still sells very well in the UK, but many changes have been made to her work. These days, you’re more likely to see Noddy being badgered by teddy bears than golliwogs.
The Last Battle: The Chronicles of Narnia are some of the most memorable children’s books out there as well as arguably some of the most successful allegories in modern fiction (true story: my grandmother thinks I’m “reading too much” into the Christian metaphors throughout the books). The final novel in the series still divides readers thanks to its ending and the horribly cruel fate of poor Susan (guess which side of that debate I’m on?) but it’s the land that lies to the south of Narnia where the elephant in the room roams. The people of Calormen are described as having dark faces, long beards and wearing turbans, so the comparisons to people of the Middle East are obvious from the get-go. They worship a god called Tash, who is essentially a malicious demon in the vein of the Christian depiction of Satan. The depictions of the Calormene are almost exclusively negative, except for those who reject the evil Tash and embrace the true path with Aslan, including the princess Aravis from an earlier book in the series, The Horse and his Boy. She’s “saved” the moment she runs away with the white prince and rejects everything from her past life. Subtlety is not a thing here; non-white people in the Narnia world aren’t necessarily evil, but they do make for interesting saviour projects.