Your Childhood Is Problematic: Nostalgic Favourites That Were Really Racist.

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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.

Image from Blogspot. Ah, colonialism.
Image from Blogspot. Ah, colonialism.

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.

Image from Sunday Comics Debt, from the original publication.
Image from Sunday Comics Debt, from the original publication.
Image from Enid Blyton Society. Yeah, I can't. Image from Enid Blyton Society.
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.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Pretty much all media produced by people in an environment where a particular prejudice is socially acceptable and encouraged, is going to display said prejudice. Social attitudes change. There’s not much point removing a work from its social, historical and cultural context and calling it racist by today’s standards, otherwise you could just summarise the whole discussion as “Is my childhood favourite racist?” “I don’t know, was it written before 1970*-ish?” “Yes.” “Then almost certainly.”

    *Or any given date really, depends what year one thinks racism ends and “problematic”-ness begins.

    We had a series of books at my school for children who had just learnt to read left over from a Reading Scheme that was no longer being used, I don’t remember the title of them but it was set in this kind of village and the books were ancient (well, this was the early 90s, but the prices on the back were in pre-decimalised currency – I think most were published in the 60s). I used to hate reading them because they smelt weird, but one sticks very clearly in my mind because at the time I thought it was really stupid, about one day an “African” moving to the village. This “African” had all the stereotypical features – pitch black skin, big lips, didn’t dress properly, couldn’t speak properly, carried a spear, etc – the illustrations made me at 6 say “but Daddy, African people look nothing like that”. But the ending of the story was the villagers asking him to stay when he became upset and said he was going to go home. The baker remembering to say “You want bread?” instead of “Would you like some bread today?”. The vicar’s wife sewing a shirt for him. And him using his spear to help prop up the Maypole. The moral of it was basically “just because ‘Africans’ are weird, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be nice to them”.

    By today’s standards, it’s massively racist. For the time, it’s staggeringly progressive. In the 1968 Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech got 74% approval ratings in Britain, to have children learning to read with books giving the message “welcome immigrants, help them, and compromise to support them” is incredible I think. And that’s missed if you only look for “things that as a modern reader make me uncomfortable”.

    That said, in the spirit of your the post, I was staggered when I noticed just how often British writers used to fall back “Oh, the gypsies must have done it” as an explanation for any sort of theft/vandalism/misdeed. Enid Blyton often an offender with that one.

    • The discussion if we should remove/censor racist stuff from the past in literature and other media, especially from The Classics(tm) crops up every few years (and I think that’s good). I don’t really have a final opinion on how to deal with this but it’s a fact that it’s hurtful for people (and the society as a whole) when literature is full of derogatory, racist terms, stories and images.

      And I think if it is decided to not remove anything (because of author = GOD and you’re not allowed to touch a single thing of their holy creation) I would at least: 1. put a warning in the front of the book so people can avoid triggering/hurtful content and 2. put in a preface or afterword that actively discusses the problematic elements of the work as well as the ramifications this still has to this day and why it is still hurtful. Because obviously racism is very much alive and kicking today (maybe also a tiny bit because we consumed these things as children and never once questioned them?).

  2. Now I am really tempted to dig out my old Famous Five books and see how the German translation handled this. They did change a lot anyway (no seriously…they didn’t pay in Pounds but in Mark there and if there were any references to actual English places they got mostly left out because…ehm we wouldn’t have been able to handle a story set in that strange far-away land?) They might have changed at least some of the language as well.

  3. Disney is surprisingly good at making racist things more racist. I recently took a “World Lit for Children” course, and we covered the “Uncle Remus” stories. They were essentially stories originally told by black slaves, collected/published by a white man. The level of racism in the original stories is debatable (they are inherently racist in some ways just because of the time they were re-told in), but Disney made a movie version of them (Song of the South) that actually ended up making it all even more racist somehow, especially due to the caricature they made of Uncle Remus.

    Speaking of “Little House on the Prairie”, though, if you’re ever interested in reading a book from that time period from the Native American perspective, my Professor from that same class had us read “The Birchbark House” by Louise Erdrich. Very good middle-grade/children’s book from a much less racist perspective. Definitely the sort of book children should be encouraged to read instead of Little House, or at least as a counterpoint. (The smallpox issues feature heavily, and there are numerous background mentions of how the Native Americans were slowly being pushed off their land at the time.)

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