Earlier this year, Gone With the Wind was briefly pulled from HBO Max following criticism about the 1939 film’s depiction of slavery and glorification of the Civil War era South. The streaming service returned the film to its content library with the addition of two videos that provide historical context and perspective.
Films and books often provide a snapshot of the dominant culture of the time as well as the biases of the creators. Instead of trying to correct those biases or scrub the work from the world, it’s worthwhile to have a conversation about why some things that people thought were okay once aren’t okay anymore.
Racism in Kids Books
Kids are sponges, soaking up ideas from the media they consume. When a child reads Peter Pan or watches the Disney film, for example, it reinforces outdated, offensive stereotypes of Native Americans. The Indians speak in grunts and broken English, and they refer to Peter Pan as the “great white father.” Princess Tiger Lily gushes, “Peter Pan save me, me his velly nice friend. Me no let pirates hurt him.”
Victorian literature like Peter Pan is chock-full of harmful colonial messaging like that. Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Doolittle books were so racist that publishers in the 1980s had to choose between cutting out the worst passages or banning the book entirely. Keep the wacky animals, but maybe skip the part where Doolittle helps an African prince bleach his skin so he can marry a white woman, yeah?
It didn’t stop with the end of the Victorian era, of course. While books like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is, in my opinion, a minefield of racial slurs and offensive dialect, more recent children’s books aren’t off the hook.
Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory originally featured African pygmies in the role of the Oompa Loompas. Dahl revised his work ten years after publication to turn them into the orange creatures we’re more familiar with. However, their essential character as happily enslaved workers doesn’t change.
J.K. Rowling’s recent public commentary has caused many of us to turn a more critical eye on the world of Harry Potter. As many others have pointed out, her depiction of goblins as hook-nosed bankers echoes harmful rhetoric about Jewish people. In Tolkien, dark-skinned characters are typically evil, while light-skinned characters are the heroes. It’s something that readers–especially young, especially white–barely register.
Before Girl Power
Sexism and misogyny abound in classic children’s books as well. I cherish much of Anne of Green Gables, but Lucy Maud Montgomery’s ideals of womanhood leave me cold. Many of the books I grew up on limit female characters to being princesses or mothers. The heroines are paragons of femininity. The women who don’t conform are either comic relief or villains.
Take the Nancy Drew mysteries. Nancy is privilege personified, and the books take every opportunity to reinforce the idea that Nancy is the ideal girl by pointing out the flaws in her friends. While Nancy is feminine, her female friend George is an athletic tomboy. Where Nancy is slim, her other bestie Bess is “plump.” And yes, the books have plenty of racist and classist moments, too.
The wheel is (slowly) turning to make children’s literature more diverse, inclusive, and respectful. Instead of only reading the so-called classics we grew up on, there are countless alternatives without the toxic baggage. I’m not advocating that we scrub our library shelves clean of anything that might be offensive. But maybe shelve all the old colonialist tomes and regressive, racist fairy tales in their own section, a little out of the way or higher up. Free the space they once occupied for modern, vibrant kids stories instead.
And if you do decide to revisit a childhood favorite with a young person, maybe read it yourself first. You might be horrified at how much you’d forgotten about it.