Thursday, March 04, 2021

If I Ran the SeussCo

So I kind of want to talk about the Dr. Seuss thing--with the Seuss Foundation discontinuing six books that they deemed to be racially insensitive--but the problem is, there are just so many right-wing culture-warrior shitheads, and it's hard to have a conversation without feeling like you're in some way engaging with them.  So let's just let it be noted that they are arguing in one hundred percent bad faith, they don't actually care even a tiny bit about Seuss other than this providing them with a convenient cudgel, they'd almost certainly never even heard of any of the books being banned, and that, really, they suck in every way.  I don't care what they say, as indeed nobody should.  They can go straight to heck.  Though I should also say that I'm not a fan of scornful liberals dismissing the books tout court on the basis of their newly-discovered principle that Dr. Seuss sucks.  Much less people who note that they've never heard of the books in question, as if that has anything to do with anything.  A pox on both yer dumb ol' houses!

I was a big fan of Dr. Seuss books as a child, (and still am), and I was very familiar with four of the ones on the list (I missed out on Scrambled Eggs Super, which is too bad, since it's pretty great; and I'd never even heard of The Cat's Quizzer until now).  Both the drawings and the rhymes (which always perfectly scan) are just so great.  I'm probably a rare breed in that I've actually purchased his books as an adult, for my own consumption.  First, I just want to do something that's not related to my main point but which personally I can't not do, and that is to defend On Beyond Zebra.  When I saw that it was there I thought, huh.  I loved the hell out of that book.  It's not inconceivable that there's something bad there that I just didn't notice as a younger and less aware person.  So I went back to it, and...well, there's only one page that could possibly have bothered them, and it is this one:

I mean...come on.  I will do my best to listen with an open mind if you want to explain to me why this is offensive, but you're going to have an uphill battle convincing me.  I think you would have to try very hard to be offended by this.  And two of the other books, McElligot's Pool and Scrambled Eggs Super, have similar sorts of images as their only sins: people who are definitely coded as being non-white, but who aren't any sort of racial caricatures.  Suffice to say, I do think that taking these three out of circulation was a pretty big overreaction, and I wish they hadn't done it.  It's probably telling that the children's literature expert interviewed here doesn't even mention these three.

Well, of course, this is just futzing around along the edges.  The real issue is three images, one from And to Think that I Saw it on Mulberry Street and one from If I Ran the Zoo.  If not for these, I doubt this whole incident would have even happened.  I think what it must have been was, people complained (justifiably) about these images, and that made the Seuss people super-paranoid about the depiction of any character who could be considered "ethnic."  You've probably seen them, but for reference:


YIKES.  I do not care to defend these.  But here's my issue: people are calling these books racist, but I don't think that's really true: rather, they're books that feature several incidental pieces of racist imagery.  There's no ideological racism here.  These aren't The Turner Diaries for Kids.  "Semantics," you shout at me.  But is it?  If these books were trying to convey a racist message--or, I suppose if the incidental racism were pervasive enough to drown out anything else--it would be impossible to enjoy or appreciate them.  But that's not the case: some ninety-five-plus percent of the content is totally inoffensive, and a lot of it, in fact, is really great stuff.  So I feel it's sort of a quandary: would I want to expose my hypothetical children to these three images?  Clearly not (I was, and I turned out okay, for certain values of "okay," but that's neither here nor there)--not unless I thought they were mature enough to talk to about these things and why they're not considered acceptable today.  So if a children's book isn't appropriate for children, why should it stay in print?  But...these are also works of art, dammit.  They shouldn't just be dismissed like that.  I find the "it's a private company; they have the right to do what they want" argument really disingenuous.  I mean, yes, that statement is true--but do you think all art should only be available according to the whims of corporate boards, or just the stuff that you personally don't care about?  But if you don't want to give them to kids, and there are very few adults buying these things for personal consumption (me notwithstanding)...augh!  You can perhaps see how it's a problem.

I've thought about similar issue re insensitive aspects of old Disney comics, of course.  What seems to be the consensus that we've hit upon there is that it's okay to print these things, as long as it's in higher-end books generally aimed at an older audience, with disclaimers in the front.  That's fine, but Disney comics are perceived as more of an all-ages thing, whereas Seuss really isn't, so I don't know if that works.

Honestly, I think the best solution is to just make minor revisions to the books.  Use the pejorative "bowdlerize" is you must, but as I said, we're only talking about a tiny percentage of the material, and nobody reads these books because they're looking for racism.  It would be fine.  You will always be able to find the originals online if you want to see what you're "missing."  I really wonder how the culture warriors would react to that.  Currently, they can just barf out a lot of abstract nonsense about censorship and cancel culture and stuff, but what if they actually had to specifically defend that image of African natives?  Would they back away, or would they go all-in, damn the torpedoes?  There was a time when I would've thought the former, but given the level of T****ian radicalization they've undergone...who knows?

13 Comments:

Blogger Pan Miluś pontificated to the effect that...

You are not the only adult who buys Seuss stuff for pleasure :(

Damn, this makes me sad. Seuss was a gigantic infuluance on me - I learn about writing in rhymes, world play, word formation and yes even the basic english from his works. I think that the guy was a genius and an wordsmith artist...

(It is however sad only few of his books where published in Poland as some are conisder impossible to transalte)

As much I understand you are not a fan of the phrase "cancle culture" I do thik it is an issue... Don't get me wrong - there are some cases where I think it is legit (I use to have a big crush on Gina Carano but some stuff she wrote where beyond any tolerance and unerstanding on my part) but we are more and more building a world where people feel more afraid to trully expres themself.

But that's at least trying to fix current day issue...

Where I see bigger problem is censoring wokrs of art or literature. ESPECIALY as a cartoon lover it pains me... but the more this thing is going on the more I don't think I have a clear awnser.

As you said - No one is buying them for racisim but for appriciation of the art.

There are movies in circullation which have very wrong things to say - "Triumph of the will" (which is 2 hours of Hitlers propaganda speachess) or "Birth of the nation" (which is pretty much a film about how muche KKK "kicked ass" - acording to the director) Yet, no one have problems since they are important cinematic works of art which are very important . Heck, one critic - I want to say it was Maltin - one said these movies are important movies as they try to "argue for evil".


My friend recently said about the "historic reaons/product of it time" argument "Well, why can't people simply learn history from the historic books? Why we need to look at this now?"

Well - I for once learned a lot about War War II from American point of view by watching WWII era cartoons. They realy said a lot not only what was going on (buying scrap metal) and the culture but what where people minds where at the time - but not by watching mentality of the character but by studing the mentality of people who made it.

TBC

4:36 PM  
Blogger Pan Miluś pontificated to the effect that...

Racism is actualy a good example. Do you know that there is a Betty Boop cartoon made only few years before WW2 started where she goes to Japan... and all stereotypes are soft at best. It's actualy a nice cartoon showcasing how lovley Japan and it's culture is and Betty (As an American representative) appriciating it and having fun with her japanese friends... WELL CUT few years later to a cartoon by THE SAME STUDIO and you have Popeye the sailor bashing Japanese all depicted as stereotypical "Japs" of the worst kind.

Heck, there is a Looney Tunes cartoons from few years BEFORE War War 2 where characters are in theater and watching news chronicles. At one point it say "EUROPEAN VACATION"... and it's shows Hitler chassing a jew with an ax! WOW! So people who made it actualy did known what is comming!?

This is just few basic examples but the point is - There is nothing that give you a better picture of time piriot then exploring this type of works - cartoons, comics and books (including childreen books)

There is a Tintin book title "Tintin in Congo"... Now it's still easy to buy in belgium since Europe is much more "easy" on political correctnes (For better or worse) and it's racist as f--. Long story short - Tintin goes to Congo (um spoiler?) and all natives are depicted as cowardly manchildreen who are helpless without the help of the heroic white boy... While I know there been some attemps to have the book ban Tintin is to big of a cultural icon there for these book to be cancled... I'm not sure do it have some sort of a warning or introduction at the moment but It's again - I don't think there is a better book showing the mind set of Belgian people during the colonisation times.

I don't read it and go "Hohohoho, this racism is funny" - I read it and go "Boy, this tells me show much of how Belgians additute toward thereir colonies". Long story I don't think works of creator who is an important mile stone as Seuss is should have his works removed for the sake of few pictures...

If I had to guess I woudn't say people runing the company did it out of principal but out of aniticiaption of possible poycot in current political climate. Which makes me sad :(

Let's hope for better times.

4:37 PM  
Blogger GeoX, who is here to stay, like it or not. pontificated to the effect that...

"Cancel culture" does have meaning in some circumstances, but the way right-wing culture warriors have latched onto it, it's just a nonsense buzzword. If a private company making a decision of what to publish based on current norms and standards constitutes canceling, then every culture around the world has been canceling non-stop as long as publishing has existed. I think in this case the publisher in question made some somewhat bad decisions, but the furor is basically just right-wingers trying to whip their base into a frenzy because they have nothing of substance to offer.

5:52 PM  
Anonymous EJM pontificated to the effect that...

Some time ago, I read that Dr Seuss was apparently in favor of Japanese-American internment during WWII (https://www.openculture.com/2014/08/dr-seuss-draws-racist-anti-japanese-cartoons-during-ww-ii.html). It was very yikes to me, but I figured, well, he was still anti-Hitler and anyway I am generally capable of enjoying art even if its creator is terrible. But of course if the problematic aspects are in the books themselves, it's a bit hard to say "Well, just ignore those parts..."
I think you're right that bowdlerization is the best option here. Ceasing to publish Dr Seuss books is terrible, but giving THAT kind of material to three-year-olds isn't something I really want to defend. Make sure that the big institutional libraries have copies of the originals, and then just Photoshop whatever needs redacting.
I am reminded of the reprint of 'The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle'. The publishers really didn't want to print certain passages about Bumpo the African Prince (...you can probably guess why), and talked it over with Hugh Lofting's son. The son eventually decided that what Hugh Lofting *would have wanted* would be a book that wasn't flagrantly offensive. Like you said, the book isn't A Racist Book; it is a book that has racist elements tangential to the author's actual artistic vision. Remove those elements, and the author's artistic vision is still intact.

10:02 PM  
Blogger Thomas pontificated to the effect that...

@ EJM: I agree that reworking the text + images seems the reasonable solution here. That may happen yet. Allowing these titles to go out of print will only increase the demand, which may eventually result in a re-release.

What baffles me is your suggestion that editors can just use Photoshop to alter the images to their liking. That seems barbarous. You'll need another artist to partially re-create Seuss's delicate illustrations! (Although Photoshop will still enter the picture at some point.)

1:51 PM  
Blogger GeoX, who is here to stay, like it or not. pontificated to the effect that...

I'll bet someone could turn the If I Ran the Zoo caricatures into generic Seussian fuzzy creatures and the guy in Mulberry Street into a racially unmarked person in a way that would fit in seamlessly with the original. You'd also have to tweak the text slightly, but no biggie (eg: "a speedy man who gets his kicks," "helpers who do what all others just can't").

2:08 PM  
Blogger Thomas pontificated to the effect that...

Note that a toned-down version of the "Chinaman" already exists. The illustration was altered to remove the "pigtail", his complexion changed from yellow to white and the text was emended to "Chinese man", as can be inferred from the image in this article:

https://vancouversun.com/entertainment/books/here-are-the-wrong-illustrations-that-got-six-dr-seuss-books-cancelled

Obviously, the result can still be considered culturally insensitive.

5:31 PM  
Blogger Pan Miluś pontificated to the effect that...

It was interesting to read about libaries that refuses to give away Seuss books...

Sort of makes you wonder what SeussCo is planing to do with all the copies of the books they removed from bookstores.

I sort of picture them standing with a sack full of Seuss books on edge on a snowy cliff listening to how people will react...

Just not sure what would however made their hearts grow three sizes in this scenario...?

...realisng that people are just as racist without the books...?

"Maybe racism - they thought - dosen't come from book store,
May this issue - perhaps - be complex far way more?"

7:01 PM  
Blogger Pan Miluś pontificated to the effect that...

This comment has been removed by the author.

7:10 PM  
Blogger Pan Miluś pontificated to the effect that...

"And what happened then?
Well on twitter they say,
Seuss estate hope in humanity,
shirk three sizes that day,

They wen't down the hill all gloomy,
pull the books from the sack,
"Take them all, cose at his point
We just don't give a fuck'

7:11 PM  
Blogger GeoX, who is here to stay, like it or not. pontificated to the effect that...

Come on, let's be fair: nobody is arguing or has ever argued that Dr. Seuss books make you racist. That's a pure strawman. The argument is that, in countless ways subtle and not so, the culture props up implicit white supremacist narratives, of which a racist caricature in a children's book is just one tiny example--more or less meaningless in itself, but cumulatively powerful. Getting rid of this specific thing is not in itself going to change the culture, but if people become more aware of such things and this awareness can reach critical mass, we can begin to alter the culture in a fundamental way and begin to get rid of these narratives. That's the argument, and it's not an unreasonable one.

12:27 AM  
Blogger Pan Miluś pontificated to the effect that...

So they are doing this as a signal to people "We are aware these are not Ok and we won't stand for it!" to make them more aware of the problem?


I like Whoopies take (I realy like watching the The View for political takes for some reason)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4p27LRSUJTE

Aside for being know in cartoon community for making introduction for problematic cartoons (Looney Tunes/Tom and Jerry) as well she wanted Disney to make "Song of the South" avelable and use Dumbo's Crows in merch. Whoopie is know for being very into history racist images and collecting diffrent objects depicting it (As she call it "Negrobilia") and I alway enjoy her take on these things...

Actualy it would be interesting if they release all of these books in some special one-volume edition (they are short anyway) and added some introduction so older people who want to still enjoy Seuss, want to explore and study or think they can explain it to kids can buy it.

Of all six "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street" is especialy uspeting to me since it was not only his first book but is consider an important mile stone in history childreen literature.

3:50 AM  
Blogger Pan Miluś pontificated to the effect that...

It is however interesting contrast that nobody is going after "Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose" for having ending that (SPOILER) involve "comical" death of most of the animal character hunt down by the hunter and hang on the wall as a "funny punch-line".

This is pretty grosome depiction for a childreen book (which I love BTW) but no one ever complains about it...

4:29 AM  

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