Saturday, May 30, 2009

Censoring Dr. Doolittle

One of the happy surprises from the last few months has been seeing my five year old teach herself to read. She is sounding out every sign she sees, playing Starfall, and grabbing books. As a voracious reader myself, it is fun to share some of my old favorites with her. Until I start overthinking it...

While some lament how much things have changed, the truth is that there is a lot of stuff, from violence to racism, in older books, cartoons, etc. I know some parents who would never think twice about sharing the classics with their kids. After all, they were exposed to it, and they turned out fine, right? Others don't allow it at all, and some allow it but are careful to talk about it afterward. I am not sure where I stand.

I let the kids watch things like Tom and Jerry, Spiderman and His Amazing Friends, and other stuff with fantasy violence. Part of that is because Carlos enjoys it with them, part of it is because it is so far removed from reality, and because it is easy to model and explain that we don't hit people over the head with hammers/web them/fight with light sabers, etc.

Racism is a different issue, though. I cringe each time Tom and Jerry shows an overweight African American woman in garish clothes screaming, the only way she is ever depicted. And, while I loved the imagination of Hugh Lofting's Dr. Doolittle books (never cared for any of the movies particularly, either the Rex Harrison or the more recent ones), I wonder about sharing them with Ariana right now.

I first read them when I was six, and I remember being confused at the depiction of the African prince, who was not only rather dimwitted, but also thought himself ugly because of his dark skin, eyes and hair. He wanted to be handsome, which meant that he should be blond and have light skin and eyes. I didn't understand why that would be better looking.

By the time I was nine or ten, I was aware that society in general seemed to agree that blondes had more fun. It wasn't just Barbie-beauty. Even though I have light skin and green eyes, my little sister and cousin, both lovely girls with gorgeous blonde hair, got frequent comments on how pretty their hair was. Nobody said much about my rather boring brown hair. Now lest this get into a wailing lament for poor little me, I can say no one ever tried to make me feel bad about my looks, and certainly not my race.

Yet, if I, being white, felt that way, what about girls who fit the Dr. Doolittle definition of ugly? Well-publicized research shows that girls of all ethnic backgrounds considered white dolls to be prettier than dolls with darker skin/hair colors. It isn't just concern about how my daughter will view others, but also about how she will view herself.

I believe that ultimately, my children will learn the values that our family holds and see every ethnicity as beautiful. I don't worry that they will tell racist jokes, use derogatory names for people of other backgrounds or engage in obvious racism. Still, I am aware that it is subtle and still ubiquitous in our society, despite all the positive changes since my own childhood.

Which brings me back to my dilemma. I love classic children's literature, but am uncomfortable with many depictions of minorities. Even my beloved Anne of Green Gables books are full of slams against French Canadians. Native Americans are also portrayed according to stereotypes in many older children's books. Probably most of the books I read growing up have some form of it, just because of the times in which they were written. Emilie Loring's books, while not precisely kids' lit, are full of racism and classism--earlier books even use the n-word.

I am confident that Ariana will be able to read and enjoy many of these books, and discard the racist messages in them. I just don't know when she would be ready to do that. So, should I censor her reading material? To what degree, and for how long? I still don't know, but I am interested in your thoughts and experiences.


Polly said...

I hadn't thought of this issue yet,mostly b/c we are not at this point (we're almost 2!!). I haven't read the Dr Doolittle books. In general perhaps it would depend on her age and the content. it could be a life lesson--reading the book and then talking to you about the content...where you can sort of 'correct' the misconceptions and turn it into a lesson unto itself. at the same time, she's pretty young!!!

The ArtsyMama said...

The other night on The Daily Show with John Stewart, there was the discussion of how they republished Mark Twain's book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn - taking the N-word out and replacing it with slave. The commenter's point was, that by doing that we were ignoring our history and trying to make it seem "nicer" then it was. He also felt slave wasn't much of an upgrade and was a lie because Jim was no longer a slave at that point in the story. My plan - and we are not there either at 10 months - is to read it and talk about it. History is important no matter how ugly.

dulce de leche said...

Great point, Artsymama. I don't support the censorship in the Twain books. Some of the more implicit forms of racism are harder to address than the explicit ones, IMO. It gives me a greater responsibility to address them, because they might not come up as easily.