Dr. Seuss and Cultural Sensitivity

Saturday, March 2, is the NEA’s Read Across America Day, also known as Dr. Seuss Day.

I’ve been thinking a lot this year about Dr. Seuss, and not generally in a good way.

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For the last year or two, when reflecting on my writing voice and on my perceptions of what I’m entitled to, I’ve thought about a book I had as a child: “My Book about Me.” This book is a fill-in-the-blank set of questions about my likes and dislikes, places I have gone, people I have known.

On a personal level, this book is solipsistic: It is one of the keystones of the entitlement culture that we Generation Xers were raised in. It tells us that we’re all important enough to warrant a book about ourselves.

That in itself isn’t a terrible thing, but it’s a lazy autobiography. It’s a template: We’re all unique in the same ways. We’re not entitled to an autobiography because of the unique ways in which we’ve contributed to the world, we’re entitled to one simply because we ARE.

On a cultural level, this book reflects one of the two main criticisms that have gotten leveled at Dr. Seuss recently: It’s great for white boys. It’s okay for white girls. But the illustrations consistently erase children of color.

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Throughout Dr. Seuss’s books, protagonists are consistently shown as white. People of color are shown using cultural stereotypes: Asians with big teeth and glasses, Arabs riding camels, and so on.

Last week, I eulogized Peter Tork of the Monkees. However, the song he was probably best known for was “Your Auntie Grizelda.” That song appeared in the show with appalling, jaw-droppingly racist depictions of Asians.

That is an artifact of the time; Dr. Seuss’s casual racism is an artifact of the time. But it’s fair to ask: Now that our cultural willingness to accept those has shifted, what do we do about our artifacts?

Making matters worse is a recent analysis that argues, convincingly, that The Cat in the Hat is directly derived from blackface minstrelsy: The white gloves, the top hat, the goofy smile, the oafish recklessness… these are all trademarks of minstrel shows. “Cat,” for that matter, is Jazz Age slang for a man.

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My first reaction to this was to decide to get rid of Dr. Seuss entirely.

Last summer, the American Library Association renamed the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award because of complaints of how Wilder depicted characters of color: “Her works reflect dated cultural attitudes toward Indigenous people and people of color that contradict modern acceptance, celebration, and understanding of diverse communities.”

But this is related to another struggle: What do we do with art that was created by reprobates?

This has been explored with regards to actors who have committed sex crimes. For example, do we toss out “Fat Albert” and “Se7en” and “Rosemary’s Baby” because of the heinous acts of Cosby, Spacey, and Polanski?

When I recently posted lyrics from the band Brand New on my Facebook wall, a friend messaged me about Brand New’s lead singer Jesse Lacey. During Brand New’s peak in popularity, he was sending nude photos of himself and otherwise engaging in improper behavior with several teenage girls. I was aware of that fact, and I have been struggling with how to square that with how deeply many of Lacey’s lyrics speak to me about pain, depression, and remorse.

I think throwing out an artist’s opus because the artist has committed heinous acts, or because of problematic content, is a simplistic approach. In some cases, it may well be the best one, but as a universal power, it avoids a complicated conversation.

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When Warner Brothers decided to release box sets of Looney Tunes cartoons, they had a similar problem to the Cat in the Hat problem, although it was even more glaring. Some early Looney Tunes cartoons had blatant blackface characters, and many of its wartime cartoons had Japanese characters that were even more offensive than Dr. Seuss’s early propaganda drawings.

What the company chose to do was isolate the offensive cartoons as their own set, and give them a disclaimer. Whoopi Goldberg also explained that the videos were products of their time.

This is easier to do with Looney Tunes, which are enjoyed as much by adults for their nostalgia value as by children for entertainment. Indeed, many Looney Tunes cartoons make little sense to modern children, such as those that made fun of 1930s celebrities.

Another early cartoon that has a racism problem is Betty Boop. Max Fleischer created Boop to be caricature of white singer Helen Kane. It was only later that he discovered that Kane had stolen her act, wholecloth and without attribution, from black singer “Baby” Esther Jones.

Kane was undeniably guilty of cultural appropriation. But what about Fleischer? Did he have any reason to believe he was stealing from Jones? If so, what are we to do with Betty Boop, which generally appears to be racially innocuous (although note the blackface babies, for instance, starting three minutes into “Making Stars”)?

Like Looney Tunes, though, Betty Boop has wide appeal for adults. Dr. Seuss is predominantly for children. I do believe we need to be more cautious with what we provide children.

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I don’t have an answer for what you, having read all this, should do. My own child (age 9-nearly-10) is mostly past the prime Dr. Seuss age, and he was never particularly interested. A few weeks ago, we watched “BlackkKlansman” together, pausing throughout so we could discuss the racism; if he can handle that, he can handle a cultural discussion of “The Cat in the Hat.”

Right now, I’m inclined to put the Cat in the Hat, specifically, in the category of “wait until they’re older.” It’s plausible that Fleischer was innocent in stealing a black woman’s act, but it’s not plausible that Seuss was innocent in creating a blackface minstrel for the children’s audience.

But for the rest of Dr. Seuss’s books? I think a combination of proper vetting and discussion is the best strategy. Point out that the caricatures of people of color throughout his books is not considered appropriate.

Or just find other options. Dr. Seuss was instrumental to the creation of a genre, but there are plenty of other books available now. We don’t have to censor an author; we can just skip over them, and fail to center them when making choices. We don’t have to judge others for their reading choices; we can simply and confidently make our own.

Originally published on The Good Men Project.

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