Do You Read 'Problematic' Books to Your Kids?

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Illustration for article titled Do You Read Problematic Books to Your Kids?

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To understand the often unspoken depth with which we were raised in a sexist and racist society, one needs only to become a parent and decide it would be fun to experience some of our favorite books, movies, or cartoons from our childhood with our kids. Suddenly it’s abundantly clear that we didn’t grow up reading books like Ada Twist, Scientist and watching shows like Odd Squad, both of which are excellent and feature strong, intelligent female characters and characters of color. No, we watched Looney Tunes and classic Disney movies with their racist undertones, and read fairy tales in which every damsel is in distress and in need of a strapping young prince to save her.

When we read and watch these things decades later, with an adult perspective that is, hopefully, more discerning, we realize how incredibly problematic they are and how they plant the seeds of gender and racial stereotypes at such a young age. So, then, we’ve got three choices. We can say, “Ah well, I turned out fine and they will, too,” and let them have at it, uncensored and without explanation. (Least-preferred, obviously.) We can ban all of it altogether. (Knowing they might find it on YouTube eventually.) Or we can do what Emma Brockes describes for The Guardian as “live-editing:”

These are the tangents and asides, but there is a swifter set of interventions executed at the level of reflex. In Curious George, all the nurses are female and the doctors are male, gender allocations which I instinctively reverse. In Snow White, it’s a question of how we indicate value. “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest —and smartest!—of them all”, while in Charlotte’s Web, some fancy footwork is required to get around the fact that 8-year-old Fern puts on a dress for the fair because boys might be there.

The motherlode, of course, is Roald Dahl, whose brilliance at engaging young kids is in proportion to the amount of work you have to do on the fly to update him. I don’t mind violence in children’s books; the sudden deaths please the crowd and are bracingly uncondescending. He hates fat people, however—particularly fat women, or perhaps women in general; the aunts in James and the Giant Peach are a pair of “ghastly hags” (in my version “terrible people”).

I had a similar experience with the original Curious George, which was published in 1941. Basically all the characters are (white) males, we identify policemen as either being “thin” or “fat,” and everybody smokes a pipe—including George. I’d read it aloud a few times, wondering where all the women were, explaining why smoking is bad, and skipping the words “thin” and “fat” entirely, before finally “losing” the book so I wouldn’t have to read it anymore.

Sometimes I’ve used these books and shows to illustrate what not to do, how not to describe someone, or to talk about stereotypes and why they are unfair and untrue. Other times, I’ve simply banished them completely. Reading Brockes’ piece made me curious how other parents handle stories like these.

So, tell us in the comments: Do you read these sorts of problematic books, and watch problematic movies and TV shows with your kids? And if you do, do you “live edit” as you go?


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