Why imagery in children’s media is consequential

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Salvatore Ambrosino

What amount of reconciliation should be offered to the past? 

Last month, six Dr. Seuss books, most notably “And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street” and “If I Ran the Zoo,” were removed from publication because of their racist imagery. 

To some, the cost of the cancellation of the books is somewhat gratuitous, lacking good reason, or unwarranted, 84 years after publication by Vanguard Press. The “Chinaman” who wore his eyes at a slant and the Africans depicted on the island of Yerka have already been exposed to generation after generation of learning children as stereotyped, worse yet primitive, peoples. 

“‘Cancel culture’ thrives only in a society deprived of forgiveness,” writes undergraduate research fellow at Hillsdale College Trevor Vogel in the Wall Street Journal. “Culture warriors intent on canceling ‘problematic’ public figures enforce a strict, ever-lengthening law of language and behavior without offering any means of reconciliation.”

Though a bit misguided, Vogel has a point. Cancel culture on internet spaces like Twitter, noble in the cause of purging social media of racial insensitivity, is deliberately cold in its approach, often offering no roads to reconciliation. But does this aspect alone make it wrong? What, exactly, would it mean or look like to reconcile the racist legacy left by an author who died in 1991? Since objectively more problematic books like, for example, Hitler’s Mein Kampf are not being tossed into city bonfires, one might struggle to realize what ends banning the sale of a children’s book on sites like eBay are to.  

“Images are important, and they help to shape children’s understanding of the world,” children’s author, children’s media expert and Communications professor at Florida Southern Dr. Jobia Keys said. “Children’s media is riddled with racial stereotypes.” 

From the Arabian city of Agrabah in Disney’s Aladdin, Jasmine, in 1992, made her debut as Disney’s first colored princess. Until then, fairytales promised love stories to little girls through exceptionally twee distillations of only white princesses. Jasmine gave a mainstream reason for little girls of color to look into their vanity mirrors and believe they, too, could be beautiful, like the other beloved princesses.

“These pervasive images perpetuate one-dimensional ideas of what [different aspects of the world] look like,” Keys said. 

One does not, like a child, delve into the controversy of Mein Kampf without having any previous context of the world around them. The same cannot be said about those who typically read Seuss. His depictions of other cultures, people, are detrimental to his audience, children and their understanding of the real world. And the children of Seuss’s audience do not—frankly, cannot—categorize the historical value of the literature from their colourful, silly, blithe worlds, of which tend to inhabit their imaginations. 

“The types of depictions in ‘And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street’ and ‘If I ran the Zoo’ perpetuate cultural stereotypes,” Keys said. “For example, a stereotypical image of an Asian man (colored yellow) wearing a douli hat, geta sandals on his feet, holding a bowl of rice with large chopsticks is featured in ‘And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street’.” 

The text in the book reads, “A Chinaman who eats with sticks.” 

“Perhaps a child might read this, see the image, and think all Asian people dress like this and eat with chopsticks,” Keys said. “It can be dangerous when entire groups of people are reduced to stereotypes.”

The stereotype of African primitivism is an especially heinous one. Portrayed by the illustrator Seuss, the Africans of Yerka wear grass-skirts and sticks with their hair high in braids and chimp-like facial structure. Children, who all the time know no better, might grow up believing that this depiction had truth behind it. Perceiving Africans and Africa as lesser, from kindergarten, breeds, although little, imperialist thinkers.

“It is important, when discussing one’s legacy, to consider the full picture,” Keys said. Of course, Seuss’s authorship extends an era before his work for children and well-known liberal attitudes, illustrating countless racist advertisements for pesticides, insulting Africans and people from the Middle Eastern region.

So what amount of reconciliation can be offered to the racist legacy of authors whose offenses are ex-post facto, if any at all? Should racist media serve as only the artifacts of a bygone society, we certainly do not let this media entertain or teach our children.  

“The more we raise the bar of decency in our society, the less racism, sexism, xenophobia, transphobia, and other forms of oppression will be tolerated,” Keys said. 

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