Dr. Seuss isn’t “cancelled”

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Emerson Slomka discusses the controversy surrounding beloved children’s author Dr. Seuss.

EMERSON SLOMKA

Dr. Seuss Enterprises has announced that they will cease publication of six Dr. Seuss books due to their insensitive portrayal of racial caricatures, elaborating that “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” This decision was made last year, and publisher Random House Children’s Books has released a statement saying that they respect the decision made by Seuss’s estate.

According to a 2019 study published in St. Catherine University’s Research on Diversity in Youth Literature journal, out of 50 Dr. Seuss books examined, 45 characters of color were identified, with 43 being offensive caricatures of Asian people, and the remaining two being offensive caricatures of Black people. No positive (or even neutral) depictions of people of color were identified.

This, however, didn’t stop Conservative media from immediately lashing out. “The cancel culture is canceling Dr. Seuss,” said Brian Kilmeade, host of Fox & Friends. “Biden CANCELS Dr. Seuss” read a DailyMail headline. While the topic certainly makes for the perfect “left-wing PC culture gone too far” narrative, it simply isn’t accurate.

Dr. Seuss hasn’t been cancelled whatsoever – his estate has decided to withdraw from publishing six (out of the over 60 children’s books he had published) books featuring racist caricatures. This decision was not forced – it was an internal decision. As for President Biden “cancelling” Dr. Seuss? President Biden’s “Read Across America Day” statement didn’t mention Dr. Seuss. It may be a tradition-defying omission, but hardly a cancellation.

This isn’t the first innocent occurrence this week that right-wing media has overblown in order to further their agenda. Last week, Hasbro announced that the Mr. Potato Head brand was being rebranded to Potato Head – an understandable decision, given that they produce more than one variation of the Potato Head character. Despite elaborating that the Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head toys would be produced as normal, right-wing news outlets began to report that Mr. Potato Head had gone “gender neutral,” with Rep. Matt Gaetz referring to it as “America’s first transgender doll.”

Dr. Seuss books will continue to be some of the most easily-accessible children’s literature, and Dr. Seuss will likely continue to be a celebrated figure – just with the recognition that celebrated figures are often complex people.

Dr. Seuss (named Theodor Geisel) had a long and often contradictory history with the subject of race. In his early years as an artist, Geisel depicted anti-black and antisemitic caricatures in his cartoons as a student at Dartmouth College, often using racial slurs in his work. However, it seems that time brought about a radical shift in Geisel’s thinking.

In World War II, Geisel began to publish political cartoons, producing over 400 cartoons for left-leaning newspaper PM. Works included a cartoon of a woman in a shirt reading “America First” reading a book entitled “Adolf the Wolf” to two children with the caption “…and the Wolf chewed up the children and spit out their bones … but those were foreign children and it really didn’t matter.” There was also a comic in which Uncle Sam removes the “racial prejudice bug” from a man’s brain, subtitled “What This Country Needs Is a Good Mental Insecticide.”

Geisel, while far from exemplary, was willing to re-examine his views and evolve. Shouldn’t his library reflect this, even posthumously? The story of Dr. Seuss is a prime example of how people can change over time – the same person who drew minstrel-esque caricatures of Black people would go on to write The Sneetches decades later, which is celebrated as a tale of tolerance and diversity. While we can certainly celebrate the end result, perhaps we shouldn’t do the same with the former.