Archive for January 28th, 2008

January 28, 2008

Some thoughts on Fairytales and Nursery rhymes and politicizing children’s literature

The discussion in the comments at Krish Ashok’s blog got me thinking about this. In his post he referred briefly to “politically correct” nursery rhymes, and some of the commentors expressed their opinions of the idea. A few (unconnected to each other) thoughts:

1. Baa baa rainbow sheep is a hilariously bad idea. It does not scan. It is quite odd when visualised (though I may be prejudiced in saying this – there are references to striped and spotted goats in the Bible, aren’t there? That Jacob creates through divinely inspired selective breeding?) Whoever came up with it seems to think “black” has political connotations but “rainbow” does not (either that or they have a very odd notion of normalising homosexuality). Sheep of indeterminate colour? Neutral beige? (If you got rid of the completely unnecessary “baa baa” this would sound fine).

2. Most of the time when people talk of “reworked”, “politically correct” tales/rhymes/songs disparagingly, they’re taking for granted the existence of an “original” version (the version they grew up with, of course) that fell perfectly formed from the sky but now has been profaned by this modern belief that children’s stories are, you know, politically relevant. Which is rubbish, of course, and if you’re interested enough in the history of fairytales or nursery rhymes you can trace them back, and they do change over time (I used to think modern fairytales were watered down versions of Grimm’s. Only as an adult did I learn how much watering down the Brothers Grimm had done themselves), and they changed because the world around them changed, and if that’s not political I don’t know what is.

Also, lots of fairytales have had very visible morals, and the morals are not always fluffy, context-free things like “be nice to everyone”. Witness the much sexualized Perrault “Red Riding Hood” (don’t have sex, girls! With wolves, or anyone. Don’t talk to strange men, and don’t wear bold colours.) – How on earth is that not politicized when removing the golliwogs from Enid Blyton is?

3. Earnest EngLit students (myself included) often focus too much on these aspects of children’s literature – where do they come from? What did they originally mean? And so on, and completely ignore the fact that they’re not just about indoctrinating/twisting innocent young minds (hah) but they’re part of children’s earliest encounter with language and sound and rhythm, and all those things are probably more important. (If you can see literature for children only as indoctrination, I suppose at some point you’d become one of those people who thinks the gay penguin book would cause ‘rampant’ homosexuality).

4. There’s this bizarre argument that since children aren’t aware of the potential offensiveness of what they may read that it doesn’t matter. I’m not saying this. I remember sitting through a seminar on children’s literature in my first year of college as two of my seniors clutched their pearls and asked us if we were not shocked, shocked at the idea of little children reciting rhymes about the Black Death. I was unmoved – unless you’re telling them where it came from (and there’s an interesting little area- what if you did?) I can’t see why it would matter. But this is because said children would be unlikely to meet people for whom the Black Death was an emotional issue unless some serious time travel occurred. On the other hand, it’s very possible for children to pick up certain attitudes about things like class and race and gender and sexual orientation that might later lead to great awfulness since these things continue to be real issues.

5. I remember someone on a messageboard I used to read complaining that everything nowadays was so PC that books about mothers who baked cakes were practically taboo.
I’m not sure how far this is true, since the vast majority of the books I read (for children or otherwise) stick to traditional class and gender roles.

6. Rewritings of fairytales, nursery rhymes, etc are far more interesting to adults since we can see what ideas are being adapted/reversed. The PL is currently pleasing me by reading Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. Then there’s the marvellous “Snow, Glass, Apples” by Neil Gaiman. And lots more.

7. I wonder if the people who dislike PC rewrites enjoyed Shrek?

8. Gak, this is a ridiculously long post.