Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Let it go at a raised eyebrow...

I expect you all read last month about the Congolese man who is trying to get Tintin in the Congo banned in Belgium, where the cartoon originated. Tintin's black sidekick is seen as stupid and without qualities, Bienvenu Mbutu is quoted as saying, it makes people think that blacks have not evolved.

My immediate reaction was that if anyone's world vision is founded on a cartoon created in 1929, there is nothing to be done for him. We have had this attempt to obliterate all traces of historical political incorrectness before - for instance, in The Dam Busters, a film made in 1955, the unit's mascot dog is called Nigger, as it was in real life. When the film was shown on ITV in 1999 and 2001, the name was bleeped out. In America, the dog in the film is now Trigger.

Enid Blyton has suffered similar censorship, with the baddie golliwog excised and a black chum inserted in Noddy's adventures. I find this extreme sensitivity over the attitudes of a bygone age in just the one area, racism, a little odd. Other lapses according to modern tastes go uncriticized.

If I were as touchy about slights to women in different centuries' fiction, I'd never stop tutting. One of my favourite eyebrow-raisers is in Stella Gibbons' The Bachelor, set during WW2, and published shortly afterwards. The heroine accidently runs over a man's foot, and when he casts aspersions on her ability behind the wheel, Alicia's idea of a retort is to say, Actually, I don't drive as badly as most women. That passed for a spirited comeback in 1948, I suppose.

I think we need to accept that novels are of the time they were written, and are all the more interesting because of it. Michelle Magorian's vapid depiction of WW2 in Goodnight Mister Tom has none of the authenticity of fiction actually written at the time, in part because it incorporates modern sensibilities.

And remember, aspects of our writing are certain to be similarly disapproved of in 50/100 years' time - in ways we cannot begin to imagine.


  1. You make a good case. I find it's the sexism in old stories that is hardest to deal with. It reminds me too much of what it was like when I was growing up.

  2. Hi

    It's why they are still being bought in their millions that bothers me!

    Aren't there other more contemporary books of this ilk - adventure comic novels for kids - being written and sold??

    Come on kids writers and publishers - get with it and flood the market and make them best sellers so it'll outsell tin tin!!


    take care

  3. Excellent post Lexi. Nothing gets me more than mixing in modern sensibilities with the bygone era. It is what it is. Or was. We learn from it and move on. No era had a claim on being perfect in kindness, tolerance, wisdom, and intelligence. Not even ours.

  4. Fairyhedgehog, I have to admit to enjoying the sexism in old books - it's amusingly absurd.

    Kitty, you are not to be horrid about Hergé. I love the Tintin books, especially Snowie, and they are so good they deserve to still be read today. My daughter had them all, without ill effect.

    Karen, yes, we are far from perfect. What about factory farming, the plight of the tiger, and our reckless consumption of fossil fuels - and that's just for starters?

  5. What I love is that no-one from the cat world is complaining about the highly evolved talking dog in the picture you chose, Lexi! It implies that dogs are superior without ever showing the equal, although less vocal, talents of the feline race. A travesty!

  6. That's a point, K - I wonder how Kitty missed that one...

    Snowie's talking French, too, when in our books he speaks English. A bilingual dog; impressive.

  7. Well said, Lexi! I was horrified when I read that news story.

    To my mind, this kind of hypersensitivity displays the very attitude it purports to protest about. I doubt if there'd have been any outcry over a stupid white sidekick.

    We will know that we are truly rid of racism (and other forms of discrimination) when things like this are seen as amusing curiosities of a bygone age rather than objects of protest.

  8. This is a fascinating subject.

    My daughters love the old Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner cartoons. They asked me the other day if any more would ever be made. I had to say no, or if they did, they would not be as good as the old ones, because new cartoons have nothing like the same level of violence. And the funny violence is the whole point of the story.

  9. Botanist, our weird attitudes re race are one of the things generations to come will wonder at, I'm sure. I never fill in those bureaucratic forms about race on principle: we should all be treated equally, and there's an end of it.

    Gary, that does seem odd, given the extreme violence found in adult films that all too many children have access to. There's a lot of stuff I avoid because I know I haven't the stomach for it.

  10. I agree on all points, Lexi.

    Love Tintin, think older books should be read in the context of their times, hate violent images of any sort and will avoid with hands over eyes, or cushions over head or not indulging the book/movie/news-story at all.

    Thoroughly enjoy all your blogs . . . especially the diary one from a while back. Since I have just completed The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, journals have taken on a whole new light. A light which is diverting me from the true purpose of trying to write a sellable fantasy. Cheers and keep blogging.

  11. Hi mesmered, thanks for dropping by.

    I haven't come across The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, though I much enjoyed The Pillow Book of Eleanor Bron, which I think may have been inspired by it.

    I've never kept a diary blog - unless you mean my rocking horse blog - because it would either be discreet and dull, or frank and all too interesting...