A Closer Look at Dr. Seuss

On March 2, 2021, the Associated Press announced that Dr. Seuss Enterprises would cease the production of six Dr. Seuss books due to the racist and insensitive imagery that appears in the stories. Unsurprisingly, this decision spurred many negative reactions that voiced their opposition and frustration to the news.  Some responses cited that people wanted to cancel Dr. Seuss, the decision mirrored book banning, and the decision was not necessary.  This story opens up a larger conversation surrounding complicity towards racist representations of minorities in the United States and how companies profit off these representations, but for now,  I wanted to take the time to counter some of the criticisms the story faced so far. The thoughts and opinions below my own thinking, and not that of Her Campus.

Below you will find a list of the titles that Dr. Seuss Enterprises will no longer produce and the reasons for the decision:

  • To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street
    • Anti-Chinese imagery
  • If I Ran the Zoo
    • Racist caricatures of people of color
  • McElligot’s Pool
    • Anti-Asian imagery
  • On Beyond Zebra!
    • Anti-Asian imagery
  • Scrambled Eggs Super!
    • Racist depictions of the Inuit people
  • The Cat’s Quizzer
    • Anti-Japanese depictions

First and Foremost, Dr. Seuss is Not “Canceled”

While researching this article, many of the people against this decision of ceasing the production of the six books used the term “canceled” to describe the decision. Canceled, or canceling someone/something, refers to the act of stopping all support for something or someone entirely that typically looks like boycotting works. On the surface, it may seem like because these books getting pulled from production could look like a cancellation, it 100% is not. According to the AP, Dr. Seuss remains the second richest dead person in 2020, second to Michael Jackson. Seuss “an estimated $33 million before taxes in 2020, up from just $9.5 million five years ago” (Pratt). Furthermore, only six of Seuss’s books out of over sixty works will get pulled from production, leaving the majority of the titles to continue getting bought and sold. Not only that, as of the time of this article’s writing, no new headlines emerged of other companies stopping the portrayal of Seuss’s work in pop culture. That means Freeform will still play How the Grinch Stole Christmas and all of its versions during its “25 Days of Christmas” celebration this Christmas and kids will still get to enjoy The Lorax on Earth Day. In fact, Dr. Seuss's sales soared since the announcement came out, so I do not see this decision will stop anyone from consuming Seuss works anytime soon. Especially since none of Seuss’s books got banned.

Pulling These Books from Production is Not the Same as Banning Books

Another argument raised in the wake of these announcements concerns the issue of banning books. As an English major myself who adores everything literary, banning books is a topic I get extremely passionate about. I believe that every literary work can serve a purpose beyond entertainment and escape from reality, whether it teaches us something important about history, introduces us to new ways of thinking, or gives readers a better understanding of a certain topic. That said, banning books takes the form of some form of higher authority, like the government, prohibiting the production of a book entirely and free access is no longer allowed by law. For context, only three books in the United States got banned since 1992 based on fraudulent information (The Fraudulent Mafia), the production of an unauthorized sequel (60 Years Later: Coming through the Rye), and the inclusion of classified information (Operation Dark Heart).

The last book to get banned in the United States came in 2010, Operation Dark Heart, and the author actually ended up releasing the memoir with the classified information redacted, so a version of it remains available. Furthermore, this title served as the only work to involve a government body, the Department of Defense, as the other two got handled by state courts. All this to say that the United States, at the government level, does not ban books often in the 21st Century. Of course, individual schools and libraries can attempt to pull certain titles from reading lists and their shelves, sadly this happens all the time, but even if these institutions succeed, the titles they prohibit will almost always remain available for purchase elsewhere.

Moving the conversation back to Seuss, none of the described book banning actions. The government did not approach Dr. Seuss Enterprise and force them to pull these six books from production. Nor will the government send teams out to round up all the copies of these books to destroy and delete the digital copies available online. Simply put, Dr. Seuss Enterprise made their own decision as a private company to pull these books from production based on the feedback given to them from teachers and academic specialists, and the titles already out in the world will remain available to audiences. Therefore, this situation does not resemble book banning in any capacity.

Changing the Stories Would Not Work, and Neither Would a Disclaimer

If Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced that they would change the imagery and storylines in the stories they will stop producing, it probably would not help and only create a different kind of negative response. In the wake of movements such as #BlackLivesMatter, many organizations opted for changing everything from NFL mascots to band names to names of famous syrup in the name of racial biases. These changes still spurred backlash, of course, because why change something that existed for so long already? Does it really matter? So, I do not think that changing the stories would have led to a much better response.

Another proposal that I first heard from Fox and Friends host Steve Doocy suggested that instead of pulling the books from production, insert a disclaimer as the book’s preface similar to how Disney+ did with some of their works that depict outdated and racist depictions of minorities. The Disney+ disclaimer reads:

This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now. Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it, and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together

This disclaimer by Disney+ remains a brilliant decision, but this decision would not work for books as well as it did for a streaming service for a couple of reasons.

For one, there is more choice in what movie a child or family watches at home meaning they can choose to watch it or not. With books, it gets a little trickier. Yes, a parent or guardian can choose not to purchase a book for their child, or suggest their child pick a different title, but that luxury may not get afforded in the classroom. Dr. Seuss’s books at their core get marketed for children, so it would make sense for a teacher to possess an arsenal of Seuss works to encourage their students to pick up reading. That said, the books offered in the classroom or library also may not get decided by teachers and librarians, but rather the higher levels of school administration. All that said though, this decision to pull the books from productions came from Dr. Seuss Enterprises, a private company, after listening to the feedback given by “audiences including teachers, academics, and specialists in the field as part of our review process” (Pratt). The company strives for the inclusion of children and families as part of their organization’s mission and ceasing production of the six books seemed like the best decision to make as a company. 

Furthermore, the disclaimer in the titles serves adults more than children, as children are not yet at the age or maturity to comprehend a topic as complex and serious as racism and the connotations that come with it. Discussions about racism should occur much earlier in our education system in ways that younger students can comprehend, but Dr. Seuss's books serve kids from kindergarten to about third or fourth grade. Even with a hypothetical disclaimer in place, not only would most kids not fully understand its connotation, it would not change how the books portray several minorities, including Chinese and Black people, in stereotypical ways and that could be how a child first see themselves in a piece of pop culture.

Representation Matters

As mentioned, Dr. Seuss's books serve young kids and can act as their first introduction to literature. As a white female, I saw myself everywhere growing up and there was no shortage of characters and historical figures that looked like me. Minority children on the other hand do not get to experience the same luxury. Too often, the history of non-white people gets glossed over in the core curriculum or taught as an elective that not everyone needs to take. There also exists a lack of positive representation for many minority groups in pop culture and books are no exception, even in children’s literature. Back in 2018, 50% (1,558) of children’s books produced that year contained white characters, and 27% (884) portrayed animals. At the lowest end of these statistics, only 23 books, 1%, of titles published in 2018 included American Indian/ First Nation characters (Stechyson). Not only do minority children get underrepresented, but when they do, sometimes they see characters who look like them portrayed as Seuss did.

Several of the Seuss titles pulled from production contain racist portrayals of Asians including To Think I Saw it on Mulberry Street and On Beyond Zebra!. Again, books like these get marketed towards children, and every child deserves to see themselves in a positive way in shows and movies they watch, when learning about history, and of course, in the books they read. Not only do these images not give a good representation for people of color, but it also reinforces stereotypes for other readers. Positive representations for every race and ethnicity go a long way in a child’s life, and I believe that Dr. Seuss Enterprises recognized that when they went ahead and pulled the titles from production.

In Conclusion

No one can deny that Dr. Seuss left a timeless mark on not just the literary world, but the entire world. His works entertained children and got them excited about reading while also introducing serious issues, like environmentalism in The Lorax, to kids in comprehensible ways. Dr. Seuss did a lot of great work in the name of literature, but that does not mean his work should not get held accountable in 2021. It can seem easy to say, “don’t buy the book if you don’t like it” or “who cares it’s just a book?”, especially as a white person in American society. However, that ignores the larger issue and conversation which remains that minorities in this country face racist representations of themselves bred in stereotypes that continue to divide our nation. Imagine the places our country could go where instead of brushing topics like this off as “not a big deal”, more people listened to the concerns and criticisms of things like the racism in Dr. Seuss's books from the people it directly affects.

 

Works Cited

Pratt, Mark. “6 Dr. Seuss books won’t be published for racist image”, Associated Press, https://apnews.com/article/dr-seuss-books-racist-images-d8ed18335c03319d72f443594c174513.

Stechyson, Natalie. “Kids Books Still Have A Lack-Of-Diversity Problem, Powerful Image Shows”, Huffington Post, https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/diversity-kids-books-statistics_ca_5d0bb0f8e4b0859fc3db38c3.