We all had books that we adored as kids. Whether it was marvelling at how a bathtub could possibly be attached to a broomstick in Julia Donaldson’s Room on the Broom, or enduring the Biff, Chip and Kipper series that many of us were forced to read in primary school, some of our favourite characters and fondest childhood memories have originated from reading.

But in recent years, an unprecedented number of children’s books have become victims of cancel culture. The Very Hungry Caterpillar, for example, has been accused of ‘promot[ing] childhood obesity’ and just last year, hundreds of alterations were made in the name of political correctness to Roald Dahl’s books. The word ‘fat’ was purged from all his novels, and women working as ‘cashier[s] in a supermarket or typing letters for a businessman’ in The Witches, have become ‘top scientist[s]’ or businesswomen.

The Tiger Who Came to Tea Controversy

Judith Kerr’s beloved The Tiger Who Came to Tea is no exception. Published in 1968, the book was recently labelled as ‘problematic’ by Zero Tolerance campaigner Rachel Adamson. For those who haven’t read it, the story follows a young girl called Sophie and her mother who try to accommodate a tiger that eats all the food in their house. The premise sounds innocent enough, but Adamson has condemned the ‘old-fashioned’ way in which women are portrayed in the novel.

Multiple pages allegedly show ‘outdated viewpoints and lifestyles,’ including a scene where the mother holds a broom whilst standing in the middle of a filthy kitchen, and another where the father returns home from work, briefcase in hand. These depictions, Adamson claims, compound negative gender stereotypes and present women in a submissive, subservient role. Dr Helen Adam from Edith Cowan University’s School of Education, Australia, makes a similar case, claiming that the book has ‘outdated viewpoints of masculinity and femininity.’ Dr Adam fears that the female characters in the book ‘promote[…] traditional … and stereotypical viewpoints of gender and gender roles,’ which could distort young girls’ self-esteem.

She isn’t entirely off the mark. Evidence shows that gender stereotyping in literature does affect children’s confidence and career aspirations. A 2018 Dublin Institute of Technology study became the first to investigate the effects of gender representation in kids’ books on young readers. It found that books greatly ‘contribute to children’s understanding of expectations associated with gender and shape the many ways in which they understand their place in society as girls and boys.’ The study further maintains that stereotypical depictions of women in children’s books ‘have implications for children’s construction of gender in early childhood.’ Even in the 21st Century, girls arguably continue to predominantly consume media that portrays them as wives and side characters.

Could Children’s Books Lead to ‘Rape and Harassment’?

Negative gender stereotypes in literature don’t just affect young girls and women. What is perhaps more concerning, Rachel Adamson argues, is the effect they can have on impressionable boys, possibly leading to more cases of ‘rape and harassment’ if they don’t see girls as their equals. However, this has yet to be proven. The media’s portrayal of women is likely to be one of many factors that could influence young boys’ behaviour. However, there is no concrete evidence to suggest that it will lead them to ‘become perpetrators of violence against women’ later in life — which is a very weighty claim to make.

While many support Adamson’s views, the Zero Tolerance campaigner has also received backlash, notably from Meghan Gallacher, the Scottish Conservatives’ spokesperson for children and young people. Gallacher argues it is unfair to criticise ‘publications from days gone by.’ And rightly so. The Tiger Who Came to Tea was published during the ’60s and naturally reflects the societal conventions of that time. The protagonist’s mother remains at home to cook dinner and look after the child because that is what most women did; with fewer than 5 per cent of housewives hiring paid help. No one is disputing the importance of positive female representation in literature. The Tiger Who Came to Tea may not be an empowering story in the modern sense precisely because Kerr never meant for it to be.

So rather than cancelling fifty-year-old books that show women in traditional gender roles that are still practised today, would it not be better to educate children on the conventions of the past? We cannot and should not erase history, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. Let children enjoy these classic stories, but make them aware of how society has progressed. As the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana said: ’those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ By encouraging children to read from a wide range of literature spanning the past and present, we give them access to more inclusive representation. This way, they can determine for themselves how attitudes have changed.

The Failings of the Modern Publishing Industry

While tastes and expectations have undoubtedly changed, we may also be looking at the issue from the wrong angle. Perhaps we should be scrutinising the failings of the modern publishing industry, rather than attacking stories published over half a century ago. Currently, just 41 per cent of children’s books in the UK have a female protagonist, and only a staggering 5 per cent have an ethnic minority one. A lack of diverse representation can be just as harmful as negative representation. Children will ultimately feel disappointed if they are excluded from mainstream media, as it sends girls and minority groups the message that people like them are somehow less worthy of being seen on the pages of a book. Trish Cooke, a Black British playwright and author of the Hairytales series, says she experienced this growing up. She argues that if marginalised groups are missing from children’s books ‘that’s saying [to children] they are not important enough to have stories about them … and I think for children to start thinking that they’re not important, that’s not good.’

Cancel culture is not the solution. Instead of condemning classical children’s books for being out of touch with modern ideas, the publishing industry should focus on promoting and providing a wider range of positive literature for children of all backgrounds to enjoy.

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