Revisiting Willy Wonka’s Racism
Hi, in the background you might hear the sounds of the the ongoing “power tool and mariachi polka on the radio” festival. That’s live radio!
It’s quite a coincidence that, right on the heels of my Moment of Truth about world leaders dissolving in bathtubs, a kerfuffle has arisen about making the language in Roald Dahl less offensive to today’s children. Or their legal guardians. I’m not big on censoring the past. Atrocities of yore should be preserved in museums for study, like the flag of the Confederacy or Robespierre’s final lobster bib. But in this case I agree with making Dahl sanitary for today’s little baby liberal snowflakes. Hear me out.
Parents are raising their children to frown on bullying. No one ever liked bullies, and we had plenty of bullies when I was growing up. Had there been the weight of common moral discourse on the victims’ sides our lives might have been a little less horrible. Some of us might even have enjoyed athletics instead of being bullied out of participating in them. I myself might have been less of a bully about the things I’m a bully about. Then again, I might not be as attracted to women who resemble Irish bullies in the Little Rascals, which would be a minor tragedy.
Aside from the tight controls imposed on a child’s time and location – and of course the mass shootings, especially in schools – almost everything I perceive of how children are being raised seems better today than when Roald Dahl was writing endearingly about transporting pygmies in crates with holes in them – I’ll explain in a second. Progressive values seem to have made it a better time to grow up than when I did. Yes I resent it, because I was raised to resent first and feel empathetic joy only after a period of forcing myself to swallow my gigantic, jagged pride.
Roald Dahl has been criticized for his old-school social attitudes since his writing was first published, and his already published work was edited for unpleasant content – by his own hand, no less – back in the seventies, so this is not new. When the NAACP first called out the racism in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he said he felt they were acting like Nazis. He had to be convinced by a concerned literary friend to make a big change. It’s a good thing she prevailed on him to realize that a British capitalist shipping Africans from their homes to live and labor in his factory was offensive rather than adorable. Dahl altered Charlie and the Chocolate Factory accordingly. And it wasn’t for the Gene Wilder movie. It was three years after that came out. It's called fixing it.
As I mentioned in the Moment of Truth, “Dissolving Leadership,” in original editions of the book, unlike in the movie, the Oompa-Loompas are portrayed by illustrator Joseph Schindelman as diminutive black Africans. They wear animal-skin mini-togas even in the chocolate factory, where they live and work and sing like happy little slaves, in an artificial wilderness-cum-Garden of Eden, having been rescued from jungle squalor by the white savior capitalist Wonka, and compensated for their labor with all the chocolate they could eat.
Yes, along with his racism, avowed antisemitism, and pro-colonial capitalist triumphalism, there was and remains plenty inherent in Dahl worth repairing. He was a weird and imaginative guy whose imagination somehow failed to foresee a world in which not all his readers would be white and English.
White, English, Church of England, upperclass, and sympathetic to the idea that British imperialism was a civilizing influence on the areas of the world from which it extracted wealth. He was slightly less enlightened in that respect than even Rudyard Kipling or Queen Victoria.
Dahl definitely intended the words “fat” and “ugly” to be derogatory and signify a lack of "good breeding," and if it allows more people to enjoy his work than ordinarily would have, other expressions can and should be found.
In James and the Giant Peach, after the untimely death of his parents, the relatives James has to live with are a species of "chavvy" class caricature that was always offensive in postwar 20th-century England. In the JK Rowling universe, incidentally, the lower-middlebrow muggle relatives who raised the orphaned Harry Potter were cut from the same tacky fabric. The nasty, rude, overweight, unattractive substitute family is a well-worn trope in these narratives of the orphaned Special Child. It’s like the way wicked stepsisters in countless fairytales lack the natural grace and innate etiquette of the heroine. It’s not unusual to find in Dahl equally disagreeable characterizations of women, other races, and working people.
Free speech absolutists complain about “sanitizing” and “bowdlerizing” his work. Hey, Shakespeare he ain’t. He was a festering pit of elitist garbage ideas. All right, so, a little like Shakespeare, but not canon. Generations haven’t committed his words to memory, thank Oberon. He could well use a delousing, never mind a sanitizing. Eff that guy. Clean up his retrograde bigotry and make his writing fit for human consumption.
When I was a kid it was very strange to me at first when the Gene Wilder movie came out, with its orange-skinned, jodhpur-wearing, Gilbert O’Sullivan-coifed Oompa-Loompas, because the edition of the book we read in school (I'm old) contained the "deepest darkest part of the African jungle where no white man had ever been before" origin of the Oompa-Loompas, who, it was vaguely hinted, were not only incredibly fond of chocolate, but might even have been partly made of it. I grew up just two miles north of Detroit, where race was not an issue one had no opinion on, even as a kid. I understood a bit even then why they'd excised the jungle caricatures for the movie, but only recently researched and found that Dahl himself had changed them a few years after the film’s release from chocolaty hobbits to some kind of golden-haired whimsical folk from an island somewhere in an absurdly named region of one of Earth’s oceans.
Yet even in this there’s a hint of xenophobia against rural Germanic/Scandinavians in his remedial caricatures. They smell a little like the murderous cultists in the movie Midsommar. His disdain for the Nordic via the Germans and their (imperialist) gluttony is understandable considering his childhood in the 1930s, but Augustus Gloop doesn't wear the allegorical significance as comfortably as he used to, and now reads as just the author saying mean things about a kid with an eating disorder.
The current discussion of Roald Dahl's unpleasant attitudes mostly ignores the 5 (at least) preceding decades of discussion of his unpleasant attitudes: about people of other genders, races, religions, economic classes, ethnicities, etc., and I don't understand why.
The guy was a cesspit, albeit an imaginative and now dead cesspit. Granted, this has everything to do with whatever Netflix deal his estate is getting ready to make, is in the process of making, or has already made. Well, I'd love for kids to read his work without absorbing their author's odious habits of judgment and without parents recoiling at how much nastier the books are than their screen versions.
Dahl really is a great storyteller, despite himself. In my opinion, though, these breaches of kindness are not the equivalents of Mark Twain's uses of the N-word in Huckleberry Finn, which elucidate, as far as Twain was able, something revealing about the United States slavers' argot that needs not to be hidden. The fact that the word strikes the present-day reader as even more offensive now underscores his purposes all the more boldly. Twain had his foibles as a social commentator, but he approached his society with an eye to inclusiveness. His humanist impulse is evident in spite of his failures. Dahl, on the other hand, had no such inclusive impulse. His impulses were exclusionary. He was an almost reflexive bigot. He needs to be rescued from himself so generations can enjoy what was good in the vile, dyspeptic bastard's work.
Now if we can get JK Rowling to stop denigrating trans people long enough to revise the antisemitically caricatured goblin characters who run all the wizard world’s banks … maybe if I wave this wand.
This has been the Moment of Truth. Good Day!