David Wood's stage adaptation of Roald Dahl's "The Witches" (Photo by MJ Kim/Getty Images)

The great relabelling

Linguistic tweaks won’t save us all

Artillery Row

A quick glance at the news might create the impression that the adults who spend the most time selflessly reading to small children are drag queens. Actually, it’s mums — boring old mums, with their boring old rules, routines and low-heeled shoes. 

I am one such mum. My first child was born in 2007; hence I have spent many years dutifully ploughing through the classics (sadly without any accolades for my stunning, brave delivery). I’m also a feminist, which means I’ve often found the books I read to my children — or which they read to themselves — highly problematic. 

Remove misogyny from The Witches, and there would be nothing left

When my eldest sons were little, “finding children’s literature problematic” was a decidedly low-status activity. Those who concerned themselves with proper politics could dismiss those of us who worried about gender normativity in Aliens Love Underpants as middle-class mummies with nothing better to do. The likes of Billy Bragg had zero interest in wig-shaming in The Witches, the class structure of the Island of Sodor, or why Harry and his Bucket Full of Dinosaurs reinscribed male dominance in relation to the absent father. This was because such criticism was associated with the thing in itself — the dull minutiae of how we (or women) socialise children — as opposed to the high drama of a global culture war which only the right side of history can win. 

It is thus with some irritation that I’ve watched recent debates over the posthumous editing of Roald Dalh’s work. Suddenly, the stories we tell our children are deemed to matter, if only in the context of a primary colours battle between good and evil, past and present, in which you’re either with the censors or behind the times. It’s a battle in which individual words are deemed to capture entire worldviews. Strip them out, and then you’ll be pure. 

There has been no attempt to rewrite entire stories, because of course this would not be possible. The Witches is still about the need to eliminate all the evil women who walk among us; Esio Trot is still about a man who deceives a woman into having a relationship with him. It’s just that the evil women might be masquerading as top scientists rather than secretaries, and Mr Hoppy might be attracted to Mrs Silva’s “kindness” rather than her body. These are, I might add, the kind of off-the-cuff “edits” one might slip in whilst reading to a child, all the while thinking “why am I even bothering?”

Changing words isn’t the same as changing endings. This is quick-fix, find-and-replace diversity and inclusion, social justice as in-group etiquette. Then again, how could it be otherwise? Misogyny runs through The Witches; remove it, and there would be nothing left. What you can do is put the story in context, accept its imperfections, perhaps even draw links with sexism and othering as it exists in the world around you now. Alternatively, you could just not read it at all. What you can’t do is use it to demonstrate not just how much better — how much purer and kinder — you are in relation to readers of the past, but how easy it is to correct everything. 

This is, I think, part of a much bigger political problem. There’s a kind of presentism that is convinced not just that those who went before us were morally inferior, but also that they were too stupid to realise that those with power need not give up a single thing in order to make the world a better place. Just relabel everything! Linguistic tweaks will save us all! The same class of people can be “put in the meat grinder” — or reduced to a reproductive resource, or treated as an alien species — just as long as we call them something different. What’s more, anyone who objects to these tweaks, or finds them ineffective, just doesn’t want anything to change. 

Actually encouraging your child to question norms is a daily slog

One of the most annoying thing about this entire debacle is that it has facilitated the “return” of full-fat, unedited Dahl in such a way as to suggest that one should feel nostalgic about being able to call a child “fat” rather than “enormous”, or use the insult “you old hag” rather than “you old crow. Personally, I am not particularly choosy about how fictional children are fat-shamed; I don’t think that’s really the point. In a similar way, I’m not particularly choosy about how oppressive norms are enforced on individuals in real life. Calling a woman a gestator or a uterus owner doesn’t alter the overall narrative that positions women — or AFAB people, if you like — as breeding stock. It’s all editing in the place of actual rewriting. 

Actual rewriting is hard. It takes time. It is repetitive. It involves giving up the narratives that make you feel safe, even if some of the minor details create occasional unease. It is like being a mother who reads to her child, day in, day out, for no pay, as opposed to a man who dresses up for an hour of applause and adoration. 

Drag Queen Story Hour is viewed by many as a way of getting a concentrated shot of gender nonconformity into your child. One hour and you’re done! Whereas actually encouraging your child to question social and political norms is a daily, constant slog. It can be boring. They often think you’re making things up. 

Nonetheless, this is the only way to change the way children interpret the world — alongside them, in dialogue, giving up things you might hold dear. These are how better stories get written. There are no shortcuts.

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