Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren introduced the world to “Pippi Longstocking” in 1945. Rambunctious, red-pigtailed Pippi is beloved the world over, especially in Sweden — where people are really mad that Lindgren’s original stories have been sanitized to remove racial references for a national TV broadcast based on the books.
According to the New York Times, the TV series, first aired in 1969 and scheduled for broadcast Saturday, removes two scenes, including one where Pippi refers to her father as the “king of the Negroes” using a Swedish word now considered by many a racial slur.
Tens of thousands of Swedes polled by Sweden’s largest daily newspaper said they opposed the revision. Swedish opinion columnist Erik Helmerson called the move censorship and a “huge interference into freedom of speech,” the Times reported.
“The few things that are Swedish have become a battlefield where people are trying to defend their fantasies of that nation,” Swedish playwright and novelist Jonas Hassen Khemiri, who supports the changes, told the Times. “It’s very hard to defend this naïve idea of an authentic, simple past with clear-cut boundaries.”
“Pippi Longstocking” is one of many popular children’s stories edited to remove racist references.
“The Story of Doctor Dolittle” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” were similarly updated. The 1988 edition of “Dolittle” removes references to skin color, and instead of preying on Prince Bumpo’s desire to be white, Polynesia tricks him by hypnotizing him. Similarly, in the 1973 edition of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” the Oompa-Loompas come from Loompaland, not Africa, and the illustrations show them as white, not black.
Revisions, of course, extend beyond children’s books. In 1825, English physician Thomas Bowdler published “The Family Shakespeare,” a version of William Shakespeare’s works edited so as not to shock the delicate sensibilities of 19th century women and children. Lady Macbeth’s “damned spot” becomes a “crimson spot,” and Ophelia’s suicide is rewritten as an accidental drowning.
Today Bowdler’s name is synonymous with expurgating — hence the verb “to bowdlerize.”
But can these things really be erased? Should they?
Philip Nel, a Kansas State University professor and scholar of children’s literature, presented opposing views in a post on his blog “Nine Kinds of Pie”: “Inasmuch as Willy Wonka’s workers are human beings imported from another country, the whitened Oompa-Loompas remove the original book’s implication that a person of European descent had enslaved people of African descent, and that the latter group had gladly accepted their new lot as his slaves.” On the other hand, he pointed out, the “new versions instead more subtly encode the same racial and colonial messages of the original versions. After all, the Oompa-Loompas still live in ‘thick jungles infested by the most dangerous beasts in the entire world,’ and are still a ‘tribe’ who do not learn English until they come to Britain.”
Authors have a complicated relationship with their works. Children’s author Anne Fine told the Independent, as Nel reported: “Which is the real version? Who’s to say? The originals are the ones I would save from a fire. I rather hope the newer versions are the ones my readers would take with them to desert islands.”
Lindgren’s heirs defended the move by Swedish broadcaster STV to edit “Pippi,” and Lindgren herself distanced herself from the original text in 1970, according to the Times.
But censorship isn’t the only way to address troubling racial references in classic works. Warner Bros. classic cat and mouse cartoon “Tom and Jerry” now comes with a warning label if you buy it on Apple or Amazon.
Reacting to a controversy in Germany last year over removal of a reference to “negro” from a popular German children’s book, “The Little Witch,” Julia Lentge, spokesman for the organization responsible for the German Children’s Literature Award, told Der Spiegel that controversial texts should be annotated, not redacted.
“The classics offer a chance to submerge ourselves in another time, in another kind of language, which might sound somewhat disconcerting, but might also be exciting,” Lentge said. She added: “I think one should really consider whether instances like this can’t be handled by some kind of annotation, a forward or an epilogue by a children’s book expert who could put the work in its historical context.”
Nel also comes down on the side of leaving the books as they are. “If we exclude troubling works from the discussion, then children are more likely to face sadness and pain on their own,” he wrote. “It is, I think, better that we give them the tools with which to face prejudice-bearing literature. In doing so, we can help them learn to cope with a world that can be neither just nor fair. With this knowledge, perhaps we may also give them a source of power.”