Revolting Words – why children’s books shouldn’t be censored

Banning a book called Revolting Rhymes because it contains something unpleasant. It doesn’t make much sense, does it? But as a wise man once said, “grown-ups are complicated creatures, full of quirks and secrets.”

On 24 August, the same day Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book was released in Australia, someone posted on the Aldi Facebook page complaining that their neighbour had bought the book and were offended by the lines, “who’s this filthy slut? / Off with her nut! Off with her nut!” The person, apparently unfazed by a hysterical obsession with decapitation, was offended by the use of the word ‘slut’. Three days later, Aldi had taken all copies of the book off their shelves.

It has been pointed out that the original definition of the word ‘slut’ was ‘a dirty, slovenly woman’, probably the sense which Dahl meant, or at least wanted people to think he meant. The connotation of promiscuity has been attached to the word since the 16th Century, and if you know anything about Dahl the man, and the more salacious parts of his oeuvre not intended for the eyes of children, he would almost certainly have known about the modern definition of the word, and it would not be surprising if he had used it just because he thought it would be funny to get away with using it in a children’s book. But even if that’s the sense he had in mind, so what? The lines are spoken by the prince in Cinderella, who in this version has a fetish for murdering people by slicing off their heads, in a book in which Little Red Riding Hood pulls a gun out of her underwear and pops a cap in The Big Bad Wolf’s ass. Fairy tales have always been shocking anyway because they were written to teach children lessons. Is it really so appalling that a naughty man said a naughty word?

This puritanical standard of tolerating violence but not swear words or sexuality has permeated into other aspects of our culture. The news routinely shows ‘scenes of a distressing nature’, yet CBS accidentally broadcasts Janet Jackson’s breast for half a second and are fined $550,000 and Jackson gets blacklisted by a multitude of entertainment companies. Excessively violent films like Taken or A Good Day to Die Hard can be rated 12A, provided they don’t contain any blood, but drop the f-bomb more than once or, God forbid, show a woman’s nipple, and you’ll be bound to a more restrictive rating. As a culture, we need to re-evaluate what we find offensive. We also need to change how we respond to something offensive. If you are offended by a book, then don’t read it, and don’t let your child read it. It’s as simple as that. Attempting to get the book banned because ‘won’t somebody please think of the children?’ is pathetic and feeble-minded, and should not be effective in a truly free society.

Overprotecting children and sanitizing everything they consume risks stilting their emotional and intellectual growth. Kids do not need to be kept safe from all unpleasantness. Parenting these days seems largely to involve keeping your kids in a warm, cosy bubble where everyone is happy and playgrounds are made out of foam. Of course children should be kept safe, but allowing a child to be exposed to emotions other than everything being sunshine and rainbows allows them to grow up well-rounded. Much of the entertainment aimed at kids has fallen prey to the sanitization of childhood, often featuring wacky CGI talking animals, and as a result are generic and forgettable. All of the books and films that have stayed with me from childhood have been because they shocked or frightened me in some way. Pinocchio. The NeverEnding Story. Goosebumps. Where the Wild Things Are. Alice in Wonderland. And yes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Today’s kids aren’t going to grow up raving about Rio 2 or Madagascar 3 to their kids with the same wistful tone as my dad when he talks about seeing Dumbo for the first time. Kids like dark, edgy stories that respect their intelligence as young adults, and Roald Dahl understood that, which is why his stories are so beloved, and continue to be printed today.

Let’s hope that the banning of books because they contain words that someone doesn’t like becomes a trend. Otherwise, say goodbye to books like Huckleberry Finn, Lord of the Flies and Harry Potter and Half-Blood Prince, the latter of which is another book that contains the word ‘slut’. So much of kids’ reading and viewing material right now is safe, bland and uninteresting, which is why we need Roald Dahl’s books more than ever. We can’t let a single word stop us.

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