Franklin Countys First News

Words on Words: Tintin in the bookstore

Bookstores are sometimes asked by customers to remove titles that the customer finds offensive. The classic graphic novel series by Herge, Tintin, garnered this unhappy attention recently at a friend’s bookstore. It is an interesting issue. Bookstores are not censors in the strict sense of the word, however to remove a book by virtue of an objection is certainly in that neighborhood. How to address this thorny situation?

Sam Gamgee was of course mistaken in the "notion of his that the kindness of dear Mr. Frodo was of such a high degree that it must imply a fair measure of blindness." I believe it to be of the first importance to be kind, but not blind to the embedded biases and prejudices we find in beloved literary works such as Tintin. The integrity of the present is dependent on the integrity of the past. We need to understand the complex dual historical continuum of enduring artistry and base cultural biases which are almost always intertwined.

Herge's Tintin in the Congo, which is not available in an edition for children in the United States at present, has long been cited as an example of unfiltered imperial colonial prejudices. For many of us it is certainly uncomfortable to see these elements mixed in with the familiar voice of a Tintin tale. The impulse to expunge rather than understand reinforces the very blindness it decries however. Recognizing the fallibility and bias of beloved works of literature is a matter for understanding not for removal, the impulse for which is quite as destructive as any embedded historical bias. Reading Tintin in the Congo offers us an opportunity to broaden our understanding and see our own world with clearer eyes.

Herge's Tintin in general contains many historical biases from his present. Are any of us free from biases that will be painful apparent to the eyes of future generations? The Marx brothers were progressive and socially conscience. The inclusion of African American actors and musicians in A Day At The Races was a progressive choice. Is it nonetheless rife with stereotypes that are painful to behold? Of course. Does that mean that children shouldn't watch it or that the movie should be erased? Of course not. It is an opportunity for discussion and education. If we shield children from the fallibility inherent in the human condition we are depriving them of both the opportunity to learn an important lesson about kindness and blindness from classic works and to share their enjoyment with parents and grandparents.

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6 Responses »

  1. Well said. The same attitude can be applied to tv, movies, and music.

  2. Well said. I, personally, am more concerned with some of the ultra-conservative books that appear on bookshelves. These books are presenting false history as absolute truths and I see that as more dangerous than Tin Tin or even Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

  3. I remember being shocked when "Little Black Sambo" was withdrawn from library shelves. It was one of my favorite stories. Rather than teaching prejudice, it showed how a little boy in India triumphed over some mean tigers. It showed another culture in a warm way, and that a child can be empowered.

  4. I have not seen "All in the Family" rerun anywhere, has anyone else here? It is hard to believe once during my lifetime people were allowed to speak freely and laugh at yourself and others with no fear people wouldn't just roll with it. I think as a whole the current media is trying to make us over-sensitive and wimpy. (If you are too young to remember, Archie Bunker found a way to insult almost every person and nationality he came in contact with) He made fun of things I am, and I thought he was hysterical=0) I hope people get tired of the current state of affairs and get thicker skins, they will be happier!

  5. Wendy, Have you heard of Southpark?

  6. Kenny, I agree that we have much to learn from past portrayals, but I suspect people asking for TinTin to be pulled from shelves are thinking about something different.

    If you shelve "TinTin in the Congo" with books about cultural imperialism and racism, readers who find it will be more likely to give it the critical attention and thoughtful analysis it needs.

    But if it's sold next to other colorful picture books targeted to small children, it risks exposing impressionable young minds to ugliness and bigotry that they do not yet have the context to see critically. Racism is taught, and portrayals of characters of color as simple-minded, thick-lipped savages (which is a fair characterization of Herge's work) are part of how those cultural attitudes are transmitted to the young.

    We rate movies G through X for reasons that go beyond "censorship" -- we trust adults to make decisions about what they should see, but we shield children from ideas and images they aren't equipped to handle. We should use similar care in what books we make available to children.