DAME LYNLEY DODD’S Hairy Maclary and his canine pals have delighted Kiwi kids and their parents for decades. “Doing the voices” for the whole Maclary gang was a staple of my three-year-old daughter’s bedtime entertainment. Dame Lynley’s superbly crafted rhymes and evocative illustrations practically force her readers to do this. The woman is a national treasure.
Which can only mean that someone, somewhere, will feel obligated to “deconstruct” her work and draw the world’s attention to its deficiencies. In Dame Lynley’s case that ‘someone’ is Dr Helen Adam of Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia. According to Dr Adam, Hairy Maclary From Donaldson’s Dairy, and its ilk, are guilty of “perpetuating outdated stereotypes” and lacking in “diversity”.
Fantastic classics though they may be, opines Dr Adam, books such as Harry the Dirty Dog, Where the Wild Things Are, Hairy McClary, and Possum Magic no longer “accurately reflect the diversity of the modern world.”
Leaving aside the unconscious racism of Dr Adam presenting the campus of Edith Cowan University, or, for that matter, the Commonwealth of Australia and its clutch of Western allies, as “the modern world”; since when did reflecting the diversity of the contemporary world become a requirement of the artist’s job? Works of art do not retain their grip on our hearts and minds by reflecting the “real” world, but by enticing us to enter the world of the artist’s imagination.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, arguably the greatest children’s adventure story ever written, in no way reflects the diversity of the modern world. Truth to tell, it did not even reflect Stevenson’s own Nineteenth Century. All the action of Treasure Island takes place in the world of the Eighteenth Century.
Written as a “tale for boys”, Stevenson’s novel long ago transcended that narrow category. So vivid are the characters, so evocative the settings, so thrilling the action, that no young human-being – male or female – in possession of a working imagination has ever failed to be enthralled by Stevenson’s riveting narrative.
Not that the book would pass muster on Dr Adam’s ideological parade-ground. For a start, the only woman in the whole novel is the hero’s mum. Everybody else is emphatically masculine. No less than Hairy Maclary, Hercules Morse and Schnitzel von Krumm; Jim Hawkins, Squire Trelawney and Long John Silver are red-blooded males.
Outdated stereotypes? Not really. While history records some female pirates, it does not record many. Back in the Eighteenth Century, the overwhelming majority of sailing vessels were commanded and crewed by men. It doesn’t hurt the young readers of the Twenty-First Century to discover this blunt historical fact. Indeed, discovering just how different the past is from the present is an empowering, not a dispiriting, experience.
Indeed, what Dr Adam and her academic colleagues should be combatting is the growing cultural trend towards recasting the facts of the past to meet the ideological expectations of the present.
Anyone who watches the BBC light-entertainment series Sister Boniface will recognise this mania for historical revisionism. In the real Great Britain of the 1950s, black detectives from the Caribbean did not work alongside white detectives in rural villages. Local newspapers were not edited by women. And Catholic nuns most certainly did not ride out from their convents on Vespas to solve murders. The real Britons of the 1950s were ferocious racists. Their daily newspapers were sexist nightmares. And the Catholic Church’s female religious orders elevated poverty, chastity and obedience well above crime-fighting.
Combatting stereotypical thinking is not assisted by pretending that there is no difference between the present and the past. (Although it’s probably fair to say that the behaviour of dogs hasn’t changed all that much since 1983, when Dame Lynley wrote Hairy Maclary.)
How are young people supposed to understand the racism and sexism of their grandparents’ generation if they’re never allowed to see it depicted on the screen, or read about it in novels? How will their grasp of how far women have travelled toward equality be assisted by recasting Jim as Jackie Hawkins, and installing our diversity-affirming heroine, now a thirteen-year-old girl, on a schooner crewed by cut-throats?
All Dame Lynley is guilty of is delighting generations of Kiwi kids. A much lesser crime, I would have thought, than telling lies about the past to placate the woke censors of the present.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 8 July 2022.