Cancelling Dr Seuss - CANCELLED

Event date
1 February 2023
Event time
12:00 - 13:30
Oxford week
HT 3
St Hilda's College

Professor Cathay Smith at the University of Montana

Venue: The Roof Garden Suite (A&B) - St Hilda’s College

Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced in March 2021 that it would cease licensing and publishing six of its popular children’s books because they portrayed people in racist or culturally-stereotypical ways.  The public reaction to Dr. Seuss’s decision was swift and divided.  Some criticized the decision as censorship or a result of “cancel culture.”  Others applauded the decision as long-overdue reckoning with problematic content in children’s works.  While Dr. Seuss’s decision generated attention and controversy, it is in fact not uncommon for authors, copyright owners, and publishers to take steps to remedy racist and sexist content in their expressive works—especially in books, films, and other works marketed to children.  This Article explores the various actions that authors, copyright owners, and publishers have taken in this regard, and the legal, moral, and public policy issues that those actions may raise.

Over the years, authors, copyright owners, and publishers have taken different approaches to address racist, sexist, or other hurtful content appearing in classic children’s works.  Some make entire works unavailable through ceasing to publish, license, or produce the works.  For example, Disney no longer makes available its film Song of the South due to the film’s perpetuation of racist myths concerning plantation life.  Similarly, Dr. Seuss ceased publishing and licensing And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, If I Ran the Zoo, and four other titles.  Other authors, copyright owners, and publishers have edited, replaced, or entirely rewritten racist content in works.  The Story of Little Black Sambo has been rewritten and retold numerous times to remove the racist imagery and demeaning caricatures of the main characters.  Ballet companies have updated and even rechoreographed the “Chinese Tea” and “Arabian Coffee” dances in The Nutcracker.  Similarly, racist caricatures and plot lines were replaced by the author’s heirs in the centenary edition of The Story of Doctor Dolittle.  In some instances, content warnings are added to expressive works.  Disney attaches warnings of “negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures” at the start of some of its classic animated films such as Dumbo, Peter Pan, and The Aristocrats.  Not everyone agrees with the changes being made to classic children’s works.  Arguments supporting changes often recognize the harm that racial stereotypes may have on impressionable children, and understand that racial stereotypes in children’s works can reinforce internalized racism.  Arguments against the changes to these works focus on concerns with rupturing original artistic integrity, “whitewashing” the legacies of creators, and losing a contextual understanding of historic racism.  Regardless of these arguments, authors, copyright owners, and publishers have in fact been making changes to children’s works, and with those changes arise interesting considerations, questions, and potential legal implications under copyright, free speech, and moral rights. 

This Article has two goals: it first exposes embedded racism in popular classic children’s books, films, and dramatic works, and details some of the little-known changes that authors, copyright owners, and publishers have made to remedy problematic content in those works.  Many of these works available to the public today are the edited versions; their originals are only available, if at all, in libraries, virtual archives, or resale vendors.  The second goal of this Article is to examine the legal, moral, and public policy issues that arise when classic children’s works are “cancelled” or changed to address racist content.  This includes the rights and abilities of authors, copyright owners, and publishers to make changes to works, the legal consequences and rights that they violate—or create—with those changes, and copyright’s role in both supporting and hindering change. 

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Found within

Intellectual Property Law