We are quite rightly cautious about how we expose young people to the literature of previous generations. There may be values and ideas in there that are no longer acceptable, like the infamous Tintin in the Congo or Enid Blyton’s golliwogs. But there are different approaches to this, as a four year old recently taught me.
I love Asterix the Gaul. The illustrations are fabulous, the adventures are exciting, the jokes are perfect for a kid or for an adult who grew up with them. All those silly names and enormous noses. Just brilliant.
But the Asterix books are, at their heart, very problematic. There’s the casual racial stereotypes on which they are built, which never quite reach Tintin in the Congo territory but can come damn close. There’s the fact that women are in short supply and when they do appear usually do so for the sake of comedy. Just occasionally they also get to be upset, rescued or the objects of lust – you can tell which women those are because they’re drawn differently. And underneath all this is an insidious racial and national essentialism – one nation, the Gauls, is made up of good and heroic people; another, the Romans, is made up of villains and incompetents. Looking at the broad strokes, as readers we’re cheering on a morally, physically and intellectually superior master race, who just happen to be largely conquered at the moment. When I put it in those terms I feel kind of creeped out.
So should we stop reading Asterix with children? Surely we don’t want them taking in these values? Lets stick with equally awesome but more enlightened texts shall we?
But then they won’t get Asterix, and that’s kind of sad.
From the mouths of babes
Despite all these qualms, a couple of weeks ago I found myself reading Asterix with my young nieces. Because, as I mentioned, Asterix is awesome, and they love the pictures. As we were reading, the Princess came out with a phrase that made me feel better:
‘There aren’t any shes’.
I was so proud. My niece, who is only five this week, was smart enough to recognise the gender inequality in that story and to want to challenge it.
Because a few stories like this, in isolation, won’t warp children’s views. I grew up reading Asterix and Tintin and I’m about as socially liberal as you can get. As long as the kids read other, more balanced stories, and get to discuss what they mean, then they’ll work this stuff out for themselves.
In fact, being exposed to old-fashioned stories, being given the chance to challenge them, may be an important part of developing those skills. It gives them a chance to work things out for themselves, to challenge the words they are presented with, to become independent thinkers. It also gives us, as adults, a chance to help them express what they’ve noticed and to think about it more deeply, which can only be a good thing.
It’s easy to underestimate the intelligence and agency of children. And it’s a sad thing, because treating them as smart and independent helps them learn to be smart and independent. So next time I’ll get the Asterix out again. And maybe I’ll ask if she thinks that all Spaniards look like the ones in the story. Lets challenge some racial stereotypes too Princess.