Updated Intro to “Horton Hears a Racist”
Why a 13-year-old review of a Dr. Seuss movie is still relevant today.
A few weeks ago, I wrote an article for The Hollywood Reporter about the importance of selecting the right host for Jeopardy and why Mike Richards was the wrong host (“Why the Host of Jeopardy Matters” https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/tv/tv-features/kareem-abdul-jabbar-jeopardy-host-matters-1235002645/). One disgruntled reader took the time to email me to complain that TV shows were just something to watch or have on in the background during dinner and had no deeper significance. I understand his frustration at feeling that people are having serious conversations about issues that he’s left out of. It’s marginalizing. Which, ironically, was the point of the article: how some people can feel marginalized when underrepresented.
This is a reader-supported newsletter. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. The best way to join the community and support my work is by taking out a paid subscription.
I’ve always been aware of the enormous positive impact popular culture has in celebrating through literature, music, film, dance, and visual arts the noblest of human values. But it can also perpetuate harmful ideas, from hateful stereotypes to irrational theories that undermine the foundation of democracy itself. When I was a child watching sitting on the floor watching popular TV shows, I wondered why there were so few Black people in the shows, and why the few that were there often were so insignificant to the story. That certainly made me feel like I was standing on the outside of a mansion, and the TV screen was a window into the house where everyone was living a rich and vibrant life. Sure, there were a few Black faces amongst the revelers—singers, sports figures—but even they were uncomfortable inside.
Many Americans learn their version of history from watching fictional TV shows or movies. From what I saw on TV as a child, there were no Black cowboys in the Old West, but from what I have since read in history books, 1 in 4 cowboys was Black. I learned that when women told you to leave them alone, if you pushed them up against a wall and forced them to kiss you, they would melt into your arms. I learned anyone with a mental health issue was broken and to be ridiculed. I learned that LGBTQ+ were perversions to be either pitied or expelled. And so forth.
Popular culture taught me all that. It teaches even if we’re not paying attention or it’s on in the background during dinner. That’s why it’s so important we examine the components of popular culture so we are aware of what values we’re passing along. Studying it closely is like looking at an x-ray of society’s conscience revealing the hidden maladies that threaten our health. The undiagnosed infection that is untreated and eventually results in gangrene and amputation.
In 2008, after watching the movie adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who (a favorite childhood book of mine), I began writing articles focusing on popular culture and its effect on society. The article begins with an endorsement of Barack Obama for president and then talks about why, a bit tongue in cheek, the movie is relevant to the election. Then I ask how it is possible for the dozens of people responsible for creating the movie, not to have noticed how misogynist it is. It seemed to me that if you can’t recognize how insulting the film is to females, then you probably won’t recognize when you’re creating films that are racist.
I wish I was more shocked by how little has changed in the 13 years since I wrote this article. (Notice how I end the article with such wide-eyed optimism.) Systemic racism, misogyny, anti-LGBTQ+, anti-Semitism, and anti-Muslim are still part of the entertainment business, which includes sports, as well as ingrained in the rest of society. But I’ve been in the social justice game for 50 years and I know how slow the gears of change turn, how resistant people are to admit fault. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to remind them.
Horton Hears a Racist (2008)
Barack Obama is my choice for president. I’ve already explained why in previous blogs. But if Obama isn’t elected, it would be hard to blame racism. Republicans aren’t going to vote for him, not because he’s black, but because, even worse, he’s a Democrat. And for the most part, Obama has garnered more popular support among white voters than any other candidate. If Obama is elected, I believe that through his leadership skills and intelligence he will usher in a dynamic new era of government by inclusion rather than secrecy. Like John F. Kennedy, Obama will inspire a younger generation and invigorate the older generation to take greater part in their government, society, and community.
But there are many obstacles this New Era will have to face. A sagging economy. War abroad. Faltering education.
And, worse of all, the movie Horton Hears a Who.
This isn’t a review of the movie, it’s a review of how Hollywood sometimes contributes to the divisiveness within the country. Ironically, Horton Hears a Who has done more damage to our society than the recent slate of politically motivated movies about the war in Iraq (Rendition, Stop-Loss, Lambs for Lions, Redacted, In the Valley of Elah, etc.) has done good. For one thing, more people saw Horton than saw all the other movies combined.
How can a beloved Dr. Seuss story do so much harm? Well, the original book by Dr. Seuss is just fine, a timeless tale that has been delighting children since it was first published in 1954. The story of the brave elephant that is willing to endure the harshest condemnation from his friends and community in order to protect those in need is a wonderful lesson for children.
But then along comes the movie. To make the story long enough for a full-length movie, a sub-plot was added about the mayor of Whoville who has 96 cheerful daughters and one brooding son. This is where things take a nasty turn. Basically, the mayor ignores his 96 daughters in order to groom his uninterested son to become mayor. Why doesn’t he groom one of his much more enthusiastic daughters? And, of course, it is the brooding son who, in the end, saves the entire world of Whoville. The daughters? They get to cheer from the sidelines. While it’s true that in the book a “very small shirker named Jo-Jo” does add his tiny voice to the din and thus saves Whoville, but that promotes the idea that we all have our part to play in our community, not that sons are smarter than daughters.
“Hey, it’s just a cartoon,” you might say. But this particular cartoon will be seen by millions of children around the world. And they will come away with a clear impression that a single son is worth more than 96 daughters. That boys are inherently more valuable than girls, and more likely to be successful (in this case, in saving the world) than girls.
What’s especially insidious here isn’t just that the subplot was written and approved and filmed, but that since the movie has come out, there hasn’t been a popular outcry about it. That we don’t even ask why, in the years it took to make the movie, no one along the line said, “This isn’t a good message to send to our kids.” Is it because sexism is so ingrained in our society that we don’t even flinch at it when it’s shoved in our faces?
What’s all this have to do with racism?
Well, if our society is willing to tolerate any form of social injustice and discrimination toward any single group, then they have created a breeding ground for injustice throughout society. If we allow sexism, ageism, homophobia, religious intolerance, than racism can only flourish as well. We expose our impressionable children to funny cartoons about wacky animals voiced by famous actors and what do we think is going to happen. Will a little girl step out of Horton feeling empowered and motivated, or just slightly less capable than the little boy walking beside her?
I don’t think the filmmakers are evil or that they deliberately set out to send this awful message. Somehow it seems worse that they didn’t notice.
Maybe after eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, our society will have evolved to a place where the filmmakers and the audiences won’t tolerate even the most subtle forms of discrimination. At least with Barack Obama, we have hope that such a world might be.