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Did Dr. Seuss Peddle Iris-ism in Christmas Tale?

SEUSS-IRIS-ISM-IN-CHRISTMAS-INLINE.png

David Surdam, Professor of Economics

By: David Surdam
Professor of Economics
David W. Wilson Business Ethics Fellow

Children‘s leisure opportunities expanded across the twentieth century, but adults worried whether motion pictures, new genres of music, and television programs exerted pernicious effects upon children. There was cause for concern, as even well-meaning producers could sometimes send mixed messages.

A case in point occurs every December, when How the Grinch, excuse me, Dr. Seuss‘ How the Grinch Stole Christmas (as though there was some other version) airs on television. The charming cartoon raises a provocative question: Did Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, practice "iris-ism?"

Years ago, when I was a graduate student, I was eating dinner in the graduate dorm. A friend of mine rushed in and told me I had to watch the Grinch‘s efforts to steal Christmas.

Having grown up in a rural area of Oregon, where we had only ABC and NBC affiliates (thereby missing the better third of American culture, as CBS was the premier television network at the time), I had never seen the annual showing of the Grinch‘s efforts to foil Who-ville‘s Christmas.

As I watched the cartoon, I noticed that the Grinch had dark or red eyes, while the Who‘s, including Cindy Lou Who, had blue eyes (and, need I add, blonde hair). I started wondering whether the Grinch‘s eyes would transform, since I quickly ascertained that the Grinch would eventually get the Christmas spirit.

Yes, indeed, at the moment when the Grinch realized that Christmas was not the gifts and the tinsel and he became infused with the Christmas spirit, his eyes turned blue (his heart grew, too). Perhaps I am overly sensitive to iris-ism, being an Asian-American adoptee in a predominantly white community in the 1960s.

I pointed out this bizarre transformation to my friend, and she vehemently denied it. I bought the companion book to the cartoon, and, indeed, his eyes had changed color. In fairness to Geisel, the original book did not have this transformation. He is, however, listed as a co-producer of the animated show, so presumably he approved of the change or at least did not veto it.

What accounts for this "iris-ism?" I am certainly not accusing Dr. Seuss of some malevolent design. Nor am I accusing Chuck Jones, the animator, of such. My guess is that the transformation seemed natural to them.

At about the time the Grinch first aired, an Iowa grade school teacher, Jane Elliott, ran her controversial experiment in which she split her class by eye color (blue or brown, with the greens being exempt). The students quickly identified themselves by eye color and showed iris-based bigotry. Her lesson apparently resonated with her pupils throughout their lives, and the experiment is still discussed in various diversity training seminars.

Forty years on, Americans still seem to ascribe goodness with people with blue eyes (and blonde hair). There are signs of progress, however. Although Elsa from Disney‘s wildly popular "Frozen" motion picture fits the traditional stereotype (and her sister Anna has blue eyes, too), the company, at least, has deviated from its traditional blonde, blue-eyed heroine (although the princes still typically have dark hair). Some of their recent fare offers heroines of variously colored eyes.

Discussing race in public is akin to walking through a minefield. I need not be accused of clairvoyance in predicting that in the near future some public figure will say something incorrect and be disgraced, while another may say something equally incorrect and receive a free pass. In any event, politicians will act opportunistically in excoriating their foes about their racial attitudes and remarks.

Is the lesson here how ingrained such subtle and not-so-subtle symbolism remains? Certainly Geisel‘s credentials as a crusader fighting racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of prejudice are impeccable. If even he falls prey to such basic symbolism or allows it to be employed, what hope is there for the rest of us? Should we judge Theodor Geisel by this one isolated slip (if slip it was) or by the corpus of his life‘s work? Is there a difference between Geisel‘s rather innocent and even charming symbolism and symbolism rooted in hatred, ignorance, and opportunism?

In a society where pundits, politicians, and the public are quick to judge and condemn, I suggest the lesson here is to understand that we all harbor our own ingrained, often unrecognized preconceptions and, instead, to exercise some compassion and patience (and perhaps some Seussical wit and whimsy) as we examine our attitudes. Let us be the blue-eyed Grinch!

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by the University of Northern Iowa.

Posted on 20-Dec-17


  






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Did Dr. Seuss Peddle Iris-ism in Christmas Tale?

SEUSS-IRIS-ISM-IN-CHRISTMAS-INLINE.png

David Surdam, Professor of Economics

By: David Surdam
Professor of Economics
David W. Wilson Business Ethics Fellow

Children‘s leisure opportunities expanded across the twentieth century, but adults worried whether motion pictures, new genres of music, and television programs exerted pernicious effects upon children. There was cause for concern, as even well-meaning producers could sometimes send mixed messages.

A case in point occurs every December, when How the Grinch, excuse me, Dr. Seuss‘ How the Grinch Stole Christmas (as though there was some other version) airs on television. The charming cartoon raises a provocative question: Did Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, practice "iris-ism?"

Years ago, when I was a graduate student, I was eating dinner in the graduate dorm. A friend of mine rushed in and told me I had to watch the Grinch‘s efforts to steal Christmas.

Having grown up in a rural area of Oregon, where we had only ABC and NBC affiliates (thereby missing the better third of American culture, as CBS was the premier television network at the time), I had never seen the annual showing of the Grinch‘s efforts to foil Who-ville‘s Christmas.

As I watched the cartoon, I noticed that the Grinch had dark or red eyes, while the Who‘s, including Cindy Lou Who, had blue eyes (and, need I add, blonde hair). I started wondering whether the Grinch‘s eyes would transform, since I quickly ascertained that the Grinch would eventually get the Christmas spirit.

Yes, indeed, at the moment when the Grinch realized that Christmas was not the gifts and the tinsel and he became infused with the Christmas spirit, his eyes turned blue (his heart grew, too). Perhaps I am overly sensitive to iris-ism, being an Asian-American adoptee in a predominantly white community in the 1960s.

I pointed out this bizarre transformation to my friend, and she vehemently denied it. I bought the companion book to the cartoon, and, indeed, his eyes had changed color. In fairness to Geisel, the original book did not have this transformation. He is, however, listed as a co-producer of the animated show, so presumably he approved of the change or at least did not veto it.

What accounts for this "iris-ism?" I am certainly not accusing Dr. Seuss of some malevolent design. Nor am I accusing Chuck Jones, the animator, of such. My guess is that the transformation seemed natural to them.

At about the time the Grinch first aired, an Iowa grade school teacher, Jane Elliott, ran her controversial experiment in which she split her class by eye color (blue or brown, with the greens being exempt). The students quickly identified themselves by eye color and showed iris-based bigotry. Her lesson apparently resonated with her pupils throughout their lives, and the experiment is still discussed in various diversity training seminars.

Forty years on, Americans still seem to ascribe goodness with people with blue eyes (and blonde hair). There are signs of progress, however. Although Elsa from Disney‘s wildly popular "Frozen" motion picture fits the traditional stereotype (and her sister Anna has blue eyes, too), the company, at least, has deviated from its traditional blonde, blue-eyed heroine (although the princes still typically have dark hair). Some of their recent fare offers heroines of variously colored eyes.

Discussing race in public is akin to walking through a minefield. I need not be accused of clairvoyance in predicting that in the near future some public figure will say something incorrect and be disgraced, while another may say something equally incorrect and receive a free pass. In any event, politicians will act opportunistically in excoriating their foes about their racial attitudes and remarks.

Is the lesson here how ingrained such subtle and not-so-subtle symbolism remains? Certainly Geisel‘s credentials as a crusader fighting racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of prejudice are impeccable. If even he falls prey to such basic symbolism or allows it to be employed, what hope is there for the rest of us? Should we judge Theodor Geisel by this one isolated slip (if slip it was) or by the corpus of his life‘s work? Is there a difference between Geisel‘s rather innocent and even charming symbolism and symbolism rooted in hatred, ignorance, and opportunism?

In a society where pundits, politicians, and the public are quick to judge and condemn, I suggest the lesson here is to understand that we all harbor our own ingrained, often unrecognized preconceptions and, instead, to exercise some compassion and patience (and perhaps some Seussical wit and whimsy) as we examine our attitudes. Let us be the blue-eyed Grinch!

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not imply endorsement by the University of Northern Iowa.

Posted on 20-Dec-17







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