Friday, November 26, 2010
Willy Wonka as Marie Antoinette: Classism in Children's Classics
I know that, at least per director Sofia Coppola's film Marie Antoinette, the soon-to-be-beheaded French monarch never made that insensitive comment. Telling her hungry subjects to eat cake, I mean. What kind of a monster would do such a thing, after all? Telling hungry people to eat bon-bons when all they want is a good square meal, or better yet, the ability to earn the money to give their family good square meals every day from now on?
Teach a Frenchman to fish, and he learns a trade. Give a Frenchman a fish, and he makes salmon crudites. (or something like that)
But then, what about the beloved Mr. Willy Wonka of Roald Dahl's children's classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Doesn't he do the same thing as ole Queen Marie A.? Doesn't he tell the poor and hungry to, well, eat chocolate?
I didn't remember the depths of the Bucket family's poverty until I began reading the story aloud to my 6 and 8 year olds recently. Chapter 10: The Family Begins to Starve was tonight's fare, and although both I and my 8year old knew the outcome of the story (as did, really, my 6year old too who kept insisting "Charlie must get the fifth golden ticket. There's only one left and why else would the story be called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?), all of us had tears in our eyes as I read about the family's hunger. We shivered as the cold drafts swept through the ramshackle Bucket house, we felt that watery cabbage soup slip down our throats, we could see Charlie saving his energy - taking 10 extra minutes on the way to school, resting at recess while the other children played - lest he use up his meager physical resources on anything but dire necessity. When the frail old grandparents - all four piled up in a bed - retold the story of Charlie trying to slip his mother his breakfast, all of our hearts broke. As the adult in the room, I even took it further, imagining the frustration of an elderly grandparent consuming finite family resources while he watches his beloved grandson starve before his eyes. Death, I imagined, would be welcome for Grandpa Joe if it meant that Charlie got an extra 1/2 potato at lunchtime.
Then, a miracle happens. Charlie wins this storybook's version of the lottery. His numbers strike in the form of the fifth golden ticket to Mr. Willy Wonka's magical candy factory - place of dreams and unending chocolate waterfalls. Dahl's writing, like that chocolate waterfall, is delicious and filling - it transports you from the vividness of starvation to that heavenliness of golden possibilities - possibilities that sweep Charlie out of poverty right before serious malnutrition and end-organ damage set in.
But then my observant 6 year old opened my eyes wide to the classism of this narrative:
Daughter (outraged): "Wait a minute, Charlie's family is starving, and all Mr. Wonka will give them is chocolate?"
Me: "Er, maybe he'll give them food too."
Daughter (not buying it, the guy owns a chocolate factory after all, not a Whole Foods): "You know, they'll get brown teeth if they eat all that chocolate."
Me: "Er, maybe they'll brush alot."
Daughter: "I don't know if they have the money to buy toothbrushes. They're very poor, you know."
Daughter: "Now, if Willy Wonka gives them toothbrushes too, that would be fair, because it would be mean to give them so much chocolate and no toothbrushes."
Indeed. It is pretty unfair to hand out chocolate like there is no tomorrow, and not hand out toothbrushes too. Or that adult version of the toothbruth - dental insurance. Mr. Bucket just lost his job at the toothpaste factory, after all. Without any severance. Or labor protests. Or union safety nets. And definitely no unemployment insurance. Certainly no Medicaid for the old folks. No Child Health Plus for Charlie. No WIC for mommy.
And what about that one, singular lottery ticket anyway? What about all the other Charlies and Charlines who didn't find tickets? And never will?
Dahl's narrative, besides being a thinly disguised portrayal of African slavery in the form of the Oompa-Loompas, also manifests the noble poor narrative made famous by the ever-cheerful Tiny Tim of A Christmas Carol. The 'deserving' poor don't complain, or organize toothpaste factory walk-outs, but soldier on cheerfully, trying to sneak their mums their own breaksfasts as their stomach linings turn in on themselves. And as a reward for such behavior, and such gastric gymnastics, they find golden tickets, and maybe even inherit untold wealth from kooky old uncles (think Dickens' Great Expectations, and remember too that all the other golden tickets winners except Charlie represent greed, avarice, and excessive gum chewing and TV watching).
Be poor, kids, but don't complain, and maybe - just maybe - you'll inherit a chocolate factory staffed by your own unpaid, imprisoned, slave population! Noble (white) poor becomes king/employer/factory owner of kind-of-noble (Black) savages? Eek. Did Dahl really have to go there?
What other children's stories portray poverty and how? All I can think about right now is Dickens, and that poor, dirty faced Oliver wanting extra porridge.
"Please, sir, can I have some more?"
Well, what about showing how Oliver, or Charlie, or Pip, didn't just make it as individuals, but organized their communities? (Does organizing a community of pickpockets make the Artful Dodger some kind of neo-Marxist?) What about teaching a boy to make a chocolate factory, rather than fish in one?
I think that's a chocolate covered (gluten free) eclair over there calling my name.