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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Conservative pundit Glenn Beck said last week: “Buy Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head because it’s the end of an era. It is the end of freedom in America.”

Mr. Beck also said: “They are banning Dr. Seuss books. How much more do you need to see before all of America wakes up? This is fascism! We don’t destroy books. What is wrong with us, America?”

Ted Cruz, noting the sudden surge in Dr. Seuss books sales on Amazon, tweeted: “Could Biden try to ban my book next?”

That’s presumably because Fox News implied that Biden was somehow responsible for the Seuss estate’s decision not to print new editions of six books that were already out of print: “Biden erases Dr. Seuss from ‘Read Across America’ proclamation as progressives seek to cancel beloved author.” Fox News also used graphics of popular Dr. Seuss books that were not of the six out-of-print ones, implying that all Seuss books would soon be unavailable.

Facebook memes distorted facts further:

It may seem a little silly to devote political attention to children’s products, but pop culture is pervasive and toys and books influence childhood experience, so it really isn’t so trivial. (Also, I’ve built my academic career on superhero comics, so I can hardly claim to be above the topic.)

So let’s do this one at a time, starting with the potatoes.

First, to clarify what Hasbro did: they added a new toy called “Potato Head,” no “Mr.” or “Mrs.” and so nothing to indicate gender. But they didn’t cancel their pre-existing toys. Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head are still available.

First question: why did Hasbro do this? There was no boycott or petition or anything that I’ve heard about. The news leaked after some internal meeting where the people who run the company initiated the change. I don’t think anyone outside the company knew it was coming. So why add the new toy?

If Hasbro is like all other corporations, they have one primary goal: make as much money as they can for their shareholders. My best guess is that they saw that Mr. and Mrs. weren’t selling well and thought that they could attract progressive parents with a new non-gendered version. But they also kept the old toy, presumably because they thought it would sell better with conservative parents (though I’m a progressive parent who grew up with the Mr. and Mrs. toys and I still happily bought them for my kids).

So what’s wrong with any of that? If you like the traditional toy, great, there it is, go buy it. If you like the non-gendered toy, great, there it is, go buy it. Hasbro is maximizing sales (which is all they care about), but parents are given a greater range of choices. Now if the old toy was eliminated, that would be reason to complain. But it wasn’t. And if you don’t like the new non-gendered version, then you definitely shouldn’t buy it. But why complain that other parents now have the option of buying it? This is how the free market works. Companies make products and compete for buyers. Some products rise and some fall. Where is the problem?

On a personal note, I raised two kids, a girl and a boy. We bought all kinds of toys, traditional “boy” toys, traditional “girl” toys, and non-gendered toys. They each could play with whatever they wanted. And I do remember my toddler daughter being indifferent to the yellow Tonka dump truck (one of my own favorite toys growing up) and then my son really enjoying it a couple years later. That’s great. I didn’t care what they played with. It was sort of the free market approach at the level of our living room.

Now about Dr. Seuss.

I generally object to the term “cancel culture” because it tends to be used exclusively to describe actions by progressives and not to describe similar actions by conservatives, but let’s set the general issue aside and look at this specific incident. The Seuss estate decided to stop publishing six of the author’s most obscure books. They were not responding to any petition or other pressure to do this. The decision was unexpected and came entirely from within their organization.

Jack Shafer, a senior writer at Politico.com (and so a member of the so-called “liberal MSM”), penned a pretty good op-ed on the topic, which I recommend. Shafer comes down pretty hard on the Seuss estate. If you don’t have time to click the link, here are two pertinent passages:

“It’s a little like a prestigious restaurant formally announcing that it’s no longer offering an unpopular dish it hasn’t cooked in several years.” In other words, the books were out of print already, so why make this announcement at all? It seems like an odd kind of publicity stunt. (If the estate is run by evil geniuses, then maybe they were banking on the conservative backlash and misinformation, knowing it would spike sales across all Seuss titles. Seems like a stretch, but who knows.)

Shafer also makes a deeper critique: “Of course, the owners of the Seuss works have every right to do what they please with their property. But if the goal is to better understand the grievous errors we have made in our media depictions of Asian, Black and Arab people, we would be better served by a decision that both acknowledges the racism but doesn’t impede access to the offending material.”

It’s a decent point. I think we once had a copy of And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street somewhere in the house, but I’ve never even glimpsed the other five books. I googled to find the problematic images (and so can confirm that, yes, the characters from “the African island of Yerka” really do look like monkeys), and was intending to copy and paste them here. But now I’m finding that I don’t want to. I apparently agree with Shafer that access shouldn’t be impeded (feel free to google them yourself), but, like the Seuss estate, I choose not to distribute them myself.

Is that really the end of freedom in America?

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