Should you feel guilty for loving The Cat in the Hat?
The Cat in the Hat was commissioned by Houghton Mifflin as a direct response to Life magazine’s report on illiteracy among school children, which concluded that children were not learning to read because their books were boring. The publisher’s brief to Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss: to create ‘a book children can't put down.’
Dr. Seuss succeeded. His iconic The Cat in the Hat is ‘lots of good fun that is funny’, and is Seuss's second best-selling book of all time (and the ninth best-selling children’s book of all time - Publishers Weekly). It's great to read aloud with its humour, drama, suspense and natural cadence - so I often perform it when I visit schools.
But Seuss's work is being seen as increasingly problematic, with critics labelling it as racist. Those claims were explored earlier this year in a study published in Research on Diversity in Youth Literature by Katie Ishizuka and Ramon Stephens. Their paper, The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti- Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss's Children's Books concludes that some of Dr. Seuss's most iconic books ‘feature animal or non-human characters that transmit Orientalist, anti-Black, and White supremacist messaging through allegories and symbolism. These books include The Cat in the Hat; The Cat in the Hat Comes Back; The Sneetches; and Horton Hears a Who!’
Their research found that the Cat’s appearance was allegedly ‘inspired by blackface performance, racist images in popular culture, and actual African Americans’ (Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: Exploring Dr. Seuss’s Racial Imagination, Philip Nel).
Examples given include:
the Cat’s umbrella (allegedly linking him to Zip Coon, a ‘northern dandy negro’);
his oversized, floppy tie (recalling the polka-dotted ties of blackfaced Fred Astaire in Swing Time (1936) and of blackfaced Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms (1939);
his iconic red-and-white-striped hat (Rooney’s hat in the same film or the hats on the minstrel clowns in the silent picture Off to Bloomingdale Asylum);
his performance of tricks for the children which 'mimics the role of blackface performers'.
Sure, the Cat is black. But do children of any ethnicity really identify themselves with him in terms of mere appearance? Don't they simply see him as a goofy looking cat in a hat? A bit naughty? Or funny? Or kind? Maybe they can see themselves in him if they are the class clown who likes to play to a crowd and make people laugh. Or if they have ADHD. But claims that the Cat’s physical attributes mirror blackface performers seems a bit tenuous to me. Even if that was the inspiration (and Seuss is known to have written and performed in blackface in his own minstrel show) - or if Seuss gave him the 'white gloves... sly smile, and... color’ of the Black elevator operator at his publisher’s offices - does that make the Cat himself offensive?
Let's look at it from a different viewpoint. The Cat's white face allows for clearer expressions than would have been possible on a black face. His behaviour is buffoonish - that of the traditional clown (as indeed is the white face and outlandish hat and tie). And the Cat’s umbrella? That’s always reminded me of Chaplin with his cane. Or Gene Kelly as he sings and dances in the rain, five years earlier in 1952. As a kid, I used to pretend to be Gene Kelly (using my Grandma's walking stick as a prop) - plus I love a good hat! So the Cat I'm cool with.
More worrying to me is the neglect shown by the children's mother who went out for the day (leaving them alone and with nothing to do) and the Cat for keeping Thing 1 and Thing 2 in a big red wood box with no air holes! And that final stanza - where it suggests in an open-ended question that it might be ok to lie - has always jarred with me a little:
Should we tell her about it? | Now, what SHOULD we do? | Well… | What would YOU do | if your mother asked YOU?
So should you feel guilty for loving The Cat in the Hat? I don't think so. The reason it’s so popular and enduring is simple. It’s a great story that warrants more than one reading. I understand there is controversy surrounding Dr. Seuss as a man and his attitudes towards non-white ethnic groups. So let’s discuss them and use the lessons learned to inform and guide the children’s books of the future to be inclusive and diverse. Because children’s books are powerful tools, and as creators we get to help shape the minds of the future.
But please - let's not throw out the Cat and the cup and the milk and the cake with the bath water.
Because I for one would miss him.