The (well-dressed) elephant in the corner

Egad! Could adorable Babar be a tool of colonialist oppression? Adam Gopnik bursts my bubble in a new New Yorker article:

Babar, such interpreters have insisted, is an allegory of French colonization, as seen by the complacent colonizers: the naked African natives, represented by the “good” elephants, are brought to the imperial capital, acculturated, and then sent back to their homeland on a civilizing mission. The elephants that have assimilated to the ways of the metropolis dominate those which have not.

The true condition of the animals—to be naked, on all fours, in the jungle—is made shameful to them, while to become an imitation human, dressed and upright, is to be given the right to rule. The animals that resist—the rhinoceroses—are defeated.

The Europeanized elephants are, as in the colonial mechanism of indirect rule, then made trustees of the system, consuls for the colonial power. To be made French is to be made human and to be made superior.

Gopnik tries to argue otherwise:

Fables for children work not by pointing to a moral but by complicating the moral of a point.

The child does not dutifully take in the lesson that salvation lies in civilization, but, in good Freudian fashion, takes in the lesson that the pleasures of civilization come with discontent at its constraints: you ride the elevator, dress up in the green suit, and go to live in Celesteville, but an animal you remain—the dangerous humans and rhinoceroses are there to remind you of that—and you delight in being so.

…Far more than an allegory of colonialism, the “Babar” books are a fable of the difficulties of a bourgeois life.

Say what?

I think I liked the world better before I read the article.

Here is a New York Times review of the Babar exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum. Here is an mp3 of Gopnik discussing the controversy.

5 thoughts on “The (well-dressed) elephant in the corner

  1. I remember the first time I read an article describing Babar as having colonialist overtones and thinking “yeah, I remember noticing that when I was 12….what?”

    But it was true.

    What the hell kind of 12 year old was I?

  2. I always thought Babar was about the divine right of kings. I read the books to my kid anyway.

  3. Texas in Africa beat me to it. I first heard that Babar was an allegory of the mission civilizatrice from Bill Foltz. I’ve tried to ruin the innocence of my own students, but it’s not clear how many of them had been attached enough to Babar to be shocked.

  4. When my children were little I bought them a Babar book. I then read it. It was one of the early ones where Barbar comes back from Europe and starts establishing civilization. When I got to the section where Barbar creates a Bureau of Industry to handle production and a Bureau of Entertainment to handle theatre, etc., I declared Barbar “economic pornography” and banned the books from the house. When they were older, my children made fun of me and would mention this incident to their friends to illustrate their father’s eccentric ways.

    Imagine my satisfaction when one of them returned from college saying that his class in something or other had read and analyzed some Barbar and found the books racist and colonialist. I probably would have agreed had I read that far. From my point of view that was close enough to vindication.

  5. Bill Foltz used Babar as an example of assimilation in his intro African politics classes for years.

    At least it’s not as bad as Tintin in the Congo. The French always were classier about these things…