I have clear memories of this book.
- First, I remember my father buying it for me in Paper Plus. I was in attendance. He thought I wouldn’t notice, then snuck it into my santa sack.
- Second, it was very unusual for my father to buy any books at all.
- Third, this was a whole-family read and I remember reciting it theatrically with my parents laughing and laughing. For some reason I’m under the dining-room table as I’m doing this and it’s a fine summer’s day.
I hadn’t opened the book since about 1986, even though I still own my original copy and even though I have carried it from house to house throughout my nomadic years.
It’s funny how things age, isn’t it? This week Aldi seems to have scored a swag of Roald Dahl books and is selling them slightly cheaper than you’d expect as a Special Buy. Someone who has better memories of Revolting Rhymes than I do — or perhaps someone who has picked this book up for the first time ever — subsequently commented on Aldi’s Facebook page that this book contains the word ‘slut’. And now the book has been pulled from Aldi’s shelves. Next follows journalistic descriptions of consumer ‘outrage’, because this is children’s literature we’re talking about here, and this is how things go.
This debacle reminds me of the companion volume to Revolting Rhymes, Dirty Beasts, which I took to school one day for my (very conservative, vest-wearing, monk-living Christian teacher) to read after lunch. If I’m honest, my 9-year-old self had been looking forward to Mr Bayley saying the phrase, ‘And dropped a cow pat on his head!’ as the conclusion to The Cow. Instead, my teacher slammed the book shut and returned it to me with a grim and disappointed expression on his face. I’d been expecting the entire class to laugh at the final line, to pat me on the back and tell me what a wonderful book I’d chosen. I’d been expecting Mr Bayley to read many more poems from Dirty Beasts during our after lunch calming session, but instead he launched us straight into arithmetic, and I remember the disgusted look on Paul Hamlyn’s face as he said, ‘Why did you choose such a short one?’
I wasn’t allowed to pick the after lunch reading material again that year, and it wasn’t just a teacher-enforced thing.
I wonder what Mr Bayley would have done if I’d instead brought my copy of Revolting Rhymes and asked him to read the story with the ‘slut’? The sorts of people who are accusing the world of going PC mad!! are keen to point out that the original meaning of ‘slut’ is of an unkempt, untidy, slovenly woman, and that Roald Dahl did not intend the other more modern meaning which refers to a woman who has too much sex, according to some culturally defined standard. Being old-fashioned if not old, it’s likely my Mr Bayley would have been quite happy to read that one, being ignorant (perhaps) of its other meaning. I’ll never know.
Others chuckle and point out that any Scandinavian translation of a children’s book will end with the word ‘Slut’, since in Danish and Norwegian ‘Slut’ means simply ‘The End’. Our story app Midnight Feast has been translated into Danish, and until I received the translation I hadn’t realised this. I’ll admit enjoying a cheap chuckle. As an argument for the wanton usage of ‘slut’ in children’s literature, though, this oddity of language doesn’t stand up, since when Danish people read Midnight Feast, they read ‘The End’. They’re not encouraged to think of women in a sexual and disparaging way.
ALDI’S DECISION IS NOT ACTUALLY CENSORSHIP
One thing I’d like to point out amid all this discussion of ‘censorship’ — Aldi pulled Revolting Rhymes from its stores upon receiving a complaint — is that this is not ‘censorship’ at all. Censorship comes from government, and when Aldi, or any other company decides not to sell something, that company is simply making a ‘business decision’.
‘POLITICALLY CORRECT’ DOES NOT EQUAL ‘CONSERVATIVE’.
I’m surprised at Aldi’s decision, but perhaps I shouldn’t be. Aldi continues to demonstrate ultra conservative attitudes. When pink dolls and dollhouses are on special at Aldi, there is a big sign up saying ‘Girls’ Toys’. Trucks and aeroplanes are labelled ‘Boys’ Toys’. Mothers’ Day each year is preceded with sales of cosmetics and scrapbooking equipment. Right now we’re heading full-throttle towards Father’s Day, and this week you’ll find garage tools and leather work gloves on the Special Buys table. None of this is coincidental. Despites exclamations to the contrary, Aldi cares not one jot about political correctness. Hell, Aldi calls all manner of different green unidentifiable-by-white-people vegetables ‘Asian greens’, like Asians are likewise one big indistinguishable conglomerate of leaf-eating people. Aldi care only about customers buying as many products from Aldi as possible, cashing in on impulse purchases if at all possible, in which case the customer needn’t do any more thinking than absolutely necessary. When Aldi accidentally stocks a children’s book containing the word ‘slut’ in a derogatory fashion and then receives a single complaint, it really only takes a single complaint, because if the movers and shakers at Aldi knew that word was in the book then they wouldn’t have bought a truckload of them in the first place. A children’s book containing the word ‘slut’ goes against Aldi’s conservative principles.
ETYMOLOGY ISN’T AN ARGUMENT, EITHER
Here’s the thing: whether you do or don’t read this collection to your own children or to your own class of students, it’s kind of irrelevant to talk about the ‘original use’ of a word, because language changes, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say that here in Australia, in 2014, the word ‘slut’ no longer refers to an unkempt, slovenly woman, but is instead a cringe-inducing, violent word which is used to try and keep women, especially young women wearing low-cut fashions, in line.
CULTURE, AS WELL AS CHILDREN’S LITERATURE, EVOLVES, AND THAT’S A GOOD THING
I have a liberal attitude towards use of taboo language, partly because I think that liberal use of bad words saps them of their power, which is actually a good thing. When I’m ready to have a discussion with my daughter about the meaning of ‘slut’, then I might be happy to read her Revolting Rhymes. Roald Dahl, along with Enid Blyton, was my favourite author when I was in primary school. But honestly, that’s because I wasn’t exposed to much else. My own six-year-old has access to a far wider range of reading material, not only because children’s publishing has flourished in the last 30 years but also because I’m an enthusiastic curator of literature myself. For some strange reason, my daughter isn’t interested in Enid Blyton or Roald Dahl, at least, not yet. Without looking at the colophon, she is always drawn to the newer stories. But this isn’t strange at all.
Roald Dahl’s use of the word ‘slut’ may indeed have been innocent (I doubt it). I’m going to let this one word stand as a symbol for the entire body of Dahl’s work. I’m happy we’re having this cultural conversation. I’m not writing all of Dahl’s work off, not by any means, but let’s not forget that Roald Dahl was a man of his time, and though his personal ideologies died with him, his work lives on.
Should Aldi have pulled these books from its shelves? Probably not. The book has just received a big shot of publicity, like it needs it. Should Aldi still be stocking the work of Dahl and Richard Scarry (with Scarry’s outdated, heavily gendered division of labour) to the exclusion of newer bulk purchases of children’s books with modern, less problematic ideologies?
Good riddance to Revolting Rhymes; bring us instead Zita the Spacegirl. Bring us bulk-purchased award- winning modern classics less then 10 years old. Bring us box sets of the Lunchlady series and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Let’s support the publishing industry instead of reminiscing about times of yore, before the world had Gone PC Mad.
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