Apparently, Pippi Longstocking is a Swedish cultural icon. And when national broadcaster STV recently announced it would edit a couple of the more racist scenes from a beloved 1969 television adaptation, the decision was met with howls of outrage. Really? Preserving the casual racism in a television show for children is your big stand for freedom of speech?
The New York Times reports that SVT decided to do something about the moment when Pippi refers to her father as "king of the Negroes," using a Swedish word that's come to be considered an unacceptable slur. "We live in a Sweden that is multicultural, and the kids should feel included in what we broadcast," explained biz dev head Paulette Rosas Hott. It is, after all, programming for children; with all due respect to any adults fans, it seems pretty important that kids sitting down to enjoy the adventures of a spunky young girl not be blindsided with some vintage racism.
But critics are calling the move censorship. Opinion columnists in particular are shitting bricks, of course, because they're paid to shit bricks; Erik Helmerson, for instance, insisted to the Times that he'd never dream of using such language, but said the move was "a huge interference into freedom of speech," asking, "Where do we draw the line? What do we cut and what do we keep? Who should decide? Who needs to be offended before we cut a word?"
It's worth considering some additional cultural context, here:
Coming just weeks after a hard-right party with skinhead roots won an unprecedented 13 percent of the vote in national elections, and following other recent controversies over caricatures in children's books in Sweden, the Pippi flap has tapped into a growing and often uncomfortable debate. It concerns ethnicity in a country that prides itself on its egalitarianism but in which ethnic minorities, a small percentage of the country's nine million people, have only recently begun to have a voice.
The funny thing about the freedom of speech argument is that the descendants of author Astrid Lindgren approved the changes. Nils Nyman, the grandchild who currently oversees her estate, was somewhat surprised the changes inspired such a tizzy:
Mr. Nyman said the family had readily agreed to allow SVT to edit two brief scenes in the program, which will air on national television on Saturday and in a newly restored DVD. He said that not making the changes risked distracting from the books' broader message of "girl power before it was known" as such. In one scene, the racial slur has been removed so that Pippi now says, "My father is the king!" In the second, Pippi no longer pulls her eyelids upward, pretending to be Asian, yet still sings a mock Chinese song.
Hell, the Times notes that even in the 70s, Lindgren was backtracking on the phrasing, saying she didn't mean to offend. The family has preserved the books' original text, but they've added a prologue explaining what's now considered offensive, turning it into a kind of teachable moment. Which has the benefit of acknowledging history, rather than sweeping it under the rug. But that approach seems better suited to a book than a television broadcast.
What's interesting is that, according to the Times, the U.S. version has for many years referred to the Longstocking pater as "king of the cannibals" somewhere in the South Seas. Which, sure, avoids any outright racially charged terminology. But it still promotes the idea that there are scary, primitive OTHERS lurking out there in the great, wide world. Makes for a pretty great reminder that it's tempting to romanticize the books, movies and television we once loved, but you might want to skim any classics before handing them over to kids you care about. Sorry, 90s kids, but putting them on the right path is more important than nostalgia.
Image via AP.