Should the Word ‘Slut’ Be in a Children’s Book in 2014?

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Recently, the Australian supermarket chain Aldi removed Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes from its shelves in response to, as an Aldi spokeswoman put it, “comments by a limited number of concerned customers regarding the language used in this particular book.” According to The Guardian, the book was removed after at least one person commented on Aldi’s Facebook page about the book, saying it had “an unacceptable word in it for kids!!! Not ok!” Since apparently stores are now paying attention to what people say on their Facebook pages (it is the future, everyone), Aldi is now facing protest from people on both sides of the aisle.

Before we go any further, the unacceptable word is “slut.”

Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, published in 1982, is a parodical retelling of six fairy tales in verse. We’re all familiar with the concept of twisted fairy tales, and these are just the type you’d expect from Dahl: bizarre, manic, filled with slang and, often, delightfully off-color, bulbous language. The section drawing fire (and defense) now comes from “Cinderella,” just after the Prince chops off the heads of the two Ugly Stepsisters:

‘What’s all the racket?’ Cindy cried. ‘Mind your own bizz,’ the Prince replied. Poor Cindy’s heart was torn to shreds. My Prince! she thought He chops off heads! How could I marry anyone Who does that sort of thing for fun? The Prince cried, ‘Who’s this dirty slut? ‘Off with her nut! Off with her nut!’

So, right. On the one hand, censorship is undeniably a bad thing. I think we can all agree that banning books, no matter how revolting they may be, is not a useful thing to do. Parents should make decisions about what kind of books their children read, and then discuss any problematic words or concepts that come up in the readings of said books with their children directly. And Roald Dahl is so generally wonderful that it would be a real shame to deprive children of his wacky glory.

Then there’s the ‘book of its time’ argument — 1982 doesn’t seem so long ago, but there has definitely been a major change in the way culture addresses women since then. There have even been a few commenters reminding each other that ‘slut’ once had another meaning, connected to ‘slatternly’ and meaning dirty (though to be honest, I’m not buying that — that definition was outdated way before ’82). I’m reminded of the controversy over the 2011 edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which some 200 instances of the word ‘nigger’ were removed. Nobody liked that, and for good reason — whitewashing (well, so to speak) history doesn’t help us progress, conversations do. Plus, doctoring literature that much seems intrinsically icky and wrong.

But fairy tale poems are not Huck Finn — they’re aimed at a much younger audience. So the question remains: should ‘slut’ really be in a children’s book in 2014? This is a word that has been used for many years to put down, shame and subjugate women. And it’s not like it’s being used out of context here. It’s being used to put down, shame and subjugate poor Cindy. I take no issue with beheadings in books for children, and in fact think grotesquerie and darkness in children’s literature is acceptable, even essential. But this is a poem in which a man, when interrupted by a woman, not only uses a sexual slur against her but uses it as a precursor to violence, and that’s something a little different, a little more insidious, than just cartoonish head-chopping.

And while it’s true that Cinderella doesn’t marry the Prince in the end — she gets a nice jam-maker — the sister-slayer is not exactly portrayed as evil, just insane. If he had gotten some kind of punishment for his foul acts and language, that might have mediated the usage a little bit — the message being “say things like this, get chopped up into tiny pieces and fed to diseased rats, kiddies!”– but instead he just doesn’t get the girl. His actions are naughty, but basically, in the small world of this poem, okay.

In the end, I still don’t think Dahl’s book should have been removed from Aldi, or any other store. Plenty of great books contain outdated language and concepts that parents should be responsible for addressing with their children, if they choose to give them those books, which they don’t have to do. Banning books isn’t the answer. But would a reprint that substituted “mutt” or something similar destroy the integrity of Dahl’s poem? I highly doubt it. Unlike Twain’s book, there’s not much value in telling a five-year-old about the history of the word she’s reading. What would it do? Perhaps just take his book off the pile of those that suggest ways to shame women with language. The adults of tomorrow will be grateful.