In an era of increasing awareness for political correctness, James Finn Garner fights back with his Politically Correct Bedtime Stories. He rewrites thirteen traditional children's stories using as much politically correct jargon as possible in an effort to show the absurd extent to which the movement has been taken. Although his first thirty attempts at publishing proved unsuccessful, Garner did receive much critical acclaim for his book once it finally made its debut in February of 1994. Most readers and critics alike responded to the witty tales as Garner did, seeing the extremes of political correctness and how it can even affect childhood traditions. However, some critics such as Patricia T. O'Conner applauded Garner for actually changing the face of history with these embellished stories. They saw the book as being revolutionary rather than being satirical as Garner had intended. Whether audiences were in favor of Garner's corrections or merely laughed at them as he did, it is certainly true that his version of traditional fairy tales was well received from the moment its publication.
Garner introduces his book with the statement, "we cannot blame the Brothers Grimm for their insensitivity to womyn's issues, minority cultures, and the environment" (ix). Thus he chooses to take the opportunity "to rethink these ?classic' stories so they reflect more enlightened times" (ix). By doing so, Garner is not trying to completely restructure the traditions of past generations. Rather, he attempts to do exactly the opposite, attempting to show that traditions are precisely what they are and should not be subjected to the changes of the modern world. More importantly, these stories are childhood pastimes, ones which have been treasured for years and are expected to touch the lives of future generations. Garner points out that subjecting children to the particulars of political correctness is entirely unnecessary and should not be done. As he told The New York Times Book Review:
"There's magic to storytelling, and fear and wonder, and when you tie obvious little agendas to it, kids see that. I don't think a kid was ever made sexist because he or she read ?Snow White.' I think they were made sexist because of how they were raised and what they see in society around them. They didn't get it from silly little stories ? they got it from Barbie." (Elsen, 3)
Garner is a firm believer of these childhood stories and thus attempted to preserve their sanctity by writing his own version. Critics like Jonathan Yardley agree with the author and acknowledge that the turn which political correctness has taken over the years has gotten out of hand. He praised Garner for satirizing the movement's extremes, proclaiming that the author has "committed a public service of truly epic dimensions" (B2). Yardley even goes so far as to hail Garner as the "Hans Nonsectarian Andersen for our very own time" (B2). He appreciates the author's efforts to protect the magic of childhood fairy tales from the absurd changes of modern times.
The idea for the book began when Garner learned that some traditional children's stories were being revised and new ones were being written to exclude allegedly offensive and derogatory material. He points out that some elementary school teachers were even being advised to avoid certain children's books because of their seemingly negative attributes. But the author believes that all old stories are great and should be left alone for future generations to experience. Incidentally, they would not have survived through the years had they not been considered to have a moral message geared towards a young audience. Indeed, children learn valuable lessons from reading and listening to tales such as "The Emperor's New Clothes" and "Jack and the Beanstalk." Completely altering the stories to fit the standards of political correctness would result in a loss of clarity and, more importantly, would devalue the fairy tales' moral lesson.
Thus Garner decided to write his own version in order to "mimic that overreaction" of applying political correctness in the classroom (Elsen, 3). Children at a young age are entirely oblivious to the cruelties and discriminations inflicted by adult society. Thus the compilation of childhood fairy tales is actually intended to target an older audience, those who impose such negative stereotypes on others. As Garner says in his introduction:
"If, through omission or commission, I have inadvertently displayed any sexist, racist, culturalist, nationalist, regionalist, ageist, lookist, ableist, sizeist, speciesist, intellectualist, socioeconomicist, ethnocentrist, phallocentrist, heteropatriarchalist, or other type of bias as yet unnamed, I apologize and encourage your suggestions for rectification." (x)
Garner ultimately makes a mockery of the overly critical and analytical attitudes of late twentieth-century America. Included on his list of attacks is an overt criticism of the feminist movement. In "Little Red Riding Hood," for example, Garner begins the story by saying:
"One day her [Little Red Riding Hood's] mother asked her to take a basket of fresh fruit to her grandmother's house ? not because this was womyn's work, mind you, but because the deed was generous and helped engender a feeling of community." (1)
He is quick not to generalize the work of women as being limited to caring for their family members and completing domestic chores. He also spells "womyn" with a "y" as opposed to an "e," a habit many feminists have picked over the years to completely separate themselves from male domination. Minute distinctions such as these characterize the entire book, actually mocking the feminist movement and the extreme actions it takes rather than supporting its arguments. In an attempt to make this notion clear, Garner changes "Little Red Riding Hood's" end to assume a feminist point of view. Rather than rejoicing at the arrival of the wood-chopper, who intends to save the young girl and her grandmother from the wolf, Little Red Riding Hood exclaims:
"Bursting in her like a Neanderthal, trusting your weapon to do your thinking for you!" she exclaimed. "Sexist! Speciesist! How dare you assume that womyn and wolves can't solve their own problems without a man's help!" (4)
Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother, who "jumped out of the wolf's mouth," kill the wood-chopper for being a macho hero (4). They then live happily ever after with the wolf "in an alternative household based on mutual respect and cooperation" (4).
With such a ridiculous ending, Garner proves that only absurdity results in rewriting a famous story. Trying to alter it merely to satisfy the needs of feminists only produces more violence and relates a moral message children would never understand.
Ironically, critic Patricia T. O'Conner praises Garner for correcting the male-dominated attitude of these childhood fairy tales. She believes the author "blows the lid off classic literature's dirty little secret: those fairy tales we all grew up with are disgustingly unenlightened" (3). O'Conner has obviously misread Garner's intent and, instead of seeing the light-heartedness of his efforts, considers his revisions to be a much-needed godsend. In her critique of Garner's work, she rails on about the absurdities of children's stories:
"They're embarrassing, really ? litanies of conquest and oppression, full of testosterone-crazed giants, hairy trolls and other threatening social outcasts who enjoy abusing children, playing tricks on the mentally impaired, wearing fur and eating meat, sometimes human meat. (Not that one should place a lesser value on nonhuman than on human animals, thus falling victim to species-centered thinking.)" (3)
Unlike other critics, O'Conner does not see the satirical side of Garner's book. Rather, she treats his politically correct stories as serious and necessary revisions. She is precisely one of the overly critical and sensitive persons Garner warns about and blatantly attacks through his stories. Like many extremists, O'Conner views political correctness as a necessity for safeguarding society from a male-dominated and overtly sexist mentality. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with wanting to raise the female sex above the stereotypes it has endured over the centuries. However, as Garner points out, altering childhood fairy tales is not the way to do it, although in O'Conner's and other feminists eyes his method seems perfectly appropriate. As she says:
"And the women! Or, as Mr. Garner prefers, ?womyn.' Tradition has exposed us to a parade of submissive ninnies (except for witches, more power to them) who pass the time swooning, kissing frogs (not because they're open to interspecies relationships but because they can't get dates), waiting for princes to come along, spinning straw into gold (clearly a dead-end job) and consulting the mirror on the wall for reassurance that they meet society's Eurocentric, white-bread standards of beauty." (3)
O'Conner overreacts to the way in which traditional children's stories are told. She chooses to ignore the fact that they were written long ago in a time when males were publicly superior to women. She also neglects the moral lessons they relate and chooses instead to focus on minute details such as their attitudes towards women and their bombastic diction. O'Conner therefore does not enjoy Garner's book as the satire it is meant to be. Rather, she perceives it as a serious subject that should be dealt with accordingly. She completely misses the message Garner relates by rewriting these stories, that extreme political correctness is utterly absurd. Instead, she falls into the author's trap and brands herself as one of the many who are desire to impose political correctness in every aspect of daily life, even in the classroom.
In response to extremists like O'Conner, Garner suggests that they find other ways of attacking social problems than by rewriting children's fairy tales. In an interview with critic Jon Elsen, the author mentions that, when one attempts to correct discrimination by changing the language of traditional stories, "you're debasing the idea of sexual or racial equality and wasting credibility trying to get people to eliminate certain ways of saying things. You're not converting them, you're annoying them" (3). Politically Correct Bedtime Stories is thus an attempt to display the annoyances political correctness.
Although O'Conner considers Garner's book to be a serious revision, most readers enjoy the stories for their witty and fanciful nature. They treat the fairy tales as they are meant to be treated, merely as tales. The book is meant to bring adults back to the days of their childhood and think how these stories would have been received had they replaced the traditional versions. Indeed, Garner is standing up to those modernists who believe childhood fairy tales are oppressive, ultimately showing that altering them neither changes the attitudes of society nor makes the world a better place to live. "As if Mother Goose is the source of all the domestic violence in this world," Garner said (Tabor, C1)
Elsen, Jon. "Jack, the Beanstalk and His Marginalized Mother." The New York Times Book Review 15 May 1994: 3.
Garner, James Finn. Politically Correct Bedtime Stories. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1994.
O'Conner, Patricia T. "Politically Correct Bedtime Stories." The New York Times Book Review 15 May 1994: 3.
Tabor, Mary B. W. "At Home with James Finn Garner: On Pens and Needles." The New York Times 28 Sept 1995: C1.
Yardley, Jonathan. Washington Post Book World 27 April 1994, B2.