On Babar

Is Babar a cute, quaint children’s book series or a vile tool of neocolonialism? Adam Gopnik revisits this and other questions in a piece about Jean de Brunhof’s classic:

In the past few decades, a series of critics on the left, most notably the Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman, have indicted Babar in the course of a surprisingly resilient and hydra-headed argument about the uses of imagery and the subtleties of imperialist propaganda. 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. The straight lines and boulevards of Celesteville, the argument goes, are the sign of enslavement.

People who seem shocked by these interpretations might like to read up on Tintin.

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