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Roald Dahl Getty Images.jpg

It Was Never About Cancel Culture: It Was Always About Capitalism

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Miscellaneous | February 28, 2023 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Miscellaneous | February 28, 2023 |


Roald Dahl Getty Images.jpg

The publishing house Puffin caused a furore when they recently announced plans to ‘update’ the books of Roald Dahl for modern audiences. The changes to his work included changing words like ‘fat’ to ‘enormous’, removing gendered pronouns for the oompa-loompas, and attempting to tone down the misogynistic descriptions of the witches in the book of the same name. The responses were, predictably, loud, and I wrote about why it was a silly idea. Well, don’t worry, because now Puffin has conveniently revealed that they will also release the original books to give readers a ‘choice’ in the matter.

They certainly played us all like a fiddle, to the point where I’m kind of mad at myself for not seeing this conclusion coming. This is what they do, right? Drum up faux controversy and wait for the cheques to write themselves. It seems clear that Puffin was always planning on doing two editions of Dahl’s work, but held back on the ‘original’ announcement until they’d earned enough headlines to pretend that they’d listened to criticisms. Around this time, it was also announced that the publishers of the James Bond novels would ‘update’ some of its more archaic details, and thus the circle of bad-faith continued once more.

The exhausting bad-faith nature of the omnipresent cancel culture debate is how it twists the most mundane everyday concepts to represent some kind of malicious act of censorship. Not thinking transphobic jokes made by multi-millionaires are funny is tantamount to silencing. A mediocre movie franchise adding a gay or non-white character becomes a callous act of so-called wokery. Noting a musician’s use of an ableist slur in a song sparks a dozen think-piece writers to wonder if being called a bigot is somehow worse than actually being one. For a group so obsessed with telling people not to make everything political, they sure don’t practice what they preach.

So now we have publishers and estates who are grasping at their valuable IPs and wondering why modern audiences aren’t blindly purchasing them in droves. It’s not as though Dahl’s books will ever stop making money. There will always be readers who buy James Bond novels. But making a choice to read something else, to talk to your kids about the kinds of stuff that isn’t appropriate in 2023, is not cancel culture. To demand that every generation only adhere to the culture of your time is the attitude of a philistine.

Fleming, Dahl, and many others have been criticized for their misogyny, racism, and such for decades, including during their lifetimes. We talk of works like Casino Royale and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory being ‘books of their time,’ but that only shows us part of the picture. It also ignores that, shock horror, people called out racism in the ’50s and ’60s. In the first published edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the Oompa-Loompas were described as African pygmies and the illustrations reflected that. The NAACP called it out, noting that the portrayal of African characters transported to a factory to work for a rich white dude for no money couldn’t help but evoke images of slavery. Dahl, who wasn’t exactly a progressive, agreed and published a revised edition. Many creatives did listen to activist groups and campaigners when making their work, especially when it was intended for a young audience. Even David O. Selznick and Walt f**king Disney did so when making Gone With the Wind and Song of the South respectively (that obviously didn’t work because both are hugely racist but that they worked to make them sort-of less so in the ’30s and ’40s shows some degree of self-awareness on the matter.)

Creators can update their work, have their views evolve, and the conversations can continue. What these publishers and estates are doing completely lacks the optimism of personal change. They’ve made a lot of money from the likes of Dahl and Fleming, and rather than accept a little less money in the future, they’ll dig deep to protect their cash cow. But of course they must have it both ways too: they must ‘update’ the work to give the vaguest sheen of sensitivity, all while stirring up right-wing fervour about woke cancel culture to ensure smarmy panic sales go through the roof.

We’ve seen time and time again that the media love to turn garden variety abuse into a hotbed of ‘controversy’ to mine for all its worth. There’s a reason it took Adidas so long to condemn Kanye West, even as he ranted about slavery being a choice. Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, didn’t get pulled from newspapers until he was shown on-camera calling Black people a ‘hate group’ and advocating for segregation, despite years of racism documented across multiple platforms. J.K. Rowling is now a folk hero to this crowd while her transphobia is downplayed as a mere opinion of a poor beleaguered underdog who just wants everyone to be friends. Never forget how Donald Trump was described as being great for ratings.

All of this has made it near-impossible to actually call out and condemn those who cause hurt. You can’t cancel a millionaire. You can’t demand repercussions when the business model is working exactly as designed. There’s no way to even sit it out, to just go about your own lives, because that too has been weaponized to the worst possible excesses. Even M&Ms aren’t exempt from this madness. It’s a cycle designed to consistently bolster the status quo, one that ignores how under-represented voices are crushed under its wheels.

This is what we have to deal with now, and it’s exhausting. The ceaseless fuelling of outrage for profit, regardless of its authenticity, is a well that may never run dry. Basic human decency and efforts to do better are detrimental to this pattern because they reveal the lie behind the screeching: not wanting to buy something for whatever reason is as much a part of the free market as these tedious tantrums. But pointing that out is wokery or whatever. It never ends.