August 19, 2013

Horse 1532 - Charlie and the Exploitative and Casually Racist Chocolate Factory

Oompa Loompa doompa dee doo, I've got another puzzle for you.
Oompa Loompa doompa dee dee, if you are wise you'll listen to me.

What do you get if you get if you kidnap some slaves;
Force them to work in your underground caves?
Why do you think that that makes it okay?
If you look the other way... Hiding from the government.

Oompa Loompa doompa dee daa, If you like cruelty, you will go far.
Just don't live in slavery too, like the Oompa Loompa doompa dee do. 

The 1971 film "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" came on telly the other night; most likely as a tie in with the line of branded chocolate bars made by Nestle. Whilst watching the film, I was quite happy to see a range of early 1970s motor cars like the BMW 2002 and Renault 16 but other things which I hadn't really thought about before made themselves all too apparent, like casual racism and slave labour.

In the 1964 imprint of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Mr Wonka doesn't take Oompa Loompas back to his factory but Pygmies from Africa. I find the idea that you could kidnap them and force them to work in a factory for is just horrid and abhorrent; though entirely unremarkable according to everyone in the book.
Never mind the fact that during the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement which saw African-Americans and Black British finally and properly elevated to the ranks of "normal" society. In Australia, Aboriginal peoples only got the vote in 1967 which is totally bonkers since it was white people who stole their lands and practically destroyed a lot of their culture.
Changing the description from the Pygmies to a mythical race of Oompa Loompas in the 1970 imprint, I suppose is a token step in the right direction but it still doesn't change the fact that Mr Willy Wonka has enslaved an entire race of people, puts them to work in his factory, doesn't let them have contact with the outside world and admits through the incidents with 'hair toffee' and meals made of 'chewing gum', that he performs experiments on them.
Even the name Oompa Loompa reduces them to the status of mere chattel via the mechanism of ridicule. Is it any better today when Godfrey Bloom of UKIP speaks of 'Bongo Bongo Land'? I wonder.

It's not just the Oompa Loompas but the way that everyone foreign is viewed in this book.
The tale of the Indian Prince 'Pondicherry' in chapter 3, whilst being slightly amusing fares not a lot better when you bother to consider it.
India until 1947 had been a British dominion and portraying an Indian Prince as a bit of a dunderhead is sort of a back-handed insult of sorts. It's perfectly fine in this world to poke fun at a rich foreigner who does something utterly 'stupid' but a when a rich British factory owner sacks his entire workforce without notice or entitlements, he is to be pitied instead.

There is also the somewhat trifling matter of the children themselves. If we assume that the story is set in Britain, then its likely that all of the four other kids apart from Charlie are foreigners. Augustus Gloop is most definitely German and the impression that I get is that the other three are supposed to be American.
Charlie Bucket is portrayed as the 'good', polite and passive British child and is the 'hero' of the book despite never really doing anything noble or heroic except being quiet and complicity obedient. The implication is that 'good' British people are quiet, follow the rules and aren't really passionate about anything; whereas all foreigners are in some way greedy or otherwise bad people.

I wonder how the story would have differed had it been written in 2013. I doubt whether the level of casual racism and nationalism would be so clumsy.
The 2005 film plays more on the surreal aspects of the book and drags it further into a place that shows that Willy Wonka himself is a screwball. More disturbingly, all of the Oompa Loompas are played by just one person, which makes you wonder if some sort of genetic cloning experiment has occurred.

On a similar note, there is a warning on the inside of the Astro Boy reprints informing the reader that there are depictions of people (particularly Africans) which are no longer considered to be acceptable. The caveat is that the author is now dead and that a work should be presented as was but that the reader is to be aware of the cultural insensitivities.
There is a degree that Roald Dahl did make changes to the book of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and this still can be seen in parts when terms like a sixpence which is pre-decimal and a fifty pence piece is inserted later in the book instead of a half-crown but they hardly make up for the chattelisation of people.

In the 1971 film, there is a point of redemption though. The children I suppose to get their just desserts and their parents shoulder their portion of blame but ironically it is the Oompa Loompas themselves who deliver the strongest and best message:

Oompa Loompa doompa dee daa If you're not greedy, you will go far.
You will live in happiness too,  like the Oompa Loompa doompa dee do.

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