Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the business that preserves and protects the author and illustrator’s legacy, announced on his birthday, Tuesday, March 2, 2021, that it would cease publication of several children’s titles because of insensitive and racist imagery. (Steven Senne - AP Photo)

Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the business that preserves and protects the author and illustrator’s legacy, announced on his birthday, Tuesday, March 2, 2021, that it would cease publication of several children’s titles because of insensitive and racist imagery. (Steven Senne - AP Photo)

COLUMN: A shift in cultural norms and standards

Concepts and terms which were once accepted are now considered repulsive

A vintage television commercial caught me off guard.

It was an animated black and white ad for Winston cigarettes, made in 1961, and it featured Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble from the animated TV series. This was one in a series of Flintstones cigarette commercials, and many can be found online with little effort.

The Flintstones ran from 1960 to 1966, and for its first two seasons, it was sponsored by the cigarette manufacturer. Later, juice-maker Welch’s sponsored the show. The commercial I noticed showed Fred and Barney smoking in the backyard while their wives, Wilma and Betty, are working hard around their homes.

A lot has changed since those commercials aired. Almost all tobacco advertising and promotion is banned in Canada, and it has been decades since cigarette ads have been allowed on Canadian television channels.

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The image of Fred and Barney goofing off while their wives do the hard work also wouldn’t fly today, even if the characters weren’t puffing away on cigarettes. In a world that has been addressing sexism and gender roles, the image seems more than a little incongruous.

Times have changed. The cultural standards and norms of an earlier era are not the same as the values of today.

The Flintstones cigarette commercial isn’t the only example of changing standards.

Consider the Beatles song, Run For Your Life, written by John Lennon and recorded in 1965. The lyrics feature a man who uses a condescending, threatening tone when talking to a woman. Some radio stations will no longer play this song because of the lyrics. Violence against women is nothing new, but now there’s a long-overdue discussion around this topic which didn’t exist in the same way in the mid-1960s.

Skipping ahead a couple of decades, the 1985 Dire Straits song, Money For Nothing, uses an anti-gay slur repeatedly. The slur was quite common from the 1970s to the 1990s, but I haven’t heard it in the past couple of decades. (Come to think of it, I can’t recall the last time I’ve heard that song played on the radio either.)

Certain words and concepts which were once common are now considered repulsive, while words or phrases in use today would have shocked a previous generation.

The change in standards showed itself once again last week when Dr. Seuss Enterprises pulled six of its titles. The announcement was made on March 2, the birthday of Theodor Seuss Geisel, who wrote under the Dr. Seuss name.

“These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,” a statement from Dr. Seuss Enterprises reads. “Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ catalogue represents and supports all communities and families.”

Dr. Seuss illustrated his first book, The Pocket Book of Boners, in 1931. That was 90 years ago. Oh, the Places You’ll Go! was published in 1990, shortly before his death in 1991. Perhaps even more has changed in the 30 years since his passing.

Today, some of his images and terms are considered offensive, leaving parents uncomfortable to read the stories or show the pictures to their children. Yet at the same time, others are upset that these classic book titles are being withdrawn.

Perhaps in another few decades, a completely different set of values will affect our books, music, animations and other entertainment.

John Arendt is the editor of the Summerland Review.

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