Pinkwashing “Potter”

My dear friend Katie over at The Lil’ Life of LilLadyKT shared a link to this fascinating blog post on her Facebook page yesterday. The post is a brilliant, strong-language-heavy response to another blog post published by the New York Times last week. As someone who reads a lot, both for myself and to my son, the original post is nothing short of infuriating.

But we’ll come back to that.

Let’s discuss pinkwashing first. Before yesterday, the term had never come into my orbit. I heard “pinkwashing” and immediately, visions of tutus and cupcakes and Barbie danced in my head. I figured it had something to do with girls; the word “pink” generally does that to people. Pinkwashing, according to author Lynn Messina, works like this:

I do this sort of on-the-fly editing all the time when reading to my 5-year-old. I call it “pinkwashing” after the scene in “Pinkalicious” in which the poor, discolored child must stomach horrible green vegetables as a cure for her unfortunate pinkness. She chokes down artichokes, gags on grapes and burps up brussels sprouts. The passage serves important narrative and stylistic functions, of course, but Emmett loves artichokes, grapes and brussels sprouts. He never complains about eating them, so rather than hint at a generation-long struggle against the tyranny of green veggies, I replace the negative verbs with positive ones. Pinkwashing.

Basically, we’re talking about replacing words. I do that when reading Once Upon a Potty to Joshua! These pages provide a good example:

When I read these pages aloud, I read them as they are, but I say, “A pee-pee for making pee-pee” and “A tushie for sitting and in it a little hole for making poopy.” Those are just the words I’ve chosen to teach Joshua; they still carry the same meaning. Ms. Messina’s definition of pinkwashing, however, changes negatives into positives. Her edits can change entire plots, and that’s where I have a problem. It’s been a long time since I read Pinkalicious, but I do recall the scene quoted above. I don’t understand why she felt the need to change it, so that the character enjoyed fruits and vegetables instead of choking them down. I get that she’s fighting the classic toddler struggle against all things healthy, but in doing so, she’s sending the message that “hey! This kid loves their fruits and veggies just like you!” She’s sending the message that everyone is the same, when in fact we’re clearly not.

That’s not my biggest issue, though. My main problem is with the fact that she chose to pinkwash Harry Potter.

Harry freaking Potter.

The fact that she made edits to one of my favorite books is problem enough. That she did it while reading it as a bedtime story to her five-year-old is insane. Harry Potter is not kindergarten-level reading, neither by text nor content. While it’s cute that everyone called her son “Harry Potter” after acquiring a sizable scar on his forehead, it’s not grounds for exposing him to the books. They’re way too violent and confusing for a child that age. Ms. Messina could have shown her son some pictures of Harry Potter; she could have given him the bare-bones version of the story (minus all the violence); they could have made up their own Harry Potter story centering on her son’s fall and how he cut his forehead, or even their own plot about J.K. Rowling’s characters.

I found myself asking, what happens when her son gets older and reads the Harry Potter series by himself? What is he going to think of his mother changing all of the more serious plot points to fit her pinkwashing agenda? I know she’s trying to protect him, but I also know there are ways around giving kids books they’re not ready for. I’m dying to know how she’s planning to pinkwash the theme that “neither can live while the other survives” in the Harry Potter books. It’s like reading The Hunger Games to your child and telling them that the tributes play pranks on each other; if you fall for a prank, you’re out, if you avoid being pranked, you’re safe, and the last person standing wins. It’s like reading Charlotte’s Web and telling your child that Charlotte doesn’t die at the end, she just moves away to another farm to spin more webs. It’s ridiculous. It punches holes in strong plots, and that’s completely unnecessary.

I hate judging people’s parenting, but this just isn’t right. If you want to read positive stories, fine, seek out positive stories. Harry Potter features some positive outcomes, but they don’t come without great cost (because, if you’ve read the books and/or seen the movies, you know that the body count by the end of the series is very high). If you’re going to read the Harry Potter series with your children, read it yourself first. Vet the books and make sure you’re prepared to explain the more serious themes to your children, because they will have questions. Don’t just have at it and change the plot to meet your ends; you’ll be cheating your children out of some very serious and important conversations about life and morals and why people, magical or Muggle, do the things they do.

And for the love of all that is good, please don’t read Harry Potter to your five-year-old. No matter how mature they are, they’re not ready. Parents should be reading age-appropriate books to their children so that pinkwashing is only minimally necessary, if at all. Let’s leave Harry Potter to the kids who are old enough and mature enough to enjoy his story as it is, okay?