Tuesday, August 23, 2011

My four biggest beefs with Dr. Seuss

Sure, I dig Dr. Seuss. What good-hearted American doesn’t? The contributions the man made to children’s literature and American culture are unimpeachable. Heck, the thrill of reading Fox in Socks out loud would earn him a place on my eternal respect list by itself, and I rather adore his lesser-known early work. But as I’ve moved farther along in this fatherhood gig, I’ve had occasion to revisit a fair bit of Seussiana, and I have to admit I have a few beefs. Here are half a dozen bones I’d like to pick with the good doctor.

Lazy rhyming

There’s no question that Dr. Seuss was a master wordsmith. The bulk of his rhymes were inventive, original and memorable as hell. Nevertheless, I’ve been irked to realize how frequently he fell back on the borderline cheating of making up rhyming words from whole cloth and assigning the new “name” to some fantastical creature. There’s a Wocket in My Pocket is probably the worst offender here. It's as if a writer's blocked Seuss wandered around his house and swapped out the first letters of whatever household objects his glance settled on. I can maybe buy a “bofa on the sofa,” but the “nooth grush on my tooth brush” is just plain overreaching.

Confusing politics

I think popular opinion holds Dr. Seuss as a raging liberal, owing mainly to the overt environmentalism of The Lorax and, to a lesser extent, the Cold War tut-tutting of The Butter Battle Book. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll find that Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose is a none-too-subtle takedown of socialism suited for any Tea Party reading room. And then of course there are the infamous anti-Japanese propaganda cartoons, typical products of their era but quite upsetting regardless.

My biggest issue, though, is with the possibly the biggest sacred cow in the Seuss catalog. Green Eggs and Ham is generally accepted as a lighthearted lesson in not being afraid to try new things. That’s part of the picture, certainly, but when you look at the story from Sam I Am’s angle, it’s also a testament to the power of harassment. Badger someone incessantly and inflexibly enough, Seuss suggests, and eventually they’ll bend to your will. Sam I Am traffics in the same style of non-violent bullying favored by generations of door-to-door salesmen and hard-line politicians. That he’s the ostensible hero of the story – by the end his victim is even thanking him for his brutal mind games – chills me to the core.

The Cat in the Hat

The Cat in the Hat is creepy. Anarchic fun aside, there is no way on earth I would ever have guessed that grotesque, disturbing man-beast was a cat in a hat if Seuss hadn’t spelled it out in the title. Needless to say I’m not too keen on the Cat’s original incarnation, but that revulsion is mild compared to what I feel toward more recent takes on the character.

Being a grown adult possessed of decent taste and free will, I have never seen the 2003 adaptation of The Cat in the Hat. I have, however, seen its ads. If there’s a Hell below, I firmly believe the walls are plastered with posters of Mike Myers smirking soullessly behind unholy layers of cat-man makeup.

As the father of a toddler, I have seen a fair bit of the PBS cartoon The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That. One might think that relegating Martin Short to a voice-only role would temper the horror somewhat, but one would be grossly underestimating Mr. Short’s capacity for horror. I once caught an episode of Law & Order: SVU where Short played a phony psychic with a penchant for sexual assault. That wasn’t half as creepy as his work on The Cat in the Hat. In his hands, the Cat is a giggling, spastic tornado of directionless energy. In cartoon terms, he falls somewhere between early Daffy Duck and the Batman: The Animated Series edition of The Joker. Even if he didn’t sing constantly, Short’s skin-crawling intonation of “Your mother will not mind at all if we do!” (delivered at least once an episode) would almost be enough to make me forget all the fine work he did in his younger days.

I suppose this is outside the realm of Dr. Seuss’ command, what with him being conveniently dead and all. Still, I’m going to argue that he could have had the foresight to forbid his estate from licensing his work to any endeavor fronted by any aging, manic Canadian sketch comedy legend.


This one isn’t really Dr. Seuss’ fault either, but I have no one else to blame so he’ll have to do. Ever since I learned of the existence of a fetish group that gets sexual gratification from dressing up as furry, costumed characters, Seuss’ fuzzy animal-human hybrids have made me vaguely uneasy. To each his or her own, but the idea that someone out there finds whatever manner of being Sam I Am or the hopped-on Pop are meant to be primally arousing squicks me out to no end.

[Yeah, there are videos out there to illustrate this, but I’m not going to subject you to them. Instead, here are some youthful Canadian sketch comedy legends.]

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