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“Must we burn Babar?”

September 23, 2008

Remember Babar, the French elephant in the green suit? 

Here is is, striding merrily across the screen…

I’d forgotten all about him until I ran across a recent article by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker. Apparently, Babar has been criticized since before I was born for justifying or promoting colonization. I read the books when I was little and I think I had a Babar movie or two. I don’t remember much about the books, except that I liked them. From the article, it seems like the accusations of subtle imperialist propaganda are warranted… the “civilized” elephants are the ones in power; the animals in their natural state and habitat are shamed and the ones that resist humanization are defeated, etc. But Gopnik argues against the majority of criticism that Babar 

is not an unconscious expression of the French colonial imagination; it is a self-conscious comedy about the French colonial imagination and its close relation to the French domestic imagination. 

Such a long and in-depth article, following other longer, more in-depth critiques of the Babar stories, make we wonder, can a story ever just be a story without some kind of racist, classist, sexist, feminist, religious, imperialist agenda? Or do authors’ backgrounds, ideologies and histories automatically infuse stories with these undertones, conscious or not? I wouldn’t have majored in English if I didn’t love literary analysis, but sometimes analysis reaches too far – i.e. Alison Lurie’s “The Royal Family” article on Babar in the New York review of books, when she says,

Babar is not only both animal and human, he is both a child and an adult. His name makes this clear: it combines the French terms for father (papa) and infant (bébé).[3]  

A bit of a stretch, if you ask me. Especially when her footnote – 

Babar was the name of a sixteenth-century Indian king; but Laurent de Brunhoff says his father was probably not aware of this when he began the series. Currently, BaBar is also the name given to an electronic testing program used in laboratories.

– in no way backs up her claim about his name. 

A small point, but still. Anyway, that’s enough for now. I’ll have to revisit the stories myself and then check out some more analysis.  


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