This weekend I read the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the first time. I also happened to watch the classic Peter Pan movie from Disney for the first time. Both of these works are considered classics in a way, and both brought this same realization to my mind: we must judge works according to the time in which they were created, not according to our own. This takes maturity and discipline.
Here’s what I mean.
Huckleberry Finn has long been a controversial book for many reasons. In the early criticisms, people thought Twain’s language was vulgar and his humor crude and had little to say about racism and his usage of the n-word. What’s interesting is that I didn’t notice whatever crude language there was (vulgarity has evolved significantly in the past century in America) but I did notice keenly the usage of the n-word and overall racist presumptions of the characters.
When it comes to Peter Pan, the work is surely less controversial, but even so, several things stuck out to me as I watched.
For one thing, movies and TV shows made for children have changed dramatically over time so that even the most entertainment-forward shows now usually contain some educational elements. The older content didn’t prioritize this as much and tended to be humorous even if rudely. It takes only a few seconds of seeing old cartoons—from Mickey Mouse to Bugs Bunny—to see the overall difference in the nature of the humor. Not only is the older stuff heavily slapstick, it’s usually more verbally harsh and physically violent. No big deal, but I noticed it.
I also noticed how clearly defined the characteristics of the women were. The mother wore a dress and was done up with perfect hair and tweezed eyebrows and had a fair complexion and dainty voice, and the daughter followed the same pattern. This is all fine, though it does create a stereotypical image. What stuck out to me more was that Tinkerbell, who already has a figure that is unrealistic for most women, lands on a mirror in her revealing outfit and looks down to see the reflection of her hips. Her face drops and she places her hands on her hips in disapproval. A short time later, the width of her hips prevents her from escaping through a keyhole.
I’m not criticising either of these works. I’m pointing out that certain elements stuck out to me because my moral sensibilities have been shaped in part by the zeitgeist of our time.
When I read Huckleberry Finn, the temptation is to be sidetracked by the racist language and assumptions and miss the fact that the book is actually deeply anti-racist. When I watch Peter Pan the temptation for me is to be bothered by a whiney and dramatic father figure who gets his way and the razor-sharp definition of womanhood depicted in all the females (including the topless mermaids—yes, that is in Peter Pan). What I might miss is that the dad is supposed to be outrageous to us and that one of the main characters is a girl who is unafraid to pave her own way and set the example for bravery in adventure.
These things stick out to us because we aren’t from those times. We see them inherently differently, and we have to remember that before we judge them too harshly.