Every piece of art is a product of the society that created it. You can't watch a romantic comedy from the early '90s without getting a little desensitized to the horrible high-waisted jeans and turtleneck/flannel combo that was deemed attractive at the time. Fortunately, we can shield our children from movies that might otherwise lead them to believe that the cast of Friends had successful film careers.
Things get a little trickier when classics of children's literature suddenly let fly with the sort of out-of-the-blue casual racism usually reserved for old Southern men after a few too many drinks.
6The Secret Garden
It is the classic tale of a spoiled little girl named Mary whose parents die in India and who is sent back to England and put in the care of her emotionally distant sort of an asshole uncle. As she wanders around her uncle's Castlevania-sized house, she finds a forgotten garden and a small, sickly boy, and with the magical power of flowers and wishes, the sickly boy gets healthier and then her uncle rediscovers the power of love and everyone becomes a better person.
"You're OK! Off to the mines you go."
The story has been brought to movie and TV screens countless times for a reason. For parents of little girls going through their "I hate everything" stage, it is the perfect piece of propaganda. It seamlessly combines flowers, mansions and everything else that little girls go apeshit for with the exact message that their parents would have taught them if they'd thought of it: If you're nice to your family and go quietly play in the yard, your life will turn into a magical fairy tale.
"Yeah, I thought that once. Now I'm a groundskeeper."
Oh, and also, black people are the cause of everything that's bad in the world.
In the book, on the first morning after Mary moves into her uncle's mansion, she is awakened by a straight-talking maidservant named Martha. It's the sort of character who would be played by a sassy black lady in a modern American movie, but this is England, so Martha is just sassy and poor. She's so sassy, in fact, that she tells her child-boss Mary that she thought she was going to be black because she came from India. Mary of course throws a temper tantrum, exclaims that blacks "are not people," and bursts into tears.
And now from racism into a catchy song, just as Disney would do.
Of course, this is Mary at her brattiest. Surely, the wise Martha will correct her, and Mary's racism will be just another part of the person she will leave behind as her face becomes less punchable.
Nope! Unlike Mark Twain's controversial Huck Finn, where the racially insensitive language is offset by Huck and Jim's tender, buddy cop dynamic, Mary's virulent racism is never corrected by anyone or by anything that happens in the book. In fact, Martha uses her role as the voice of reason in the situation to blame Mary's awful behavior on the fact that she is from India, where there are "a lot of blacks there instead of respectable white people."
"You have to clap your hands three times to make sure they're not hiding in the shadows."
Though it's the last time that black people are explicitly referenced, there's also a strong undercurrent of symbolic racism. For instance, Mary can't begin her journey to self-discovery until Martha changes her out of her black clothes and puts on white clothes, while Mary makes the very odd statement that she hates everything black.
Again, this statement isn't even addressed. Once she changes into white clothing and no longer has to deal with the "black" Indian servants Martha blames for her poor character, Mary heads out into the mansion and begins her journey of discovery.
"Good news, I found a rope! For ... skipping."