This post was chosen as one of BlogHer’s 2014 Voices of the Year in the Op-Ed category.
“Mommy, why is Caillou bald?” Akeyla asks. I get kind of excited because, hey! I can Google that right now and find out! Isn’t the internet wonderful? My kid wants to know why a cartoon character has no hair, and I can KNOW THIS within seconds.
When I type into Google “Why is Caillou” these are my suggested searches:
Chouette Publishing, distributor of all things Caillou, has actually dedicated a page to this apparently popular question. (There are also FAQ pages on other burning Caillou-related questions: “Why are Caillou’s parents so perfect?” and “Why is Caillou grumpy so often?“)
I read “Why is Caillou Bald?” and I’m speechless:
“Caillou stands for all children. He doesn’t have curly blond hair, a carrot-top, brown hair, glasses, or ethnic features, because he represents all children. We wanted to make Caillou universal so every child could identify with him. And they do! Caillou’s baldness may make him different, but we hope it’s helping children understand that being different isn’t just okay, it’s normal.”
Let’s parse that a bit: Caillou stands for “all children.” He has no “ethnic features” because he “represents all children.” Ergo, he is “universal.”
Um, no, Chouette Publishing. Caillou actually does have ethnic features. He’s white. He is a Caucasian child. He is, more specifically, a Caucasian boy. He’s a Caucasian boy in a white two-parent, middle class family. You don’t get to make him “universal” by making him FUCKING HAVE NO HAIR.
A hairless white boy does not equal “EveryKid.”
And who is this relatable Universal Child surrounded by? Apparently, The Other. You know, kids with ethnic features. Caillou has a veritable rainbow of diverse friends if for no other reason than to teach about various winter holidays – Clementine is a black girl whose family celebrates Kwanzaa, Leo’s Jewish family celebrates Hanukkah, and Sarah’s family celebrates Chinese New Year. Unlike our so-called ethnicity-free protagonist, Clementine has a large nose, and Sarah has slanted eyes. If he’s supposed to represent everyone, am I to assume they are not?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m thrilled to have even supporting characters of color on any cartoon. Akeyla’s eyes lit up one day after she had her hair freshly braided: “Mommy, Clementine has braids just like I do!” Just don’t try to pass your white main character off as some kind of archetypal everychild. Making Caillou bald does not make him “universal so every child [can] identify with him.” It makes him a bald white boy.
Why does this piss me off? Well, for a publisher to suggest to my children of color that a bald white boy is the best way to represent a universally relatable child is the worst kind of clueless white privilege.
And having children of color not just as secondary characters — but as protagonists — in media created for children matters. By 2014, census numbers show that over half of the children in the United States will be non-white. (Even in supposedly lily-white Canada, where “Caillou” originated, minorities are projected to make up one-third of the population by 2031.) In contrast, a 2012 study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that less than eight percent of children’s books were about people of color.
It matters because the majority of children will have few books filled with children who look like them doing the everyday things that children do. The importance of this sort of modeling cannot be overstated. But it goes beyond simply having a mirror for non-white kids to look into.
It matters to white kids too.
They will be growing up in a world filled with kids of all different colors and you know what? It’s important that they see brown kids doing the everyday things that all children do too. It matters that we show human children other human children in all the shades of humanity, so that maybe, just maybe, the next generation will be able to see humanity in all the people around them.
And maybe, just maybe, we won’t be scraping the corpses of our black boys off the sidewalks of America, because they look scary, because they look different. Because they are Other.
Maybe, it’s a place to begin.
Akeyla, her question still unanswered, is impatient with me now. “Mommmm! I asked you why Caillou is bald!” Well, clearly I wasn’t going to be feeding my black daughter a line of Chouette Publishing bullshit about Caillou’s universal relatability. Luckily, she’s still in the “I Accept Tautologies as Answers” phase.
“Because he has no hair, sweetie. Want some more milk?”
Update! I’ve learned a lot about Caillou since I posted this. From my friend, the children’s book illustrator Stacy Gray Illustration, I learned that the original illustrator and author, Helene Desputeaux, drew Caillou as bald because it was based on her baby, Caillou. Who was bald. Like babies are.
On further research, I learned that Chouette Publishers – maker of the absurd statement about Caillou’s non-ethnicity that I blogged about above — proceeded to screw her out of profits and put her through a 10-year legal battle until she was so stressed she couldn’t draw and ultimately settled.
On her current website, where she still offers illustrated books about Caillou, I found this book, about Caillou’s grandma:
Guess what? On the show, she’s white. I suppose they thought that would make her more “relatable to all children.” Sigh.
I want everyone to click on that photo and buy Helene Desputeaux’s adorable book about a mixed race family. I’ve not done research, but I’m guessing one can count on one’s hands the number of books about black grandmothers and their white grandsons. This is the world my kids will live in. This is the world I want to see modeled in children’s media. It’s only $7.95 in Canadian dollars. I think that’s, like, practically free in the U.S. I’m not sure.
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