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OP ED: Why is Mr. Potato Head making national news?

March 12, 2021

This piece represents the opinion of the author.
Dalia Tabachnik

I never thought we would hear the words “Mr. Potato Head” and “canceled” in the same sentence. For those unfamiliar with the backstory: two weeks ago, the toy manufacturer Hasbro announced, in the name of gender inclusivity, that it would drop the “Mr.” and “Mrs.” honorifics from its “Potato Head” line of toys. While Hasbro later clarified that the honorifics would only be removed from the “Potato Head” brand name and logo, and not from the individual toy characters themselves, the media was already running headlines along the lines of, “Mr. Potato Head Canceled.”

Ridiculous situations, like these, are the most revealing. For example, the “cancellation” of Mr. Potato Head epitomizes the left’s ability to quickly extract changes in the name of social justice that are superficial, if not problematic, in reality. For example, Hasbro, in addition to renaming the Potato Head brand as a step towards gender inclusivity, came out with “Ms. Monopoly” last year—a version of monopoly in which female players collect $240 when they pass “Go” while male players only collect $200. Hasbro’s gender-inclusive renaming of the Potato Head brand is perfectly reasonable, but creates change that is only superficial. “Ms. Monopoly” creates change that is not only superficial, but also problematic. Superficial and problematic change should be low priorities on any institution’s list, and are best considered after that institution takes more meaningful steps towards gender inclusivity.

Hasbro is not alone in its superficial and problematic actions. Consider the renaming of a part of 16th Street in Washington, D.C., to “Black Lives Matter Plaza,” or Quaker Oats’s renaming of the “Aunt Jemima” syrup line to the “Pearl Milling Company” syrup line, while adding the new phrase, “New Name, Same Great Taste: Aunt Jemima.” Regardless of how problematic,  if at all, these superficial actions are, is this the change for which the left wishes, or on which it would like to spend its limited political capital? Consider also the censoring of six of Dr. Seuss’ books. While they may include hurtful imagery, and are read mostly by children, does this warrant their censorship? Off the top of my head I can think of two alternatives: continue publishing the books, just like all the other problematic art, literature and media that our society, children included, continues to consume; or publish the books with a preface or trigger warning that notifies parents and children of the hurtful content.

I believe the left’s capacity to not only effect but also support such superficial, if not problematic, social change is a product of its wish to deny, and resulting failure to understand, what it perceives as “other.” Take, for example, two of the left-leaning opinion pieces in last week’s edition of the Orient. One, titled “Collins, Nossel part of problem, not solution,” regarding the inclusion of conservative speakers in the College’s “After the Insurrection” speaker series, contrasts the “laudable” speaker series with “two figures [speakers] who offer right-of-center opinions.” The Federalist Society, an organization to which one of the conservative speakers contributes, is described as “a breeding ground for conservative justices.” Even worse than the unnecessary association of conservative opinions with brutish “breeding ground[s]” is the last sentence, and approximate title, of the piece: “I look forward to Collins and Nossel’s talks, but they are part of the problem, not the solution.” Whether it is the speakers or their talks that are viewed as “part of the problem, [and] not the solution,” the distinction does not matter much. What does matter is the denial of conservative viewpoints as part of “the solution.”

Imagine fixing a broken pipe. What is your first step? You certainly don’t cover it up with dirt or move to a different house. You first take a good, hard look at the pipe and then determine which part is broken. Once you’ve fixed your pipe, you work out how to prevent that part from breaking again. If the left does not take a good, hard look at what it perceives to be problematic, it will never be able to apply a meaningful fix. Instead of shunning conservatives—especially those few who actually condemned the attack on the Capitol—the left needs to work with them to understand what is leading to the conservative views that the left perceives as problematic.

The same reasoning applies to the second piece, “To be in community is to be loved,” which was about communal spaces and which performed a denial of the male. If the left only treats men as “cisgender, heterosexual… bros… [who are always] talking over each other [to mansplain],” without providing a more meaningful explanation of how the male works, the left will only be able to provide superficial solutions to problems involving men. As it so happens, men occupy many powerful spheres in society. If we want to fix society, we need to understand how men work without orienting identity politics against them.

The left’s wish to deny anything that seems to pose harm is understandable. It can be especially hard to avoid denial when so many on the right deny humanity to the left. Since the left has more “correct” ideas, though, and since the right has hardly any self control, it is at this point up to the left to do what is right, even if other options are more immediately appealing. In the realm of “cancel culture,” while some people’s influence certainly merits a disavowal, we need to avoid denying their existence. In the broader realm of politics, please do not contribute to the low-resolution, superficial or problematic rhetoric that encourages those on the left, on the right and on the boards of corporations to devote energy to Mr. Potato Head when we could instead be worrying about climate change, surveillance capitalism, nuclear weapons or the more important aspects of racism or sexism. If you are able, contribute instead to sober and practical solutions. Voters prefer these, it would seem, based on the high levels of support for President Biden’s current “American Rescue Plan,” the loss of Democratic House seats in the general election following heightened liberal rhetoric and the victories of two moderate Democrats in the national Senate races in Georgia.

Lorenzo Hess is a member of the Class of 2023.

Correction 3/20/2021, 11:30 a.m.: An earlier version of this article altered the intent of the author. The previous version stated, “regardless of how problematic, these superficial actions are, is this the change for which the left wishes, or on which it would like to spend its limited political capital?” This sentence now reflects the original wording of the author: “regardless of how problematic,  if at all, these superficial actions are, is this the change for which the left wishes, or on which it would like to spend its limited political capital?” 

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11 comments:

  1. andrew love says:

    i feel like people are becoming way to sensitive. they grew up on this toy or even the kids books that are listed here and didn’t find anything wrong with it then, people are so quick to change things that have been here longer than they have been alive. just because they dont like the way it looks or how it affects the way they feel, i feel like none of this should get changed all because one or two people feel like its not gender equal. i get it people have their right to freedom of speech but they take things a little to far, most people want today is to be recognised for something so they find some way to stir the pot.

  2. class of ‘22 says:

    did my man really just suggest that large corporations like Hasbro act in the interest of, or in any way represent, the modern American left? Did I read that? I think most leftists would condemn them for horrible labor practices and agree that these lip service PC acts are cheap and antithetical to real change. Let’s get him some Gramsci journals.

  3. Class of 2003 says:

    hahahahahahahaha wtf

  4. Old Guy says:

    To the author:
    1) You’re arguing against strawmen positions (ie bad arguments you’ve invented for yourself). No one you mention has actually denied anyone’s existence or claimed that dropping some Dr Suess titles will solve racism, etc.
    2) You’d be more persuasive if you didn’t use so many sweeping generalizations and meaningless terms like “the left” and “cancel culture.”
    3) What’s problematic about naming a plaza after Black Lives Matter?
    4) When private corporations make marketing decisions about their own intellectual property, that’s not censorship, it’s capitalism in action. Calling it “censorship” makes it look like you don’t understand the concept.
    5) Well said, Class of ’22!

  5. 2022 says:

    Who specifically are you trying to address here? You’ve created a villain for yourself so that you can stand against a bastardized version of “the left” and act high and mighty. Talk to some people on the left and see that nobody actually cares about Mr. Potato Head and corporate PR. You’ve fallen for the lies of your conservative bubble that tells you Twitter outrage is our gospel.

    For what it’s worth, I agree with some of this. “The left” is kidding ourselves if we think any substantial legislation will get passed anytime soon without broader support, and that means not being elitist and classist assholes towards Trump voters. But your argument loses its merit when you pretend to care so much about climate change while writing an op-ed in the Orient about MR. POTATO HEAD, an issue which no leftist (especially at Bowdoin) was talking about before you decided to use it as an opportunity to flex your own political superiority complex.

  6. James says:

    These changes were not “enacted” by the left but free-market decisions made by companies sensitive to their own business objectives. There is no “censorship” involved. Are you arguing for a workd where the right would require continued publication of material that aligns with conservative views?

  7. Class of '11 says:

    We collectively really needs to stop believing that whenever a publicly traded corporation renames a character or pulls a product that they’re doing it for any reason other than profit margins.

    Also to the author: that broken pipe analogy is embarrassingly irrelevant, almost painful to read. The Philosophy department offers an Epistemology course every few semesters; I suggest you keep an eye out for that one and enroll in it so you don’t end up writing any more stuff like that.

  8. CO 21 says:

    I can assure that the people who actually care about the advancement of civil rights and liberties to all oppressed groups do not give an ounce of care to the cancel culture topics regarding Mr. Potato Head or Dr. Seuss.

  9. Observer says:

    Interesting article. Since we can’t visit campus I am perusing the school newspaper. Good to see the debate and agree with the author on the importance of addressing “climate change, surveillance capitalism, nuclear weapons, [racism or sexism].”

    On the issue of the speakers being invited to campus Hess claims incorrectly that the authors of “Part of the Problem” sought to “[deny] conservative viewpoints.” In fact they said that a Q&A with Sen Collins would be “a fantastic opportunity to hold her accountable for her past votes and statements.”

    This is actually in line with the solution Hess recommends, using the analogy of a “broken pipe” in need of repair. Hess urges students to listen to them in order to better understand, akin to a broken pipe, the problem. In this analogy, not only Sen Collins but her voters would represent “the problem.” In a democracy it is also the voters who have to “prevent [the pipe] from breaking again.”

    To identify the source of the corrosion, or as Hess so aptly puts it the “the low-resolution, superficial or problematic rhetoric,” look no further than the article referenced in title of this one, and its corrosive author, Sean Hannity.

  10. Class of 2006 says:

    Great to read a divergent viewpoint in the Orient which seems to have been a sea of conformity over the past year. Keep up the good work Lorenzo.

  11. Public School Student says:

    Gettin the vibe that this dude has never dealt with a broken pipe before in his life…


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