Disclaimer: I discuss several intense subjects in this post, including transphobia and racism. These topics could easily be a book of their own, and therefore I do not come close to fully addressing the scope of these issues. I hope to continue writing about these topics in future posts.
A few years back, I watched the classic 1994 comedy “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” starring Jim Carrey as the titular hero. Throughout the film, Ace was constantly at loggerheads with Lt. Lois Einhorn, the shrewish leader of the Miami PD, though later Einhorn shocked our hero by laying an epic smooch on him. In a later scene, Ace, unwilling to give up on his case, makes a startling discovery: Lois Einhorn used to be a football player named Ray Finkle. In his words, “Einhorn is a man!”
Ace proceeds to flip out. He screams, vomits, uses a toilet plunger on his face in a desperate bid to rid himself of cooties, and cries in the shower. All the while, the song “The Crying Game” from the 1992 film “The Crying Game” serenades us through this montage. Finally, during the film’s climax, he dramatically tears the clothing off of Einhorn until her lady junk is revealed to the world. Everyone in the scene vomits. Boy George’s “The Crying Game” plays once again.
I assume all of this was considered hilarious when the film premiered. Critics didn’t love the film, but it gained a cult following, and so it was always on my “to-watch” list. In 2016, when I watched “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” for the first time, it was less funny. The hilarious resolution to the film involved our protagonist physically assaulting a trans woman. Suffice to say, I did not enjoy it. Even though it has not aged well, people who are not me still love “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.” My cousin can recite the entire movie line for line (and yes, it is super annoying).
It sucks when you realize that something you once loved isn’t perfect. It’s worse when there are parts of it that are downright offensive. You can no longer love it the same way. Art cannot change – it is a product of its time and exists. Once it is created, it is frozen in time. Jim Carrey himself no longer endorses the homophobia and transphobia of the original movie, but that movie still exists and is still beloved in the hearts of many.
Controversial art is also a product of the creator’s understanding of the world. It can be difficult when the thing you love is created with kind intentions, but it still ages poorly due to that lack of understanding or ignorance. I have a personal example of this, my own Ace Ventura, which I hold close to my heart. Even now, I know that it is far from perfect.
I have read all of the books, then reread them, and then listened to them as audiobooks to further develop my understanding of them. On the 4th of July, I will relisten to the patriotic chapter of “Little Town on the Prairie.” Every Christmas, I reread the Christmas chapters of the books, and my favorites are from “Little House on the Prairie” and “By the Shores of Silver Lake.” I read the books about Rose Wilder Lane. I watched the show religiously growing up and again during sad times in my life. I have made recipes from the Little House on the Prairie cookbook (they came out terribly). I regularly visit the Little House website. I have wanted to start a Little House on the Prairie podcast for years (it would be called “Little Podcast on the Prairie”). I own a Little House on the Prairie quilt that I sleep with almost every night.
This is a love that has lasted for over two decades of my life. I love this series so, so much it borders on obsession. So let’s talk about why “Little House on the Prairie” is messed up.
The books take place in the American Midwest between 1870 and 1894. During that period, important historical events included the Battle of the Little Bighorn, John D. Rockefeller incorporating the Standard Oil Company, President James Garfield being assassinated, and North and South Dakota becoming states. Of course, other things happened during this time, but it’s been a minute since APUSH, so you’ll have to pardon my ignorance.
This was a different, uncertain time when Americans were encouraged to pioneer and settle across the land. Except, as we all know now, that land was already occupied. I am far from an expert on the cruelty the US government showed the indigenous tribes but suffice to say that horrific acts were perpetrated against the indigenous people of this country.
Wilders stories take place during this period. From her perspective, these stories are about a young family forging their own path in a new land. The territories were wild, open, and untamed. A vast prairie under an unbroken blue sky, teeming with wildlife. The Ingalls would only be able to rely on their own strength and cunning, with the occasional exception of a kind neighbor, to help them survive. The Ingalls were the Dakota version of the Swiss Family Robinson.
I think there is a way to be critical of media without mindlessly shitting on it. For example, there is a difference between disliking “Twilight” for the unhealthy relationship dynamics versus disliking it because it’s popular with teenage girls and teenage girls are stupid.
My legitimate criticism of the Little House on the Prairie series is that it is ignorant, if not outright offensive, to Indigenous Americans. The Native Americans in the series are often treated as a threat and a nuisance that is insensitive and dehumanizing. I can think of several examples of racist Native American stereotypes and depictions throughout the series.
There are other examples of overt racism throughout the series. One of the most egregious was a minstrel show in “The Little Town on the Prairie.” The first time I ever read that book, I had never heard of a minstrel show and did not understand the cultural significance. I think I thought it was a dress-up performance. Later, when I was an adult and reread the book, I was deeply disturbed by that chapter.
I am grateful that I had an elementary education that highlighted the unfair treatment received by Native Americans because it allowed me to read the events of “Little House on the Prairie” critically. In those stories, the Native Americans weren’t treated well, but I knew that the natives were there first and had a right to be there. However, it wasn’t until I was a little older and had a stronger knowledge of history did I realize the truth: the Ingalls were squatters on native land.
I do not want to be unfair to the Ingalls. Our analysis should also consider what kind of people the Ingalls were. Caroline Ingalls was temporarily a schoolteacher, but that profession didn’t even require a high school diploma back then. Charles Ingalls was a farmer and a trapper. Throughout their lives, the Ingalls were impoverished, often going without food and medical care. Charles Ingalls would skip meals to ensure that his children had enough to eat, even though he worked a physically demanding job as a farmer and needed those calories. Wilder’s stories include extensive descriptions of scrumptious-sounding home-cooked meals, suggesting that her happiest memories from childhood were when she was well-fed.
I do not say this to excuse Laura Ingalls Wilder for the offensive depictions in her series, but rather to give context. I think it is also worth noting how solitary the Ingalls were. They would travel to remote areas and set up home far from any town or other people, and they had almost no support from the government. It would take hours, or even days, to reach a store, let alone a hospital or police station. When the family contracted malaria, there was no hospital to treat them, only a traveling doctor who stumbled upon their home. Although they were aware of other cultures, they were not exposed to diverse perspectives. For that, I pity them.
As I have said before, I do love these books, even as I recognize their faults. Although, my love is stronger than my condemnation. There is a simple beauty to the Little House on the Prairie series. The books advocate for hard work, resilience, and ingenuity. The Ingalls love each other fiercely and make a point of thinking of each other first. There is a strong emphasis on the importance and joy of selfless giving, like when Laura and Pa worked to buy Mary an organ. Or when the whole family worked together to send Mary to college because they knew that as a young blind woman, it would be Mary’s greatest opportunity to learn and become self-reliant. Laura idolizes Ma, and everyone in the family appreciates all that Ma does for them. The series is an ode to selflessness. Wilder joyfully celebrates performing kind acts for other people and putting their needs before your own.
The Ingalls were far from perfect. They could be stodgy, uptight, and close-minded. In one book, Mary says that eating raw fish is gross, and that take is dumb as hell. But they loved each other. Their love for one another is the same kind of love that inspires you to bake cookies for a friend or work on a thoughtful gift for your grandma. These are the actions that say, “I see you, and I care about you.”
Reading “Little House on the Prairie” will inspire you to go outside and soak up the sun. The simplest of pleasures, like a good dinner or a quiet evening by the fire, are detailed with such love that it makes you excited to be alive just for the pleasure of experiencing these things. So much of these stories delight in the act of being human and in feeling the world around you.
However, this strength also highlights its weakness. The Ingalls were able to clearly see the humanity in each other, and as the series progressed, in their friends and townsfolk. It is a shame that they could not see that same humanity in the Native Americans whom they displaced. My approach to these books has evolved since I first read them as a child. I was not critical of what I read when I was young, but now that I am older, I want to be more discerning.
I think a book that skillfully manages to balance this duality of love and disappointment is “Prairie Lotus” by Linda Sue Park. “Prairie Lotus” is about a young, mixed-race girl named Hanna who travels with her father to the Dakota Territories in 1880. Hanna has dreams of going to school, making friends, and eventually becoming a dressmaker but must also contend with the prejudices of the townspeople. This book is a thoughtful response to “Little House on the Prairie,” as Park admits to loving the series as a child. But unfortunately, Park also understood that due to her Asian heritage, even though she loved the stories of the Ingalls, that admiration would not be reciprocated. “Prairie Lotus” is a beautiful story that eloquently addresses themes like racism, alienation, and self-determination. I highly recommend it for anyone who considers themselves a fan of the original “Little House” series.
Therefore, I think the appropriate approach for the Little House on the Prairie series, and really, with almost any book, film, show, or song that ages poorly, is to teach it with context. Show the work for what it is, explain why it is that way, and address what is right and wrong. Of course, this process will not be the same for every book or movie. Obviously, Little House on the Prairie and Ace Ventura are different (I don’t believe there’s a chapter in which Laura tries to talk through her butt cheeks), and therefore each requires its own analysis.
If you want to watch “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” then go for it. I’m not going to stop you, and I don’t think that’s my place. I say the same thing for any other controversial piece. So go ahead and enjoy what you like. You are not a bad person for liking something problematic. Though don’t be afraid to take a look at something you love and admit, “this didn’t age well.”
Update: To help further illustrate my point, I went ahead and made that venn diagram.