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Mr. Potato Head and the Impact of ‘Cancel Culture’

Making Mr. Potato Head a gender-neutral toy is the latest in a series of changes caused by the way society perceives culture, politics

By Bruce Frassinelli

Mr Potato HeadA new term has crept into our vocabulary in recent years — “cancel culture.”

This refers to the practice of reassessing support for public figures and companies after they have said or done something considered offensive. It also involves reviewing practices and policies and even rebranding products which by today’s standards have become offensive or unacceptable.

Those of us of, shall we say, the mature generation know only too well that there were things we did, said or believed years ago that would not fly today.

Essentially a form of boycott, cancel culture can take on many different facts, including group-shaming on social media. The impact could be devastating. The scary part is that because of the speed and pervasiveness of social media, it can happen seemingly overnight.

The target can be a person, business, media star or politician, and it can result in the withdrawal of financial, social, economic or political support. For example, famed actor Kevin Hart dropped out of hosting the 2019 Oscars show after public rebuke over old homophobic tweets on Twitter.

A political example involved Goya Foods CEO Robert Unanue, who praised former President Donald Trump during a White House event. Sales of Goya products dropped significantly for a time after thousands of critical social media posts.

On another front, we’re engaged in a raging battle in our country, debating whether it is fair to judge historical figures and events from decades, even centuries ago, by modern standards of morality, ethics and social norms rather than by the standards of their own culture and time period.

aunt jemimaWe analyzed this question at length when I taught communication ethics at SUNY Oswego. Most students thought it was unfair to make these modern-day judgments that in some cases diminished or destroyed careers and businesses.

A simple comparison involves a 1953 movie “The Moon Is Blue,” which was condemned by the Catholic Church because of the gratuitous use of the word “virgin.” Such a reference today would barely register notice to a moviegoer, might even provoke a laugh as to “what’s the big deal?’’

But cancel culture is a much more serious phenomenon. It has sullied the reputations of any number of well-known personalities. Take the once beloved singer from the 1920s through the 1950s, Kate Smith. Known as the “first lady of radio” and the “songbird of the South,” she was the star of the popular “Kate Smith Hour” and spokeswoman for Jell-O, Studebaker and Pullman trains.

She became forever immortalized when she sang Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” in the 1943 wartime film “This Is the Army,” and a new generation came to know her when this patriotic song became the unofficial anthem for the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Yankees.

But two years ago, both teams announced that they would no longer play her recording of “God Bless America,” because Smith had joined the seemingly endless list of once revered performers who had done things that are no longer acceptable by today’s standard.

Along with that, the Flyers, who honored Smith in 1987, a year after she died at the age of 79, by erecting a statue that had been standing outside of their Wells Fargo Center arena, also announced that they had removed the statue.

What had Smith done that turned adoration into revulsion? She had recorded two songs that contained what are now universally accepted as racist lyrics.

Both songs were recorded 90 years ago at the start of Smith’s career. One was “That’s Why Darkies Were Born,” which peaked at number 12 on the Top 20 list of popular songs in 1931.

Uncle Ben'sThe lyrics were: “Someone had to pick the cotton/Someone had to plant the corn/Someone had to slave and be able to sing/That’s why darkies were born.”

The other was “Pickaninny Heaven,” which instructed “colored children” confined to an orphanage to dream about a magical place filled with “great, big watermelons.”

“Darky” is defined as an “offensive term for black people,” while “pickaninny” is defined as a small, black child too young to be a productive picker in the cotton fields and unflatteringly characterized in stereotypical drawings and photos.

Smith, who was revered by virtually all of her fellow performers, obviously would have never recorded songs with these lyrics today.

The flap over Kate Smith’s racial indiscretions made me reflect on my junior high school years (1951-53) when we would gather once a week in our school gym and sing classic Americana songs for about 30 minutes.

“My Old Kentucky Home” and other famous Stephen Collins Foster songs with the “darkie” lyrics were sung without a second thought.

I also remember attending fundraising minstrel shows put on by residents in my hometown, a small, coal-mining community in northeastern Pennsylvania, and attended by hundreds of area residents. Prominent white shopkeepers, teachers, administrators and CEOs would blacken their faces with burned cork or greasepaint, dress in outlandish costumes and perform songs and skits that portrayed stereotypes of performing Black people.

Slavery and the treatment of Indigenous people are perhaps the most contentious topics in today’s discussion. Few rational-thinking people would defend slavery today, but in the 16th through the mid-19th centuries, slavery was tolerated if not accepted as a way of life.

The original U.S. Constitution referred to slaves as “three-fifths of a person.” Of course, this was later superseded by the 14th Amendment and its equality provisions.

Thomas Jefferson, one of the most prominent of the Founding Fathers, is credited with the high-minded notion that “all men are created equal,” yet he was a slaveholder, and he and others of his era, including our first president, George Washington, have come in for harsh criticism now because of their embrace of slavery.

Should we indict historical figures as monstrous for not supporting social causes that either did not exist or were not prominent at the times when they lived?

Aside from the obvious difference that slavery was legal in that era and is not now, the way people regarded slavery spanned the spectrum. Even then, there were vocal opponents to the concept of one human being committed to forced servitude for the benefit and pleasure of another, but these voices were definitely in the minority.

Land O LakesEven if Jefferson was incapable of seeing his own hypocrisy, there were others who were not shy about pointing it out to him while he was still alive.

Explorer Christopher Columbus’ treatment of the Indigenous people he encountered when he and his men landed in the West Indies has come under such constant recent attack that some communities have removed statues honoring him or, in some cases, changed the second Monday in October from Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day.

Honoring Columbus, an Italian sailor who sailed under the Spanish flag, had morphed into an important way to honor the accomplishments of Italian-Americans, and they complained bitterly at these efforts to “revise history” in an attempt to sanitize it.

Admittedly, this is a complicated issue, and it requires rational thinking. For example, it would be ludicrous to blame historical individuals for not supporting progressive causes that no one at the time even knew of.

Well, along with other icons of my youth, Aunt Jemima is being condemned to the scrapheap of history, because this smiling, once rotund face on the distinctive Quaker Oats Co. syrup bottle has become one of the politically incorrect victims of recent protests.

Quaker Oats, the company that makes the syrup, announced earlier this year that the Aunt Jemima brand will be now known as “Pearl Milling Company,” and smiling Aunt Jemima is gone. As a perpetually hungry teenager, when I wolfed down my mother’s pancakes, slathered with Aunt Jemima pancake syrup, neither she nor I had a debate over stereotypes or offending Black people.

One of the most recent announcements concerns the ubiquitous Mr. Potato Head of my children’s youth. Hasbro said its makeover means Mr. Potato Head will be “reimagined for the modern consumer. Henceforth, the gender-neutral toy will be known as “Potato Head.”

Another iconic product that has come under scrutiny is Uncle Ben’s Rice. Uncle Ben’s maker changed the name to “Ben’s Original” and removed the photo of the grandfatherly-looking African-American who graced the package for decades. The company said that it was not only changing the name and packaging but “also taking action to enhance inclusion and equity.”

The name of one of my favorite treats as a kid, Eskimo Pie, was rebranded as Edy’s Pie last October, because the original name is now viewed as being derogatory toward the natives of the Arctic.

The “butter maiden,” Mia, on the front of the Land O’ Lakes butter package was removed because of complaints of stereotyping by Native Americans.

After years of complaints, the ownership of the Washington pro football team dropped the name “Redskins” as it searches for a new name. Baseball’s Cleveland Indians is in the process of doing the same.

Mark Twain’s mid-19th century classic “Huckleberry Finn” was republished in 2016 to eliminate the “n” word, which appears 219 times in the original, and replaced it with “slave.”

I want to make it clear that I am not defending my actions nor those of my family, classmates, teachers and townspeople, but I wanted to point out that we, along with millions of others — perhaps even many of you reading this column — were unwitting and unthinking parties to these events which were considered “normal” in that era. We are left to examine what we did, why we did it and, hopefully, understand why what we did then is no longer acceptable now.