AS a schoolboy in 1971 I remember my thrill at being given for Christmas the Monty Python Big Red Book. A collection of trivia, jokes and scripts, it contained a spoof classified advertisement page which featured the announcement that Mr Arthur Penis has changed his name by deed poll and will henceforth be known as Art Penis.
I recall laughing at the humour that lay behind such a pointless gesture and was forcefully reminded of this on hearing of the toy firm Hasbro’s decision to change the name of Mr Potato Head to plain Potato Head.
Mr Potato Head and his wife have been children’s favourites for many years. He, elaborately moustachioed and with signature bowler hat, was the first toy advertised on TV in America in 1952.
I suppose there was a grim inevitability that the innocent and carefree world of children’s toys should fall victim to pervasive gender identity politics. What is peculiar, though, is what lay behind Hasbro’s announcement. They have not been subjected to an online campaign of vilification or had their factory gates besieged by an angry mob, so why the change? One can assume only that this decision was a pre-emptive strike to deflect any future criticism that might come their way over a toy bearing that most offensive nomenclature ‘Mr’.
What is troubling is the speed in which such attitudes have infiltrated so many sectors and the willingness to self-censor that has become both endemic and automatic. If you went back to last year, one would like to think that the man who suggested the iconic Mr Potato Head should be shorn of his masculinity would have been laughed out of the boardroom. Fast forward to 2021 and you can imagine that the same recommendation was heard in reverential silence and thoughtful chin-stroking.
The news of Mr Potato Head’s re-naming will, no doubt be met with different reactions. In one world there will be jubilation that this phallic-centred, patriarchal ogre has been emasculated. Listen, however, and you might just hear quiet weeping that toys have fallen victim to the gender equality lobby. Meanwhile Hasbro are basking in the warm glow of publicity garnered by their posturing.
Potato Head has now been well and truly planted in the fertile soil of non-binary pronouns. Is (they/them) now:
b) Gender Queer?
Whatever ‘he’ is now could lead to some awkward conversations with young ones should they ‘misgender’ their toy. Is it appropriate to saddle children with the baggage that goes with this decision?
‘Why can’t kids be kids?’ is an oft-heard refrain, yet the answer sadly is that any deviation from what many want to assume is the new norm will be met with a bucketful of intolerance and opprobrium.
Do people not realise that this endless quest for a Utopian paradise is a mirage? Even if we get close to a Nirvana where all offence has been surgically excised, the mob will cast their unwavering stare to seek out new avenues of contention and, Pol Pot-like, we will all be required to confess our imaginary wrongdoings to keep ourselves safe.
If Mr Potato Head is no more, what other icons of childhood should now, like inappropriate statues, we be worried about?
Would Basil Brush’s ‘Boom-Boom’, invested with warmth and faux deference to his avuncular sidekick Mr Derek, have the same emotional resonance when it is reduced to ‘Boom-Boom, Derek’?
Would the Magic Roundabout have been the same without the mysterious barrel-organ grinder Mr Rusty, or would it now be prefaced with a trigger warning?
Luckily, Roger Hargreaves was able to enjoy huge success with his creations and give joy to children all over the world, but Greedy, Worry, Happy, Tickle et al deprived of the Mr simply don’t work.
I shudder at what today’s programme makers would do with Mr Benn, an animated series where the bowler-hatted and black-suited character entered a fancy-dress shop and was transported to a world appropriate to his outfit. The concept today would offer too much temptation to tick off a raft of ‘progressive’ boxes.
One can only hope that Hasbro’s decision will not be followed up with enthusiasm by all and sundry. Take away the ‘Mr’ from Goodbye, Mr Chips, and you are left not with the tear-jerking tale of a schoolmaster and the loss of his wife but with what sounds like another directive from Public Health England.