The Mass Panic That Came To Tea

How the throwaway comments of a single campaigner led to hysterical right-wing press reports around the world.

This week has seen a fascinating example of moral panic across the socio-political divide, all caused by a beloved children’s book that, a week ago, no one had a problem with. Now, Judith Kerr’s 1968 story The Tiger That Came To Tea is either a rapist’s manual or the last line of defence against the rampant excesses of Wokeness, depending on who you ask.

Things kicked off when Rachel Adamson, the head of Scottish charity Zero Tolerance, appeared on BBC Scotland Radio in relation to an ‘audit’ of children’s books in twenty-one nurseries in Scotland in search of gender stereotyping. This audit – carried out at the behest and under the instructions of the charity – invariably found widespread stereotyping in children’s books, though that stereotyping was described in rather vague ways, with big claims like “Only 5% of the books portrayed male and/or female characters in non-stereotypical roles” that were not backed up with specific details of what that actually means… what qualifies as a stereotype in these situations is often open to interpretation, after all.

In her radio interview, Adamson was pushed to be more specific, and rather hastily singled out The Tiger Who Came To Tea, which has – as the title suggests – a tiger visiting a family for tea and causing the sort of chaos that you might expect from such an ill-considered event. At the end of the story, the father arrives home from work, sees the ruined state of the house and takes his wife and daughter out for a meal – less ‘saving the day’ as has been suggested, and more making the best of a bad situation that he had stumbled into after the fact, you might think. But as Adamson told Radio Scotland, “we know that gender stereotypes are harmful and they reinforce gender inequality, and that gender inequality is the cause of violence against women and girls, such as domestic abuse, rape and sexual harassment.”

That’s quite a lot of assumptions – and not just about how to interpret the book. Of course, the interview met with an immediate backlash across the press and social media, with the Right outraged at the prospect of yet more harmless and beloved books being sacrificed on the altar of political correctness and the Left – for the most part – rapidly distancing themselves from Adamson’s claims against the book, if not her more general complaint about gender stereotyping. The week ended – as it often does – with a scoffing piece in Spiked, the site that is very selectively outraged by attacks on individual freedom, and which a few days earlier had been gloating over and celebrating the ban on sex workers from OnlyFans. Moral outrage is fine if you agree with it, apparently.

In all the hysteria, everyone seemed to forget that this was nothing more than a vague and ill-considered complaint about one book – seemingly pulled out of the air – by one person. Admittedly, Adamson is the head of a charity, which makes her sound jolly important – but as we know, a lot of charities are set up and run by just one person, and many are effectively crank organisations and pressure groups designed to push a particular agenda. Solid evidence of a mass campaign against The Tiger Who Came To Tea is rather thin on the ground. It’s worth pointing this out because, in the war against censorship, it is easy to sometimes be taken in by the ideas of individual oddballs who speak for no one but themselves (and, of course, a handful of like-minded eccentrics). No one – not even Adamson, it seems – is currently calling for the book to be banned or withdrawn from schools.

In one way, this storm in a teacup was a win-win for everyone. Adamson boosted her public profile and will probably see this as ‘starting a conversation’, which is the code for pushing mad, previously unthinkable ideas into the public sphere and seeing how people react. The attack on this book was condemned across the political divide, and so can be seen as a bridge too far; but all moments of cultural cancellation begin with a single step.

That is why we shouldn’t entirely dismiss this non-story out of hand. Over recent years, we’ve seen enough once-beloved books and films pulled from circulation and curriculums or edited over old-fashioned attitudes to know that people really can whip up a storm over something that – right up to that point – people had been able to view within the context of its time (or, with books like To Kill A Mockingbird, were seen as highly progressive works right up to the point of becoming problematic). Clearly, someone at BBC Scotland thought that it was worth giving airtime to the head of an obscure charity that had carried out a rather vague study aimed at reinforcing already-held beliefs, and they did so either because they were sympathetic to the ideas being expressed or – and this seems less likely but not impossible – that they were simply handing her enough rope to help cause the media storm that ensued.

But just as the BBC’s motives for allowing her on-air – and then goading her into naming a book that was particularly problematic, presumably knowing that any title chosen would be a beloved old children’s classic – were suspect, so too is the press response. Everyone who reported on this knew that Adamson was not only likely to be the sole representative of her charity, but also almost certainly sits at the cranky end of the radical feminist movement. Yet the story fitted into a pre-existing agenda, and so was quickly translated into “feminists blaming The Tiger Who Came To Tea for violence against women” – the actual Spiked sub-header, but essentially what every right-leaning outlet and social media commenter also said. It’s the sort of over-simplification, exaggeration and – yes – stereotyping that those self-same outraged writers like to complain about when it comes from the Left, of course. There is not, right now, a feminist campaign against the book – at least not in the plural. Adamson’s individual views are just that – the random ideas of an individual, not the voice of a movement. Perhaps she aims to become that, and perhaps her increased media profile will give more weight to her dubious campaign  – if that happens, then we’ll certainly be taking her more seriously. For now, though, this feels like a fraudulent moral panic that is entirely a creation of bored journalists and campaigners who have a very limited opposition to censorship and social control.


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One comment

  1. It seems as though people who make a fuss about defending freedoms should come with a footnote stating ‘terms and conditions apply’.

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