Cancel Culture

Captain Underpants Author Self-Cancels Book for 'Passive Racism'

Passive, indeed.


Dav Pilkey is the author of the bestselling children's book series Captain Underpants. He also wrote (and illustrated) a spinoff, The Adventures of Ook and Gluk: Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future, which was published in 2010.

Now Ook and Gluk is unpublished. Scholastic and Pilkey announced last week that the book would no longer be available.

"Together, we recognize that this book perpetuates passive racism," said the publisher in a statement. "We are deeply sorry for this serious mistake."

This act of self-cancelation was prompted in part by a petition that claimed Ook and Gluk was filled with racist imagery of Asians:

I am a Korean-American father of two young children, ages 5 and 7. Both are huge fans of Dav Pilkey, author of wildly popular series Captain Underpants and Dogman, and recently borrowed "Ook and Gluk: Kung-Fu Cavemen From the Future" by the author from their local library.

I realized the book relied upon multiple instances of racist imagery and stereotypical tropes, including a Kung Fu master; wearing what's purported to be a traditional-style Tang coat, dashes for eyes for the Asian characters, stereotypical Chinese proverbs, and a storyline that has the Kung Fu master rescued by the non-Asian protagonists using their Kung Fu skills (despite the fact that they were taught said skills from the supposed master).

The originator of that petition was not satisfied with the book merely disappearing from shelves: He also demanded an apology and "accountability" from Pilkey and a donation to "an AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander] community organization." In a statement posted to his YouTube page, Pilkey pledged to meet all of these demands.

"I hope that you, my readers, will forgive me, and learn from my mistake that even unintentional and passive stereotypes and racism is harmful to everyone," said Pilkey. "I apologize, and I pledge to do better."

Authors and publishers are free to take their work off the market. Still, there's cause for some concern here. With this level of apologizing, you might have expected Ook and Gluk to be really, really racist—at least something comparable to the most offensive Dr. Seuss cartoons. As it turns out, the evidence of passive racism here is extremely thin. (The adjective "passive" was sort of a giveaway.) The person who teaches Ook and Gluk about kung fu is indeed drawn as Asian, and he does engage in various traditional Asian activities. If the caricature had been less accurate, would that have made it better or worse?

Most of the characters in Pilkey's work are drawn to be funny-looking; as best as I can tell, the plots of the stories are absurdist and vaguely scornful of authority. The Captain Underpants series are among the most frequently challenged books in American schools and libraries: The crude humor, offensive language, violence, and pro-LGBT content have often come under attack from social conservatives. Now they're taking flak from another direction.