Target is bleeping out book descriptions, removing words like ‘Nazis’ and ‘queer’

https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/target-is-bleeping-
Target's description of “Trans” by Jack Halberstam, as it appeared on Sept 13. (Target)
By Nora Krug Nora Krug Staff editor for Book World with a focus on children's books, memoirs, fiction, parenting, health and fitness Email Bio Follow September 14

Target has come under fire from publishers and authors for bleeping out some words — including “Nazis,” “transgender,” “queer” and “bondage” — from the descriptions of a variety of books on its website.

Among the titles whose blurbs were scrubbed by the company’s automated process are “Trans: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability,” by Jack Halberstam, “Double Cross: The True Story of D-Day Spies” by Ben Macintyre and “No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding,” by Sean Wilentz.

The word “stripper” was bleeped out of the description of Roxane Gay’s book “Difficult Women.”

Target's description of “Trans” by Jack Halberstam, as it appeared on Sept 13. (Target) Target's description of “Difficult Women” by Roxane Gay. (Target)

The matter was first reported in a Thursday article in Publishers Weekly.

On Thursday Target spokeswoman Jenna Reck said the company recently learned that the words “were being inadvertently removed from book descriptions” on the company’s site.

“Like most online retailers,” Reck said in a statement, “Target doesn’t want profanity and other select words to appear on our website in an effort to ensure a positive shopping experience.”

She added that removing the words “was an oversight on our part and they should be included. We’re working to update our site with the descriptions that were provided to Target by the book publishers.”

Publishers Weekly reported that Target had reinstated some of the words on Wednesday, two days after author Cáel Keegan had brought the issue to the company’s attention. Keegan’s book, “Lana and Lilly Wachowski: Sensing Transgender,” published by the University of Illinois Press, explores work by the Wachowski sisters, the transgender filmmakers behind such movies as “The Matrix” series.

Although the matter has been resolved in Keegan’s case, other descriptions remain peppered with asterisks, including “Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism,” by Safiya Umoja Noble. The word “porn” was bleeped out of a passage about how computer algorithms play into biases about women of color.

Target's description of “Heydrich” by Max Williams. (Target) Target's description of “Algorithms of Oppression” by Safiya Umoja Noble. (Target)

Halberstam was surprised to learn that the description of his book “Trans,” along with books about Nazis, had been redacted: “Bleeping out titles reveals a really strange logic around ‘harm’ and ‘offense.’ It presumes that the retailer, in all of its collective wisdom, knows what its consumers will be offended by and moves to protect them from it. This is patronizing, phobic and myopic all at once.”

The redactions appear inconsistent. In the blurb about Dan Jones’s book about gay life, “50 Queers Who Changed the World” the word “queer” appears not just in the title but also in the description; the description of “This Book Is Gay,” by Juno Dawson omits both “Queer” and “Transgender.”

Target's description of "50 Queers Who Changed the World.” (Target) Target's description of “This Book Is Gay” by Juno Dawson. (Target)

For Ben Macintyre’s World War II books, the word “Nazis” appears to have slipped through the filter in his 2017 book “Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit That Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War” but not for his 2012 title “Double Cross.”

Target's description of “Rogue Heroes” by Ben Macintyre. (Target) Target's description of “Double Cross” by Ben Macintyre. (Target)

Wilentz, whose book description was denuded of the word “bondage” in a passage about slavery, said the glitch is “at one level hilarious and another level sad. Hilarious because it’s clear that nobody at Target is actually reading the copy they’re bowdlerizing. What do they call W. Somerset Maugham’s great novel: Of Human *****? Sad because no one would consider the word ‘bondage,’ in whatever setting, as profane in the sense that Target means it.”

“It used to be a small number of supposedly dirty words that were verboten,” added Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton. “That was stupid. Looks like we’re getting even stupider.”

Nora Krug is an editor and writer at Book World.

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