Guest Blog: Cartoons & Censorship

Cartoons & Censorship

By John Abernathy

This article started out about what a difficult and harrowing job it is to write books for kids, but it accidentally turned into seven-hundred words about cartoons and censorship because I rarely pay attention to what I’m writing.  To be honest I’m not even sure I have heard anyone railing against Tom & Jerry recently but boy-howdy am I all worked up about what may or may not be an imaginary conflict.  I’m sure there’s a deeper meaning to the following article, but basically I just need to quit gettin’ mad at cartoons.

I would like to offer into consideration a staple of my own childhood: Looney Toons.  A younger John once considered Tom smashing Jerry on the head with a large wooden mallet the pinnacle of humor.  Tom then had his tail plugged into a wall and was electrocuted (you could see his flashing, seizure-inducing skeleton through the strobe).  Elmer Fudd and Yosimite Sam fired live ammo at, well, everyone.  I’m pretty sure they often hit people with their bullets, scorching skin and, at least once, blowing Daffy Duck’s bill clean off his head.  Heck, on more than one occasion I saw Bugs Bunny dress as a woman and make advances toward his male co-stars.  I grew up in the Bible Belt so this was an offense tantamount to genocide, but I digress.

All of this violence, danger, hostility, and moral ambiguity was and still is, I might add, absolutely hilarious.

The vast difference in how this humor is perceived is astounding, however.  As adults we carry terrifying references and connections with violence.  This is mostly because the programs that have replaced Looney Toons have twice the violence and none of the charm.  Crime dramas, amoral antiheroes, and, worst of all, the evening news, all portray the same kind of hostility as Fudd blasting away at Bugs in drag, but suddenly it’s not funny.  And in this new light it can be hard to remember that it ever was.

Kids, meanwhile, like the “bonk” noise it makes when Porky gets hit on the head, and that mountainous little lump that grows up from the impact.  If I can pick a perspective to live behind, I think I know what I’ll choose.

I do understand the necessity of monitoring what kind of animated programming our kids are exposed to.  Just like Joe Camel trying to sell lung tar to toddlers, there are things that the world’s most impressionable age just shouldn’t be experiencing yet.  But for years, decades even, people have been watching cartoon animals slap each other silly and, until recently, there was neither concern nor consequence considered.  Take, for instance, this early Donald Duck cartoon in which he straight-up murders Goofy.

Donald doesn’t kid around

Not dark enough for you?  Maybe you’ve heard of Mickey Mouse’s flirt with suicide in the late 1930’s.  For a continuous run of almost a dozen strips, Mickey made daily attempts to kill himself by gun, gas, and gravity, all because Minnie had left him.

You can click any image above to enlarge it.  The whole series can be seen at this site, but they’re all tiny.

The series was Walt Disney’s own idea.  Here’s part of an interview with Disney Archivist Dave Smith:

“[Walt Disney] would make suggestions every once in a while, for some short continuities and so on, and I would do them. One that I’ll never forget, and which I still don’t understand was when he said, ‘Why don’t you do a continuity of Mickey trying to commit suicide?’ So I said, ‘Walt! You’re kidding!’ He replied, ‘No, I’m not kidding. I think you could get a lot of funny stuff out of that.’ I said, ‘Gee whiz, Walt. I don’t know. What do you think the Syndicate will think of it? What do you think the editors will think? And the readers?’ He said, ‘I think it will be funny. Go ahead and do it.’ So I did, oh, maybe ten days of Mickey trying to commit suicide—jumping off bridges, trying to hang himself… I don’t remember all the details. But strangely enough, the Syndicate didn’t object. We didn’t hear anything from the editors, and Walt said, ‘See? It was funny. I told you it would be.’ So there were a few things like that.”

Read an entire article about the Mickey Mouse suicides at Mouse Planet.

So, Donald was a maniac and Mickey was depressed, yet I’d bet my vintage 1931 mint-in-the-box condition Mickey Mouse Funtime Suicide Rifle Playset that no one ran out and started drowning the neighbor kids or gulping down Jerry Jones flavored Kool-aid just because Disney introduced them to the idea of it.  Sure, kids are going to smack each other around a little bit but censoring cartoons isn’t going to change that any.  Kids are just violent.  Coincidently, they can also take a little roughhousing as well.  They’re great like that.  They’re invincible.  It makes them courageous and that lack (or ignorance) of fear encourages curiosity.

I dare say that the kind of violence and sexism you find in classic old Chuck Avery cartoons is actually good for kids.  It allows them to see and experience things in terms that they understand.  It allows them a peek into adult issues and, perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t construct a framework of fear and depravity around things that, by all realistic measures, are just funny kid jokes anyway.  See that shapely lady dancing on the nightclub stage?  That’s not a call to arms for America’s future strippers; it’s just a setup to a gag involving a wolf’s eyes popping out and tongue rolling across the club.  Kids don’t even see that she’s shapely or recognize the inherent gender objectification in the wolf’s reaction, but by demonizing a simple setup and punch line it’s actually we who are introducing that exchange as something more than a joke.

I know the bulk of this argument focuses on cartoons but the principle applies to so much more.  I used to play with G.I. Joes and owned an impressive arsenal of weapons.  I even fired my Nerf and Super Soakers at other people!  I played on playgrounds that were made of metal and nails and chains.  When I moved to Long Beach, though, I discovered that all merry-go-rounds had been removed from city parks because they were considered too dangerous.  My favorite videogame involved plowing through crowds in a racecar.  Back when I first read the stories of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, they had the word “nigger” in them.  And yet, despite all of these facts, I did not join the Army, I am not a gun fanatic, I am not crippled or permanently scarred, I have never hit a pedestrian, and I am not an epithet-spouting bigot.  Why?  Because I have awesome parents.

It’s the oldest conclusion in the book; “blame the parents” has been cried from the tops of mountains ever since the very first teenager opted to go chase skirts instead of Wooly Mammoths.  I know every case and every child is different, but once you accept the possibility that a child can be raised in front of Yosimite Sam and yet as an adult have never fired a gun at another man, what other conclusion explains those who have?

I say let the kids have their cartoons.  Let them bask in the glow of frying pan/face collisions, of dynamite-related accidents, of cross-dressing rabbits singing opera.  Watch them and know that they aren’t seeing the same thing you’re seeing.  And when they push that boundary too far, when the joke gets out of line, when the issue starts to become “real,” then you come down on them like brimstone on Gomorrah.  Put your boundaries far enough from kids stuff that they still get to have a childhood but firmly before they start to endanger themselves.  It’s a lot farther than you might think at first, and they’ll be much better off being allowed to be a kid.  That’s way my parent’s did anyway, and despite my best efforts I turned out to be an ok guy.

About the book:

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