Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman surveys the changing landscape of cartoon stereotypes and the less-than-politically-correct classics from the Golden Years.
Animation that has been censored over the years for its ethnic, racial and violent content is a cause célèbre among animation fans and scholars. In the days of the theatrical cartoons, pretty much anything was game; any sort of violence was acceptable, racial stereotypes populated the cartoons of every major studio, and ethnic caricatures were signifiers for entire populations. This primarily had to do with the prevailing attitudes of the time; although there were protests by African-American groups and leaders over Walt Disney's release of Song of the South in 1946, the movie was released all the same.
After the great struggles of the Civil Rights movement took place, there was more sensitivity towards minorities in general. When television became the major purveyor of cartoons, much of this was "cleaned up" for what were presumably juvenile audiences, and the insensitive stereotypes were removed. By1975, when Ralph Bakshi attempted to release Coonskin to theaters, a riot nearly resulted.
Everyone who has followed the history of cartoons since the late 1960s is aware of watchdog movements against violence, the promotion of "politically correct" social viewpoints, and the banning and censorship of older cartoons that did not live up to the changing social standards of acceptability. The advent of the VHS videotape and, later, the DVD, mirrored these standards. New cable markets, featuring 24-hour animation channels, followed suit. It appeared that banned and censored cartoons would remain so until the end of time, but as of very recently, it seems all of that is about to change. The changes have been incremental and subtle, but they are there all the same.
These changes do not correlate with any great difference in race relations. For example, at the time of this writing, black rage against the inequities of the justice system exploded in Jena, Louisiana. Even sports is not immune: Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, who is facing serious consequences over allegations of organized dog fighting, finds his supporters and detractors split largely along racial lines. Much the same happened concerning the legitimacy of Barry Bond's claiming of the all-time home run title. Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb asserts that black and white quarterbacks are treated differently in the NFL. Had O.J. Simpson not incriminated himself so deeply in a sports memorabilia robbery, no doubt his fans and foes would have organized around the same sad divide.
Meanwhile, in TV animation, Minoriteam brazenly splashed stereotypical, Jack-Kirby-esque characters across the Adult Swim nation. Aaron McGruder's brilliant backlash series The Boondocks delivered brilliant, mordant thrusts against the modern sensibilities of both whites and blacks. On another front, the long-awaited Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection included several cartoons featuring ethnic stereotyping. One of them, The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B, was exclusively populated by black characters that represent the very height of racial caricature. A mere few years ago, this would have been unthinkable. Now it is released without as much as a disclaimer.
Early reports indicate that the upcoming fifth edition of The Looney Tunes Golden Collection and the second installment of classic Popeye cartoons will contain uncensored versions of the theatrical shorts, just as they were originally run for audiences decades ago. A generation of younger fans who saw only the truncated versions of these classics may not even know that restored, alternate versions exist. When the third and final volume of The Tom and Jerry Spotlight Collection was released earlier this month, knowledgeable fans decried the fact that several cartoons were omitted. Among them was the undeniably hilarious Mouse Cleaning (1948), a cartoon that ended with a prominent blackface gag. From what we have seen so far, Warner Home Video might just as well have released it uncut.
Walt Disney CEO Robert Iger floated the idea in March of this year that Disney's most controversial feature, Song of the South, may possibly be released on DVD in the near future. Two months later, the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable and the Los Angeles Civil Rights Association opposed the release of the film to DVD without a disclaimer. Both parties also requested that a featurette be added addressing the negative effects of racism on society. It is surprising that such a dialogue can even take place considering the past contention surrounding this feature, and a release may still be possible in 2008 or 2009.
In researching countless reviews of the recent Woody Woodpecker DVD release, I was unable to come up with any reviewer expressing outrage over stereotypical cartoons being released, and without any disclaimers. If racial attitudes have not greatly changed, and there is still a noticeable degree of polarization present between blacks and whites in America, what has changed? How is it that previously censored cartoons are appearing (or being planned for release) on DVD, and how is it that previously unspeakable race-based humor is finding its way into television animation?
I asked Chris Lehman, author of American Animated Cartoons of the Vietnam Era (as well as the upcoming book The Colored Cartoon), and a man with extensive knowledge of racist cartoons, his opinion. Lehman believes that marketing plays a major role. As he stated during an e-mail interview:
"I think that racist cartoons are emerging because DVD collections of old theatrical cartoon shorts are being marketed to adults. Those films and their stars, like Woody Woodpecker, aren't shown on television very much anymore. As a result, kids would not want a DVD collection of cartoons they know nothing about. However, adults would remember the "classic" cartoons, so the studios target adults for DVD purchases. The studios then leave in the racist content, because theoretically adults are old enough to put the content in its time context and to regard the stereotypes as grotesque exaggerations. Minoriteam probably airs in 'Adult Swim' for the same reason."
Good points, and possibly true, but there may be other reasons as well. One possibility may be that these cartoons may not carry the stigma that they once did because material even more offensive has superseded them. While there is no doubt that the racist or prejudicial attitudes that existed at the time were every bit as objectionable as they are today, it may be that these stereotypes, portrayed as they were during the 1940s, no longer push the same buttons. It may also be true that there is a different agenda among those who wish to fight racism, one consisting of matters more urgent than banning cartoon shorts made over 60 years ago.
The stereotypes that appear in Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B and its contemporary films are those of the wide-eyed, thick-lipped, dice-tossing buffoon; those appearing in Song of the South depict plantation hands so servile, deferential, and absurdly spiritual that many viewers believe that the film is actually set in the Antebellum South. These stereotypes, shameful in their day, are old and stale. They do not resonate with those who have seen the victories of the Civil Rights movements, the gains made by blacks in business, entertainment, and virtually every field of employment. The racism in these theatrical cartoons is as antiquated today as that once subscribed to by the Know-Nothing Party or the Ku Klux Klan.
Many black journalists (and, yes, white ones as well) now decry the modern racist stereotypes, such as that of the thuggish black rapper, whose tendencies towards violence, misogyny, and lawlessness is as mendacious in its own way as the slow-talking drawl and shuffle of Stepin Fetchit. Dripping with bling, eyes perpetually hidden behind menacing shades, and ready to threaten violence to a cop, a rival, or a "ho," this stereotype is the modern face of racism and bears little resemblance to successful, law-abiding members of the black community. Coal Black, Queenie, and Prince Chawmin' are simply not in the same league; it is now the 2000s, and as Don Imus learned, racism must be confronted in more modern terms.
Recent statistics suggest there are more young black men in jail than in college, and depressing studies indicate that one in every four young black men will run afoul of the law. It is almost certain that inequities exist in the American justice system, ones that go far beyond "crimes" such as "driving while black." After decades of questioning the legal system, angry blacks (and white supporters) descended on Jena, Louisiana, where the unfortunate story of an unpunished hate crime at a school escalated into retaliatory incidents; the participant who ended up temporarily jailed was black.
At the same time, cultural attitudes that cripple young blacks through the glorification of violence and the embracing of willful ignorance unfortunately seem to exist. Bryan Burwell, a columnist for the St. Louis Dispatch, summed up the struggle in a piece appearing on MSNBC.com (23 August 2007). In writing about Michael Vick's apologists, Burwell noted:
"They will continue to send out all the wrong messages that perpetuate this attitude in some parts of my black community that makes a man returning from prison hailed like a conquering hero and the kid on spring break from college is a chump to be ridiculed. The standards are all wrong, and it has to change... The negative images that are embraced by too many young (black) men in our society needs to be changed to make them understand that intelligence is right and ignorance is wrong. We need to alter the perception so that it's cool to be smart and the thug and gangster lifestyle is wrong."
The battle against today's modern stereotypes, against an unjust system, against attitudes that promote violence and ignorance above education and career are probably more important than keeping copies of Tex Avery's Uncle Tom's Bungalow (a cartoon made four years after the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.), out of DVD collections. As pernicious as those racist cartoons might have been in their day, it is clearly no longer that day. As I have for years, I side with the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable: If these cartoons are to be released, let it be with appropriate disclaimers and an explanation of historical context.
One of the saddest emails I have ever received concerned an analysis I did of Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs for Animation Nerd's Paradise back in 1997. The email was sent by two sub-literate skinheads who apparently placed less value on education than the most virulent gangsta. After assailing me personally in rather impolite terms for impugning the racist content of the cartoon, they gleefully stated that what the world needed was more cartoons like Coal Black, so that white people could be more frequently and heartily amused.
Of course, they missed the point: Such cartoons will certainly never be made again, and the old cartoons, as repulsive as they are in their racism, are museum pieces that do not hold up well to historical changes in our culture. That is what my skinhead critics did not realize: it is possible that both races may well have moved on to other, and more important, issues as we work towards a settlement of our racial differences and a true acceptance of our human commonality.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.