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June Bugged: Cartoon Network's Controversy

Who was right and who was wrong in the "June Bugs" Cartoon Network fiasco? Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman reveals that that is not the question...it is, of course, a much deeper issue.

The wascally wabbit himself. © AOL Time Warner.

April showers bring May flowers, but June traditionally brings a special treat to all lovers of classic Warner Bros. cartoons: it's the month when Cartoon Network clears the decks for their annual "June Bugs" -- as in Bugs Bunny -- marathon. Whether one is a scholar of the Runyonesque rabbit or a casual fan enjoying the antics of animations most adorable antagonist, this is the opportunity to immerse one's self in a cavalcade of carrot-chomping hilarity. This year's Rabbitfest was the most ambitious ever attempted; a full retrospective of every cartoon ever to star the mercurial bunny. What's up, Doc? We were, from the opening shots of Porky's Hare Hunt to the fade out on From Hare to Eternity. When at last our reddened eyeballs and overheated VCRs found repose we had witnessed legend, as interpreted by some of the most talented directors and skilled artisans ever to ply the craft. A marathon indeed! Forty-nine hours -- June 1 through June 3 -- were needed in order to see them all. For the record, Bugs' career spans sixty-two years, and the Bugs Bunny manifest includes nearly one hundred and eighty shorts. Fifty-five of those cartoons made their debut during this amazing tribute...but the cartoons we didn't see were the ones that snared the headlines.

Bugs Trivia

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The Twelve and Their Legacy

There weren't many -- only twelve -- and the reason they made news was the upshot of a clash between Cartoon Network executives and their owners, AOL Time Warner. It was the intention of Cartoon Network (and former president Betty Cohen) to present a retrospective that was not only entertaining but historical. As Ms. Cohen told the Wall Street Journal (5/4/01): "We wanted to please the animation community." Unfortunately, the manifest included a dozen cartoons with potentially offensive racist content. The shorts featured questionable gibes aimed at blacks, Native Americans, Eskimos, and our erstwhile foes of WWII, the Japanese. Even though the annual "June Bugs" fest was planned as early as February, it appears that Cartoon Network did not inform their parent company of their full plans until April 26. AOL Time Warner, owner of the licensing and merchandising rights to the beloved Warner Bros. characters, were leery of these cartoons. Their argument held a modicum of merit: offended parties tend to protest -- and worse -- to boycott. Further complicating matters was Warner's recent launching of a new Website (LooneyTunes.com) designedtodrumupevenmoreinterestintheir classic stable of stars. While no one knows how much Bugs and his buds are actually worth, tending fifty contracts to Alex Rodriguez, baseball's highest paid star at over US$20 million a year, would likely render the lesser figure. Big Daddy Warner reportedly stopped short of an actual veto, but sometimes whispers speak louder than words; as April came to a close Betty Cohen pulled the Twelve from the lineup, conceding that, "I don't like sweeping things under the rug. I wanted to honor the intense interest that animation fans have for us, but I can't deny that we're a mass medium."

Cartoon Network was not unaware of the risks; the cartoons were to be plucked from chronological order and shown late at night, as if they were refugees from some hardcore cable channel. Each one was to sport a rolling disclaimer across the bottom of the screen: "Cartoon Network does not endorse the use of racial slurs. These vintage cartoons are presented as representative of the time in which they were created and are presented for their historical value." It would be difficult to think of a more appropriate plan, but the point is now moot. Each side has had its defenders and detractors; Jerry Beck, one of our premier animation historians and archivists, believes that the right and responsible decision was made in pulling the cartoons. Others, such as columnist Kay McFadden of the Seattle Times, believes that AOL Time Warner's concern for their coffers triumphed at the expense of Art. Yet, there is a greater issue at stake than whether Warner may lose revenue or whether completists get to enjoy the full complement of Bugs Bunny cartoons. Rather, it is the continuing argument of what to do with past artistic artifacts that include racial content. Is censorship ever justified? Should history be eradicated, even in a judicious cause? Is there ever a way to separate art from its historical context, or is such racism timeless and still lethal today? As one of Animation World Magazine's monthly commentators, I wish to express my view on the "June Bugs" flap, however controversial my take might be: Both AOL Time Warner and the Cartoon Network are wrong. They are also both right. If this seems confusing, it merely reflects the fractious and contorted state of race relations in America today.

Bugs Trivia

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The Issues at Face Value

There was nothing inherently wrong with the original decision to air "June Bugs" as planned; showing the Twelve in the wee hours with appropriate disclaimers was not an unsound move, and both history and art could have been served. The courage of Cartoon Network was admirable; for the sake of presenting the career of a cartoon rabbit, the Network was prepared to expose itself to the fiery criticisms and controversies that were sure to follow. Such bravery (even if it only lasted a week) is rare in televised media today. Considering that few forms of broadcast have undergone more scrutiny than kidvid and that Cartoon Network survives on nothing but cartoons, Cartoon Network's original decision was even more courageous -- no cowardly dogs here! However, the Cartoon Network cannot be all things to all fans; although they would like to be "the world leader in animation," Cartoon Network cannot do so on their own terms. The Cartoon Network, it will be recalled, is a commercial channel that has to answer to owners and sponsors while catering to the juvenile end of the demographic scale. Cartoon Network cannot play by the same rules as PBS, which could have done the retrospective with far less trepidation. Cartoon Network could still have shown the Twelve, but not as part of the "June Bugs" gala; mixing controversial toons in with the general merriment was not the appropriate context.

As for AOL Time Warner:If Cartoon Network's parent company was concerned about their profits, this is not as cynical as it sounds. Companies run on capital, not controversy. There exists in this nation a cadre of professionals without portfolio who make at least a partial living as anti-racists. Let me make this clear: These are not the same people who recognize racism as the evil it is and fight it on moral grounds. I am referring to the self-righteous on all sides of the color or ethnic line who relentlessly watchdog, agitate and accuse at the slightest suspicion that any form of communication contains racist code. At best these groups and individuals force upon us a grim and vigilant "celebration of diversity," their finely tuned antennae evaluating the ethnic content of every program produced. At worst they are paranoid and accusatory to the point that their anti-racist rhetoric becomes paradoxically racist in itself. These are the people who lead boycotts, and it does not take much to incite them; many of them are highly educated professionals who ought to know better. During this strained and confusing time when race relations are at a difficult point and the recent census suggests that America may no longer have a clear racial "majority," why should Warner risk offending anybody? Is Warner's position really so different from Walt Disney's during the early 1930s? When angry parents assailed Walt with letters about Mickey's randy or cruel behaviors in the Mouse's early films, Walt commanded his staff that it should happen no more. Mickey's image must not be tainted. He's a good scout. And it's bad for business. Shouldn't Warner feel the same about Bugs Bunny, one of the most adored (and marketable) cartoon properties ever created?

Bugs Trivia

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Still, it is regrettable to see censorship sustained under these terms. If the Cartoon Network was truly meant to be the Royal Archive of All Toons Warner, then by all means AOL Time Warner should have worked with their corporate stepchild in order to preserve the Cartoon Network's integrity. If Cartoon Network had given Warner more advance notice, and Warner possessed the bravery and sincerity of their subsidy, perhaps a position could have been reached that satisfied the Network, the fans and the money men. The Twelve could have been packaged as a separate, historical addendum to the Bugsfest (reportedly, Cartoon Network is working with Jerry Beck on just such a project). In such a context, wider issues could have been discussed and the reasons behind the disclaimers explained in full. Instead, Warner stood accused of killing the shorts to save Bugs' lucrative image, the Cartoon Network did not present a truly historic event, and (as is typical where censorship is involved) the fans were cheated.

The Greatest Crime?

The saddest part of all? These censored shorts were indeed "representative of the time in which they were created." That also means they are laughably outdated and more ridiculous than offensive. Racism is indeed a detestable moral crime; the mother of genocide and an execration upon all civilized nations. Yet, the face of racism has changed over time and the manner of its presentation has changed as well. Although racial stereotypes will never be outdated -- they are far too handy to use as icons of contempt -- their representations can be. The Twelve, particularly those unkind to blacks, belong in that class; their racism can be best found today among the residents of nursing homes. There has not been a formally presented minstrel show in this country for at least sixty years. Mammiferous mammies, shuck-and-jive dice tossers and shufflin' watermelon chompers are offensive but antiquated foolishness. Today's racism takes more serious forms: racial profiling; the dismantling of Affirmative Action; schools that are segregated de facto if not legally; the new stereotypes of the Gangbanger and the Welfare Queen; the discriminatory "crime" of Driving While Black; standardized tests that produce nothing but damage and "bell curve" mentalities; and a disproportionate population of young black males incarcerated in our prison system to name just a few. Is the most grievous offense society can commit that of showing Bugs Bunny imitating a white man imitating a black man?

No cartoons could be more outdated than those featuring anti-Japanese propaganda. In times of war it is typical to slander and dehumanize an enemy, and Japan was one of the deadliest foes America ever faced in combat. By the time WWII ended, 150,000 American servicemen -- half of those who died in the conflict -- perished in the Pacific Theater. It is impossible for those who did not live through this war to appreciate the fear and hatred of an enemy who actually did threaten our shores. So great was this terror that thousands of innocent Japanese-Americans were shamefully interred in detention camps lest they form a "fifth column;" this was a racist crime greater than any seven-minute propaganda cartoon could ever perpetrate. Today we are economic allies with Japan and most high school students can barely identify that nation as our adversary in the Second World War. Anyone who, at this late date, takes these cartoons seriously still drives a Studebaker and supports the New Deal.

The cartoons featuring Bugs and Native Americans are more regrettable, but in two cases the Amerinds in question are mere stand-ins for Elmer Fudd (the dumbest white hunter in cartoondom). In both cases the protagonists hunt the rabbit -- something I'm sure Native Americans never did -- and both live to regret it, as many of Bugs' adversaries do. The third cartoon is a parody of Western cavalry pictures and is meant to be portrayed as a farce. Cartoon shorts portraying caricatures of Native Americans were pulled from broadcast some five years ago; the Cartoon Network has at least conceded that they are unacceptable. Today Native Americans fume at the sight of Chief Wahoo adorning the caps of the Cleveland Indians, rail against the "tomahawk chop" practiced by fans of the Atlanta Braves and are disgusted with the Washington Redskins for reasons unrelated to the obnoxious follies of owner Daniel Snyder. All three football franchises are among the most successful of the past decade, invariably playing before sellout crowds. Would a single showing of three antiquated cartoons in their historical context exceed these modern examples of stereotype?

Bugs Trivia

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In a 1965 article written for The Nation, noted black author and screenwriter John Olive Killers cast a critical look at Hollywood. After expressing disgust at images of blacks in movies, the film industry's racial fears, and the dearth of blacks within the film/TV industry, Killings archly noted that: "Ironically, the American Negro, at whom Hollywood has eternally aimed her fire, has been the least vulnerable of all Americans, the least brainwashed. We have never been completely taken in by the hypocritical culture, by film or television. Our belief in our innate inferiority has been, at most, superficial. Yes, the black American is a believer, but not a True Believer in the Word according to Saint Hollywood."

Those words were written thirty-five years ago. It is difficult to believe that black self-awareness and pride have diminished since the struggle for civil rights, or that blacks have regressed back to a docile acceptance of any image Hollywood wishes to portray of them. The same is true for all minorities, whom today are asserting their racial and ethnic identities with unprecedented self-esteem and confidence. Discrimination still exists, but at an increasingly steep cost to its perpetrators. If a handful of old cartoons can reverse or even destroy such progress, then so much the worse for America and all people black, white, Hispanic and Asian. I prefer to bet that such a scenario won't come to pass: Let the Twelve be shown again, but with the sensitivity, consideration, and intelligence needed to portray a regrettable part of our past history. I believe we can handle it.

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.

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