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Fight To The Death, But Don't Hurt Anybody! Memories of Political Correctness

Tom Sito, fresh from his gig as head of story on Disney's Pocohantas, details his experiences over the years trying to be politically correct.

When Americans debate censorship, one issue that makes all sides of the political spectrum see red is children's programming. This issue has been around long before the term "Political Correctness" was coined. Public outcries by the part of the public from time to time even arouses the government to action; for instance, when the 1954 Kefauver Hearings on Juvenile Delinquency in the US Senate attacked comic books and, despite the testimony of Bill Gaines, Walt Kelly and Al Capp, 300 comic book titles went under. Because animation is seen as a children's medium often best suited for babysitting, we in the industry seem an easy target for modern day Catos to score points.

SitoPC4.gifHe-Man storyboard staff at Filmation, 1983. Front Row:Tom Sito, Steve Hickner, Richard Chidlaw, Don Manuel,Tom Tataranowicz and Bob Arkwright. Back row: Rob Lamb, Warren Greenwood, Mike Swannigan, Bob Forward, Brian Chin, and Victor Dalchele.

Kidvid is actually a phenomenon that began in the 1950s. After all, the classic Bugs Bunny and Tom and Jerry cartoons were not made for children, they were made for adults. When the movie studios unloaded their libraries of old shorts to television, local stations ran them endlessly in various children's slots. Growing up around 1960, you could turn the dial from Tom Terrific and see some pretty strange stuff: Popeye pounding some buck-toothed Japanese stereotype in a wartime propaganda cartoon, or blackface characters with Rochester and Steppin Fetchit voices. I remember Betty Boop leading a horde of lascivious males slobbering after her into a tent where they emerged as soldiers. What was acceptable in 1942 and ignored in 1962 is now and should be anathema.

Rotting Children's Minds

However, I cringe whenever Peggy Charen, of Action for Children's Television, or some other politico complains that children's minds are being rotted by cartoons, while shows like Mr. Roger's Neighborhood or Sesame Street are touted as being infititely more desirable. While I agree with their motives (heck, as a child I too would occasionally enjoy watching an arrested adolescent with a folk guitar singing "Puff the Magic Dragon" to a sock puppet), I just wish they wouldn't damn our medium along with the message.

Ms. Charen may think of animation in the abstract, but I know that she's talking about the incomes of 2,500 American union artists and their families in L.A. alone. Not elves in trees, not pornographers in basements, just plain folks who make car payments and buy insurance and go on unemployment. Young wage earners who do storyboards for Batman, older pensioners who did Crusader Rabbit and Touché Turtle, and top animators who did Ariel, the Genie and Simba.

True, some of us are getting publicity about the big salaries we're earning with the current animation craze, but it still doesn't amount to the amount of tax withheld on Tom Arnold's wages. You don't become an animator to get rich, you do it because you love the medium, and you love the bright smile that crosses a child's face when you tell him or her what you do, or when you sit in a dark theater full of people you'll never know and watch them forget their cares and laugh at your drawings. I was an animator before this boom happened, and I'll be one when it subsides.

In 1966, the government intervened and stopped shows like Linus the Lionhearted, because the characters were also featured on Post Alpha-Bits cereal. The feds ruled children's advertising and programming should be separate. Well, in the Age of Reagan that law went in the dumpster and shows based on toy lines were planned and unleashed with the preciseness of the Normandy invasion. In all the current posturing and chest-thumping about how many times a minute Donald Duck gets hit with a mallet, the issue of exploiting young consumers is being obfuscated.

Still, I can't really protest too much; from 1983 to 1987, I made a living off those shows. I worked on He-Man, She-Ra, Go-Bots, Robotix, Donkey-Kong, Pitfall, Q-Bert, Galtar and dozens more I can't remember. After a recession and failed strike, which became an excuse for my employers to send most of my work overseas to be done by Third World political prisoners, it was good to be paying the bills. My wife Pat and I jokingly called our first house Casa de He-Man.

And although the current perception may be that those studios never gave a flying figgy about children's gray matter, I know from being inside that we had a host of groups driving us nuts.

Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids © Filmation.

Standards and Practices and ...

Besides the standard and practices people at the networks and the sponsors, at Filmation we had a child psychologist on staff. Thus, I would have He-Man rip a tree out of the ground to beat some monster over the head and I would get a pink memo from Dr. Berry stating that, "I'm sorry, but He-Man cannot kill a tree." Guards zapped by the bad guy had to appear stunned, not look dead. Filmation president Lou Scheimer was proud of the fact that you never saw He-Man or She-Ra actually chop or stab anyone with their swords. He-Man's standard way for getting rid of bad guys was to spin them around until they were dizzy, then chop a cord that dropped some drapery on them, or throw them several miles where they landed harmlessly in some bales of hay. One of my favorite lines of dialogue was when King Randor had to exhort his legions to hurl back an invading horde of goblins: "Men of Eternia! Fight to the death, but don't hurt anybody!"

I remember being called to an important summit at Hanna-Barbera over the new season of The Flintstone Kids. When I arrived, all the senior writers and directors where there--Bob Taylor, Alex Lovy, Iwao Takamoto and Kay Wright. I thought, "Wow, serious stuff!" Then Joe Barbera introduced this group of young corporate psychologists, who preceded to lecture us all on Fred and Barney's personalities based on a system of color cards--"Is Wilma an Orange regressive or a Blue?" First of all, unless you lived in a cave since 1960, you probably know Fred Flintstone's personality; but then to lecture the very men who created him was incredible. I looked over at Mr. Barbera and noticed he was standing anxiously in the doorway, like he didn't want to be there. I guess this was some bright idea of a network sponsor and we had to cooperate.

Ms. Charen and members of Congress would be surprised if they could see how we used to jump whenever we'd get a letter from some group saying they disapproved of the way we portrayed Left-Handed-Vietnam-Vets-With-Reading -Disabilities, or whatever. Lou Scheimer would say, "Guys. We gotta think about this!"

Of Clamshells and Mothers

The Disney Studio is also not immune to these kind of letters, and we always used to share the kookiest ones. My favorite came after the release of The Little Mermaid, when we got a missive from a nudist colony objecting to Ariel's clamshell top. They said it was, "Restrictive, sexist, suggested S&M and she couldn't check herself for breast cancer." When we got attacked for the portrayals of Arabs in Aladdin, the funny thing was most of the incidental characters were caricatures of us, the artists. I guess we look funnier than we thought. After The Lion King, someone accused us of making the bad guys minority voices and the heroes Wasp. I think that must have been a surprise to Robert Guilliame and James Earl Jones, African-Americans who played Rafiki and Mufasa, and Jeremy Irons who played Scarr.

I was head of story on Pocahontas and attended a special meeting called because Michael Eisner wanted to know why Pocahontas did not have a mother. After many drafts of such a challenging script, adding such a major character would've caused heavy disruptions in production. But that wasn't the main reason we aced Poca's mom. Contrary to the popular verdict that we ignored history on the film, we tried hard to be historically correct and to accurately portray the culture of the Virginia Algonquins. We consulted with the Smithsonian Institution, a number of native American experts, Pocahontas' descendants, the surviving Virginia tribes and even took several trips to Jamestown itself. And to any naysayer, I can produce a prodigious bibliography at practically a moment's notice.

The reason Pocahontas doesn't have a mom in the film is that her father, Mamawatowick (Chief) Powhatan, was polygamous and had 149 wives. It seems he would marry one, make a child and after the baby was weaned, would marry the mother off to another chief or warrior; this enabled him to maintain his control of the tribe through a system of dynastic alliances. Pocahontas herself probably didn't see her mother that much. The fact that, of all of his children, this little girl was closest to his heart speaks volumes. The issue of the single parent Disney hero or heroine was and still is a problem, but it is never far from the artist's minds.

SitoPC5.gifPocahontas. © Walt Disney Pictures.

We knew the Pocahontas story would be a tough one to tell. We weren't just stretching a fairy tale, it was based on historical fact. While there were people in graves who did these things, there were precious few eyewitness chronicles to these events. Every expert would begin his or her statement of fact with, "We believe" or "We think that..." All we really know is that Captain John Smith went off on a trading mission from the Jamestown beachhead just before Christmas 1607 and disappeared for two weeks; when he returned, he had a good working relationship with the Indians and Chief Powhatan's daughter. Fourteen years later, in England, he wrote down the story of his capture, of his almost being killed and Pocahontas' interceding to save him in front of her father's court. Given that he could not speak Algonquin, it is quite possible that his "execution" was just a ceremony granting royal protection. We'll never know for sure. John Smith was basically a social climbing mercenary who would go on adventures, and then publish a heavily embellished book about it.

If we want to be absolutely historically accurate, do you know what happened to the real Sir John Radcliffe? When the Indians captured Smith, he was nailed to a tree and skinned alive. That would have been a choice Disney moment. Maybe a good song sequence.

SitoPC8.gifThe Lion King. © Walt Disney Pictures.

Yet, we got attacked for not being accurate. Funny that, at the same time, a low budget competitor put on video a Pocahontas knockoff done in Korea that blatantly violated the story. It has Poc and Smith going to London, meeting the King and returning to Virginia to marry and live happily ever after. And nobody complained.

These issues of what's politically correct, I guess, will always be with us, as they should. We like to say that television or films should where children should find their values and history, but it would be naive to think that they don't. We have become a cinema literate society. One hundred years ago, you could say to someone raised on the McGuffey Reader and the classics, "I await not unlike Cinncinnattus at the Plow!," or "I weep the tears of Niobe" and they would be readily understood. Today if you say "I'm Spartacus!," or "Rosebud's the sleigh!," people react with equal recognition. I guess my only thought to add to the debate is, don't think we ignore our responsibilities to the public. We do take all these concerns very seriously; however, once again, don't damn the medium with the message.

Tom Sito is an animator at DreamWorks and is President of the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists Union (IATSE Local 839), in North Hollywood. He can be reached via email at