While researching this topic, I watched a number of cartoons online, and, even knowing that I probably saw and laughed at them as a child, I became extremely disturbed — not to mention ashamed — at the way blacks in particular were depicted. At the same time, other cartoons that now have viewer discretion warnings because of stereotyping, such as some Tom and Jerry cartoons, I still thought were funny. I’m not an apologist and I know they were made in a different era, but it was discomfiting to watch them nonetheless.
The extremely racist cartoons made between 1930 and 1950 would never be made today. During the period known as the Golden Age of Animation animators at Warner Brothers, Walt Disney, MGM, Merrie Melodies, Looney Tunes, RKO, and many independent studios, produced thousands of cartoons containing racial stereotypes. The most prevalent caricatures were of blacks, but they also stereotyped Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, Jews and other ethnic groups.
But we must keep in mind that these cartoons were a product of their times and represent a period of American history where views were very different than they are now. It is also important to remember that they were intended to be funny, not hurtful. While they are certainly not suitable for viewing by children, they are historically important and should be available to everyone. I can only hope that any child allowed to view them online has the proper adult guidance to understand the stereotyping. On the whole, It is to our great credit that we have evolved from those days, but we should preserve our history and not try to rewrite it in an Orwellian attempt to excise those parts of it that we now find abhorrent.
Racism in animated cartoons originated in large part with newspaper comic strips from the turn of the twentieth century. The typical depiction of a black person is similar across both media and the pioneers of early animation were frequently comic strip artists to begin with. While animation helped perpetuate negative stereotypes, it didn’t originate there.
The same gags were used repeatedly over the years. Whenever something exploded near a character’s head or if he was doused with tar or ink, it was guaranteed he would turn into a minstrel blackface with bulbous lips. Anybody that traveled to Africa was guaranteed to find himself in a cauldron surrounded by dancing cannibals. Characters that were black to begin with were typically lazy, oversexed, and loved to gamble.
Other recurring racial themes in cartoons increased with America’s involvement with World War II. Not surprisingly, cartoons portrayed the Japanese and the Germans in an unflattering light. For example, in “Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips,” the Japanese are portrayed as yammering myopic, buck-toothed imbeciles.
Racist images in cartoons began to wane after World War II. Possible reasons for the decline: the general population was becoming increasingly aware of the problem of racism; theater owners perceived at some level that people would not watch movies they deemed offensive; cartoons were becoming more expensive to produce and it was financially prudent to steer clear of anything that would potentially alienate any part of an audience. Advocacy groups were also becoming increasingly vocal against racism.
At the same time, television was slowly eroding the theater audience. Cartoon studios found a new source of income in re-releasing old cartoons in their vaults for television viewing. But the cartoons had to be scrubbed first. For example, Mammy Two-Shoes, the black housekeeper in over a dozen Tom and Jerry cartoons, had her dialect changed from the voice of a black woman to an Irish dialect. All blackface gags were edited out. Any cartoons where the black stereotypes were too pervasive to be edited, such as the Little Lulu series with Mandy the maid, were simply not shown.
In 1968, United Artists (UA) withheld the “Censored 11“, a group of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons, from syndication. UA owned the distribution rights to the Associated Artists Productions (AAP) library at that time, and decided to pull these eleven cartoons from broadcast because they deemed the use of ethnic stereotypes in the cartoons too offensive for contemporary audiences. The ban has been upheld by UA and the successive owners of the catalog to this day although it reverted to Warner Bros. on October 10, 1996 with Time Warner’s purchase of Turner Broadcasting System. These shorts have not been officially broadcast on television since 1968 and have only been exhibited once theatrically by Warner Bros. (in Spring 2010) since their withdrawal. Should you wish to watch any, or all, of the “Censored 11” cartoons I am listing them below (in order of their original release dates).
Hittin’ the Trail for Hallelujah Land; Sunday Go To Meetin’ Time; Clean Pastures; Uncle Tom’s Bungalow; Jungle Jitters; Isle of Pingo Pongo; All This and Rabbit Stew; Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs; Tin Pan Alley Cats; Angel Puss; and Goldilocks and the Jivin’ Bears
So how does one reconcile the unpalatable and obvious offensiveness with the frequent brilliance of these cartoons? It is an uncomfortable question. It is up to the individual viewer to formulate an opinion. No doubt the feelings will be mixed. Whatever one’s response, it is essential to acknowledge an unpleasant truth about the images, even if one finds them enjoyable.