By Gabrielle Lopez
( @lessamazinggab )
I am entering the 2020-21 school year as a high school senior. I have just decided to commit to a college of my choice to major in journalism and research. Before COVID-19 cut my junior year short, I was assigned a research paper with a topic of my choice: racism in old American cartoons.
I chose to exemplify specific cartoons mentioned in my composition because they targeted black people and Asian people--specifically Japanese people during the WWII era--because in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic and the BLM movement skyrocketing, we need to bring attention to these offenses despite a pandemic or movement going on. Skin pigments darker than white should not be animated to a demeaning extent.
I wrote this paper with the ambition to educate those who didn't give these offenses a second glance and hope to achieve an awareness that prevents these horrible stereotypes from airing to the public.
As the United States’s laws and morals evolve through time, the American film industry has to progress with the country. When African Americans were denied rights, showing interracial relationships (romantic and platonic) on television was deemed unethical for viewing audiences. When the United States entered WWII, Japanese characters on the air were scripted to present themselves as a weak enemy. Today, after the Civil Rights Movements and Japan’s surrender, entertainment depicting racist morals have been banned, edited, or remade to air in our zero-tolerance environment. However, erasure of these controversial cartoons may not be the preeminent solution. Rather than obstructing the present audience from accessing these faults, they can be used as historical evidence of discrimination and as examples of iniquitous representation in films.
Many infamous and racist cartoons aired between the 1930’s and late 1960’s, when racism was more socially acceptable and unpunishable. Between these two decades, many of these short films targeted black people due to the country’s long history of anti-black ideals and used black characters as comic relief. Those aired in the 1940’s have more of an excuse, though still morally incorrect, for its chauvinism. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. joined World War II against Japan. As a result, the country posted many forms of propaganda, including cartoons. With anti-Japanese propaganda, Japanese characters were also used as comic relief so that the viewers could obtain the mentality that the Japanese were not an intimidating threat and were failures when it came to warfare. When it came to characterizing both races, visible features were clichéd. Animators used the most notable facial features and exaggerated them; for example, black characters were drawn with big noses and thick, pale lips. Japanese characters were drawn with bucked teeth and slanted eyes. These caricatures, too, have a long history.
Given America’s extensive history of slavery and anti-black imagery, the origin of exaggerated black “charicatures” date back to the 1830’s; this was the decade one of the earliest forms racist entertainment was published: “Jump Jim Crow.” The minstrelsy was originally written and performed by Thomas D. Rice, but carried on to be performed by other actors as the musical gained popularity. The character Jim Crow was based off of an “old and decrepit slave who was employed...to do all sorts of odd jobs” (Laurence, 138). Among characterizing a disabled slave by directing the actor to pose crookedly, blackface makeup was also required to play the role of Jim Crow. Blackface was a form of theatrical makeup made with “[burnt] cork or shoe polish” (National Museum of African American History and Culture) and was slathered onto white performers’ faces to play black character roles. When painted on, the actors would leave a ring around their lips with or without red paint to give the illusion of thick lips, a common caricature used to mock black people. Lastly, actors who played Jim Crow spoke and sung with a stereotypical dialect. For example, the chorus “Weel about and turn about and do jis [this] so/ Eb'ry [Every] time I weel about I jump Jim Crow!” (Laurence, 137) enforced the conventional image that black people were unable to speak proper English due to their lack of access to proper education at the time. By and large, “Jump Jim Crow” and its fellow American minstrel performances emanated offensive caricatures--including physical features and dialect--that would later be used in the following cartoons.
The Censored Eleven collection--a collection of 11 animated cartoons by Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes--were banned from the air due to extremely racist content. Among this collection lies “Jungle Jitters” and “All This and Rabbit Stew,” which both contain offenses toward black people. “Jungle Jitters” featured Manny, an anthropomorphic dog-like human salesman, wandering into the territory of an isolated African village. Once the villagers are introduced, their exaggerated features are quite notable. Their lips are drawn to appear even bigger than their faces, those with hair had matted, nappy hair with bones lodged through, and one villager is even depicted playing jump-rope with a traditional African nose ring. Lastly, to portray the personality of these villagers, the voice actors were directed to speak with a slurred, stereotypical accent. As the short’s plot progresses, the viewer learns that Manny’s conflict is that the village wants to eat him, but is protected when the village queen wants to marry him. A very important feature of this short is the village queen: who is colored with white skin, but yet is illustrated to appear more like an oddly bird-like creature than a human. This design was used to avoid the controversy of miscegenation. Merriam-Webster’s definition of miscegenation is “marriage, cohabitation, or sexual intercourse between a white person and a member of another race.” However, miscegenation was once prohibited because, according to “Anti-Miscegenation Laws in the United States” written by an alumni of Duke University, “colored groups--Black, Brown, Yellow and to a lesser extent Red--[are] considered unassimilable,” (33). Miscegenation was not made legal in the United States until 1967, 29 years after “Jungle Jitters” was first aired.
“All This and Rabbit Stew” was a Looney Tunes short that featured the famous character Bugs Bunny, who is being hunted by an African American hunter. Once again, this black character was illustrated with giant lips and a big nose. Added to these features are lazy eyes, a sluggish walk, and a dialect that is hard to decipher, originating from the idea that African Americans--slave or free man--were lazy and unproductive; this idea was also enforced during American slavery. On the hunter’s design sheet, he was labeled to resemble a “coon,” (Barrier, 439) also known as a racial slur used toward black people that referenced buildings that held black American slaves for sale. At the end of the short, Bugs is able to escape the hunter’s clutches by offering him a game of craps (which adds to the stereotype that black people cannot resist gambling). When Bugs wins, he takes the hunter’s clothes and gun and walks off while slouching and mumbling gibberish to mock the hunter, this action was also mocking “lazy” African slaves.
Unfortunately, some of these racist animations have been justified due to its history. While racism toward black people in these cartoons are held accountable for their offenses, cartoons with Asian racism--specifically targeting Japanese people--are not as qualified to be as illicit because it was created for propaganda purposes. The entrance of the United States into WWII led to many anti-Japanese, sometimes all Asian, propaganda. Posters spread throughout the country warning white Americans to look out for the Japanese enemy. All propaganda containing visual warnings drew Japanese personas with “sinister, exaggerated features,” (Horne). Eventually, cartoons were also created in addition to other forms of propaganda. The famous Popeye the Sailor Man franchise made several of these propaganda cartoons, seeing how the character Popeye is an American sailor and therefore was used to represent America’s strength against Japanese crew ships. “You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap” by Famous Studios uses this exact tactic by showing only Popeye, a strong American, holding the ability to destroy an entire Japanese war ship. Looney Tunes added to this “representation” of Japanese warfare by releasing “Tokio Jokio.” In this short, all the Japanese crew members are drawn exactly the same: with slanted eyes, bucked teeth, and spoke with a lisp. Using the same model for all the characters may have saved the animators’ time, but gave in to the stereotype that all Asians look the same.
“Tokio Jokio” was presented in the style of an employee training manual but was instructing how to be a successful Japanese soldier. However, the soldiers in training were portrayed as failures who take all instructions too literally, for example, during the “Incendiary Bombs: Lesson One” scene, it instructs “Do not approach bombs for the first five seconds,” (McCabe, Tokio Jokio). A Japanese character then proceeds to locate a bomb, wait five seconds, then approaches the bomb, resulting in it blowing up in his face.
Lastly, though this movie was released in 1970, after the WWII propaganda ended, “The Aristocats” by Walt Disney Studios is also guilty for racist depictions of Asians. In the scene in which the cats perform the song “Everybody Wants to be a Cat,” there is a Chinese cat playing and singing along with them. This cat’s dialogue consisted of a lisp due to his bucked teeth. He also had slanted eyes and played the piano with chopsticks while wearing a drum cymbal as a rice hat. His contributions to the song were not even full sentences or thought-out lyrics; they were just words that related to Asian culture like “fortune cookie,” “Shanghai,” “egg foo young,” (Reitherman, The Aristocats) etc.
Like the Censored Eleven collection, some of these cartoons have been banned from the air or limited onto what platforms they can be broadcasted on. Other options are used in order to prevent present audiences from viewing production companies’ racist pasts. Overall, it depends on how offensive the content was made out to be. The 1946 Disney film “Song of the South” was also banned from the air and DVD production because of its characters’ morals withholding beliefs in slavery. Several cartoons may have added disclaimers before their motion pictures begin, warning the viewer that some of its content may be outdated and offensive. When Disney released its streaming platform Disney+, movies like “The Aristocats” have disclaimers in their description, stating “This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions.” Similar disclaimers have also been added to the beginning of Looney Tunes and Mickey Mouse characters compilations. If companies do not want to offend their audience but still want to show the original footage, they usually edit out offensive scenes and release the animation. Disney’s “Fantasia” contained a scene with white centaurs with a black centaurette servant. This centaur was designed to appear less elegant than the others and had the usual exaggerated features. For the film’s 60th anniversary DVD release, Otika, the black centaurette, was cut out from the entire film. Lastly, especially common in today’s movies, some films are completely remade to erase offensive content. For example Disney’s films, “Dumbo” and “Lady and the Tramp,” were both remade in 2019 due to the film’s fame of racism toward black and Asian people.
In fine, there is no “right” answer for this controversy. Remaking these films can be taken as a sign that production companies want to move on from their outdated opinions and create old content excluding offenses. Editing the films are also a sign of moving on, and also enjoyable for audiences who prefer originality over remakes. However, banning the cartoons all together may not be the best reaction to backlash. The original content with the offenses can be used as historical evidence of contemporary racism or as set examples of what to avoid when producing new films. Rather than banishment being erasure, it can also be positively seen as a historical movement of acknowledging these racist offenses and trying to mend its mistakes.
Anti-Miscegenation Laws in the United States. Duke University, scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1544&context=dlj.
Avery, Tex, director. All This and Rabbit Stew. Looney Tunes, 1941.
Barrier, Michael. (1999.) “Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in its Golden Age.” New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
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Hutton, Laurence. “The Negro on the Stage.” Harper's New Monthly Magazine, 1889, pp. 131–145.
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