6 February 2006
I wrote this paper for one of my Freshman English classes. You can find footage of the Merry Melody episode "Hare Ribbin'" on the internet; just type the title into your browser and you're bound to find a download somewhere.
Did you grow up watching cartoons on Saturday mornings? If so, you probably saw your own share of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, Speedy Gonzales and many other classic characters as they have been staples of American comedy for seventy years. Cartoons seem to be an innocent pass time for innocent viewers...or are they? Unbeknownst to myself as a young viewer, I was being fed subliminal messaging that advocated violence, sexism, smoking, drugs, and, yes, even racial stereotypes. Speedy Gonzales, for instance, is an entire stereotype all to himself, incorporating the prejudice of the times for Mexican immigrants in the early 1950's. Meanwhile, Bugs Bunny, the most revered cartoon slap-stick hero of all time, was doing his American civic duty by keeping these types of stereotypical characters in their places; badly beaten, downtrodden, and horribly inadequate, just as it should be. Naturally, the intention of these cartoons was simple entertainment, no matter whose expense it was aimed at. However, the questions are still raised by politically incorrect situations and characters; Are these cartoons really innocent fun or outdated and prejudicial messages unsuitable for children?
Some believe that the latter statement is more correct. In June 2001, in preparation for the month-long Bugs Bunny marathon called June Bugs, Cartoon Network released a list of eleven banned cartoons that were deemed unsuitable to show on national network television. They created an even more extensive list of censored cartoons, which underwent severe editing for content before they were allowed to air. The specific Bugs Bunny episode, "Hare Ribbin'," that I will be using for reference in this paper is one of the censored group and is still aired – though heavily edited – in the June Bugs lineup every summer. The full cartoon is only available on the internet and in recently released DVD sets comprised entirely of banned and edited cartoons released by Merry Melodies.
"Hare Ribbin'" was first created in 1944, a conservative, war-time era in American history. The use of guns, sexual stereotypes and other situations now deemed as "politically incorrect" by modern audiences were commonplace in cartoons as well as other sources of media. These cartoons were generally shown in movie theaters (as television wouldn't be mainstream in American culture until the 1950's) along with news reels and propaganda. With this thought in mind, we must conclude that the primary reason why so many classic Merry Melody cartoons are censored is due to a recent shift in audience. These cartoons were, originally, created for the entertainment and education of adults, not a children's Saturday morning cartoon lineup on the Cartoon Network. Even cartoons made since the hay day of Bugs Bunny have been misdirected to younger audiences, such as Ren and Stimpy and Rocko's Modern Life, which aired on Nickelodeon in the early nineties. Nickelodeon, unlike Cartoon Network, is a station specifically directed toward children, so why haven't these shows elicited as much controversy as old Merry Melody and MGM cartoons? Perhaps because we wish to preserve our "age of innocence" by repressing it.
Many of these cartoons were originally political statemtents used to rally patriotic enthusiasm for the war effort. "Any Bonds Today?" (1944), for instance, which also starred Bugs Bunny (incidentally dressed in blackface costume), was used for this very purpose. Many of them even introduced the American public to stereotypes of the Nazi's and Japanese forces, provoking patriotic humor at the expense of such enemies. In the early cartoons there was always an easily distinguishable hero and villain combo and, throughout the episode, the hero would torment the villain to the edge of his sanity and, finally, overcome them altogether. This was definitely a sentiment produced by World War II which, to the public at large, seemed to have similar dynamics between the opposing forces; America (usually symbolized by Bugs Bunny in Merry Melody cartoons) fought against the evil tyranny of the Axis powers (personified as exaggeratedly stupid and evil characters) which sought to destroy the revered democratic way of life. On the home front, any action taken against such evil forces – despite what their underlying messages might be – were considered patriotic and noble. Thus, the now despicable allusions to violence and sex were not seen as anything particularly egregious at the time they were made.
In "Hare Ribbin'," the main focus is on slapstick comedy, primarily dealt by Bugs Bunny to his unnamed canine foe with a craving for a rabbit sandwich. From the very beginning, it's obvious who the dominant character of the cartoon is when Bugs Bunny appears on the scene. The dog has ventured into the forest in order to find himself a "little gray rabbit" for dinner and unfortunately encounters Bugs. After a long deliberation that does, indeed, prove Bugs to be a "little gray rabbit," the pursuit of dinner is on – at his own expense. Bugs trickery exposes the unfortunate mutt to violence, demeaning insults to his below-average intelligence, and even cross-dressing and sexism. At the end – the part that is most often censored on television – the dog dies, shot in the mouth by Bugs Bunny. Too graphic for television audiences? Most critics agree that yes, yes it is.
Before the dog meets this gruesome end, however, he encounters Bugs Bunny as a seductive mermaid, complete with inflatable water wings that double as breasts and suggestive red lipstick. Furthermore, Bugs hides his long ears underneath a blonde wig, completing the picture of the idealized seductive woman; blonde, voluptuous, and completely irresistible. Should a character in a cartoon specifically directed at children be so obviously sexually aroused by a stereotypical woman of little virtue? Well, he is. In fact, there is distinct phallic symbolism included in the scene when the dog turns into a torpedo, aimed directly at the cross-dressing Bugs. Not only does this depict sexual arousal and a negative stereotype of women, but it also facilitates that men have little to no control over their carnal urges toward the opposite sex. Additionally, the fact that Bugs Bunny is a tricky cross-dresser implies that all cross-dressers may have negative intentions toward or misleading sexual power over heterosexual men. Similarly, these cross-dressing cartoon characters facilitate the negative stereotype of the "loose woman" described above. This gives the creators – who were, primarily, male – licence to mock women as frivolous seductresses with no other purpose than to toy with men's desires. Pre-women's liberation ideals about the value of the American woman as portrayed by our favorite cartoon characters.
The violence of this cartoon, however, is the primary reason why it's so constantly edited for content. There is violence from Bugs to the mutt from the very beginning, but the most obvious and graphic display is, as I have previously said, found in the finale. The dog finally manages to get the best of Bugs (or so he thinks) by entrapping him between two slices of bread for a rabbit sandwich. He takes a gigantic bite from the middle, which presumably severs Bugs completely in half, and as his prey dies from his grievous wounds, the dog begins to feel the guilt of having taken a life. He begins sobbing and complains that he wishes he were dead, something that the cartoon takes to heart. In the original end sequence, the dog takes out a gun and, after a bit more pitiful sobbing, blows his own brains out. In the more mainstream version of the ending, Bugs wakes up from his "death" and sticks a gun in the dogs mouth himself, effectively ending the mutt's pitiful life. The only similarity these two endings bear is that – after the dog dies in one way or another – Bugs comes back to life and skips away with no similar remorse for the death of the dog, which can easily be attributed to him. What's the message here? Suicide is bad, but murder is okay, and as long as the hero survives, no one should care about the rest. Oh, and there's no lasting effect to shooting someone in the head, of course.
However, the messages portrayed by Bugs Bunny and his cartoon buddies aren't always negative. Bugs is, in fact, the embodiment of the American Dream. A philosophy of American culture is that the little guy can get ahead, the underdog can have his day, and the downtrodden can become successful even when all odds are against him. Bugs – usually on the wrong end of a shotgun or oppressed by authority figures – fights against the injustice that befalls him and, through superior wit, manages to make the antagonist suffer for all his misdeeds. In a single episode, Bugs can defeat the entire Japanese army, completely humiliate Hitler and his band of Nazis, or thwart the efforts of a trigger-happy hunter. There is no job too large or too small for the amazing cartoon hero, enabling the average American viewer to aspire to similar heights in his or her everyday life. Who wouldn't want to drag themselves from the depths of mediocrity and be revered as a never-failing hero? The efforts of this one character are inspirational for millions of people, transcending the age and time gap.
Is it right to ban and censor cartoons, even if they include politically incorrect messages and symbols? Well, it really depends on what sort of values we want our children to receive from television. Honestly, I didn't see deeper meanings behind the temporary deaths and sexual innuendo in cartoons when I was younger, but children are growing up faster and faster these days. So fast that children that would naturally be watching these cartoons might even pick up on some of these negative messages. Still, perhaps the fault doesn't necessarily lie with the cartoons, perhaps it lies with our society as a whole. These cartoons are products of their times and the people who make them so, even though their messages may be outdated by today's standards, they should be preserved as they are. As long as parents take an active role in what their children are exposed to on television, there should be few negative repercussions from these images.