Among the most infamous of the theatrical shorts released by Warner Bros. in the mid 20th Century are what have become known as “The Censored Eleven”. When old theatrical cartoon series like Looney Tunes, Tom & Jerry, or Popeye were syndicated for television, many of those cartoons censored lines or gags that had since fallen out of favor in a post-Civil Rights atmosphere. For example:
This is Mammy Two-Shoes, who was Tom’s owner in multiple Tom & Jerry cartoons. Now you can still see Tom & Jerry cartoons with this character air on television despite her given name and design, but in the very first Tom & Jerry cartoon “Puss Gets the Boot”, one of her lines “Now, understand this, Jasper: if you breaks one more thing, you is goin’ out, O-W-T, out!” was changed in syndication.
Going back to the Censored Eleven, this name referred to a series of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons that were so gratuitous in their ethnic stereotyping at the expense of African-Americans that they were withheld from syndication (and most of them have never been released on VHS or DVD). The most famous (infamous) of these cartoons is “Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs”, which was director Bob Clampett’s 1943 jazz-inspired all black parody of Snow White. If the title itself wasn’t a dead giveaway for why this cartoon might have raised red flags, the rest of the cartoon speaks for itself.
When viewed in retrospect, media portrayals like the ones shown in this cartoon, the “jim crows” in Dumbo, Uncle Remus in Song of the South, the Siamese cats in Lady & the Tramp, the Native Americans in Peter Pan, etc., these are often referred to as “products of their time”, providing context to the worse status of race relations in the country at the time these films were released. That’s not incorrect, but the thing that bothers me about this phrase is that it tacitly implies that we have gotten past this reductive view of ethnic minorities in our current socio-political landscape. I would argue that we haven’t nearly progressed as far in this regard as we like to think we have.
As a measure of our progress since the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, one the recurring antagonists in the Disney series Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers were the Siamese Twin Gang, who were stereotypically Asian in their speech and mannerisms. The only differences I can point out between these characters and the Siamese cats in Lady & the Tramp is that these characters are clothed and constantly speak with “purr” puns. As a cartoon from the late ’80s/early ’90s, Chip n’ Dale: Rescue Rangers was a product well after the Civil Rights era.
Apu from The Simpsons is another product from the early ’90s. Even though his character was given depth over the course of the series (which is more characterization than stereotypical characters are usually given), he is nonetheless the stereotypical South Asian 7-Eleven store owner whose voice sounds less like any Indian I’ve ever heard speak and more like a white guy doing a phony-baloney Indian accent. Not a good look for a show with a dearth of minority characters as it is.
The token minority character in late ’00s series Code Monkeys is Black Steve (yeah, that’s literally his name). The basis of this character’s humor is that he’s loud, profane (I particularly remember him saying “bitch” and “motherfucker” a lot), hates white people, and is violent (a running gag is that he constantly points his gun at people).
The common counter-argument to the assertions I’m making here is that all of these people are just kidding around, don’t mean any harm, and anyone taking issue with something like this is “political correctness gone mad”. The diplomatic way that I can approach this argument is that it assumes that our society has made so much progress in regards to getting over racism that racist jokes and portrayals like these are funny because they’re so obviously wrong and over-the-top, one can’t help but laugh at how wrong and over-the-top they are. Yyyyyyyeeeeeeeaaaahhhh, no…
Here’s what’s wrong with that argument.
American Sniper was one of the most critically and commercially successful films of 2015. It was also unadulterated propaganda in which our hero is ordained by God and his country to enlist in the military and kill a bunch of Iraqis. The movie (and the autobiography it’s based on) justifies the high Iraqi body count by dehumanizing them. These details weren’t lost on fans of the film.
These portrayals that we see of ethnic minorities in media don’t exist divorced from ideas people already have about those minorities. Black Steve pulling his gun out on people in Code Monkeys isn’t divorced from large sections of the population justifying the shootings of unarmed black males like Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Jordan Davis, or Michael Brown by disparaging them as “thugs” and “dangerous”. All of the Asian jokes in Family Guy don’t exist divorced from perceptions of Asians as hopelessly exotic tech nerds that all look alike, are dangerous behind the wheel, and are sexually inadequate (in the case of Asian men). None of these things exist in a vacuum.
Right now in the US, one of our leading presidential candidates is a game show host turned demagogue who began his campaign by referring to Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists and has garnered support by proposing a ban on Muslim immigration into the country and surveillance of Muslims already in the country and their mosques. This isn’t just bluster either. Hate crimes against Muslims skyrocketed to an all-time high across the United States and Europe in 2015. Look familiar?
Current polls have shown that the majority of Americans oppose accepting Syrian refugees into the country despite the fact that they are fleeing from terrorism themselves. Around the time that cartoons like “Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs” came out, a majority of Americans opposed accepting Jewish immigrants from Europe despite the fact that they were trying to flee extermination. Anti-Muslim hysteria is so high right now that a considerable number of American voters are in support of bombing the fictional Aladdin setting Agrabah. This sounds too made up to be real, but it is.
So if the Censored Eleven cartoons are “products of their time”, we are clearly still in that time.