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Censoring Cartoons: The Good and the Bad

Mixed with Black, White, Native American, Jewish and Asian ancestry, Koriander is not afraid to tackle issues of race in media.

"Song of the South" (1946) has been a thorn in the side of Disney for decades.

"Song of the South" (1946) has been a thorn in the side of Disney for decades.

We Need To Talk About Problematic Animation

On the surface, removing racist, sexist or bigoted animation from television seems perfect. People enjoy watching television as a form of relaxation, so it makes sense to remove media that makes people feel uncomfortable.

For example, Japanese people probably aren't interested in watching a cartoon where Bugs Bunny shouts racial slurs while committing acts of violence against a team of Japanese soldiers, as he does in the banned 1944 cartoon Bugs Bunny Nips The Nips. Putting their role during WW2 into the conversation is not going to lessen the blow, and a Japanese person has every right to choose not to watch the eight-minute short.

Black audiences do not need to "accept the art" of Song of the South, when the movie depicts a false historical narrative of the "happy" slave.

Why Were They Banned?

However, it's also important to talk about these banned cartoons with our children and explain to them why these actions have always been wrong.

It's also important that we don't allow major corporations to sweep these cartoons under the rug and allow them to give our children the false narrative that they have always been "squeaky clean" with content.

Positive LBGTQIA+ representation in animated media was still a "new" concept for many as recently as the 2020s.

Positive LBGTQIA+ representation in animated media was still a "new" concept for many as recently as the 2020s.

How Censorship Handles Sexism and Bigotry

When done correctly, a censor or watchdog group can encourage an animation department to steer clear of inappropriate content.

For example, in 2015, watchdog group Broadcasting Ethics and Program Improvement Organization (BPO) made a formal complaint about the anime PriPara, because the 14-year-old character Sophie was seen in the end credits, imitating Marylin Monroe and wearing a see-through negligee. In spite of fan protest, the animation team solved the problem by re-drawing the scene with Sophie in an age-appropriate fisherman costume.

Where good intentions go wrong however, is when the censors use their belief systems to hide sexism and bigotry as "moral" codes.

Hays Code Weaponized Morality

We see this with Betty Boop. Before the 1934-1968 Hays Code, Betty could be seen in short costumes and courageous situations with boyfriends Bimbo and Fearless Fred. After the code's implementation however, Betty was seen in more domestic situations with conservative clothes, a thinner body and no boyfriends. Betty was to be seen as "matronly" as all depictions of her enjoying herself as a single young woman experimenting with fashion was now deemed "inappropriate".

Depictions of LBGTQIA+ characters changed as well. Starting with the Hays Code, many stereotypical characters were pulled from animation, with rare exceptions, such as Bugs Bunny dressing up as a woman to seduce Elmer Fudd.

Censorship as Erasure

But while that sounded fine on paper, it led to the removal of LBGTQIA+ characters altogether. By 1999, the only Queer-coded characters seen in animation were "evil" characters, like Him on The Powerpuff Girls, or if they were "good" their relationship was altered, such as with Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune in Sailor Moon S.

Removing LBGTQIA+ stereotypes is always the right call, but it shouldn't come at the price of removing the characters completely.

Depicting Black characters with giant lips in pink, peach, red and white harkens back to the days of racist blackface minstrel shows.

Depicting Black characters with giant lips in pink, peach, red and white harkens back to the days of racist blackface minstrel shows.

America's Minstrel Past

From the 1830s until somewhere in the 1960s, minstrel shows were considered an "art" form by racists across the United States. Caucasian actors would put on black and brown makeup, outline their lips in white, red, orange, peach or pink, and then perform songs, dances, comedy skits and plays while using a fake form of early Ebonics.

Once animation began to rise in popularity, many cartoon shorts mimicked the minstrel shows and Vaudeville skits, basing characters off of these actors.

Institutionalized Blackface

The white faces, black bodies and white gloves of Mickey Mouse, Milton Mouse, Goofy, Oswald The Lucky Rabbit, Piggy, Foxy, Felix the Cat and many other similar characters were based off of these performances, with Bosko being one of many human characters drawn the same way.

By the late 1930s, some of the racist characters began to look more refined, but still were drawn with giant, brightly colored lips, as the animators' way of mocking Black features.

Even Princess So White in the 1943 cartoon Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs has red lips that thicken as the cartoon rolls along.

Hays Code Weaponized Racism

Despite the Hays Code seemingly "opposing" racism, the code allowed hundreds of blackface caricatures into theaters each year with little complaint.

Even into the 1990s, it was not uncommon to see animators depicting Black characters with brightly colored lips, such as Sailor Jupiter in Toonmakers's failed "Saban" Sailor Moon pilot. Here, a Black actress is turned into a cartoon character with bright pink lips that vary in size as the ten-minute short plays.

It is frustrating to Black audiences to see their features lampooned in such a way, whether the intentions were innocent or malicious, and it led to the removal of most of these cartoons from airwaves by the early 2000s.

Black Stereotypes in 1990s Rooted in Minstrelsy

By the 2010s, a grand reduction in the number of dehumanizing shorts against other races followed, with very few shorts airing uncensored on MeTV and Boomerang by the 2020s.

It's always a good idea to remove racial stereotypes from animation, but when it comes to the problematic history of animation worldwide, there is one other issue that should be addressed.

Acknowledging our racist past and talking about it with our children is crucial to their education and development.

Acknowledging our racist past and talking about it with our children is crucial to their education and development.

We Need to Keep Talking About Problematic Cartoons

Pulling problematic animation from television is a short-term fix, but often, this is only done for clout.

When a major corporation like Warner Brothers or Disney hides from their inappropriate past, they create the false narrative that they've "always" shown family-friendly cartoons. As soon as consumers enter adulthood and realize that isn't the truth, it alienates them.

Censorship as Corporate Self-Protection

Furthering alienation is when companies pretend their past cartoons aren't there, erasing the history of the hurt they bestowed onto marginalized groups. They also undermine the consumer in not allowing them the freedom to choose what media to consume, and in refusing to talk about the past.

A profitable idea is to keep the uncensored cartoons in an adults-only streaming area and on physical media aimed at adults, with proper warning, as was seen on the Looney Tunes Golden Collection DVD sets, where Warner Brothers acknowledged the inappropriate materials and allowed consumers the chance to choose whether or not to watch those specific shorts.

Can't Whitewash the Past

As a society, we can't erase history. We need to keep talking about what happened, why it hurt and why it shouldn't happen again, so our children can learn from the past. In doing so, we can foster a stronger appreciation in them for less problematic cartoons airing today, and an understanding in why certain images are triggering for groups that have been constantly abused.

It's important to learn from our history. These cartoons are highly offensive, but it's crucial that we don't allow them to rot in the proverbial vaults of corporations in the false name of morality.

© 2022 Koriander Bullard