Cartoonist and cartoon historian, Koriander seeks to preserve the magic of animation.
The Problem With Pepé
Debuting in 1945, Pepé Le Pew appears in many Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts as a French skunk who has convinced himself he is desirable to all. He is often chasing the black and white cat Penelope Pussycat, though in one short, he tries to win the affections of a little dog. In another short, he is trying to woo a male orange cat who, like Penelope, wants nothing to do with him.
And yet there are people actually convinced that the realization that this is a problematic character is a "new" thing and part of the "cancel culture" of Gen Z and the Millennials. This is despite the fact that there has been decades of outcry predating the 2021 announcement from Warner Brothers that Pepé Le Pew will be cut from Space Jam 2.
In 2000, Dave Chappelle called Pepé Le Pew out on his special Killin' Them Softly, where he talked about his concern that the character was teaching his young nephew the wrong idea. His nephew had pointed to the screen and told him that Pepé's actions were how you were supposed to behave around girls. The comedian was appalled, so much so in fact that he called Pepé a rapist. Years before people understood the phrase "rape culture," Dave Chappelle was already calling out the fact that for generations, little boys were being taught that it's perfectly fine to grab, kiss, and touch people without consent. The cartoons also told little girls, through the silent character of Penelope, to stay quiet and allow the boy to have his fun.
Amber George in 2017 wrote an essay on how characters like Pepé were normalizing stalking, while New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow is now facing harassment and threats because he called out the cartoon character for perpetuating rape culture.
And yet despite public outcry, they're not wrong.
Pepé Le Pew has caused Warner Brothers no end to their headaches for 76 years before the announcement of his ousting from Space Jam 2.
Two different films in 2010 and in 2016 were announced, with Mike Myers allegedly cast in the first of the two. Both films would have been standalone features for Pepé Le Pew, and both have since been dropped.
Gags in newer Looney Tunes cartoons have been re-written, and in an attempt to justify Pepé's actions, ads, t-shirts, website graphics, and a few shorts have been created to make it seem as though Penelope wants Pepé to chase him, which not only retcons most of her cartoon appearances, erasing the original story, but it also romanticizes all of the acts of stalking and manipulation Penelope endures.
This becomes especially problematic, such as in the November 1949 short For Scent-imental Reasons, where Pepé not only kisses, grabs, fondles, and touches Penelope without her consent, there is a disturbing scene where she locks herself in a glass box just to get away from him. He goes into a rage, demanding she come back out, and when she refuses, he attempts suicide.
But That's Not All, Folks!
When he fails at the attempt, he resumes chasing her, driving her so mad that she tries to jump out of a window. He tries to stop her, convinced she is just trying to prove her love, but he slips, letting her plummet. He attempts suicide again, only for him to land in a bucket of paint, while she lands in a barrel of gin and drinks up.
Intoxicated, Penelope suddenly has a change of heart and begins to chase her abuser, much to Pepé's sudden chagrin.
This actually won an Academy Award.
Yes, a cartoon about a skunk driving a cat to jump from a window in order to avoid being sexually assaulted won an Oscar. This happened.
Cinder From a Lady's Eye
Another negative trait is that Pepé is disloyal to his conquests.
When his target begins to chase him at the same level he chases her, he is no longer interested in her advances and rebukes her.
He's a deadbeat dad too.
In his January 6, 1945, debut Odor-Able Kitty, his fondling of a male cat disguised as a skunk is only halted by his wife, who shouts out Pepé's real name, "Henri!," shortly before beating him senselessly in front of their two children.
Yes, he is a victim of domestic violence.
No, that doesn't justify his actions.
Yes, it is a cartoon, and most people don't seek moral fibers in Looney Tunes, but this is still disturbing.
So how did Pepé's creators view him?
His co-creator Chuck Jones had a few words in his autobiography. Let's take a look.
"Pepé Le Pew presented no problem to me." - Uh oh. This is a bad start.
"I needed his self-assurance, his absolute certainty of his male desirability, his calm self-assurance." - It is true that boys and men need positive representation. Men do have feelings, and this was a fact that was considered "shameful" back in these days, so it's easy to sympathize with this statement.
"His logical interpretation of any female peccadillo as simply a loving way to convey her love for him." - So we can take this to mean that Pepé has no concept of the fact that there are women who would not be attracted to him. He feels they all adore him, so pushing back and running away are traits Pepé sees as signs of affection. Uh oh.
"So Pepé was not a recognition in myself of his wonderful attributes but an absolute recognition in myself of the absence of those traits. I needed Pepé in the same way that I needed Bugs (nothing heroic in my mirror)." - We're mistaking positive confidence in one's manhood for narcissism and abuse. Uh oh.
"In high school I was not only a wimp, I was a wimp-nerd-nebbish. I was 6’1” and weighed 132 pounds. I was transparent to the other sex; girls could look through me to admire other boys." - So to deal with the pain of being told "no" and with being ignored and neglected, Pepé Le Pew is seen in 17 of his 18 shorts from 1945 to 1962 grabbing and touching other cartoons without consent. Uh oh.
Now of course, this doesn't mean that Chuck Jones was bad by any means, but it definitely shines a light on the mentality of the culture in those days.
But what about his other co-creator, Michael Maltese?
Well, according to writer Mark Evanier, who wrote for the Gold Key Comics run of Looney Tunes comic books, Michael Maltese "wasn't too fond of him" and that sentiment must have lingered throughout Warner Brothers, as they failed to provide Gold Key with Pepé's model sheet.
Now if knowing why the character is making victims of assault uncomfortable still doesn't deter you from enjoying Pepé Le Pew, there is some good news.
Warner Brothers has been slowly releasing all of the cartoons uncensored onto DVDs and Blu-Ray for years, and HBO Max has the 1948 short Odor of the Day in which Pepé is not a lovebird and drops the fake accent, and the 1946 short Fair and Worm-er, where he makes a humorous cameo. As of this writing, a few of his 50s and 60s shorts are now popping up.
Boomerang and Amazon also have many of his shorts available for streaming.
Pepé Le Pew isn't being "canceled." He's only facing a few consequences. The old shorts are still around, stench included.
© 2021 Koriander Bullard