A look at long-running cartoons with problematic elements

The director of 2019’s R-rated movie “Joker,” Todd Phillips, said in a Vanity Fair interview one reason he made this film was because he finds making comedy near-impossible due to  what he calls “woke culture.” (His most prominent film before “Joker” was the “Hangover” series.) Per his expletive-laden rant, it’s supposedly impossible for comedians/comedies to be funny anymore due to worrying about offending others.

Such blaming of “political correctness” as supposedly stifling comedy has been stated by others before. However, the fact is, humor, like all forms of entertainment, has changed over time because, well, real life culture has changed over time. What was once a guaranteed knee-slapper might not be anymore, due to various factors. That’s especially given changing attitudes over the years toward gender, sexuality, race, etc.; there’s a reason blackface gags or the use of anti-gay slurs aren’t in vogue or seen as “edgy” anymore. Instead of complaining about “PC” or “woke culture” and doubling down on dated elements, a good comedian or long-running comedy would recognize what still works and what doesn’t, and adjust things accordingly.

Said cultural changes extend to all forms of humor, including cartoons. Below are a few examples of elements in popular cartoons that were widely accepted (and/or any complainer that might’ve existed at the time ignored), but nowadays are deemed problematic. I also note how (if at all) later installments of such cartoons dealt with such elements.

(Content Warning for the rest of this post, including mentions of racial stereotypes and anti-gay violence. Not a warning I’d normally give, but given the nature of this topic, it can’t be helped.)

Looney Tunes

Looney Tunes Golden Collection vol. 4 DVDWhile “Looney Tunes” is a classic series of cartoons made from the 1930s to the 1960s, they unfortunately do reflect some of the lesser aspects of when they were made.

As such, there’s racist caricatures in some shorts, particularly Black stereotypes. There’s also various World War II-era propaganda shorts that feature racist Japanese caricatures. The era’s usual depictions of Native Americans have also come under increased scrutiny in recent years; it’s one reason the very last theatrical-era Looney Tunes short, 1969’s “Injun Trouble,” has never aired on TV. (However, the similarly-titled 1938 black-and-white Porky Pig short and its 1945 color remake “Wagon Heels” are both are available on DVD.)

Some shorts have been edited for TV broadcasts; others are either infrequently aired or withheld from broadcast. The latter includes shorts nicknamed the “Censored Eleven“; they’re a handful of Looney Tunes shorts Warner Brothers has withdrawn from all TV broadcast packages since 1968, due to containing too many racist stereotypes to edit out or air as-is.

The collector-oriented “Looney Tunes Golden Collection” DVD sets, starting with volume 3, include a pre-menu disclaimer at the start of the latter sets stating:

The cartoons you are about to see are products of their time. They may depict some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that were commonplace in American society. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today. While the following does not represent the Warner Bros. view of today’s society, these cartoons are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.

Tom and Jerry

I’ve written before about “Tom and Jerry”‘s use of the stereotypical character “Mammy Two-Shoes.”

Modern airings of the theatrical shorts have varied on how she’s handled, ranging from airing her appearances as-is to dubbing or editing. (A few shorts were even re-animated, replacing her with a White woman.) Of course, modern “Tom and Jerry” incarnations avoid using her altogether. In 2014, Amazon added a content warning about stereotypes to their digital copies of the shorts.

The Flintstones

The Flintstones season 1 opening“The Flintstones”‘s original run was set in a “modern Stone Age” version of the 1960s. Unfortunately, that extended to the show’s gender roles. Fred often expected Wilma to stay a homemaker (versus working at an external job), complete with having dinner ready when he got home from work.

Later incarnations tried to address or update this. Fred repeated his stance that “a woman’s place is in the home” in the late 1970s primetime special “Wind-Up Wilma”; the plot focused on Wilma finding a job as a baseball pitcher for Bedrock’s cellar-dwelling pro baseball team. Early on, Fred and Barney grumble about the increasing number of (cave)women working outside the home (after Fred’s pulled over by a woman police officer for speeding).

Despite the above, the early 1980s Saturday morning spin-off “The Flintstone Comedy Show” featured Wilma and Betty employed as part-time newspaper reporters for “The Daily Granite” (in the Captain Caveman segments, parodying Superman), without comment from Fred.

The 90s made-for-TV movies featured Wilma and Betty starting their own catering business. When Fred complained about Wilma no longer able to have dinner cooked for him after work, Wilma chewed him out for still holding such attitudes.

The Simpsons

Lisa's Date With Density ambulance sceneAs the show’s been running nonstop since the early 1990s, “The Simpsons” is running into this in various aspects. I’ve written before about the show’s handling of modernity, including criticism of Apu as an Indian stereotype.

Another example of a problematic element is the 1996 episode “Lisa’s Date with Density” (where she has a crush on school bully Nelson). A scene has Lisa give Milhouse a note to pass on to Nelson at school; when Milhouse does so, Nelson thinks it’s a love note from him. The next scene shows an unconscious (and nose-bloodied) Milhouse being wheeled out by paramedics into an ambulance, with his ears packed with gauze. Even for the 90s, gay-bashing isn’t what I’d call a “hilarious” gag; of course, it’d be completely unacceptable as a joke in a modern series.

Later episodes made some effort at evolving attitudes on LGBTQ aspects, including allowing Marge’s sister Patty Bouvier and Mr. Burns’ assistant Waylon Smithers to come out.

The Fairly Odd Parents

The male half of the world in Fairly OddParents' "Love Struck"The 2002-made season three episode “Love Struck” (which didn’t air in the US until 2003) sees Timmy experience a series of humiliating problems on Valentine’s Day. Eventually, Timmy gets fed up and wishes he “lived in a world without girls.” Cue Cosmo and Wanda granting the wish, by dividing the Earth into two halves, a male half and a female half. This results in the removal of all love on Earth, with Cupid’s powers drained as a result. Meanwhile, the “male” half of the world is a filthy dump (and dominated by sports, meat dishes, etc.), while the “female” half of the world’s extremely feminine (filled with malls, pink colored buildings, etc.). Timmy eventually fixes things, of course.

As you can tell, the above episode has plenty of problems. Besides the extremely stereotypical gender depictions, there’s also the implicit assumption that there’s no non-heterosexual people in the show’s universe. Unfortunately, this assumption was the norm for children’s programming in the early 2000s. For that matter, even adult animation had trouble depicting non-stereotypical LGBTQ characters.

“Fairly Odd Parents” didn’t really do much to change things before ending its run (after a few revivals) for good in 2017. However, its parent network Nickelodeon did; Nick’s show “The Loud House” introduced several LGBTQ characters.

Conclusion

Overall, problematic elements that punch down aren’t something to be proud of in comedy. While I suppose Phillips has his billion-dollar Joker film to take pride in, the style of comedy whose fate he’s bemoaning is one that’s on the wane for a reason. Just as blackface isn’t appropriate in modern comedy (or culture period), neither are the other elements I noted above.

Fortunately, updating one’s comedic routines exists as an option. Comedies aren’t locked into outdated stereotypes just because it’s “always been that way” or “tradition.”

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