Scott Benowitz considers the causes and consequences of racist cartoons, that were part of America’s mainstream popular culture at least into the 1940s.
How did this ever happen, and why?
Good question. And nobody can fully answer that one. The majority of the cartoons which show cartoon characters interacting with characters whose appearances were very obviously drawn to perpetuate racist stereotypes were animated during the 1930’s and the 1940’s, though this practice continued into the 1950’s and the 1960’s.
The last cartoon which any of the major studios produced which had included obvious racist caricatures and ethnic stereotypes in it that I could find as I researched this article was Merrie Melodies’ Injun Trouble, which was written and animated in 1969, the year after Warner Brothers had withdrawn the Censored 11 cartoons because they were too offensive for contemporary audiences. This means that there were still enough administrators at Warner Brothers who viewed this as having been acceptable, at the end of the 1960’s that Injun Trouble was written, animated, narrated and released to television networks.
In my research, I found almost nothing about why they were written and animated in the first place as I researched this article. So- my best guess is that there were no writers, animators, nor narrators who were of African American, Native American or Asian American descent who were working within the divisions of Warner Brothers, MGM, Paramount or Hanna Barbera that were responsible for producing these cartoons when these cartoons were written and drawn. That likely holds true for the companies that advertised with Warner Brothers, MGM, Paramount, or Hanna Barbera.
Were these cartoons intended to let children know that racist caricatures and ethnic stereotypes are acceptable? Or was this simply thoughtless, reckless and callous on behalf of the writers, the animators, and the narrators?
German and Japanese Americans during the WWII era
With specific regard to the cartoons which were drawn during the first half of the 1940’s, which were clearly intentionally meant to be derogatory towards Japanese and Germans, no one is suggesting that we should condone any aspects of the ideologies which the German or the Japanese governments or militaries had embraced during those years, and no one is suggesting that our popular culture should have been sympathetic or compassionate towards governments and militaries that we were at war with.
However, there were quite a few people of Japanese and German ancestry who were living in the U.S. during the 1940’s when these cartoons were written, animated and released for viewing, and many of those people strongly disagreed with the Nazis and with the Imperial Japanese government of the 1940’s. There were also quite a few Germans and Japanese who had been opposed to their own governments’ policies during the 1930’s and the first half of the 1940’s, so we have to question why it made sense to executives at movie studios and television networks to encourage children to learn to view ethnic stereotypes as acceptable.
Ethnic stereotypes and caricatures are precisely what the name implies; they are stereotypes, which infer that ALL peoples of certain ethnic or racial lineages should be portrayed in a derogatory fashion, and reinforce the idea that it is acceptable to view ALL people of a given ethnicity as caricatures. It is not likely that very young children would have been able to easily recognize that not all people who were of German ancestry supported the Nazis or that not all Japanese supported the Imperial government’s agenda.
Today we (hopefully) know that teaching child that ethnic or racial stereotypes are acceptable, solves nothing, and in fact, it serves to perpetuates racist attitudes. In the 1930’s and the 1940’s, it had been very easy for Americans to condemn the Germans for distributing racist literature to children. However, I wonder how many people during the 1930’s and the 1940’s had realized that we too were introducing children to the idea that it is acceptable to view people as ethnic stereotypes, and that this was woven into some of the cartoons which were shown to repeatedly shown to very young children.
Children who had watched those racist cartoons when they were first aired would become pre-teens a few years later, and people would at some point come to realize that what the major television networks had been airing as “children’s programming” was, in fact, racist, offensive, and effectively perpetuated stereotypes.
How Harmful were these racist cartoons?
This is another question that’s not possible to answer fully. Racism does not come from one single source, it comes from a combination of a number of contributing factors. Politicians, teachers, public policy, segregated institutions, as well as cartoons and comic books, had all contributed towards perpetuating racist attitudes throughout many regions of the U.S. during the course of the 20th century.
Much of this has been very well documented in numerous sources since the Civil Rights era; there are entire rows of shelves in libraries throughout the world now which is filled with books which examine these topics, and all of the civil rights museums display very comprehensive exhibits about these issues. It isn’t possible to fully isolate the roles that each of the factors had contributed towards perpetuating discrimination from each other when discussing the history of racism in the U.S. in the 20th century.
The racist cartoons that I’ve discussed in this article, and my previous article, were shown as shorts in movie theaters throughout the 1930’s, the 1940’s and the 1950’s, and these were also frequently shown on television during the hours that were typically designated for children’s shows. People of all ethnic and racial backgrounds would have seen these cartoons in both movie theaters and television. People who were of African American, Native American, Japanese and German ancestry would have obviously found these racist cartoons to be offensive and hurtful, and people of all other ethnicities would later realize that some of the cartoons that they’d watched when they were children were blatantly racist.
It is also important to remember here that these cartoons were shown in a number of other countries too. The Looney Tunes, Merry Melodies, Hanna Barbera and Popeye cartoons were shown in movie theaters as well as on television in a number of the other English speaking countries throughout the world, and the audio tracks of many of the cartoons from those series were also translated into a number of other languages so that these cartoons could be shown in movie theaters as well as on television abroad. People in different countries throughout the world began to view ethnic and racial stereotypes as being unacceptable at different times, it isn’t possible to identify a specific time in each county when including ethnic stereotypes in cartoons became widely viewed as offensive and unacceptable, or to determine precisely how many people had felt hurt by these cartoons vs how many found it acceptable.
These cartoons should be remembered
For me, the most important aspect of these racist cartoons is that they’ve largely been forgotten, and I don’t know that these should remain buried in the archives of the companies who own them any longer. In recent years, some of the animators at the major studios have revived the cartoon characters who date back to what is commonly referred to as the “golden age of American animation;” some of these same cartoon characters have appeared in relatively recent cartoons.
The modern cartoons are not at all offensive, they’re quite appropriate for 21st-century audiences. However, I wonder how many of the families who take their children to cinemas to see cartoons such as Looney Tunes: Back In Action (2003), whose children enjoyed watching shows such as The Looney Tunes Show (2011 through 2014) on the Cartoon Network on television or whose children now enjoy streaming or watching DVD copies of shows such as Looney Tunes: Rabbits Run (2015) know that some of the original cartoons in which these characters had first appeared back in the 1930’s and the 1940’s were not at all what would be considered family- friendly or acceptable today.
People of all ages today could benefit from learning that while the modern cartoons in which these characters have appeared in recent years are harmless fun and are quite acceptable as children’s entertainment, such was not always the case.