Tom and Jerry cartoons to carry racism warnings

Double Act: Tom and Jerry first appeared in cinemas in the 1940s.

The classic cat and mouse cartoons, some made over 70 years ago, have long faced criticism for depicting racial stereotypes. Should they carry warnings or be banned altogether?

It is difficult to believe that a buffoonish cat and a quick-witted tiny brown mouse, chasing each other round and round and getting into all sorts of mischief, would one day be regarded as ‘works of art’. Nor that they would go on to be the highest-grossing cartoons of their time and win seven Academy Awards.

The American cartoon ‘Tom and Jerry’ first appeared in cinemas in 1940, but nowadays, while the pair remain as popular as ever, attitudes have changed. It was reported this week that Tom and Jerry cartoons available on Amazon Prime Instant Video will now carry a warning that they depict ‘some ethnic and racial prejudices once commonplace in American society’. The warning continues: ‘Such depictions were wrong then and are wrong today’.

The cartoons were made when racial segregation in the US was common. It is the depiction of the black domestic maid, ‘Mammy Two Shoes’, and characters appearing in blackface, that has prompted the warning, although accusations of racism in the cartoon are not new.

Racism in classic children’s films and literature has been a contentious issue for some time. The ‘Pippi Longstocking’ novels and Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ are just two examples of famous works revised to remove racist elements. The Tintin comic books also faced a legal challenge in 2007 on charges of racism.

But it is a divisive issue. Last year, a row erupted in Germany when one of the country’s oldest publishing houses decided to remove the word ‘negro’ from a classic children’s book, Otfried Preussler’s ‘The Little Witch’, first published in 1957.

Critics accused the publishers of censorship, yet one angry nine-year-old made her feelings clear in a letter to a national newspaper. ‘You cannot imagine how I feel when I have to read or hear that word’, she wrote.

Critters and criticism

According to one expert, the racism warnings about 'Tom and Jerry' are ‘empty-headed’ and nothing more than ‘false piousness'. We should not judge the past by today’s values. Warnings will only give children the sense that there is something depressing and dark about their cherished cartoons, and introduce them to the injustices of history before they are ready. And if warnings like these are too readily accepted, eventually they could lead to outright censorship.

But children simply accept what they see or read, and haven’t yet developed the critical faculties to determine right from wrong, others argue. Without warnings, they may accept the racial stereotyping as the norm. The upset and harm this can cause children is incalculable. The warnings do not go far enough — it would be better to get rid of the cartoons altogether.

You Decide

  1. Should Tom and Jerry cartoons carry racism warnings?
  2. Is it important to keep cultural works in their original form or should they be edited?

Activities

  1. Discuss in groups your favourite books or television shows from your childhood. Think about what you liked and didn’t like about them, and whether they contained ideas that now might be deemed offensive.
  2. Research another example of this issue, using ‘Become an expert’ as a starting point. Write a short presentation about your findings.

Some People Say...

“You can’t act like the past didn’t exist.’Gundel Mattenklott”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m a bit too old for Tom and Jerry, how does this affect me?
It’s not just a problem concerning Tom and Jerry cartoons. Lots of novels and films have been accused of perpetuating racial stereotypes or sexism, including certain Disney films. Adult books and films also contain racist language and stereotypes, including Mark Twain’s ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’, which is one of the greatest American novels.
So should I stop reading books or watching films which are racist or sexist?
Not at all. But it is important to appreciate them in a critical and thoughtful way and understand why such language or imagery is being used. We can learn much about the past from cultural works of the period. Yet it is important to be vigilant about lazy stereotypes creeping into modern popular culture.

Word Watch

Mammy Two Shoes
Mammy Two Shoes is a middle-aged black woman with a thick Southern accent whose face is rarely shown. She was inspired by Oscar-winning black actress Hattie McDaniel, who played the house slave Mammy in the film ‘Gone with the Wind’.
Blackface
A form of theatrical makeup used by white actors to depict black people. An example is the ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’ — a programme that appeared on British television as late as the 1980s.
Accusations
Mammy Two Shoes was edited out of episodes during the 1960s.
Racist elements
Publishers came under pressure to change the Pippi Longstocking character ‘Negro King’ to the ‘South Sea King’ in 2011 and Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ was revised when critics complained about the racist depiction of the Oompa Loompas.
Legal challenge
In 2007, a Congolese campaigner launched unsuccessful legal proceedings in Belgium over Tintin in the Congo, claiming it breached racism laws.
Critics
One German newspaper poll suggested that 48% believed the text should not be altered.

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