‘Tom and Jerry’ Cartoons Get ‘Racial Prejudice’ Warning

The classic "Tom and Jerry" cartoons of the 1940s and 1950s come with a "racial prejudice" warning from Amazon.

tom-and-jerry

The classic “Tom and Jerry” cartoons of the 1940s and 1950s come with a “racial prejudice” warning from Amazon.

tom-and-jerry-racism-amazon-uk-bbc

BBC (“Tom and Jerry cartoons carry racism warning“):

Tom and Jerry cartoons on television are being accompanied by a warning that they may depict scenes of “racial prejudice”.

The classic cat and mouse cartoons, some made more than 70 years ago, carry a warning for subscribers to Amazon Prime Instant Video.

There have been claims of racist stereotyping in the depiction of a black maid in the cartoon series.

Amazon’s warning says such prejudice was once “commonplace” in US society.

Tom and Jerry, once a staple of children’s television on British television, is being presented with a cautionary note about “ethnic and racial prejudices”.

‘Trigger warnings’

Amazon’s streaming subscription service, formerly branded as LoveFilm, includes the cartoons in its comedy collection.

But Tom and Jerry: The Complete Second Volume is accompanied by the caution: “Tom and Jerry shorts may depict some ethnic and racial prejudices that were once commonplace in American society. Such depictions were wrong then and are wrong today.”

The wording is similar to disclaimers accompanying some collections of the cartoons on DVD.

The warning was attacked as “empty-headed” by cultural commentator and professor of sociology, Frank Furedi, who said it was a form of a “false piousness” and a type of censorship which “seems to be sweeping cultural life”.

“We’re reading history backwards, judging people in the past by our values,” said Prof Furedi from the University of Kent.

While my initial instinct is to agree with Furedi, I’m inclined upon further reflection to agree with Amazon. The purpose of these warnings is to help parents make judgments about which programs to allow their children to watch and to help inform their discussions with their children about said programs. As such, contemporary values, not those extant at the time a film is produced, are what matter.

I don’t, therefore, object to the message “Tom and Jerry shorts may depict some ethnic and racial prejudices that were once commonplace in American society.” Where I believe Furedi’s “false piousness” charge correct is in the needless appending of “Such depictions were wrong then and are wrong today.” We really don’t need Amazon to render these judgments for us.

Our attitudes are constantly evolving. Things that were routinely shown in movies and television programs of decades ago are quite shocking to modern sensibilities. For example, the casual misogyny of the early James Bond films is cringeworthy. Similarly, some of the old codes, such as the refusal to film characters portrayed as husband and wife—including those such as Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, who were actually husband and wife in real life—sharing a bed seem fantastically silly.

With regard to “Tom and Jerry,” it’s worth noting that this controversy is hardly new:

Tom and Jerry was first produced by the MGM film studio in 1940. The cartoons, directed by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera and produced by Fred Quimby, ran until 1957, with carefully choreographed chase scenes set in the homes and gardens of suburban America.

There were more than a hundred short films made in this original series, winning seven academy awards. These included the Cat Concerto in 1946, the Two Mouseketeers in 1951 and Johann Mouse in 1952.

In the subsequent decades there have been numerous re-launched television versions of the series, with varying styles and varying degrees of critical approval.

The claims of racism are longstanding. When the original versions were shown on US television in the 1960s some scenes were edited.

So, Amazon isn’t rendering a revisionist judgment; it’s one that’s been viewed as valid by programmers for half a century now. This, incidentally, means that the “but I saw these cartoons as a kid and didn’t find them the least bit offensive” retort—which informed my immediate reaction to the headline—is likely invalid. That is, those of us who saw the shows forty years ago were likely watching redacted versions.

Incidentally, as Mediaite’s Josh Feldman reports, Amazon is apparently only doing this in the UK; the US versions come with no such warning. He also points to an interesting treatment of this issue in the past:

In the Spotlight Collection DVD, there’s an introduction by Whoopi Goldberg talking about some racist caricatures, including the character Mammy Two-Shoes. You can watch that video here:

And while you could make a reasonable argument that this is politically-correct nonsense that doesn’t need to be addressed, there’s actually a very important point made in Goldberg’s PSA. The disclaimer is there not because “Oh no, racism,” it’s to let you know that despite this racism, they are not censoring any of this offensive material out of the cartoons because to do so would be wrong: ”Removing Mammy Two-Shoes from this collection would be the same as pretending that she never existed. The same is true for the other images and jokes that we wouldn’t normally include in a mainstream cartoon today. So, Ms. Two-Shoes, along with other elements that reveal the prejudices of the time are presented here to accurately reflect a part of our history that cannot and should not be ignored.”

Putting it into context and then running the unexpurgated version strikes me as the perfect way of handling this

FILED UNDER: Popular Culture, Race and Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Todd says:

    I had a different idea about “bias” in the cartoons of my youth, and Tom and Jerry is a perfect example. Do you ever wonder why some people grow up to hate cats? It was those darned cartoons. Think about it. In almost all of them, who was the “bad” guy? The cat. 😉

  2. Tyrell says:

    Political correctness gone to seed. What will be next, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”? How about “Road Runner”? This sort of stuff is unbelievable. Maybe the people at Amazon need to find something better to do – like improving the Kindle performance.
    It is just so ridiculous .

  3. M. Bouffant says:

    I can’t remember which (out of a hundred) it is, but I saw a Tom & Jerry on television about 20 yrs. ago in which Mammy Two-Shoes chases the cat & mouse outside w/ a broom. Some genius decided to dub in an Irish brogue for Mammy, which is topped by her exclaiming, as she sweeps them out the door, “OUT! O-W-T, OUT!!”

    That may have been the same line as the original, but the “Oirish” accent issuing from the obviously African-American Mammy was pretty damn silly.

  4. M. Bouffant says:

    @Tyrell: Yeah, it’s about time the racism in Road Runner cartoons was dealt w/.

  5. John Peabody says:

    Agree with the above. Wile E. Coyote was constantly being crushed by an anvil. Painted BLACK. Wake up, sheeple!

  6. rodney dill says:

    While my initial instinct is to agree with Furedi, I’m inclined upon further reflection to agree with Amazon. The purpose of these warnings is to help parents make judgments about which programs to allow their children to watch and to help inform their discussions with their children about said programs. As such, contemporary values, not those extant at the time a film is produced, are what matter.

    Sums it up nicely.

  7. C. Clavin says:

    @Tyrell:
    Road Runner is less racist and more political…with the coyote representing Republicans…always on the wrong side of everything. Meep meep.

    Anyway…I don’t have any problem with this. Ever watch an episode of Speed Racer? Talk about misogyny.

  8. rodney dill says:

    Obviously some part of the Republicans’ “War Against Vermin.”

  9. munchbox says:

    Mean while in reality why don’t you show the so called racism? The black lady that did the cartoon voice over must be a racist? Why don’t you check out a childish gambino video for contemporary values?

  10. munchbox says:

    Or better yet stitches from Miami. http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=XtW6HW8jO_U
    It sums up nicely why our society is in decline.

  11. Tony W says:

    I imagine Amazon “renders those judgments” because they don’t want any confusion about which side of history they align with. In other words, that statement is not about Tom and Jerry. it’s about gay marriage and other civil rights issues of the current day.

  12. PD Shaw says:

    I believe Disney has some sort of warning on its oldest, black-and-white Mickey Mouse cartoons, as reflecting stereotyped attitudes of the time, but these collections are really for the historical interest of adults.

    But Disney won’t release Song of the South in the U.S., with some of my favorite songs and animation I can remember from my childhood.

  13. C. Clavin says:

    Kinda curious if Amazon puts any warnings on Hemingway novels??? Or some of his contemporaries.

  14. grumpy realist says:

    @C. Clavin: Might be because Tom and Jerry cartoons are watched by kids. I doubt Hemingway novels are on the reading list of any child (until English teachers start trying to shove them down their throats as “GREAT American LitteraCHUR!”)

    Actually, I found it interesting as a kid to read the unexpurgated versions of the early Dr. Doolittle stories, because the racial stereotypes with Bumpo just lept off the page. (Hugh Lofting basically took the mickey out of almost every type of human mentioned, so I just chalked it up to the axis along which Lofting would satirize an African prince. Bumpo is arguably much more intelligent than a lot of the other human characters Lofting put in his stories.)

  15. John Peabody says:

    The 1967 Dolittle movie covered this nicely. When Rex Harrison (the good Doctor) goes to Africa and meets the strangely-garbed local native chieftan, he uses a typical Western greeting: “We….friends! From….across water! Here….to help!”. To which the chieftan blithely responds, “What an unusual accent!” (spoken in perfect Oxfordese). A funny, teaching joke.

  16. Sherparick says:

    Well, as much as I enjoy cartoons and movies of the 1930-50s, you have to be pretty obtuse not to realize that they do contain racial stereotypes and tropes. Most of the commentators, who I suspect are not in the group being stereotyped due to the light melanin content of their skin (like mine) probably don’t get offended (although when I watch old English movies with the ignorant and slightly larcenous Irish servant with a brogue, I do a bit of teeth grinding). Others not so blessed, may feel the pain of the stereotype or trope being painted on their kids without the chance to give them context.

    http://www.everygoddamnday.com/2014/09/they-are-effect-and-not-cause.html

  17. C. Clavin says:

    @grumpy realist:
    Sure.
    But as we see almost daily in these comments…full grown adults have trouble recognizing racism or misogynist when they see it, as well.

  18. JohnMcC says:

    I have a weakness for old black-n-white comedy. Several Abbott & Costello movies stay on my DVR. And they do have a good bit of what would be embarrassing stereotypes. Easy to overlook for my grandchildren; easy for me to watch and remember when these were more or less cultural norms. But a couple of years ago I found a way to listen to the original radio version of Amos & Andy — the one that famously was played on radio by two white men. The thickness and pervasiveness of the diminishment of the characters was distasteful.

    But that is the way things were. Best not to forget. This past summer we had a reunion picnic at a public beach here in Pinellas Co Florida. I mentioned to my kids and their kids that — when I was graduating from high school (’63) — the black family in the next pavilion would have been committing a crime by sharing the park with us.

  19. al-Ameda says:

    Perspective: Isis beheads journalists while Amazon warns people of possible racial prejudice in 1940’s Tom and Jerry cartoons.

    Very timely move on Amazon’s part. When is Amazon going to warn people of incorrect racial/cultural stereotyping concerning Quickdraw McGraw-Baba Louie and Speedy Gonzalez cartoons?

  20. Franklin says:

    We saw similar warnings when we bought some Bugs Bunny DVDs probably 7 or 8 years ago, so this isn’t particularly new. But regardless, I think James’ analysis has this right.

  21. stonetools says:

    If you look at the movies/TV shows/cartoons /comics of the 1930s-50s, you’ll find all types of racial/sexual stereotyping.( Think Tarzan, Mandrake the Magician, Phantom ). Now as a youngster, I loved them all, but later I was able to recognise (and laugh at ) the stereotypes.
    I guess I would go along with warnings.

  22. jewelbomb says:

    The warning was attacked as “empty-headed” by cultural commentator and professor of sociology, Frank Furedi, who said it was a form of a “false piousness” and a type of censorship which “seems to be sweeping cultural life

  23. PD Shaw says:

    @al-Ameda: But who doesn’t love Speedy Gonzalez? Now, Jar Jar Binks . . .

  24. Modulo Myself says:

    Saying the attitudes change really overlooks the intense cruelty that created stereotypical black types. What makes people uncomfortable is not that they’re old or racist, but that they’re included simply because to the intended audience, black people acting ridiculous or in terror is funny.

    For example, The Palm Beach Story is a fantastic movie. There’s one scene, however, where a group of merry plutocrats goes on a hunt on a train and ends up shooting up a bar in their private car. The black porter, stuck behind a bar, is shot at and runs through the usual gamut of stereotypes. Watching this appear in a movie that basically holds up against anything sophisticated today is like being punched in the face.

  25. gVOR08 says:

    @PD Shaw: It’s OK to be prejudiced against Jar Jar Binks and his whole clan. In fact it’s kind of necessary.

    I have a conservative friend who thinks “Buccaneers” is as offensive a name as “Redskins”. I can’t get him to see it makes a diffeence that there are no Buccaneers, but there are Native Americans.

    My brother, the Reverend, tells a story about the president of his synod opening a talk by saying, ‘This is the point where I normally tell a joke to loosen things up. But we’ve come to realize a lot of the jokes I used are disrespectful of ethnic groups. However I’ve realized I can use those jokes, I just have to change to an ethnic group that no longer exists. So OK –

    There were these two Hittites. (Laughter)

    Sven and Ole.’ (More laughter from the Lutheran crowd)

  26. PD Shaw says:

    @gVOR08: A lot of comedy is about exaggeration and stereotyping (and playing against stereotypes), and I think we lose something when we cannot laugh at something because it does not serve the function of uplifting the human condition. A thing is either funny or not. I’ve more issues with something like Gone with the Wind which purports to be an historical drama than the cartoons.

  27. Matt says:

    @Todd: I hated the mouse as a kid. I guess I felt Jerry was too arrogant and needed put in his place.

  28. CB says:

    I wonder what kind of blurb Ren & Stimpy will get in 70 years..

  29. Rob in CT says:

    Some of the older “classics” are full of overt racism. I was watching Peter Pan the other day and holy sh*t, man.

    If you like a particular movie or show despite that, ok. But I don’t think a warning is crazy or anything.

  30. gVOR08 says:

    @PD Shaw: Many years ago I saw GWTW in a theater. Thought I was going to get thrown out for laughing in the wrong places. Got a lot of dirty looks.

  31. grumpy realist says:

    @Sherparick: Well, it’s one of the reasons I can’t watch My Fair Lady without a fair grinding of teeth on my part. Eliza would NOT have gone back to Henry Higgins! (and in Shaw’s original play, she doesn’t.) But the movie producers wanted a saccharine “happy ending” and tacked one on…

    Haven’t watched that many rom-coms but imagine I’d be wanting to throw my shoes at the screen. I don’t know what is more off-putting: the assumption that a male schlub is going to end up with a five-sector callout (to quote E.E. Smith) or that the women are so ditzy.

    You know who I really appreciate? Hedy Lamar. Now THERE was a woman with talent, looks, and a hell of a lot of brains!

  32. Guarneri says:

    Breaking News

    Vladimir Putin has filed a protest with the UN over the portrayal of Boris Badanov and Natasha Fatale. CNN is discussing potential sanctions of Rocky and Bullwinkle.

  33. Moosebreath says:

    @Guarneri:

    “Vladimir Putin has filed a protest with the UN over the portrayal of Boris Badanov and Natasha Fatale. CNN is discussing potential sanctions of Rocky and Bullwinkle.”

    The UN reacts by asking the delegate from Pottsylvania whether he objects to their portrayal of his country.

  34. wr says:

    @al-Ameda: “Perspective: Isis beheads journalists while Amazon warns people of possible racial prejudice in 1940’s Tom and Jerry cartoons.”

    You might as well say “Perspective: Isis beheads journalits while Democrats insist that in most parts of America it’s impossible to live on the Federal minimum wage.”

    You’ll notice that in both cases, the first and second clauses have absolutely nothing to do with each other. The horrors of Isis — or Ebola or Nazis or whatever you choose to insert there — simply exist to say “so don’t worry your little head about something you’re dumb enough to think is important.”

    I don’t have a strong feeling about these warnings aside from great amusement at moderate Republican JJ giving so many inches to the words of the co-founder of England’s Revolutionary Communist Party. But this mode of argument is nothing but destructive to real discourse.

  35. Tyrell says:

    There are many cartoons that someone could say are offensive to white people, native Americans, and other groups. Should Amazon not issue some kind of warning about them ? How about portrayals of women, including older shows such as the “Honeymooners”, and “Lucy” ? How about stereotyped groups ( mountain folks, farmers) as portrayed in “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres” ? Two of Disney’s greatest: “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” and “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” have scenes that could be objectionable: scenes of island natives in “Leagues” and in “Sleepy Hollow” stereotypes of a weak, unattractive school teacher, and an image of a big, strong person as always being mean and dumb.
    “Pocahontas” drew little criticism as some native American groups did not see any problem with it.
    “Princess and the Frog” had a few critics at first, until the people of New Orleans basically shut them up wben they defended the portrayal of the culture of New Orleans.
    These movies and shows that I have mentioned remain very popular. No one, including children, found them to be offensive. It seems that the American people are a little more sophisticated and discerning than some misguided individuals and groups give them credit for.
    Maybe they should just put some sort of generic warning label on every movie, song, or tv program: “warning: the following may possibly contain some subject matter which might accidentally offend someone, scare someone, or shock someone. We apologize ahead of time”
    I remember some older cartoons that mocked and made fun of Hitler. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone objected and filed a lawsuit. That is the kind of age that we live in.

  36. Steve V says:

    That disclaimer looks more like it comes from the copyright owner/distributor (I assume Warner Bros.), not Amazon, which has to walk the line of wanting to sell its catalogue but not really endorsing some of the material. I almost think it would be weird if they didn’t say something.

  37. ernieyeball says:

    @Todd: Do you ever wonder why some people grow up to hate cats? It was those darned cartoons.

    I am certain that we can blame the skinny dippy and streaking events of the 60’s and 70’s on kids in the 50’s (like me) spending far too much time watching Donald and Daisy Duck run around with no pants on!

  38. Moosebreath says:

    @ernieyeball:

    “I am certain that we can blame the skinny dippy and streaking events of the 60’s and 70’s on kids in the 50’s (like me) spending far too much time watching Donald and Daisy Duck run around with no pants on!”

    And spending time with their minor “nephews” as well. Corrupting our minors!!!

  39. ernieyeball says:

    @ernieyeball: “…skinny dipping…”
    Note to self: Check your work man!!

  40. ernieyeball says:

    @CB: “You sick little monkey! You EEEDIOT! YOU BLOATED SACK OF PROTOPLASM!”

    Zoology, psychology, biology. Maybe they will get a Nobel Prize in education.

  41. pylon says:

    It’s hardly “revisionism” to say that there are racist depictions “commonplace at the time”.

    What Amazon is doing is trying to insulate itself from complaints by modern parents who see this stuff for the first time.

  42. Kylopod says:

    I think having a warning on the cover is preferable to deleting the scenes, like most current prints of Fantasia have done with the “black centaurs.” I’m deeply against bowdlerization. I think of it as equivalent to rewriting history. If some book or movie or other work from the past has things in it which offend our contemporary sensibilities (and the vast majority of “classic” works do, to one degree or another), then it is better to keep them in. They can provide a starting point for discussion when showing them to children. And if you don’t want yourself or your children or students exposed to them, it’s your choice not to read/watch these works. But attempting to enjoy a version that eliminates the bad stuff is simply blinding yourself to the reality of history.

  43. Tyrell says:

    Just think about what we are talking about here: a cartoon in which the main characters are a cat and mouse; in which the mouse is playing tricks on the cat and the cat is trying to catch the mouse. This is purely for entertainment. No serious symbolism or hidden meanings. Enjoy!

  44. Just 'nutha' Ig'rant Cracker says:

    @grumpy realist: Interesting feature about teaching Hemmingway with HS students is that when they try to understand Santiago “talking to the fish” without allowing for rhetorical theory inputs (we need to avoid “the intentional falacy” after all) they react that the scenes are foolish. When I have suggested that, in fact, Santiago is talking to the fish so that Hemmingway can reveal his worldview to the readers–suddenly it makes sense. Knowledge (and the opportunity to see potentially offensive content) really is power.

  45. Just 'nutha' Ig'rant Cracker says:

    @PD Shaw: I particularly like the earliest cartoons–in which Speedy’s clothes were torn and soiled and his front tooth had a gold crown. I wonder where that character went and why they felt they needed to change him? Hmmmm……….

  46. Rob in CT says:

    @Kylopod:

    Good points.

    I love that my earlier post got 2 downvotes, btw. Hah. Mentioning that old movies and shows had racism in them is a terrible thing! Hell, it’s probably worse than, you know, actual racism. 😉