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