The seemingly innocuous cartoon has the power to evoke passionate debate from fans and cynics alike; whether it’s a casually racist Disney movie that’s aged badly, or the latest South Park episode to contain a major religious figure, cartoons can deliver controversial messages with a deceptively sweet facade.
It’s easy to understand why parents, for example, often get up in arms about the shows their children are watching. Although these parents are aiming to protect their children the objections may, to many, seem somewhat hypersensitive. Slightly more ridiculous is when a celebrity or politician weighs in on a controversial cartoon parody – before realising that a public argument with the professional comedians behind these cartoons is never going to go the way they planned.
Every now and again, there are serious (but sometimes still hilarious) reasons behind the controversies caused by high-profile cartoons, as with a particular episode on this list which resulted in the hospitalisation of hundreds of children. Here, we’ve listed the most bizarre, funny or worrying moments in cartoon industry history – moments when the blurred lines between cartoon comedy and political correctness became problematic.
9. “Homer’s Phobia” (Simpsons)
Though this episode of the Simpsons sets out to attack homophobia, there’s still something a little concerning about Homer screaming: “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! I danced with a gay! Marge, Lisa, promise me you won’t tell anyone. Promise me!” The idea is that by the end of the episode Homer has learnt how wrong homophobia is, and shouldn’t worry about Bart emulating John, the gay shop keeper who befriends the Simpson family. However, for many, re-watching the entire episode now is simply uncomfortable.
At the time – in 1997 – the episode was lauded by the LGBT community as sending a positive anti-homophobia message. However, perhaps it’s a sign of the changing times and how far we’ve come that the whole thing now seems dated and somewhat inappropriate. TV critic Steve Williams wrote that “this is a side of the show we’d not seen before, nor particularly wanted to see,” and that the whole affair “leaves such a nasty taste in the mouth”, as Homer is “quite simply a bast**d”. Strong words.
8. “Rude Removal” (Dexter’s Laboratory)
Unlike shows like Family Guy and South Park which have made a name for themselves by pushing boundaries, Dexter’s Laboratory isn’t exactly known for its shocking content. However, the “Rude Removal” episode changed all that. The title card shows Dexter mooning the viewers, whilst his sister gives them the finger.
This episode of the kids’ cartoon sees Dee Dee and Dexter mistakenly splitting themselves into well behaved and rude versions of themselves. Rude Dexter and Dee Dee spend the seven minutes of that particular segment repeatedly swearing, and although this was censored it was still deemed a step too far for a show aimed at 5-8 year olds. Amusingly, when it was briefly made available online the video received half a million views in 24 hours.
7. “Blame it on Lisa” (The Simpsons)
Although Fox probably wasn’t pleased when Brazil’s tourist bureau threatened to sue the makers of the 15th episode of the 13th season of The Simpsons, it seems like a badge of honour of sorts for Matt Groening. A hasty apology from the executive producer meant that the matter was never taken to court, but the depiction of Brazil as a rat infested, crime ridden slum remains a sore point for the country.
The show’s makers seemed somewhat surprised by the controversy saying of all of the other parodied countries “Every other place has had a good sense of humor. Brazil caught us by surprise.”
6. “200″ and “201” (South Park)
South Park has had it fair share of controversy, and to mark their 200th anniversary it seems the show’s makers decided to rattle as many cages as possible. South Park’s interpretations of both Tom Cruise and Muhammad had had the greatest shock factor in the past, so these two formed the basis of the episode’s plot which saw Tom Cruise trying to gain Muhammad’s apparent immunity to satire and ridicule.
Trey Parker, the shows creator, made said when interviewed about the episode: “We’d be so hypocritical against our own thoughts, if we said, ‘Okay, well let’s not make fun of them because they might hurt us. Okay, we’ll rip on the Catholics because they won’t hurt us, but we won’t rip on [Muslims] because they might hurt us.'”
5. “Trapped in the Closet” (South Park)
Tom Cruise and Scientology are almost too easy to parody, and they’re two of South Park’s favourite targets. This episode revolves around Stan being mistaken for the reincarnation of Scientology’s founder L. R Hubbard, and ends with his claim that “Scientology is just a big fat global scam.”
Both Cruise and the Church of Scientology have a reputation for being a little trigger happy when it comes to litigation, and the end of the show simply credits ‘John and Jane Smith’ as a result. What the cartoon’s creators, Stone and Parker, may not have foreseen is the resignation of Isaac Hayes, a Scientologist who voiced the character of Chef. The sentiments of the creators were made fairly clear in a statement that read “In 10 years and over 150 episodes of South Park, Isaac never had a problem with the show making fun of Christians, Muslims, Mormons and Jews. He got a sudden case of religious sensitivity when it was his religion featured on the show.”
4. “One Beer” (Tiny Toon Adventures)
Tiny Toons, a spin off of Looney Tunes, was on the whole fairly light hearted (if a little weaker than the original) with the exception of this episode. In ‘One Beer’, the cartoon characters decided to steal a single beer from Buster’s parents’ fridge to show “the evils of alcohol”. The allegory that follows sees the children instantly drunk, sporting stubble, and living in an alley.
The plot takes an even stranger turn when one of the characters decides to steal a police car from outside a doughnut shop which they proceed to crash into a cemetery. The extremely dark end shows the spirits of each of the young characters float away. Unsurprisingly the episode only aired once before it was banned.
3. “Beauty and the Beach” (Pokemon)
The premise of the 18th episode of the original Pokémon series is dodgy enough as it is; should children really be watching a show in which all of the female characters enter a beach beauty contest? However, whether or not this seems appropriate is fairly irrelevant given the content of the episode. Team Rocket’s female members enter a beauty contest, and Ash and Brock are stunned by Misty’s bikini clad figure. The show’s creators went even further when James appears in some kind of bizarre inflatable suit, which he uses to give himself artificial breasts. He goes on to taunt the prepubescent Misty saying: “Maybe when you’re older, you’ll have a chest like this!”
The reasons for the controversy are fairly clear: sexualisation of children, issues regarding body image, and bullying are all essentially themes that a children’s TV show should avoid. Unsurprisingly the episode received a fairly serious edit, with the 40 seconds long scene displaying the strange inflatable bikini removed for the western dubbed version. Even with the edit, the episode only received one rerun and wasn’t included in the English box set.
2. “Comedians” (Beavis and Butthead)
It was the timing of this 1993 episode rather than the content of this unfortunate episode of Beavis and Butthead that caused the controversy. Most of the stories behind the cartoons on this list are simply funny, either because of poor judgement or because of people taking offence, but this one is tragic.
At the end of the episode Beavis burns down a comedy club whilst juggling flames; just one month after it aired an Ohio boy burnt down his family’s trailer with his sister inside, having been purportedly inspired by the show.
1. “Electric Soldier Porygon” (Pokemon)
It was the animation technique that caused contention with this 1997 Pokémon episode: about a third of the way into the show Pikachu blows up some missiles in cyberspace (don’t ask), and the resulting explosion was depicted in strobing red and blue lights. Each Pokémon episode is thirty minutes long, which means that this episode managed to hospitalise a child every 2.5 seconds.
Blurred vision, nausea, and dizziness affected hundreds of children, whilst others simply passed out. The show was taken off the airwaves for four months whilst the makers tried to figure out exactly how they’d managed to do such damage. The incident, which is now referred to as the ‘Pokémon Shock’, caused such problems that it affected the stocks of Nintendo and Pokémon.