Whether you read them in the newspaper or see them on TV, cartoons are a product of their time. The best cartoons reflect modern attitudes on something either political or newsworthy. You can get a sense of what people thought during any given time period by looking at the cartoons, posters, and artwork of that period. Since Disney cartoons and Looney Tunes were most popular during a very controversial time in the United States, there are some images found in the cartoons that are surprisingly racist.
For example, Looney Tunes has a group of cartoons referred to as the Censored Eleven that were pulled from broadcast because of the offensive use of ethnic stereotypes — specifically, African American stereotypes. These cartoons aren’t broadcast on television anymore, but you can still find them online. In 2010, there were rumors that Warner Bros. was going to release an official version of the Censored Eleven, but they are yet to do so.
What’s fascinating about the Censored Eleven is that Warner Bros acknowledged their racist cartoons and publicly did something about it. The characters found on this list are ones that were unintentionally racist — or ones that companies tried to pretend aren’t racist. It’s like they didn’t expect us to realize that these characters suddenly disappeared.
15. Francine Frensky — Arthur
For years, I was wondering what Francine Frensky was. Buster Baxter is a bunny, Arthur is an aardvark, and, as it turns out, Francine is a monkey. Looking at her now, I can see how she’s obviously a monkey — but my mind never made the connection as a kid. Considering that Francine is a monkey, there are a number of racially insensitive things about her character that people have found offensive in recent years.
To start, Francine is obviously meant to be an African American. To start, in one of the episodes, Muffy tries to get Francine’s hair done for picture day, but it puffed right into an afro. This is more or less proof that Francine is supposed to be the character that brings diversity to the characters. However, the fact that she’s a monkey is a poorly thought out decision from the show’s creators. Additionally, Francine is one of the poorest characters on the show and has to share a room with her sister (which no other characters on the show had to do). Finally, Francine’s father was a garbageman, which Francine finds embarrassing. If you put all of these things together, you realize that PBS slipped up a bit and inserted a little racism into Arthur.
14. Speedy Gonzales — Looney Tunes
Speedy Gonzales is one of Looney Tunes‘s most beloved characters. Speaking in a Mexican accent, Speedy Gonzales ran around fast with his yellow sombrero, causing havoc in his cartoon world. He’s the fastest mouse in Mexico, so he can get away with just about anything. Due to his almost instant popularity, a Speedy Gonzales cartoon won the 1955 Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoons). While he was running into trouble on-screen, he was also running into controversy off-screen.
Many people felt that Speedy Gonzales was an offensive Mexican stereotype. His clothes were designed after the outfits young men wore in rural Mexican villages, and the overuse of Gonzales’s Mexican heritage led to the cartoon being shelved in 1999. Despite the controversy surrounding the character, Gonzales was one of Looney Tunes‘s most popular characters in Latin America — so much so that the League of United Latin American Citizens said that Speedy Gonzales was a cultural icon, and thousands of people called for Gonzales to be put back on the air. In 2002, Cartoon Network began airing Speedy Gonzales cartoons again.
13. Jynx — Pokemon
Jynx was released in the first generation of Pokemon. It first appeared in the video games Pokemon Red and Blue before appearing in merchandise, spin-offs, animation, and comic versions of Pokemon. For as long as the character has existed, Jynx has been the subject of controversy in Western media. The complaints persisted long enough that the creators of Pokemon ended up modifying Jynx’s appearance by changing her from black to purple. So, what was so racist about Jynx?
Culture critics felt that Jynx was very obviously a representation of blackface. Blackface is when a non-black person paints himself or herself black and acts out racist stereotypes. Jynx, who had pitch-black skin, also had large lips, which is another stereotype about black people. While Jynx’s look was completely overlooked in Japan, people in North America thought it was an obvious incorporation of blackface into a children’s TV show.
12. Watto — Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace
Watto is one of the most memorable characters to come out of Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace. He was Anakin Skywalker’s slavemaster who forced him to work in his shop after winning over the yet-to-be Jedi master in a pod racing bet. He loses the rights to Anakin after he wagers him in a bet against Qui-Gon Jinn. It’s sort of a weird subplot that gets us to witness pod racing, which was pretty great to watch as a kid.
After The Phantom Menace was released, fans suggested that Watto was a pretty antisemitic character. For example, a number of features on Watto look like those of a stereotypical Jew. In addition to his beady eyes, large nose, and throaty voice, Watto was also greedy, another trait racists associate with Jewish people. Many critics said that Watto was the most blatant ethnic stereotype they had ever seen and that it gave antisemitic people permission to remain open about their hatred.
11. Mammy Two Shoes — Tom & Jerry
Mammy Two Shoes is a rarely seen Tom and Jerry character. Her head is only seen a few times in the series, but I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse. Mammy was a heavy-set middle-aged African American housemaid who cleaned the house that Tom and Jerry live in. She’s Tom’s owner and doesn’t shy from beating him whenever he misbehaves. Despite being such an important character for the first part of the series, Mammy Two Shoes was erased without a trace from Tom and Jerry. After 1952, Tom and Jerry were shown living with a young couple. Mammy Two Shoes was pretty much edited out of the series, replaced with a thin white woman. There are few versions of episodes available featuring Mammy.
The only reason for the creators of Tom and Jerry to remove Mammy Two Shoes from the cartoon is that they were afraid of getting called out for their racism. Mammy Two Shoes is a pretty offensive name, and the fact that she was a stereotypical African American doesn’t help either. Her features are products of the cartoon’s time. If a studio created a Mammy Two Shoes character today, there would be an uproar.
10. The Crows — Dumbo
Walt Disney is a known racist. A number of his seemingly harmless children’s cartoons are filled with racist stereotypes, often targeted toward African Americans. You may think that Dumbo is a harmless children’s cartoon, but even an animated feature about a circus elephant can’t escape Walt Disney’s racist tendencies.
In the movie, there are a group of crows that try to help Dumbo learn to fly. The unofficial leader of the group is called “Jim Crow,” which is a direct reference to African Americans. To put it briefly, “Jim Crow” laws were state and local laws that enforced segregation in the Southern United States. The crows are pretty much African American stereotypes, but people defend the cartoon because the voice actors for the crows, with the exception of Jim Crow, are all African Americans. The cartoons are a product of their time — but that doesn’t mean we can let this blatant racism slide.
9. King Louie — The Jungle Book
Unlike the other characters of Disney’s The Jungle Book, King Louie wasn’t in the original novel. Originally, Louis Armstrong was considered for the casting of the singing monkey king, but Disney felt that if they cast an African American as a monkey, they’d be perceived as racist. Instead of casting a black man, Disney decided to cast a white guy and have him act like an African American stereotype — because that’s so much better, right?
If you’ve seen Disney’s original Jungle Book, the parallels between the monkeys and African American stereotypes are glaring. All of the animals in the jungle speak with English accents, with the exception of the jive-talking monkeys. Furthermore, it might be a bit of a stretch, but the monkeys were singing about how badly they wanted to be “real people.” Maybe I’m looking a little too deeply into King Louie, but you have to admit that it’s a little racially insensitive.
8. Disney’s Siamese Cats
There are a number of instances throughout Disney’s history where they use Siamese cats in a pretty racist way. The first was in Lady and the Tramp, where two Siamese cats (named “Si” and “Am”) appear with slanted eyes and buck teeth and speak butchered English in an Asian accent. The film was released when tensions were high between the western world and Asia, but still — the racism is pretty “in your face.”
Following Lady and the Tramp, a Siamese cat appears in The AristoCats and plays the drums and the piano with a pair of chopsticks. The cat hits the drum cymbal so hard that it flies up and lands on his head to make it look like he’s wearing a conical hat. In addition, he sings a few racially insensitive lyrics in the song. But that was in 1970. In Chip n’ Dales’ Rescue Rangers (1988), the Siamese Twin Gang own a laundromat and run a very illegal gambling ring. These are both stereotypes of Asian Americans, and it’s surprising that Disney got away with such offensive stereotypes so late into the 20th century.
7. Sunflower — Fantasia
Sunflower was a young centaur that appeared in Disney’s Fantasia (1940) and is every African American stereotype put into one character. The dark-skinned character shines the hooves of the white centaurs and follows these white centaurs around in a way that a slave would follow a master. Her physical appearance is downright appalling. From her poorly designed hair and racially insensitive facial features, Sunflower is one of the most offensive Disney characters ever made.
In fact, Sunflower was so racially insensitive that she was cut from re-releases of Fantasia. In the 1969 release of the film, there’s absolutely no trace of Sunflower in the animation. Furthermore, Sunflower isn’t heard or seen at the Disney theme parks. The company has been trying to act as if the character doesn’t exist. This, of course, is in direct contrast to Looney Tunes that acknowledged its racially insensitive cartoons and said that they were a product of their time. Disney, on the other hand, wants to pretend that it’s never done any wrong.
6. Native Americans — Peter Pan
The treatment of Native Americans is one of the biggest human-rights tragedies of all time. They were slaughtered by European settlers, forced to embrace European culture, and even today, Native Americans are portrayed negatively in the media. Adam Sandler‘s film The Ridiculous 6 was at the center of a massive controversy because of how the Native American characters were portrayed in the film. These negative stereotypes have always existed in America and, by the look of things, will always exist.
In Disney’s Peter Pan, the native tribes refer to themselves as “Red Men.” The characters ask the native tribe when they first said ‘Ugg’ and a number of other things. This is all during a scene where the characters sing the song “What Makes The Red Man Red?” This negative portrayal of Native Americans dates back to when Peter Pan (the novel) was published. In recent adaptations of the book, directors have chosen to leave out the racially insensitive content. It’s probably for the best, too.
5. The Peddler — Aladdin
People often praise Aladdin as a step in the right direction for Disney. After all, Princess Jasmine was the first non-white Disney Princess, although her skin has gotten lighter and lighter as the years have gone on. Even Aladdin is pretty white compared to evil Jafar, who looks very Arabian. These are the types of portrayals that Disney’s known for. The main characters look and sound European, whereas the ‘bad guys’ are often ethnic and have accents. But there’s an often overlooked moment of racism in Aladdin that wouldn’t fly today.
In the opening scene of Aladdin, The Peddler is singing a song called “Arabian Nights.” In the original release of the film, The Peddler (who has an oversized turban) sings the line “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face, it’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” In later releases of the film, Disney changed that particular line of the song because of protests by Arab Americans. The line was changed to “Where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense. It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.”
4. Mr Popo — Dragonball
Mr. Popo is somewhat of a deity in the Dragonball franchise. Popo can best be described as Earth’s guardian and caretaker for The Lookout, which floats above Earth. Mr. Popo has a number of magic abilities, like the ability to instantly travel anywhere in the world that he desires by using a magic carpet. Due to the original appearance of Mr. Popo, Dragonball was accused of racism in a similar way that Pokemon was for Jynx.
Three things stand out about Mr. Popo’s design: his black skin, his big red lips, and his middle-eastern attire. Mr. Popo was compared to racist depictions of African Americans a la blackface, and pressure was put on Dragonball to change Mr. Popo’s appearance. Eventually, Mr. Popo was recolored navy blue. It’s a shame that nobody spoke out about his turban, his vest, and the fact that he rode a magic carpet to get around — because that’s a little culturally insensitive, too.
3. Magneto — X-Men
Magneto is one of the best villains ever created. Born into a Jewish family sometime in the late 1920s, Magneto had to fight for survival during the Nazis’ rise to power. He was forced to live in the Warsaw Ghetto, where his family was executed and buried in a mass grave. He was eventually sent to Auschwitz, where he was forced to do manual labor all day. Witnessing one of the largest genocides of all time pretty much defined whom Magneto would become.
Essentially, Magneto believes that mutants are superior to humans and that it’s only a matter of time before they conquer them or the humans enslave mutants to study them. He doesn’t want to relive what he experienced as a child and creates somewhat of a mutant army to fight against mankind. When you look at this from an outside perspective, you can see just how racist Magneto is. He believes that his race is superior to the human race because mutants were arbitrarily born with superpowers. Now that I think about it, the entire series of X-Men revolves around racism!
2. Apu Nahasapeemapetilon — The Simpsons
Apu Nahasapeemapetilon is one of the all-time great characters on The Simpsons. Nearly every watcher of television can identify Apu by his features or by his catchphrase “Thank you, come again.” Apu is voiced by Hank Azaria and runs what appears to be the only convenience store in Springfield. There’s one episode where Apu loses the Kwik-E-Mart, but Homer helps him reclaim it once more.
According to writers of the show, when they were working on Apu, they didn’t want to make him an ethnic character because they were afraid it would be too offensive and stereotypical. The writers claim that Hank Azaria read the lines in an Indian accent at first, and it was so hilarious that they decided to make the character ethnic. However, Azaria says it was the writers who told him to read the lines in a stereotypical Indian accent. It looks like nobody wants to claim ownership for Apu because the character is a little racist. Nonetheless, everyone (except for the Indian-American community) loves Apu.
1. Pepe Le Pew — Looney Tunes
Pepe Le Pew is one of my least favorite Looney Tunes characters. I used to change the channel every time one of his sketches came on TV. Essentially, he’s a skunk that falls in love with a black cat whom he mistakes for a skunk. He repeatedly tries to seduce the cat, who repeatedly rejects him. But that doesn’t stop Pepe Le Pew. When you think about what the character is doing to the cat, it’s kind of disgusting. He’s sexually assaulting someone because he can’t control himself — but that’s for another article.
It could be more than a coincidence, but it’s a little suspicious that this hopelessly romantic skunk is from France. People say that French is the language of love, which explains why Pepe Le Pew can’t help but fall in love with the first skunk that he sees. Additionally, an offensive stereotype of the French is that they stink. Is it racist? Probably. Culturally insensitive? Definitely. An iconic cartoon character? Absolutely.
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