Cancelling Characters

It started with the news media misreading a press release from Hasbro about the rebranding of one of their toys. Then an announcement from the publishers of the Dr. Seuss books that they would let a handful of the titles go out of print.

The right wing news media grabbed that and went bonkers over the libs “cancelling” childhood icons. They grabbed more fuel for their fire when Warner Brothers sent out some pre-release updates to the forthcoming remake of “Space Jam”.

Naturally, the general news media had to cover this “outrage”.

And now we’re forced to rehash the old arguments over offensive stereotypes and censorship.

Absolutely nothing is being “cancelled” here. Liberals and the “Woke Police” have nothing to do with any of this.

Hasbro just decided to put all of its “Potato Head” toys under that one brand identity; there’s nothing about gender there. And it’s not like kids aren’t going to be mixing and matching the accessories anyway. I can’t be the only one who, when playing with kids and their Potato Heads, has fun putting things in the wrong place and making Mutant Potato Head.

The Dr. Seuss estate decided that some of his lesser titles contain stereotypes that have become offensive, so they’re letting those titles go out of print. While it may have been influenced by the “Liberals”, it was still entirely their decision (and most certainly the right and proper thing to do, anyway). If they hadn’t mentioned it in a press release, I doubt anyone would have noticed – or cared.

As far as “Space Jam” is concerned, word got out that a proposed scene involving Pepe Le Pew will not be included. Again, this is a decision by the creators and owners of the character(s), and not something being forced onto them against their will. The character is NOT being cancelled, despite what some would have you think.

As an aside, I don’t think Pepe Le Pew was EVER held up as a model of proper behavior towards women. He’s a parody of the guy who thinks he’s God’s gift to women and whose vanity won’t let him realize that his attentions Are Not Wanted. The humor is in how over-the-top the depiction is. If he never appeared in anything other than assorted shorts, it’s because there’s not much you can do with such a one-joke character.

With a lot of these “cancellations”, one really needs to step back and take a deep breath or two. This isn’t the first time – and won’t be the last time – that the Owners of Popular Culture Icons adjust their catalogues.

More than a few cartoons have been removed from circulation – they were made as propaganda during WWII, and contain racist stereotypes. Those can be excused; in order to justify killing enemy troops to the general public, you have to depict them as evil and corrupt. Once the war is over and won, you stop. If you want, you can acknowledge the existence of those cartoons for their historical relevance. But you aren’t required to include them in any “Greatest Hits” collection.

Context matters. When was it created? Who created it? For what reason?

Here’s a good example. Listen to this song.

Do you find it offensive?

It’s by Lalo Guerrero, a Mexican-American musician who became known as the Father of Chicano Music. Including a handful of parodies like the above, he wrote over 700 songs in every conceivable genre of Mexican/Hispanic/Latino music. He worked with Cesar Chavez on promoting the rights of migrant workers, and the popularity of his music helped get the culture of the barrios the respect it deserved. Among his many honors, he was declared a National Folk Treasure by the Smithsonian Institution in 1980 and he received a National Medal of the Arts from President Clinton in 1991. If anyone could get away with satirizing Mexicans and their culture, it’s him.

Many of these characterizations are complex; how we interpret them is also relevant. The Disney classic Dumbo includes a few irritating Black stereotypes (one of them is actually named “Jim Crow”!!), which is why the film got it’s classification changed from “Children” to “Adult”. Yes, the crows are blatant stereotypes – but they are also some of the few characters in the movie that actually try to help Dumbo! You’ll also note that very few of the people whining about the “cancellation” of the movie bother to bring up the nightmare-inducing acid-trip “Pink Elephants on Parade” sequence…. Yeah, that’s something small children should be allowed to see….

The archetype Complex Character is Shylock the Money Lender from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Shylock is generally portrayed as a stereotypical greedy Jew, who cares more for money than his family. Most people with only a cursory knowledge of the play assume he’s the title character – and the villain.

In the context of when it was written, sure, you can see Shylock as the villain and someone who should be forced to convert in order to save him from eternal damnation. Jews were expelled from England in 1290, and weren’t begrudgingly allowed to return until 1656. Anti-semitism was the order of the day back then; Jews were frequently prohibited from almost all professions. Money lending was one of the few lines of work where they were tolerated (because good Christians weren’t allowed to get their hands dirty by loaning money at interest).

These days, a more complete and complex interpretation is the norm. The “bad guy” is Antonio, the actual title character who borrows a huge sum of money from Shylock without ever really intending to pay him back. Shylock can be seen as an old man suffering from a lifetime of discrimination and persecution, who is seeing everything that matters to him in life stripped away from him. No wonder he wants at least some small measure of revenge.

And if interpretations of classic characters can change, why not their depictions?

Take the cartoon character Speedy Gonzalez. A pretty offensive depiction of Mexicans as being lazy, right? What if Mexican-Americans see Speedy as a hero mouse outsmarting the gringo cat to bring food to his neighbors? What if you could rework Speedy so that his fellow mice aren’t lazy and shiftless; they’re just tired of the racism they see every day? And Speedy is the hero who defies and outwits the corrupt Border Patrol & Police? A simple tweak….

Some stereotypes have already fallen by the wayside without comment. Anyone know of any “Dumb Polack” jokes? Considering myself as being of Polish ancestry, I heard them all (and retold quite a few!) in my youth. I must point out that they were never directed towards me as an insult; just as the silly sort of ethnic humor that existed those days. But they – and similar characterizations – fell out of favor not because anyone dictated that they must be “erased”, but that Society as a whole came to the general conclusion that such low humor was in Bad Taste. There’s no reason we can’t let other stereotypes fade away.

These days, I’d say that what you take excessive offense at often tells more about you than the matter itself. Some things really are beyond the pale and should deservedly be left to the dusty archives of history, but others – like the physical appearance of some cartoon characters…. Get a life, people.

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