The last few weeks have seen a reckoning come to the world of children’s media, as some Dr. Seuss books have been pulled for racist imagery, while the Mr. Potato Head toy line dropped its gendered name (though that’s more of a branding move than anything). New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow has come out strongly on the “pro” side of such changes and argues further actions are needed. In particular, he’s called out the Looney Tunes character Pepé Le Pew for normalizing rape culture.
In an opinion article for the Times, Blow commended the Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ decision to stop printing six books that contained racist imagery. His piece also pointed out a number of incidents in kids’ culture that he argued irresponsibly enforced racial stereotypes and inappropriate behavior. “Some of the first cartoons I can remember included Pepé Le Pew, who normalized rape culture; Speedy Gonzales, whose friends helped popularize the corrosive stereotype of the drunk and lethargic Mexicans; and Mammy Two Shoes, a heavyset Black maid who spoke in a heavy accent,” he wrote.
Anti-cancel culture social media almost immediately attacked the piece. Some counterpoints were warranted, such as the fact that Speedy Gonzales is seen as a beloved character amongst many Latinos, particularly Mexicans. He was, after all, a hero who always got the best of “gringo” intruders. However, as Blow himself noted in a recent tweet, right wing blogs that attacked him over his equating Pepé Le Pew’s behavior to “rape culture” ignored the fact that the cartoon skunk’s main “gag” was trying to force a female cat, Penelope Pussycat, to love him.
Blow pointed out that Pepé “grabs/kisses a girl/stranger, repeated, w/o consent and against her will,” even after she “struggles mightily to get away from him, but he won’t release her,” with the skunk going so far as to lock “a door to prevent her from escaping.”
“This helped teach boys that ‘no’ didn’t really mean no, that it was a part of ‘the game’, the starting line of a power struggle,” he continued in the thread. “It taught overcoming a woman’s strenuous, even physical objections, was normal, adorable, funny. They didn’t even give the woman the ability to SPEAK.”
He included a clip of Pepé continually forcing himself on Penelope, the silent cat who is constantly trying to escape his grasp.
This helped teach boys that “no” didn’t really mean no, that it was a part of “the game”, the starting line of a power struggle. It taught overcoming a woman’s strenuous, even physical objections, was normal, adorable, funny. They didn’t even give the woman the ability to SPEAK.
— Charles M. Blow (@CharlesMBlow) March 6, 2021
Through a modern lens, it’s hard to see Pepé’s behavior as anything but sexual misconduct and assault. It’s not a new stance, either, as even Dave Chappelle noted in a routine from the early aughts that the character is easily viewed as a rapist (via Deadline).
Warner Bros. has recently tried to amend how its animated characters are portrayed to reflect modern sensibilities. In new Looney Tunes episodes created for HBO Max, the characters of Yosemite Sam and Elmer Fudd are no longer equipped with guns. For the upcoming Space Jam sequel starring LeBron James, the Tune Squad member Lola Bunny has been redesigned so she isn’t overtly over-sexualized.
“This is 2021,” the film’s director, Malcolm D. Lee, told Entertainment Weekly. “It’s important to reflect the authenticity of strong, capable female characters.”
In a ridiculously on-point twist, the image many right-wing “anti-cancel culture” crusaders used to decry the “de-sexualiztion” of Lola isn’t even from the original Space Jam; it’s “furry fanart” from 2010 that has made the rounds on pornographic websites.
Update: According to The Hollywood Reporter, Pepé Le Pew will not appear in the upcoming Space Jam sequel. The decision was unrelated to the New York Times column as it was made more than a year ago.