Social Segregation in Hanna-Barbera Cartoons

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By: Noelia Morales /

Since the rise of agriculture, an idea has emerged, transcending the way humans think about animals and other humans. The idea of controlling humans and animals emerged when agriculture intensified and new production methods of farming came about, such as irrigation systems, fertilization using animal feces, and plowing using animal labor. The manifestation of animal oppression soon forced inequality among humans, causing social stratification. Using tactics such as “othering”, the upper class was able to distance themselves from animals and the lower class, making it easier to mistreat them. The upper class saw the poor as being poor because of the lack of qualities they shared such as intelligence, rationality, and moral sensibility. One way in which racial minorities have been othered in the past is by using animal terms to refer to them. The term “swinish” is an example of how people who were considered inferior were associated with animals.

When human essentilzation began to expand in the seventeenth century, Aficans were exploited and “othered” by whites who claimed their human superiority over Africans by claiming that Africans were closer to the apes than whites. By asserting that Africans were closer to animals than to humans, white supremacy dehumanized a whole race of people for over four centuries so that they could mistreat them for their own benefit. Hanna-Barbera, an American animation studio started in the mid 20th century dominated American television for nearly four decades. Founded in 1957, it is no wonder why the Hanna-Barber cartoons of the early 1960’s paralleled issues of civil rights. With the use of animal figures, these cartoons were able to illustrate ideas of social segregation, white supremacy, and the idea of exotic locals. century, One of the earliest Hanna-Barbera cartoons was Tom and Jerry which was created in 194 and was centered on a rivalry between its two main characters, Tom Cat and Jerry Mouse. Created almost 25 years before Jim Crow Laws were banned a lot of episodes of Tom and Jerry feature racial stereotypes. A lot of these instances are subtle and would happen after explosions where characters with blasted faces would resemble stereotypical blacks, with large lips a “black face” from the residue the explosion would leave behind.

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There were also instances were social segregation is fairly obvious such as the character “Mammy Two Shoes,” a poor black maid who speaks in a stereotypical “black accent” and has a rodent problem. She is a heavy-set middle-aged black woman who often has to deal with the mayhem generated by the lead characters. As a partially seen character, she was famous for never showing her face (except very briefly in one episode). Since original airings, Mammy’s appearances have often been edited out, dubbed, or re-animated as a slim white woman in later television showings, since her character is now often regarded as racist.

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Besides the obvious racial stereotyping shown in Tom and Jerry, some episodes feature disturbing references to the racial status quo at the time. In episodes such as, Mouse in Manhattan, His Mouse Friday, and The Truce Hurts, where the meat truck splatters mud all over Tom, Jerry and Spike, leaving them in blackface, have been censored out and redubbed after they had originally aired. In one episode titled, “Mouse for Sale,” Tom paints Jerry white and sells him to a pet shop, which offers “top dollar” for white mice. The woman of the house promptly finds Tom’s ill-gotten loot and buys Jerry as a pet. When Tom attacks Jerry he is thrown out of the house. To get back into the house he tries to expose Jerry as a fraud. Thus, Tom cleans the white off of Jerry several times. Jerry, knowing that a “white” mouse is an acceptable pet, while a “brown” mouse is not, quickly covers himself in white again. Thus, Jerry “passes” for white, and the lady of the house is content with a “white” mouse after years of trying exterminate the “brown” mouse.

In Later Hanna-Barbera cartoons, such as Yogi Bear, animal characters mirrored racial minorities and their inferiority to whites. The plot of most of Yogi’s cartoons centered on his antics in the fictional Jellystone Park, a takeoff on the famous Yellowstone National Park. Yogi, accompanied by his constant companion Boo-Boo Bear, would often try to steal picnic baskets from campers in the park, much to the displeasure of Park Ranger Smith. Yogi symbolizes blacks staying within their “place”. The bear is restricted to Jellystone Park and is overseen by a white park ranger along with the other park goers who were also always white. Yogi’s character is a smooth, talkative forest bear who’s pilfering of baskets give him a negative context. Consciously or not, this conjunction mirrored racial stereotypes at the time.

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The last Hanna-Barbera cartoon I will talk about is Magilla Gorilla. Magilla Gorilla is a gorilla who spends his time languishing in the front display window of Melvin Peebles’ pet shop, eating bananas and being a drain on the businessman’s finances. Peebles marked down Magilla’s price considerably, but Magilla was perpetually only purchased for a short time, typically by some thieves who needed a gorilla to break into a bank or by an advertising agency looking for a mascot for their new product. The customers always ended up returning Magilla, forcing Peebles to refund their money. Magilla often ended each episode with his catchphrase “We’ll try again next week.” The trials of Magilla mirrored the attitudes that American citizens had towards racial integration during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Various white customers purchase him and take him to live with them but the gorilla never fits in with his new owners and, at the end of each episode, is back in the pet store. Thus, the series reinforces the idea of non-whites having “their place” by showing how attempts at social integration fail. The theme dovetails with the hesitancy on the part of many U.S. citizens to embrace the integrationist goals of the civil rights movement.

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To me, the character Magilla Gorilla mimicked “Sarah” Baartman. Sarah was the most famous of at least two Khoikhoi women who were exhibited as freak show attractions in 19th-century Europe under the name Hottentot Venus—”Hottentot” as the then-current name for the Khoi people, now considered an offensive term and “Venus” in reference to the Roman goddess of love. She was born in 1789 in the Gamtoos Valley of South Africa. When she was barely in her 20s, she was sold to London where she spent four being exhibited and entertaining people because of her “exotic” origin and by showing what were thought of as highly unusual bodily features. The fact that she had protruding buttocks and an extended labia made society view her as this “wild or savage female”. Since her rise to prominence Baartman’s body has been used to set a borderline between the “abnormal” African woman and “normal” Caucasian woman. Just as Sarah was being exhibited and sold, Magilla Gorilla, too, spent all his time in the display window, waiting for someone to buy him, as white passerby’s would gaze at him. The fact that Peebles, the storeowner, marks down Magilla’s price, makes him less valuable, a tactic used by whites to prove their superiority. Another tactic used and probably the most obvious one, is the association of blacks with monkeys and apes, making them inferior to whites. This stereotype is clearly prevalent in Magilla Gorilla since the main character is a primate.

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