‘That’s an interesting idea,” the editor sometimes says to the writer at the water cooler. The editor’s just trying to dump out the cold coffee and get back to the office without too much trouble, but there’s the writer, nattering on about something he realized over lunch, and it could be a thing, you know? It’s not a big thing but everyone was like talking about people who have guns, and somehow it turned to cartoons, so, we all grew up watching Daffy Duck getting shot, in the head, and this was like normal? Isn’t that just wrong?
“Take a crack at it,” the editor says. Those coffee stains in the mug. They never come out. Why is that? They come out at home. Of course, you got a sponge at home. You’d never trust an office sponge.
So the writer takes a crack at it, and tries to recapture the lunchtime conversation, but in the end realizes that horrible fact: You had to be there. But maybe there’s something bigger here than cartoon violence. Maybe everything is different now. Could it be? Because that would be exciting.
But that’s all speculation. Somehow Slate came up with a piece called “Looney Tunes cartoons were more brutal than you remember,” which concludes:
But no kids’ show today would ever treat firearms or gun deaths so lightly, with such zany exuberance, as Looney Tunes once did. That jaunty disregard of the consequences of violence is part of what made the show so bizarrely delightful. In a post-Newtown world, however, what was once strangely funny now registers as appallingly macabre.
Yes — if you’ve had your sense of humor surgically removed, and replaced with an oversized gland that produces chemicals responsible for compulsive frowning. Otherwise you might continue to find them strangely funny, oddly funny, audaciously funny, or perhaps just hilarious. There are still some, I hope, who can smile at the sight of Daffy’s beak blown clear around to the other side of his head after Fudd loosed a blunderbuss blast. There is no pain involved; only irritation and annoyance. He readjusts his beak with an audible squeaking sound, and stomps off to yell at Bugs, instigator of the incident.
But that very episode — “Duck! Rabbit, Duck!” — contains messages that should hearten the heart of a Slate writer, for it contains a very modern message about identity. As you may recall, the plot concerns Fudd’s confusion over which season it is: Wabbit, or Duck? The signage is confusing. Daffy self-identifies as a duck, and this being the ’40s, he is locked in a fixed identity, a product of a culture that says if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck it is a duck. But as we now know, “species” is as fluid as any other form of identity.
And that’s something Bugs reveals in a very subversive sequence. Daffy uses colloquial expressions to describe his mood, noting that he feels like a goat. Whereupon Bugs produces a sign that says it is Goat Season. Fudd unloads accordingly. It may look like violence. But it’s really acceptance. If Daffy says he is a goat then he is a goat. He may suffer the consequences, but Fudd has affirmed his statement of identity. Over the course of the cartoon Daffy identifies with various species, and in each instance Bugs has an appropriate placard to nudge Fudd toward accepting the fluid spectrum on which Daffy may choose to locate himself.
Half a century before Facebook’s 57 genders, Warner Brothers was laying the groundwork.
It’s not an isolated example of progressive themes in Looney Tunes. “Hillbilly Hare” contains a wealth of sociological insight. The main characters are two rural archetypes mired in poverty, wandering the backwoods shoeless, engaged in a pointless blood feud. You could almost call it “What’s the Matter with the Ozarks,” for instead of concentrating their enmity against the 1 percent that has exploited their labor and resources, they are pitted against each other in a pointless struggle.
Into this world comes Bugs, who draws their attention by dressing up as a seductive female rabbit — a transgressive statement that manages to lampoon heteronormative behavior (transgender Bugs feigns interest in the males) and reinforces the worst sort of cross-dressing stereotypes, as female-identified Bugs is all lipstick and hip-cocking sashay exaggeration. But for the time it was groundbreaking. To a youth who sat in the theater in 1948 it may have said, Yes, it is possible to break the confines of biological gender, and to do so with such confidence and style that people who would otherwise fricassee you for supper would follow your every suggestion.
And what a suggestion! In a hilarious set piece, Bugs calls a square-dance tune whose instructions aren’t the usual do-si-do, bow-to-your-left, but consist entirely of commands to inflict escalating levels of retributive violence. The men, socially and culturally conditioned to follow any command the square-dance caller makes, are not only helpless to assert their own will, they end up dancing with each other. This redefines the courtship ritual of the dance — a means of channeling and controlling sexual energy — into a fiercely homoerotic ballet. Watch:
“Hit ’im again, the critter ain’t dead.” It’s safe to assume Bugs is talking about the stifling hand of religious intolerance and centuries of marriage inequality. With a tidy couplet he brushes away the pope’s objections: Promenade like a bride and groom, he calls, and that they do.
Not to say Bugs wasn’t capable of typical male behavior, but it was often done to reveal the dangers of an ungoverned male libido. In “Ballot Box Bunny,” Yosemite Sam has hauled a cannon to the porch of Bugs’s election HQ, and tied the trigger to the doorknob. Mere seconds later, he opens the door himself. One may assume he is decapitated by the impact, although he recovers quickly enough; the ephemeral nature of injuries in Warner Brothers cartoons can be seen as a comment on the shameful nature of World War II domestic propaganda, which shielded the public from the horrific nature of war wounds.
But that’s not the main point. How did Bugs get Sam to open the door? He said that “Emma from St. Louis” was at the front door, and the promise of sexual favors instantly wiped all other thoughts from Sam’s brain. If a man cannot be trusted with his own well-being, certainly he cannot be trusted with anyone else’s. Or it’s a message for a seven-day waiting period for cannons; interpretations vary.
There’s no mistaking the ending of “Hair-Raising Hare” for what it is, though: a devastating critique of men’s relentless objectification and unthinking response to the female form:
So it’s mechanical! So what! It’s hot! It is not another person Bugs seeks, but a shape, a form, an object he can control. His mimicry of the mechanical robot will be familiar to any woman whose mate seemed to be what she wanted at first, but turned out to be adopting a persona in order to gain sexual favors.
Nevertheless, Bugs would return to the idea of same-sex marriage in one of the most popular and enduring cartoons, the one based on the “Barber of Seville.” While most of the cartoon involves the usual violence — much of which seems macabre and inappropriate in light of the fact that someone could be murdered at La Scala, some day — it ends with the whirlwind courtship of Bugs and Fudd. They point guns of increasing size at each other, a metaphor for the escalating divisions of contemporary politics — but Bugs utterly defuses the situation by presenting Fudd with flowers, and Elmer promptly changes into a wedding dress.
If ever there was a marvelous rendition of the swiftness with which the debate on marriage equality changed, it’s that. Granted, Bugs picks up Elmer and drops him from a great height, but the course of true love never did run smoothly.
The cartoons are full of political messages — Speedy Gonzales the Undocumented Mouse, the endangered Road Runner escaping the depredations of industrialized warfare. It is unfair to regard their messages as macabre, when the underlying lessons of Warner Brothers cartoons contain remarkably progressive insights into human sexuality and economic interactions. Sometimes the messages are subtle, as with Tweety Bird; it lived in a gilded cage, pursued by a hungry, homeless cat who lacked the class consciousness to realize that Tweety’s owner — a symbol of inherited wealth who did not work but lived off the accumulation of capital — was the real enemy. But there are impermissible elements. The regrettable adventures of Pepé Le Pew combine male privilege with miscegenation panic — the female skunk is actually a cat, zut alors — and xenophobic attitudes toward Gallic hygiene. These should be banned, or at least preceded by a trigger warning.
As long as we’re at it, people who have been mauled by large feral cats might want a Tigger Warning before viewing some Winnie the Pooh cartoons. Piglet is also offensive to some cultures. Eeyore does tend to minimize the ravages of depression. When you think about it, Christopher Robin probably grew up to be a property developer, subdividing the Hundred Acre Wood for cul-de-sac housing, forgetting entirely the lessons Pooh taught him about the heedless pursuit of honey.
Slate writer leans out of the cubicle, sees the editor at the water fountain again. Trots over.
“Story: They’ve already reimagined Christopher Robin as a girl in the Pooh cartoons. Is it time for a transgendered boy who wants to be Nancy Drew? Doesn’t it say something that there isn’t one already?”
Editor thinks: If I can’t get the coffee stains out of the mug, what’s this doing to my teeth? And says: “Interesting idea. Write it up.”
— James Lileks is a columnist for National Review Online.