Is ‘Tom and Jerry’ Really Racist?
The premise of “Tom and Jerry,” the 75-year-old madcap slapstick cartoon about a feuding cat and mouse, is as innocuous as it is endlessly entertaining. But as with any show that was created in the 1940s, some of its tropes could be deemed politically incorrect or offensive today. You’d be hard-pressed to find a character like Mammy Two Shoes, a heavyset black maid whose face is obscured in all but one “Tom and Jerry” episode, on the Disney Channel today.
So while Amazon has recently added “Tom and Jerry” to its video streaming service, they made sure to include a racism disclaimer: a warning that “Tom and Jerry” contains “some ethnic and racial prejudices that were once commonplace in American society.”
Characters like Mammy Two Shoes “were wrong then and are wrong today,” the warning reads, incensing some fans of the seven-time Academy-Award winning show. “I loved Tom and Jerry as a kid and it never made me think poorly of ethnic minorities or want to smoke cigars,” one tweeted. Another “watched Tom and Jerry since the 60s this is the 1st time I’ve ever heard the R word in relation to it. PC madness!”
Meanwhile, British cultural commentator and sociology professor Frank Furedi declared Amazon’s warning “empty-headed” and excoriated a kind of “false piousness” and culture of censorship that “seems to be sweeping cultural life.”
Cartoon historian Jerry Beck agrees. “Amazon seems to have forgotten that ‘Tom and Jerry’ was made for adults as much as it was for children,” Beck told The Daily Beast. “[Amazon] should be showcasing ‘Tom and Jerry’ among classic movies in a way that gives them cultural context,” he said. “The advisory is really meant to warn parents that the cartoon may include things like smoking or the black housekeeper that they might have to explain to their children.”
It’s hardly the first time the beloved cat and mouse frenemies have run into controversy. In 2013, two episodes were pulled from the second installment of Warner Brothers’ Golden Collection because they featured Tom and Jerry “blacked up.”
Fans thought the collection would feature every episode of the comedy since its creation, but “Casanova Cat” and “Mouse Cleaning,” two episodes from 1951 and 1948 with obvious race references that had previously been censored on broadcast television, were cut from the collection. “Casanova Cat” features Tom wooing a glamorous female feline by darkening Jerry’s face with cigar smoke and making him do a minstrel dance. And in “Mouse Cleaning,” Tom uses his “blackface” to trick Mammy Two Shoes.
The cartoon’s creators, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, had trouble pitching it to broadcast networks in 1975, after they retrieved rights from MGM. “We showed them (the network folks) five of the old ‘Tom and Jerrys’ and they laughed so hard they had tears in their eyes,” Barbera told the Associated Press at the time. “Then they said, ‘We can’t use them. If we put those on we’ll get killed,’” he said, referring to standards instituted several years earlier by parents’ activist groups pushing for less violence on TV. The criticism prompted Hanna and Barbera to create more “socially acceptable” episodes (in 1975, they hadn’t sketched any new “Tom and Jerry” shorts in 18 years).
There are plenty of other outdated stereotypes in “Tom and Jerry”—sexist attitudes, for example—but Amazon chose to focus on race. (Amazon could not be reached for comment.) Indeed, race has become an increasingly hot-button issue in the last 10 years, so much so that we are either censoring references to racial stereotypes or issuing trigger warnings about them—sometimes at the expense of cultural and historical literacy.
When Whoopi Goldberg introduces a 2005 Looney Tunes Golden Collection, she addresses its politically incorrect themes, stressing that “they are presented here to accurately reflect a part of our history that cannot and should not be ignored” and that “removing these inexcusable images and jokes from this collection would be the same as saying [these prejudices] never existed.”
It’s understandable that big companies are pointing out that the outdated ethnic stereotypes in these old cartoons could cause offense. But as Goldberg noted, it’s important to understand their historical context. There were few countries that were built on such a multiethnic foundation, where differences were so profound—where language, cultural mores, and ritual changed from block to block—that racial and national stereotypes were an obvious outlet for humor in cartoons.
And in the age of South Park and Family Guy, not much is going to shock us in a “Tom and Jerry” cartoon.