I grew up in the 1980s. When every Saturday morning was still filled with cartoons. Purely silly, entertaining cartoons like Hanna-Barbera and Warner Brothers and Tex Avery and Disney.
Not that I’m down on educational programming for children. You’d be hard pressed to find a bigger Sesame Street fan than me. I loved The Electric Company and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. I even liked most of the children’s programming on PBS when my son was small enough to enjoy it like Curious George and Dinosaur Train and SuperWhy and Sid the Science Kid and WildKratts and The Odd Squad. But there’s been this shift away from classic cartoons, and I understand some of the reasoning. Some of those really old Disneys and Looney Tunes and Tex Averys have some problematic racial, cultural, and gender stereotypes in them. I actually made a good friend in the past couple of years talking about these very elements in classic cartoons. I understand the argument to censor them (and so did my friend, who is a wonderful parent, I think), but I’m not in favor of it, because I think there are some teachable moments there we’re neglecting.
So here are some lessons I learned from cartoons and some lessons I’ve gone over with my son watching these older animated shows with him.
First…Scooby Doo taught me that the real monsters are human.
And also that girls and boys can be friends without involving overt romance, that girls (and slackers…and maybe even dogs) can and do make important contributions to problem solving. Where would the gang be without Daphne and especially Velma, am I right? And they can look and act feminine, while being an important part of the team. And to face fears, because really, it’s probably just some cheating jerk in a costume, and nothing to really be afraid of.
Bugs Bunny taught me to not be afraid of violent blowhards. They can normally be outwitted and/or ignored.
Again, I think Bugs Bunny made me braver. He stood up to multiple foes who wanted to kill him with a cool sense of humor. That’s bad ass.
And here are a couple of specific, real life parenting moments I’ve had watching classic cartoons with my son. Yeah, I watch with him. I still like cartoons. I’m not embarrassed.
I watched Tom and Jerry DAILY when I was little. It didn’t turn me into a violent, adversarial maniac (at least I don’t think it did). So when it’s available on a cable cartoon channel, The Boy and I will watch it together. One morning before school, we saw an episode featuring Tom playing the piano, because Jerry would always come out to dance to the music, and then Tom could chase him. But the servants in the house discover the piano playing cat and the dancing mouse.
So the maid tells the butcher boy across the street, who tells the crowd, who tells the king’s guard, who tells the king. And then this conversation happened…
Boy: Why would you believe a maid?
Me: Why wouldn’t you?
Me: Would you believe a doctor more than a maid?
Boy: Yes! <totally thinking that’s the right answer>
Me: Why? Because a doctor went to school longer or makes more money or because the maid’s a girl?
Boy: <thinking really hard> Well, not because the maid’s a girl. Or because a doctor makes more money. But I mean…it does kinda depend.
Me: Well if a maid tells you what kind of medicine to take when you’re sick, you should believe a doctor more.
Me: But if it’s just telling you about a piano playing cat and a dancing mouse, who’s more believable?
Boy: <major realization face> They’re the same.
A person’s credibility has nothing to do with their job, wealth, education level, or gender. What calls a person’s credibility into question is the stakes they’re putting up on whatever they’re talking about. Like…if they sexually harassed or assaulted someone, they might be more likely to lie…even if they are a doctor. So maybe we ought to believe those maids. They aren’t likely to risk their job security by making up allegations, and they aren’t protecting their freedom and reputation by lying. That’s a pretty good teachable moment from a purely silly, entertaining cartoon.
Speaking of sexual harassment and assault…
Remember this guy? I do. Every Saturday morning when I was little. The Boy and I watched a Pepe le Pew cartoon together, and he began this exchange…
Boy: He’s being really disrespectful of that girl cat, Mom. (How proud am I of this kid, right? He’s such a good boy.)
Me: He totally is. He’s violating her consent. Look at her trying to get away from him, and he’s just ignoring it. He won’t give up and leave her alone. He thinks she should just love him because he loves her.
Boy: That’s stupid!
Me: Yeah, but he’s a cartoon skunk, so it’s not that bad. It’s bad when real life people do it. They should go to jail.
Boy: Yeah. Or get punched out! You know, most women don’t do that, Mom. It’s mostly men that do that.
Me: It’s wrong no matter who does it, buddy. (Like a cue from a movie, the tone of the cartoon switched right then, and the cat began chasing after Pepe.) See? He’s not happy now either. It’s just wrong to chase somebody and try to touch and kiss them when they are clearly not interested in you.
Boy: Yeah. <very serious face, especially for cartoon watching> Mom…I would NEVER do that.
Me: I know, buddy.
Who says classic ‘non-educational’ cartoons can’t teach you anything?