The Dysfunctional Psychology of Cartoons

All This and Rabbit Stew, Merrie Melodies 1941

One of the joys of cartoons is that generally all logic can be suspended.  From the early inception of cartoons from Walt Disney where literally a camera was filming someone flipping pages, to the paneled 3D images that made Walt Disney films notable to the now joint production of Disney and Pixar studios, we all have watched cartoons that have invigorated us.

However, with Disney leading the way, there have been cartoons that have shown the darker side of suspended imagination.  Most famously are the Crows in the 1941 picture of “Dumbo” who were of course depicted the ways blacks in films of that time often were imaged: as ignorant, backwards and lazy. (And honestly, the name of main crow was named Jim Crow.)  There was Disney quite infamous “Song of the South” which retold the stories of Br’er Rabbit to young lily white kids by an avuncular black man who saw strange cartoon birds fly about his head, portraying the wondrous image of race relations.  Disney has never released “Song of The South” to the public.  The last theater showing was in 1986 to which my mother famously says “We walked out of this theater because I did not want that movie informing my babies’ consciousness!”

More recently movies such as “The Little Mermaid” and its portrayal of Sebastian as the “black” character came under fire, and certainly the transgendered imagery of Ursula (which was based off of real life drag queen Divine famous for his role as Edna Turnblad and Arnie Hodgepile the station manager in the 1988 movie “Hairspray”).  Also was Disney movie “Aladdin” for its imagery of the Middle East, and “Pocohontas” for Native Americans, and “Mulan” for Asian culture….shall I go on?

Disney, true to form until recently with the merger of Pixar, has always retold stories that erase the shades of gray that the rest of us live in, and truly make it black and white, light and dark and ultimately good and evil.

But that’s not the case in the retelling of the story of Winnie The Pooh.

In 1966 Disney had a featurette called “Winnie The Pooh and the Honey Tree” which in short told of Pooh’s quest to get some honey because he had no more.  On this quest we meet all of the characters of the Hundred Acre Wood, Rabbit, Piglet, Tigger (Tee-eye-double-gerr-err) Kanga and Roo, Eeyore, Owl and Gopher (the only character added by Disney).  So, in a bit of light humor, here’s the psychology of the characters of Winnie The Pooh. (I’m sure some of you all have seen these on other websites, but here it is fleshed out a bit more.)

Winnie The Pooh — He has an eating disorder, and Freud would automatically recognize it as an oral fixation.  Pooh Bear’s constant quest for food and eating with his hands is unhealthy.  Aside from the weight issues, which cause him to get stuck in Rabbit’s hole (wow! no pun intended) leading out of his warren, Pooh is trying to fulfill the loneliness as well.  His food is acting as a comforter.  Some people shop compulsively, some people drown their sorrows, Pooh eats compulsively.  Just a cursory look at his house, you’d see nothing but discarded honey pots all around; they stand as a memorial to his disorder

Rabbit — Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Rabbit throughout the featurette and even when I was a kid in the late 80s and early 90s in the Saturday morning cartoon “The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” has always been a nag!  Rabbit was always worried about how things looked and would go back and back and back again to make sure things were in order.  From how the carrots were lined up and to how the house was ordered.  And Rabbit would get totally bent out of shape if things weren’t in order.

Tigger — Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.  Tigger couldn’t sit still.  He was always bouncing from one thing to the other.  He was always distracted, and above all didn’t care.  Tigger would mess up Rabbit’s garden and bounce all the way down the road, and not care.  Tigger needed to be on ritalin or some type of psychostimulant drug.  His ADHD was destructive because he always found himself in trouble.  This got more fleshed out in the subsequent cartoon series, but even still, he was a nuisance to the people around him and it resulted in a near alienation from the group.

Piglet — General Anxiety Disorder.  In lamens terms, Piglet was a pussy.  He was a wimp and was always scared.  His fear result in him being anxious about everything.  Piglet could barely function.  This anxiety disorder almost manifests itself in paranoia having irrational and delusional fears about everything.  Piglet has made up fantastic creatures such as “Jagulars” and “Hefflaumps” in his own mind (by the way, how is an imaginary creature going to have imaginary friends?).  Piglet’s main statement is “Oh d-d-dear” and is especially scared of Tigger because he doesn’t know what Tigger is going to do next.

Kanga and Roo — Co-dependency.  Neither of the two want to let the other one go.  Kanga insists on being an overly doting mother, so much so that Roo is rarely let out of the pouch.  Moreover, Kanga is always calling for Roo and never letting him grow up and do things that normal kids his age should be doing.

Owl — Narcissitic Personality Disorder. Owl was quite clear that he had all of the right answers.  He was even given a British accent that seems to speak to his know-it-allness.  Owl was so full of himself that he barely did any work.  He was even a character, owls, associated with wisdom and knowledge and being a flying creature, he always hovered above everyone else.

Eeyore — Major Depressive Disorder.  Frankly speaking, Eeyore was borderline suicidal.  He didn’t much care about anything one way or the other. To say that he was gloomy was an understatement.  He wasn’t bipolar or manic depressive because he never had any bouts of mirth mixed with fits of melancholy; he presented chronically as always being depressed.

Christopher Robin — Schizophrenia. This boy is talking to animals.  Well, that’s one thing, but these animals are actually speaking back, therein lies the problem.  Not just that, these animals have distinct personalities, and psychological disorders to boot.

And in the midst of all of this, these animals don’t wear any clothing.  And the older you get, the fact that Winnie the Pooh wears a shirt with no pants makes it even the more weird and astonishing.

So this makes me wonder what other random subliminal messages are these cartoons sending our kids, particularly the ones with fictional characters.  I much more trust the cartoons with clear images of human beings.  But these cartoons with the personification of animals make me do a double take.

Think about it though, much like many other live sit-coms many of us grew up on, and certainly older cartoons had stereotypical characters.  As I explained earlier about the racial prejudices in Disney cartoons, the same went for all cartoons. I consciously remember watching a Looney Toons episode with Elmer Fudd flying into the “Dark Continent” and watching him go into the darkest part–clearly a reference to Africa, and it being a land full of savage beasts and full of danger.

Better yet, cartoons have stood as bellwethers of the zeitgest of the predominant culture here in the United States.  From having cartoon characters push war bonds in the 1940s to the overt prejudices in that reared their ugly head, even to grappling with sever emotional and psychological disorders as in the Winnie the Pooh stories.  This is the clear instance of art imitating life.  Seemingly cartoon characters act as an adult fantasy world where artists allow their deep emotions to be played out for all of the world to see.

Or maybe this is just clear evidence that cartoons generally aren’t meant for the adults.

Yes, we’ve entered a world where there are adult cartoons such as those are Adult Swim on Cartoon Network.  But we need to still be aware that programming such as “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy,” “The Cleveland Show,” and “American Dad” are billed as family programming.  And I have to be honest, I’m quite remiss to let my under 15 year old watch any of those shows.  Sure they may sneak and watch it, but its not something I’d condone watching with me.  Nor the full-length action movie birthed from “South Park.”

But the apparent benign messaging of cartoons of old may really be shaping the future consciousness of children.  These cartoons are art not just in the sense of creating something for entertainment purposes, but art in the way that an artists pours their emotions into their creation for the public to give their own feedback.  These cartoons don’t exist in a vacuum of vapid  childhood entertainment; they are instrumental in creating and fashioning a set of ethics and morals that these children will inevitably carry with them into adolescence and possibly even adulthood.

No, I’m not calling for the future censor of cartoons, and certainly not trying to be some radical anti-ACLU-type advocate for banning the cartoons of the past, just merely making an observation.

What cartoons from your past do you remember most vividly?  And if you looked back on them would you notice something different than when you were a kid?  Do you think the old Bugs Bunny cartoons should be banned because of the overt racial imagery?

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL


9 thoughts on “The Dysfunctional Psychology of Cartoons

  1. Great insight! I never would of equated the characters in Winnie the Pooh to those different disorders. Cartoons have always had subliminal messages implanted in them and I think you really do a great job of bringing some of these messages to light. This has actually been a frequently discussed topic.

  2. Love the pyschological breakdown of the Hundred Acre Wood denizens—-especially Rabbit as having OCD. (Rabbit belongs to a type that in days of yore was often described as “fussy.” When my sister was little, I was unable to convince her that Rabbit is, in fact, male.)

    The question over imagery and messages is something I gotta chime in on.

    The history of the Disney studio—and of the Hollywood animated theatricals in general—is a subject I know a lot about. Thus I see pratfalls that people in the modern era sometimes fall into when trying analyze the films—–not in your post, but in many others that address this subject on the interwebs.

    Disney—and the other Hollywood cartoon studios of the era—often get subjected to postmodern analysis for race/creed/gender subtexts that is, to be frank, ahistorical and simplistic—-lazy, even.** They reveal ignorance about the time and context, but more importantly, ignorance about the filmmaking process and the actual filmmakers. Some go so far as to ascribe an actual AGENDA to the films, which needless to say is hogwash of the highest order. As with every large entity upon which people project their prejudices and preconceptions (“the media”, “corporations”, the feds”, blacks, whites, Muslims, etc.), these types of observers willingly forget that everything is made up of individuals.

    Animated theatricals of the 1930s-50s reflect majority culture’s utter thoughtlessness about any consciousness outside its own, as you astutely stated above. That ain’t debatable. But what bugs me, as someone knowledgable on the subject, is that in the postmodern rush to deconstruct everthing and its dog, far, far too much is often read into that fact, and the result is largely psuedo-intellectual circle jerkin’.

    Even though it’s not your field of interest necessarily, I highly recommend reading this post about the production details of Dumbo’s crow sequence, and the comments following it. The post is by a white guy, and I think all the commentators are white as well, but it’s an interesting exchange with several viewpoints touched on. Plus, it’s an excellent tip-of-the-iceberg introduction to how these films actually took shape, something that simplistic postmodern deconstruction usually ignores.

    I have never seen “Song of the South,” except for isolated scenes. It’s strange that it was reissued as recently as 1986 without much fuss, particularly since this was AFTER it was withdrawn from circulation in the 1970s precisely because of concerns over racial sensibilities. And here it sits in limbo again (in the US, that is). It’s like the ’86 release is this strange hiccup in space and time that seems to have been universally forgotten by both sides of the issue. Opinion of the film among blacks, from what I’ve seen, is about as divided as black opinon on Ralph Bakshi’s “Coonskin” (1975), which has been both praised to the skies and condemned to hell. I’m curious what your feelings on “Coonskin” might be, both as a piece of film and as it pertains to racial issues.

    You might have heard of Warner Bros.’ “Censored Eleven.” These are eleven Merrie Melodies/Looney Tunes that have been withdrawn from official circulation since the ’60s, because the racial stereotypes are too extreme and/or too important to the central premise to just air indiscriminately. (“All This and Rabbit Stew”, from which you posted a frame grab, is one of them). The problem is, some of these cartoons are very historically significant, and one is almost universally considered by historians to be one of the all-time masterpieces of American animation, period. Therin lies the intractable awkwardness. (Earlier this year, TCM tested the waters by airing eight of the eleven on a special presentation. Don’t know what the reception was like.) Of course, the fact that pretty much all of these are available on YouTube and public domain DVDs adds a surreal twist to the debate.

    “Or maybe this is just clear evidence that cartoons generally aren’t meant for the adults.”

    Actually, not so much. In the theatrical era, most short subjects were produced with large, general audiences in mind. Exceptions were Terrytoons (“I probably didn’t know enough to make films for adults, anyway.” –Paul Terry) and Paramount (after Max and Dave Fleischer were muscled out of their own studio, that is. Their early 1930s films, especially the Betty Boop entries, were so “adult” that they were sometimes cited as some of the main offenders that led to the 1934 creation of the Production Code and the Hays Office), but the rest of the industry aimed wide, not narrow. (“If you only aim at the kids, you’re dead.” —Walt Disney) This was particularly true of Warner Bros., where the artists aimed to please themselves before any audience in particular, but it held true for most others.
    It’s hard to imagine this now, but Walt Disney’s critical reputation in the 1930s was rather highfalutin’. Public intellectuals were always weighing in with analyses and essays. (Of course, this co-existed with the fact that Disney’s merchandising guy, Herman Kaymen, essentially invented the modern merchandising/licensing world as we now know it. High and low, coming from the same place.) Disney was always ambivalent about this kind of critical attention, regarding himself as a showman rather than an artist. (“I make pictures and the professors tell me what they mean.”) But he didn’t have much patience for people who tried to shoehorn his films into being aimed at an age-speciific niche audience.

    “But we need to still be aware that programming such as “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy,” “The Cleveland Show,” and “American Dad” are billed as family programming.”

    Shows how far the bar’s fallen in the last 20 years or so. As a parent, you’re assaulted from all sides.
    As a 14-year-old watching the then-new “King of the Hill,” which in its earlier seasons revolved heavily around sexual innuendo, I would always kick my 7-year-old sister out of the room (much easier said than done) in an attempt to exercise something resembling responsibility. But it’s an almost hopeless battle. I don’t think Family Guy and Cleveland Show are billed as family entertainment (God help us if they are), but I would guess a large majority of parents can’t be bothered keeping their kids away, so they might as well be. Sigh.

    (**Such as the ridiculous “Mickey Mouse Monopoly,” which you may have seen on YouTube.)

    1. @ Marbles

      I’ve noticed that my posts are getting longer and longer in my head, and perhaps thats the academic writer in me coming out because often times, I find myself cutting out much of what I want to say for the sake of keeping the post at a readable length. And this was one of my morphed posts: supposed to be a light post about Winnie the Pooh and it turned into something else I didn’t expect. So in my (very brief compared to others) research, yeah, I came across the Censored Eleven. I was really looking for this clip that I consciously remembered about the “Dark Continent” couldn’t find it and settled for the “All This and Rabbit Stew” episode.

      I came to the conclusion about cartoons (and some of art in general) reflecting the current culture because, as you said, I think that’s what all of those cartoons, the Censored Eleven to the Song of The South to the crows in Dumbo are doing. However, I think that those are still worthy of deconstruction to really figure out what was going on in the minds of the artists. After reading that link you sent, sans the comments, I think that does nothing more but humanize the innate racism du jour of the time. Reading production notes and understanding the organics merely let me know that this was common practice–which I don’t think anyone is attacking or hasn’t been aware that this was going on.

      Personally, as you noted in the post, I put on the brakes to go so far as to say that there was a specific intent and political agenda from Looney Toons, Merrie Melodies and Disney production houses that was out to brainwash the masses, but is that not essentially what they did? As I said (or I think I said) in the post, these cartoons inform the consciousness of viewers, young and old alike. Whether cartoonists and writers were intentional about forming a consciousness, they still did. The created a consciousness that said that its okay to portray African Americans as this, in fact it’s comedy and it’s something that we should laugh at.

      Personally, however, I think the actual naming of the crow as Jim Crow in 1941 was certainly intentional. The high vaudeville era of the 20s was over and America was in the midst of World War II over in Europe, so the reference was purposely there. Additionally, based off of the link you sent me, there was clear intent that these characters were intended be portrayed as “black.” What I think is interesting is the mention of the Hall Johnson choir (which I didn’t know did the choral music for Dumbo, that was truly interesting) and their voices sounding more “black” than the choir. (Hall Johnson Choir was an all black choral that was famous for their choral arrangement of Negro spirituals in the 1930s and 40s, famous for the movie “Green Pastures” who’s cartoon parody I saw landed it in the Censored Eleven group. But in the midst of sheer racial irony, black choral groups “Europeanized” the Negro spirituals for the sake of making them palpable to white audiences, so for the guy to make that observation is TRULY interesting.

      As far as cartoons for adults….

      Of course “The Flintstones” and “The Jetsons” popped into my head and I was like, I am NOT about to write a book here. And I must say this merger of Disney and Pixar has really made many of these cartoons not just family friendly movies, but even adult friendly in some manner. Movies such as “Finding Nemo,” “A Bug’s Life” and my personal fave and Academy Award nominated “Up” certainly engage adults without decidedly adult themes. Hell, I thought “Kung Fu Panda” was a great cartoon along with “Cars” I could sit up and watch Disney Pixar movies all day with no reserves. In fact, I can’t wait until “Cars 2” comes out.

  3. “I was really looking for this clip that I consciously remembered about the “Dark Continent” couldn’t find it and settled for the “All This and Rabbit Stew” episode.”

    What you’re thinking of is actually a Porky Pig cartoon, not Elmer Fudd. “Porky in Wackyland” (1938) is thought of as Bob Clampett’s breakout film, establishing his love of surreal, absurd humor and breaking just about all the “rules” of the time in the process. The shot you went with is a much better illustration of your subject than “Wackyland” would have been, since the “Darkest Africa” reference is really the only racially charged part of the cartoon——-except for a Jolson creature that runs across the screen yelling “Mammy!” “Darkest Africa” may be ignorant and loaded, but seeing Bugs’ shuffle-walking opponent up there probably works better as a visual aid.)

    “After reading that link you sent, sans the comments, I think that does nothing more but humanize the innate racism du jour of the time.”

    You could definitely could see it that way. For a parallel, I suppose that’s similar to how I’d view any of the myraids of books written about the inner workings of the Bush administration (which I somewhat sheepishly admit I’ve never read).

    Still, my point with that link was to show that these things are more complicated than modern deconstructionists with agendas like to admit. You’re not among those who blithely project agendas onto these types of things, but many don’t care to take the two seconds necessary to reflect on the implications of doing just that.

    These were filmmakers and production people who were all part of a whole, but also very much individuals. The depersonalization required for agenda-projecting to work quickly gets drowned out in an ocean of personal quirks, professional disagreements, and production problems.

    “Additionally, based off of the link you sent me, there was clear intent that these characters were intended be portrayed as ‘black.'”

    All would agree on that, but that’s where the consensus ends. Some regard the crows, though conceding they’re built from stereotype foundations, as being characters portrayed with nobleness and dignity. Others simply see them as one-dimensional Fetchits and nothing more. Personally I disagree—not just because of the portrayal itself but also from reading about Kimball’s approach to the assignment.
    I maintain that probably the ultimate example of offensive one-dimensional stereotypes from that era is Walter Lantz’s (of Woody Woodpecker fame) “Scrub Me Mama With a Boogie Beat” (1941). YouTube it if you have the stomach for it, but it’s pretty out there. Basically it’s the whole kitchen sink full of cliches, all in one toxic dose. When talking to Leonard Maltin decades later about his films being censored for television, including many of the scenes of black caricatures, Lantz was able to say “…we never deameaned the colored race…” Now, Walter Lantz was almost universally regarded as a genuinely nice, sweet guy, which shows just how extreme the racial blind spot could be.** Lantz was really able to believe that, apparently. It’s not like he was producing hate propaganda, but if he was unable to attach the word “demeaning” to films like “Scrub Me Mama,” even years later, well……you don’t get much more “product of your generation” than that. To be fair, he made plenty of other black caricature films that were nowhere NEAR as bad as that one, but still.

    (Cutting through to a certain nerve, though, here’s one for the road—-anyone who tells you that Walt Disney never hired Jews or blacks is, to be quite frank, lying. Won’t get too specific, but that’s a particularly pesky canard among the deconstructionist crowd. Disney wasn’t a exactly a bastion of progressive enlightenment, but to believe the “no blacks or Jews” canard is to, once again, dismiss the relevancy of individuals—as in actual people with actual names, not all of whom are dead, either.)

    “Personally, however, I think the actual naming of the crow as Jim Crow in 1941 was certainly intentional.”

    Definitely. (Though interestingly, never once is that name mentioned in the film itself. I never even knew that was the character’s name until I started reading up on history. That happens quite a bit with supporting or minor characters in movies, generally). It was complete thoughtlessness. The majority felt free to make jokes about it, since it warn’t no skin off THEIR nose. Few were given any incentives in their lives to actually consider the feelings of those it affected.

    “And I must say this merger of Disney and Pixar has really made many of these cartoons not just family friendly movies, but even adult friendly in some manner.”

    To a certain extent, the placement of Disney’s older stuff into age-related boxes is the result of cultural changes. What was regarded as “normal” 70 years ago in many cases reads as naive today, thus modern audiences assume “Oh, children’s films,” when in truth it wasn’t quite that simple at the time. (To read some of these lofty quotes from the aforementioned intellectual writeups during the 1930s is to both grasp the significance of this cultural shift, and also to marvel at how low our standards of “intellectual” have fallen since then. XP)

    **Actually, I take that back. Not to be morbid, but what REALLY showed how extreme the blind spot could be were those “lynch party” photos so popular in parts of the south. It’s hard to fathom the bland, ordinary faces in those crowds.

    1. @ Marbles

      I grew up watching “Dumbo” on repeat as a kid so to see the crows clip wasn’t too bad. But I’ll admit, I think I got through the first minute of “All This and Rabbit Stew” and I shut it off, I had seen more than enough. That’s just not something I could watch easily. Sorry, its just very painful to watch clips like that and the imagery of blacks in the media in the 20th century. Even if it’s a black actors, from the 1920s through the 1990s, somewhere, somehow I just feel that there’s a white guy sitting up in a dark room in with other producers just laughing under his breath saying “Dumb niggers” or “Them darkies sure are funny.”

      It’s not something black folk of this day and age are able to separate from so easily. It’s not so much that blacks today have an agenda that they’re trying to push, but it’s really more a worldview that’s acting as the guidelines on how to digest certain information. Perhaps if blacks were able to separate themselves from it, then it would easy to see it as such, but asking blacks to do that would be like asking a leopard to change its spots.

  4. “Sorry, its just very painful to watch clips like that and the imagery of blacks in the media in the 20th century. Even if it’s a black actors, from the 1920s through the 1990s, somewhere, somehow I just feel that there’s a white guy sitting up in a dark room in with other producers just laughing under his breath saying ‘Dumb niggers’ or ‘Them darkies sure are funny.'”

    The only comparable experience I’ve ever had is reading Oliver Twist. While a hell of a fun read, the narration refers to Fagin by his actual name far less often than as “the Jew.” Given that the Fagin of the novel is much more sinister and unambiguously wicked than the lovable rogue of the play/movie versions, and given that hiis grotesque physique and slimy personality were the epitome of how Jews were caricatured in Victorian England, each “the Jew” is a fist springing up from the page to punch me in the face.

    Yeah, well, eff you, Charles. XP

    1. @ Marbles

      As far as literary references go, the character of Nigger Jim doesn’t affect me the same way the cartoons do. And I’m 100% against the censoring of Mark Twain books.

  5. I perfectly agree with you and didn’t realize this until you threw light on it. Thanks.

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