September 27, 2008

From the birth of animation until 1969, the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies animated series were quick-paced collections of cartoons which featured clever wordplay, fun exposure to classical music, and a fair bit of violence which mostly rebounded on those characters who were themselves most prone to violence.

What seems never to be mentioned anymore, not since these cartoons were originally pulled from the air and later made a syndicated jump to cable television, is that the original controversy which caused them to be pulled from network television was the amount of cartoon violence they showed. To try to backtrack the history of this series today is to suggest that the only issue anyone had ever had with these cartoons was racism ... never mind that the racially stereotyped characters of wartime and pre-war animation had been excised long before the complaints began (see the censored eleven). In fact, this may be one of the original series which evoked the term "cartoon violence", for violence which seemed to have no real consequences. Viewing violence begets violence, we were told, and cartoons which seem not to have any consequences to violence teach children to mimic them.

Today you can hardly find a breath of the violence complaints anywhere. Our times have changed, we have forgotten -- but for all that, the anti-violence advocates succeeded, and Looney Tunes is no longer a part of our children's growing up.

(Instead, the violence moved away from animation, finding a new home in the after 9 pm prime time slot and later; and then children began staying up later and watching these shows, and before we knew it those tidal barriers had eroded utterly. It is nothing, now, for us to watch a show with a startlingly high body count. The five-year-old who lives across from me shapes his ideas of the world from Die Hard 3, and his single favourite game is to dress up as a police officer and run around "shooting" people in order to protect unseen others. And we still don't see any real depiction of the true results of violence apart from an extremely sanitised death -- but now we don't see them in regular television.)

Today, there is a new, "gentler" series called Peep and the Big Wide World. The characters in this one are all friends and all mean relatively well toward each other, yet each of them and especially Peep, the character who is constantly most curious about his world, never once hesitate to try things that turn out to be extremely dangerous to them and often to their friends as well. Yet the danger, be it the result of extreme falls or near drownings, always turns out to be of the cartoon violence variety: none of it more than a bonk on the head (often without so much as an "Ow"), none of it permanent, none of it serious, none of it even damaging. And the next day the characters will carry on as though they had learned nothing of risk.

This show, however, is presented as advocating the learning experience and introducing the scientific method of hypothesis and experimentation.

Apparently the message is that while intentional violence toward others sort of maybe ought to be adult-ish themed, reckless endangerment of oneself and others is just fine, so long as it is not deliberately intended, always has an "Oops!" quality, and happens in the pursuit of some scientific goal.

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