Cartoon Wars

By Goldstein, Richard | The Nation, February 21, 2005 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Cartoon Wars

Goldstein, Richard, The Nation

Once upon a time, a psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham went on a tear over Wonder Woman. He detected a vagina in the crook of her cartoon arm, and he thought her superpowers were giving girls "the wrong idea" about women's place in society. As for Batman's ward, Robin, his bare legs and devotion to his guardian were planting homosexual thoughts in boys, or so Wertham believed. His crusade led to Congressional hearings and the "voluntary" censorship of comics.

That was back in the freaked-out fifties; nothing so extreme has happened recently. But at an inaugural banquet last month, right-wing moralist James Dobson lectured members of Congress on the threat posed by SpongeBob SquarePants. Unlike some, he wasn't bothered by this deep-sea dweller holding hands with his buddy Patrick, a starfish. Nor was he troubled by the porous Mr. Pants appearing in a video promoting tolerance. Dobson's target was the "pledge of tolerance" one of the video's many sponsors had posted on its website. It dared to mention sexual identity among the categories that merit sensitivity. To Dobson, this was "homosexual propaganda" and another sign that cartoon characters are being "hijacked" to move the gay agenda.

It's an old obsession of the religious right. Remember Jerry Falwell's jihad against Tinky Winky, the purse-packing Teletubby? "He is purple--the gay-pride color; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle--the gay-pride symbol," Falwell fumed, adding that such "subtle depictions" of gay sexuality were being deliberately inserted into children's entertainment. Today's right-wing moralists are less bothered by subliminal messages than by the real issue of teaching children that homosexuals are worthy of respect. Dobson and his kind aren't really worried about cartoons turning kids queer. Their aim is to see that homophobia is free to operate, and one way to do that is to keep children from seeing gays as part of the human community.

During the Clinton years, these puritans were preaching mostly to the choir, but now the government too is listening. In late January, the new education secretary, Margaret Spellings, criticized the PBS show Postcards From Buster because its host, a gregarious bunny, had traveled to Vermont where he encountered, among other residents, a female couple. PBS decided not to distribute that episode (though local stations still may air it).

It's no surprise that kids' stuff looms so large in the culture war. No form of pop culture is more prone to blunt moralizing, whether it's the liberal ideal of inclusiveness in Postcards From Buster or the conservative critique of "political correctness" in the animated feature The Incredibles. But this struggle involves the medium as well as the message. Cartoons are powerful in a special way, and the less realistic they are the more potent they seem. Children are not the only ones deemed vulnerable to their impact. And you don't have to be a right-winger to see evil between the lines.

Consider the response to a recent Pat Oliphant editorial cartoon of Condoleezza Rice as a parrot perched on Bush's shoulder. "OK, Chief," she says. "Anything you say, Chief. You bet, Chief..." etc. When liberals gave Rice hell during her confirmation hearing, the right-wing snarlers of cable TV pounced on Oliphant's rendition. "I can't even begin to describe it," cried John Scarborough, "the racial stereotyping by a self-described liberal." The Christian Coalition chimed in, claiming to see a pattern of "left-wing prejudice." The agenda here is plain to see. Conservatives want to make it hard to go after a warmonger who happens to be black. And if they can pry African-Americans away from the liberal coalition, so much the better.

But some black commentators think Oliphant's cartoon does reflect a pattern of bias. Washington Post columnist Colbert King sees that parrot as big-lipped and buck-toothed. "It's hard to imagine a more demeaning and offensive caricature of a prospective secretary of state," he writes.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Cartoon Wars


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?