American Cartoons of the Vietnam Era: A Study of Social Commentary in Films and Television Programs, 1961-1973

By Wright, Bradford W. | Journalism History, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

American Cartoons of the Vietnam Era: A Study of Social Commentary in Films and Television Programs, 1961-1973


Wright, Bradford W., Journalism History


Lehman, Christopher P. American Cartoons of the Vietnam Era: A Study of Social Commentary in Films and Television Programs, 1961-1973. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2006. 223 pp. $35.

In the celebrated history of American animation, the 1960s and the 1970s have generally been seen as a vast wasteland. Coming between the golden age of theatrical cartoons and the acclaimed animated films and television shows of more recent decades, the cartoons of this middle period have largely been dismissed as cheap and unimaginative fodder for selling junk to kids on Saturday mornings. But as almost anyone between the ages of thirty and fifty will attest, these cartoons were extremely important in the lives of children. And, as Christopher P. Lehman carefully demonstrates in this study, these cartoons reflected in subtle ways many of the political, social, and cultural upheavals of their time. An assistant professor of ethnic studies, he argues convincingly that animated cartoons produced for film and television between 1961 and 1973 served as a barometer for tracking shifting popular attitudes about such things as war, violence, patriotism, race, gender, and cultural rebellion. His central thesis is that changing public perspectives on the Vietnam War in particular drove these trends.

One of the problems confronting any study of social commentary in animated cartoons of this era, as Lehman acknowledges, is that there simply was not much of it, at least in explicit terms. Nevertheless, animators spoke to changing popular opinion about topical issues in a variety of ways. He charts, for example, the shift away from the violent neocolonialist cartoons of the pre-1968 period, such as "The Adventures of Johnny Quest," to the prevailing post-1968 trends of benign teen humor exemplified by "The Archie Show" and "ScoobyDoo." Cartoons of the 1960s betrayed a disconnection from the civil rights movement, featuring mosdy all-white casts and, in the case of "The Jetsons," imagining a future of "white people colonizing outer space."

But that changed by the early 1970s with the rise of multi-cultural consciousness and the introduction of prominent African American characters in cartoons such as "Josie and the Pussycats." Some cartoons even featured all-black casts, such as "The Jackson Five" and "Fat Albert." Similar trends occurred in depictions of the counterculture, which evolved from generally unsympathetic stereotypes of lazy beatniks to more favorable caricatures of hippies. …

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