Space Jam: A New Legacy (2021) is the long-awaited sequel to nostalgic favourite Space Jam (1996) that sees the return of the Looney Tunes to the glory of the interdimensional basketball court. But amidst the dozens of cartoon cameos and easter eggs, one face is conspicuous by its absence. Earlier in the year, it was announced that French skunk Pepé Le Pew would be removed from the cast of Looney Tunes characters and his scenes with actress Greice Santo would be scrapped.
Pepé Le Pew has been the subject of criticism in recent years, with many viewers interpreting his amorous skirt-chasing behavior and refusal to take “no” for an answer as normalising sexual harassment. Indeed, many of his classic cartoons feature the skunk grabbing, stroking and kissing a menagerie of female characters as they struggle desperately to escape. Portraying these scenarios as normal and funny, especially to young audiences, is becoming increasingly untenable.
But the Warner Bros. decision to remove the character was also met with backlash. Santo, who has been the victim of sexual harassment, criticised the decision because it seems to let Pepé off the hook for his behaviour. The deleted scene would have featured Santo rebuffing the skunk’s advances and slapping him across the face as the film’s star LeBron James tells him his actions are unacceptable. Fans have also pointed out the hypocrisy of the removal when background cameos of Alex DeLarge and his gang of Droogs – rapists and murderers in A Clockwork Orange (1971) – can clearly be seen in the film’s official trailer.
In the midst of fan rants, accusations of over-sensitivity and ‘cancel culture’ debates on Twitter, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that on-screen representation and censorship are not new modern trends. Who and what are allowed to be depicted on screen have been complex hot-button issues before cartoons were even in colour, and have fundamentally influenced the way audiences interact with media.
Here is a look at how censorship has shaped the identity of four popular cartoon franchises over the decades:
Betty Boop (1930 to 1939)
Betty Boop was one of the first sex symbols of animation. First depicted as the poodle-like counterpart to Fleischer Studios star Bimbo the dog, Betty gradually lost her canine features to embody the dynamite flapper-girl image of the Roaring Twenties. Betty quickly began headlining in her own right and appeared in 90 theatrical cartoons during her near decade-long run. Originally animated by Myron “Grim” Natwick (who would later become the lead artist for Disney’s first princess Snow White), Betty Boop had a feminine charm and grace that other female cartoons of the era lacked. Animation historians have also highlighted her unusual level of agency and self-determinism on screen. Betty Boop was not afraid to flirt, to stand up for herself or express her opinions in ways that Minnie Mouse and Penelope Pussycat did not.
The character’s racy persona came under fire in 1934 with the creation of Hollywood’s Motion Picture Production Code (nicknamed the Hays Code) which cracked down on lewd or suggestive content. Betty Boop was forced to trade her low-cut frock, hoop earrings and garter for a plain, matronly dress. Her doggy boyfriend Bimbo was removed to avoid implications of bestiality and Betty was rebranded as a demure housewife or career girl. These changes watered down the character’s chutzpah and damaged her popularity with audiences. As Betty became more reliant on background characters to fill the cartoon’s runtime, she was edged out of the limelight by Fleischer Studios’ new star Popeye the Sailor. Her last official cartoon, Yip-Yip-Yippy (1939), did not even feature her likeness on screen.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1987 to 1996)
In contrast to the rather impersonal institutional censorship of the Hays Code, the legacy of the “heroes in a half-shell” was influenced largely by the personal tastes of one man. James Ferman was the head of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) from 1975 to 1999 and became a polarising figure during the ‘video nasties’ panic of the 1980s. Liberal commentators criticised Ferman’s censorship as too harsh, while conservative figures like Mary Whitehouse accused him of being too lenient.
A singular target of Ferman’s censorship was the use of nunchaku weapons on screen. Ferman considered them excessively violent and banned their depiction in films like Enter the Dragon (1973), along with throwing stars, crossbows and metal claws. This ban became a significant obstacle for the release of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise in Britain. Nunchaku are the weapons of choice for the orange-masked Michelangelo, so a portion of nearly every fight scene had to be re-edited. The show’s title was even rebranded as Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles because ninjas were deemed a taboo topic for children.
Recognising the BBFC could harm overseas distribution, the American animation team began self-censoring the cartoon in production. Michelangelo’s nunchaku were replaced with a ‘turtle-line grappling hook’ in later seasons, while the episodes shifted from the darker, action-based tone of the original comics to sillier, non-violent routines. But the jokes didn’t land with everyone – when Michelangelo swung a link of sausages around like nunchaku in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze (1991), Ferman insisted the scene be cut.
Sailor Moon (1992 to 1997)
Sailor Moon is famous for introducing the trope of the ‘transforming heroine’ to the magical girl genre and for increasing the popularity of Japanese anime in the West. In 1995, DIC Productions licensed the show for release in North America. But the episodes were not simply re-dubbed in English; instead, DIC edited so many elements of the show’s narrative and characterisation that it became more of an adaptation than translation of the original work. Some of the changes were fairly minor – like the Anglicisation of the names or palette-swapping the blood from red to green in certain fight scenes – but other changes were more drastic.
The Japanese version of Sailor Moon features many queer characters in same-sex relationships. Most notable is the romance between Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus, with many episodes showing the characters tenderly holding hands and embracing. The DIC dub changed the couple from lovers to cousins and attempted to reframe their intimacy as familial affection. Other characters were gender-swapped to avoid appearing gay, with effeminate characters like Zoisite and Fisheye changed into straight, cis-gendered women.
The fifth and final season of Sailor Moon did not initially air in North America, ostensibly due to licensing issues, but also because the importance of certain queer storylines made them impossible to edit out. English-speaking fans would not see a direct, unedited translation of Sailor Moon until 2005.
Peppa Pig (2004 to present)
Peppa Pig is a familiar face in the current cartoon landscape. Designed to teach life lessons to preschoolers, it would seem hard to find a more innocent and innocuous piece of media. But sometimes censorship arises not from problematic content in the show itself but from differing cultural receptions.
For instance, in 2012 the episode ‘Mister Skinnylegs’ (season 1, episode 47) was banned by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. This episode sees Peppa befriend a wandering spider and invite it to a tea party. The storyline looks charming enough in Britain, but given the lethal toxicity of Australian spiders, children are taught to stay away from them, and the ABC removed the episode in the interest of public safety.
More unusual is Peppa Pig’s status in China. The show enjoys massive popularity, but not just with children – the audience also includes a huge counter-culture following of teens and adults. A bit like Pepe the Frog or Shrek, Peppa Pig has become a subversive meme format for violent and even pornographic humour. In 2018, references to the show were removed from Chinese video-sharing platform Douyin, deleting an estimated 30,000 clips and banning the hashtag #PeppaPig. The cartoon continues to air on Chinese networks, but more than just its intended demographic may be watching.