Every now and then, the nostalgic child in me likes to take a trip down memory lane and revisit the shows and movies I watched as a youngin. As I was doing laundry at my grandfather’s house the other night, I decided to take a break from watching the news and began flipping through channels. Lo and behold, none other than the iconic 90’s kid flick “Space Jam” was on.
Less than one minute into tuning in, I was low-key troubled by what I saw. The movie was at the part when Lola Bunny makes her first appearance. A sultry jazz tune plays in the background as she announces she’d like to try out for the Toon Squad. Upon first seeing her, Bugs Bunny is immediately overcome with lust; his tongue hanging out of his mouth and eyes popping out of his head. Bugs challenges her to a one-on-one game, calling her “doll” in the process–a comment that clearly pisses Lola off. Then Tweety Bird makes an utterance to Michael Jordan about how hot she is.
After dusting Bugs on the court, Lola tells Bugs not to ever address her as “doll” and then makes her exit. Bugs then makes a remark about how she’s “obviously nuts about him”, despite her lack of apparent interest at this time.
Throughout the movie, Lola is catcalled and harassed by virtually every male character that lays eyes on her. In one scene, Bugs shoves her out of the way of apparent danger, taking the hit himself instead. As he regains consciousness, Lola thanks him for his bravery and rewards him with a huge kiss on the mouth.
“But Liz, it’s just a cartoon.” Not so fast.
A lot of the cartoons we watched as kids implicitly programmed us to normalize sexual harassment. And watching male protagonists harass their female love-interests until they win them over has desensitized us to the need to respect people’s boundaries in real life. To say that the media we consume–including the things we watched as children–doesn’t influence our perceptions of what is socially and morally acceptable is to tell a lie. And from these same questionable depictions, young girls learn that being on the receiving end of such behavior is just a normal, everyday inconvenience that we should learn to deal with. We learn that we shouldn’t make a fuss about the dude who decides to touch us without permission in the bar or the man who makes crass comments as we’re walking down the street, simply trying to exist in peace.
Considering I made an example out of “Space Jam” earlier, let’s also address Pepé Le Pew since he appears in the movie. In the classic “Looney Tunes” series, this dude is a whole sex offender and stalker. He traumatizes Penelope Pussycat every episode with his incessant harassment and straight up assaults. No matter how much she rejects him, attempts to evade him, or outright whoops his smelly ass, Pepé tracks her down, professes his super creepy feelings for her, and proceeds to force a physical interaction between them–i.e., hugging, kissing, or dancing– without her consent. To make matters worse, there is always a lack of bystander intervention.
Last but not least, let’s talk about our boy, Johnny Bravo: us millennials’ first introduction to the all-American douche-bro archetype. I used to watch this show with my late grandmother and we would crack up laughing at his ridiculousness. Looking back, this guy puts the “ass” in street harassment. His whole narcissistic existence revolves around pestering just about every woman who has the misfortune of occupying the same public spaces as him. Whether it’s approaching women and addressing them as “hot sexy mama” or stripping down to his underwear in a pathetic attempt to impress his victims, he never fails to cross the line by a long shot.
The list of problematic children’s cartoons is long and exhausting. And while we’d have to throw just about all of Cartoon Network away to avoid them, the least we can do is reflect on how they taught us to accept sexual harassment and misconduct. The opportunities to unpack toxic social conditioning here are plentiful.