No corner of American life, it seems, will soon be left untouched by Joe Biden’s cancel culture commissars and their radical Marxist agenda. Last week, conservatives raised the alarm about the removal of six Dr Seuss books from the catalogues of the publisher of the children’s author because of racist and offensive imagery. “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong,” Dr Seuss Enterprises said in its statement justifying the decision.
Cue outrage from the political Right, with congressional Republican leader Kevin McCarthy posting a stirring video of himself reading Green Eggs and Ham, his point in no way undermined by the fact that the much-loved classic remains entirely unbanned
Now Americans face another Stalinist airbrushing of a childhood hero, although this time the outrage may be tempered by the fact that said hero is, in theory at least, French. The makers of this summer's Warner Bros live action/animation sequel Space Jam: A New Legacy have cut a scene featuring Pepe Le Pew on the grounds that the lecherous Gallic skunk, a star of the Looney Tunes roster since the 1940s, has "normalised rape culture".
The future doesn't look bright for Pepe. The Hollywood Reporter wrote that "there are no current plans for the controversial cartoon skunk to return." Meanwhile, fears are being expressed for the future of Speedy Gonzales (accused of sterotyping Mexicans), while even Elmer Fudd has had his hunting rifle taken away, reducing still further his chances of ever catching Bugs Bunny.
You don't need to be a chief superintendent in the Woke Police to see why this stuff plays differently in 2021 than it did in 1951
Pepe's life story is intriguing. Obituaries will note that he made his official debut in the Oscar-winning 1949 short For Scent-imental Reasons. The character was partly inspired by Charles Boyer's smitten jewel thief Pepe le Moko in the 1938 film Algiers – itself a remake of a French classic starring Jean Gabin and also a supposed inspiration for Casablanca three years later. Traces of that north African influence remain in occasional references to "the cats-bah" in the Looney Tunes productions.
The format of the cartoons remained fairly constant over the years. A black female cat (at first nameless but later identified as Penelope Pussycat by the Warner Bros marketing department) has some sort of accident, usually involving white paint, that causes Pepe to believe she is in fact a skunk and therefore deserving of his amorous attentions. Hilarity ensues. The End. The setting is usually a 1950s American version of French ooh-la-la sexiness: the Champs Elysee, the Cote d’Azure. Penelope, unlike Pepe, has not been given the gift of speech, but she usually turns the tables on her unwelcome suitor in the end.
You don’t need to be a chief superintendent in the Woke Police to see why this stuff plays differently in 2021 than it did in 1951. The whole idea, as represented in everything from Baby It’s Cold Outside to Some Like it Hot, of seduction as male persistence in the face of female resistance, and ultimately of force of will leading to reluctant submission (capped off, presumably, by discreetly off-screen but undoubtedly ecstatic consummation) pretty much sums up what we now call “rape culture”.
Sterilising the past is no way to safeguard the future
Does that mean it should be shut down? The counter-argument is that, by turning Pepe Le Pew into the Dominique Strauss-Kahn of Toontown, we are applying contemporary standards to the past, effacing the historical record of a different and, some would argue, more innocent time. This material needs to be understood in the context of its own particular moment. Sterilising the past is no way to safeguard the future. Also, lighten up. It’s only a kids’ cartoon.
In fact, though, books, films and TV shows for children have always been in the front line of these particular arguments, and for good reason. That's why you won't see golliwogs in Enid Blyton books any more. And, in the case of Pepe Le Pew, we know from his creator exactly where the inspiration for his character came from. Animation genius Chuck Jones devised Pepe as a spoof on his Looney Tunes colleague Tedd Pierce, who "was always baffled when women didn't return his attentions" .Pierce's attitude toward sex "was direct and uncompromising," Jones recalled in his 1989 memoir, Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist," adding: "It was only logical, of course, that Tedd would be in on the beginnings of Pepe Le Pew … His devotion to women was at times pathetic, at times psychological, but always enthusiastic."
Pepe Le Pew is more than just a malodorous American mammal with an unexplained French accent; he’s an in-joke about someone who, in Jones’s words, “could not really believe that any woman could honestly refuse his honestly stated need for her.” Which definitely smells a bit off.