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Censoring Violence in Animation: Have We Taken One Step Forward or Two Steps Back?

About a week ago, a good friend and I took our children to go see Frozen once again for the sing-along version of the movie. While both of us (and our children too, of course) absolutely love the film, I didn’t give much thought to the Disney short Get a Horse!, which preceded it. While it’s an eye-popping 3D-flick that has won critics over with rave reviews, my friend wasn’t keen on it.

“Don’t you think it’s very violent?” she asked me while we were sitting in the cinema with our popcorn and our children beside us, glued to the big screen. She explained that she didn’t like the kidnapping of Minnie Mouse, the violent outbursts, and the cat-and-mouse nature of the film.

I hadn’t really given Get a Horse! much thought since first seeing it back in November, other than realizing that Mickey and Minnie’s frenemy Pete seemed to have really mellowed down since his heyday in late 1920′s animation. In comparison, the Pete we see today in Disney Junior’s Mickey Mouse Clubhouse seems very tame and, dare I say, empathetic. The modern-day Pete seems to be more willing to admit to his mistakes and tries to learn from them, compared to the classic ’20s Pete who just wanted to get away with his onscreen crimes and shenanigans. 

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With that being said, children’s animations have changed drastically in the past half century. My children absolutely love cartoons the same way I loved watching them when I was their age. They’ve recently discovered apps on my husband’s computer that allow them to watch classic shows such as Tom and Jerry, Tweety Bird, and Duck Tales during their allotted television time per day. Just like with Get a Horse!, I didn’t think much about the content they were watching (they’re cartoons, after all!), until I caught my 4-year-old son “choking” my 6-year-old daughter when they were taking a bath together.

It was a moment in my six-year career as a mother that I truly gasped in horror.

“What in the world?” I basically shrieked, as my toddler son explained that he was just playing with his sister the same way Tom “chokes” Jerry in the cartoons they watch.

Oh. Dear.

I was shocked yes, but I didn’t want to take any drastic measures in banning classic cartoons from them. After all, these were the same cartoons I watched while I was their age, and from what I can tell you, I’m a sane, law-abiding citizen that doesn’t go around choking people on the streets. I proceeded to explain to my children that they are to keep their hands off of each other in that type of manner and that the questionable things they see in cartoons shouldn’t be mimicked in real life. Crossing my fingers that they would understand, everything was okay in the world again until my daughter found Tom Gets Shot, a vintage Tom and Jerry short cartoon from 1948 on YouTube.

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Before explaining gun violence to my Kindergartener, I had to take a step back here and realize how much children’s animation has changed in the past century. I couldn’t help but notice that there are less wild west-type animations with gun stand-offs in today’s cartoons. In fact, in 2012 Warner Bros. Animation ordered producers of Cartoon Network’s Beware of Batman to “scrutinize depictions of weapons on the program” after the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shootings occurred and 12 people were killed while watching The Dark Knight Rises. The tragedy prompted filmmakers to make changes to “some designs and situations on the series to minimize the amount of weapon imagery deemed too realistic.” During that same summer, the WB postponed the release of its film, Gangster Squad, so that they could reshoot a scene that eerily depicted a movie theater shooting.

By totally censoring violence in animation, are we taking one step forward or two steps back in our quest to better educate our children about violence in society? I mean, I myself remember watching Elmer Fudd trying to shoot down Bugs Bunny with his double-barreled shotgun while hunting down that mean old “wabbit.” If Warner Bros. decided to cut every gun scene in their classic cartoons, they would have to go through their entire back catalog of the studio’s history.

This doesn’t just rest in children’s classic cartoons, either. Steven Spielberg himself has admitted that in the 20th anniversary edition of his hit film E.T., he digitally swapped out the guns carried by the agents pursuing Elliot and his extraterrestrial friend for walkie-talkies instead. Most likely feeling the pressure from criticism coming from parent groups at the time, Spielberg said that he “got overly sensitive to [some of the reaction] to E.T., and I thought if technology evolved, [I might go in and change some things] … it was OK for a while, but I realized what I had done was I had robbed people who loved E.T. of their memories of E.T.The guns were added back into the 30th anniversary edition that was released in 2012.

Instead of banning guns on both the small and big screen, shouldn’t we be using these cartoons and films as an opportunity to open up more dialogue with our children about the dangers of weapons and how they shouldn’t be used against people? It is, after all, our job as parents to teach, explain, and be a little more counterproductive towards preventing gun accidents in America. Plus, from my experience as a parent, the more I try to censor something or tell my children “no,” the more likely they are going to try and pursue it out of pure curiosity as they get older.

So whether it’s an epic film like E.T. or vintage cartoons, I don’t think we should be cutting out or making any digital enhancements to the classics we loved and grew up with. The 1948 cartoons like Tom and Jerry are definitely different than the modern cartoons my kids watch today, and as a parent, I’m okay with it. Censoring cartoons such as Get a Horse! or Batman or even films like E.T. will only take us one step back, rather than two steps forward.

Photos via Disney and YouTube

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