Retro cartoons are hilarious – until Chief Crazy Coyote shows up.
by Melissa Rayworth
October 5, 2009
I hear the words, the familiar music, the canned laughter. It wafts in from the next room and takes me back instantly. Hong Kong Phooey, Scooby Doo, Huckleberry Hound. For a moment, it’s a lazy Saturday morning in 1974 and I’m curled up on the couch in my shag-carpeted den, giggling along with the animated antics on the screen. But then, invariably, something snaps me out of my reverie: Today, it’s Chief Crazy Coyote hopping up and down, wielding a tomahawk and yelping while running through “Injun country.”
Suddenly it’s 2009 again. I’m working in my home office and in the next room my six-year-old is dissolving in fits of laughter while mainlining his new favorite source of entertainment: the cable channel Boomerang, a Cartoon Network spin-off that specializes in animation from the ’60s and ’70s.
I stick my head in and try to offer some context: “You know, Native Americans never really acted like that . . . ” My son looks up at me, smiling, not really sure what I’m talking about. “Mom, you should watch this,” he tells me. “It’s really, really funny.”
This summer, Boomerang became our go-to TV option during the morning hours, before he left to spend the afternoon swimming and playing at day camp. We keep a limit on his TV time – usually two hours per day, tops. But he often begs for another half-hour (“Pleeeeease! Banana Splits is on!”) while I’m cooking dinner. For a couple of years now, he’s been digging Superfriends and The Jetsons on DVD. With Boomerang, he’s now discovered the motherlode of retro cartoons.
My husband and I are happy, because these shows are way less violent than the modern cartoons he usually clamors for – fightfests like Bakugan, Naruto or The Batman. And the nostalgia factor is as much fun for him as for us. Lately, each time he discovers a new show – Wacky Races, Top Cat – he runs into my office. “Mom! Come see this! Did you watch this when you were a kid?” It’s been great.
But then there’s Chief Crazy Coyote. And a slew of other ridiculous, tomahawk-bearing “Indians” on other shows, who can’t help hopping up and down all the time. There are plenty of lazy or dumb characters clearly meant to be black or Hispanic, plus the occasional Asian who can barely be understood. And there is an army of ditzy, powerless female characters surrounded by male characters who are in charge or treated with deference simply because they’re men.
Taking in a high concentration of Johnson- and Nixon-era animation after decades away from it, I’m finding glaring stereotypes threaded much more fully through these shows than I remembered.
I knew Jane Jetson was flighty, but I’d forgotten how often George talked to her like she was eight years old. Worse, Jane seemed to expect it. She and Judy were equals, timidly asking George’s permission and obsessing on their hairdos. If Jane wanted something, her only option was flirting and/or manipulating him into thinking it was his idea. Wilma Flintstone took less crap, but she still had to keep Fred believing that her good ideas were really his.
I have no desire to be the politically correct mom who bans whatever might offend. The parental advisory that came with the DVD release of early Sesame Street episodes and the similar warning that comes with vintage Warner Bros. cartoons strike me as unnecessary and paternalistic. But watch Hong Kong Phooey and you’ll see the main character depicted as a lazy janitor, voiced by black actor Scatman Crothers, who is constantly put down and underestimated by his white policeman boss. Yes, he puts on his snazzy robe and attempts to solve crimes, but he invariably fails and gets saved by his exasperated cat. He’s cool but incompetent.
What is my kid making of this? Does it merit some parental intervention or is a cartoon sometimes just a cartoon?
“TV can be this powerful time machine,” says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. “If you’re gonna give a six-year-old a time machine, you’d better know how that puppy works. They need to be a bit forearmed and forewarned.”