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Zoinks! Retro cartoons are hilarious – until Chief Crazy Coyote shows up.

Retro cartoons are hilarious until Chief Crazy Coyote shows up.

By Melissa Rayworth |


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.”

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About Melissa Rayworth


Melissa Rayworth

Melissa Rayworth writes for The Associated Press and other national news outlets. She has contributed chapters to the anthologies "Grey's Anatomy 101" (BenBella Books) and "Belly Button Bliss" (Fairview Press). She splits her time between New York and Pittsburgh, where she lives with her husband and two sons.

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6 thoughts on “Zoinks! Retro cartoons are hilarious – until Chief Crazy Coyote shows up.

  1. AJ22 says:

    Interesting. My kid soaks up an awful lot of this stuff. Don’t think it’s caused her too much trouble yet, but who knows…

  2. Jenn Vickery says:

    The most thoughtful piece I’ve seen in a while on Babble.  This is
    stuff I think about all the time.  Watching the commercials for the
    “newest” re-release of Snow White, I think about how much I liked it as
    a kid – but how many of the messages in it are just kind of creepy. 
    Not to mention how downright scary it is.  I don’t want my kid to be
    sheltered, and I want her to understand the cultural references that
    these movies and stories have, but I don’t want her to think it’s okay
    to sit and wait to be rescued by that hot guy she ran into that one
    Food for thought.  Thanks.

  3. snarky mama says:

    “But children who watched these shows in the ’70s at least lived in a
    country that was grappling with questions of women’s rights and racial
    and ethnic equality. The ridiculousness of these stereotypes (and their
    potential harm) was a central part of the national conversation. Today,
    after decades of these battles, kids don’t hear that kind of discussion
    as much.”
    So, really?  Kids growing up in the ’70s were better able to dismiss these cartoon stereotypes because their parents were part of a “national conversation” which grappled with minority issues?
    It seems like kids growing up now, where women are doctors and black men are presidents, probably have an easier time realizing these characters are just ridiculous stereotypes.
    Also, if I had concerns about the information my children were gleaning from certain shows, I would either not let them watch said shows, or, at least, watch (and explain) the shows with them. 

  4. WY mom says:

    I have yet to see a child take something they’ve seen from Spongebob or Bugs Bunny and form a stereotype with it.
    My kids don’t think all squirrels are smart girls who wear bikinis, like Sandy or believe starfish are dumb like Patrick on Spongebob; or that old men stutter and like to hunt like Elmer Fudd.  Etc, etc.
    Honestly.  I think you’re putting too much thought into this.  Why does everyone have to “find” something to complain about/worry/complain/analyze? 
    If you’re worried about your child picking up the stereotypes – which they probably wouldn’t even notice until you pointed it out – and I can’t emphasize that enough – then I suggest watching something else, or nothing at all. 
    Try Noggin/Nick Jr.  (Of course, you may pick up that Max & Ruby’s parents are never there – what does that say?)

  5. Babydragons Mom says:

    OMG! My friend & I talk about Ruby & Max’s lack of parents all the time (in a manner of speaking)!! My Husband & I go with the Peanuts parenting…we’re never seen, just heard mumbling.
    I understand the concern but would say let the retro cartoons roll, just throw in some other cartoons or shows with messages you like (add Fat Albert to Hong Kong Phooey for example).
    We don’t have cable just Netflix so it’s easier to control my son’s TV. That said, we’ve watched seasons 1-3 of the Muppet Show so many times, my husband & I are analyzing Kermit & Miss Piggy’s relationship (yes, we desperately need a life!).

  6. Rebecca Ockenfels says:

    Are the new cartoons really any better I mean the smaller penguins in Happy Feet were just as bad as the crows in Dumbo. I love the old cartoons and to me they are much less annoying to have in the background and my kids won’t see stuff in the store with those faces on it and beg for it.

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