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

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.”

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

by Melissa Rayworth

October 5, 2009



These shows were made in the ’60s and early ’70s, but most don’t reflect the cultural changes of their time. This was programming for children. Even the bell-bottomed kids who drove the Mystery Machine had something of a 1950s outlook in their earliest adventures.

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.

If my son were older or younger, it would be less of a question. At ten, he could dismiss these stereotypes himself. And at four, they’d likely sail over his head. But at six, he is a sponge for information – old enough to understand the words he’s hearing, with a voracious appetite for input of all kinds, but just beginning to think critically. Dosage is another issue. At his age, I mainly saw cartoons once a week on Saturday mornings. Between DVDs and cable, these shows are now available 24/7, offering a steady diet of a worldview that comes from the far side of the The Feminine Mystique and civil rights.

Sometimes there’s a subversive message that challenges the stereotypes. Hot, miniskirted Daphne is forever stumbling over her high heels, and yet she’s also intrepid; she doesn’t run and hide like Shaggy or Scooby. But when Daphne manages to catch the bad guy by herself, it’s always a fortunate accident. Only dorky, boyfriendless Velma can collar a crook deliberately.

We didn’t become an entire generation of intolerants after watching this stuff. It’s not as if I grew up expecting only bespectacled tomboys in orange turtlenecks to solve crimes, though. We didn’t become an entire generation of intolerants after watching this stuff. “How much harm did it do to you?” asked one of my high school friends, now a dad. “I am sure in your normal lives and dinner-time conversations you provide the proper context and perspective to your child.”

My son and I are going to have a conversation, but it won’t be a sermon about tolerance and equality. I think he’s already getting a handle on that (although the other day he referred to Martin Luther King as “Larry King,” so we’ve still got work to do . . .).

The unprecedented flow of media input and imagery coming at our kids from past and present will only grow, as marketers find new ways to infotain us. Retro cartoons with stereotypes are just one of a host of things he’s going to encounter. After our Boomerang summer, I realize it’s not too early to start teaching him tools for consuming entertainment without internalizing its message, whether he’s being subtly advertised at or spoon-fed stereotypes.

I want him to stop and ask himself: What’s the message here? Do I agree with it? He can enjoy the silliness but also have some skepticism in his back pocket.

Stereotypes are part of our history, but so is the progress we’ve made in moving away from them. Rather than bury our mistakes, animated or otherwise, we can let our kids learn from them. I don’t want my six-year-old son – or, eventually, my sixteen-year-old or twenty-six-year-old son – to look at Jar Jar Binks or Skids and Mudflap from the new Transformers movie and think, “Hey, that’s funny,” and then just move on. The lessons he gets from a summer of Huckleberry Hound – not from its content, necessarily, but from the tools I can give him to process it – may help him navigate content streams that haven’t even been invented yet.

Article Posted 7 years Ago

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