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Understanding the issue with racism in ‘Tom and Jerry’

Having debuted on television in 1940 as animated shorts by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, the iconic Tom and Jerry cartoon franchise has managed to stay relevant even after eight long decades. Most popular for the 161 short theatrical shorts produced by the duo for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), this seven-time Academy Award-winning animated franchise contains numerous shorts, television series and animated spin-off short films. More than three decades after its inception, in 1975, the duo retrieved rights to the cartoon from MGM and had some difficulty pitching it to broadcasting networks due to the increasing amount of violence in the shorts in the form of physical comedy. Although originally meant for children, Tom and Jerry has been timeless in its own right and has delighted children and adults alike with its goofy, light-hearted premise. 

The cartoon revolves around the titular house cat, Tom, and his arch-nemesis and an adorable little mouse, Jerry. The shorts capture their various misadventures and escapades as they engage in a literal cat and mouse chase, one constantly outwitting or outpacing the other in several displays of guffaw-inducing physical comedy. Their constant bickering leads to utter chaos and mayhem and usually results in Jerry managing to best a very reckless and visibly defeated Tom. While the cartoon has always shed spotlight on this legendary duo, the show featured various other characters, including the father-son bulldog duo, Spike and Tyke, the alley cats, Butch, Toodles and their gang of ragamuffins, an orphan grey mouse, Nibbles, as well as the caregiver of the house, Mammy Two Shoes. 

While Tom and Jerry has managed to capture the rapt attention of fans with its brilliant content, the cartoon has faced severe criticism from African-American communities for featuring racial stereotypes and perpetuating prejudices against a particular race. Scenes that seem somewhat innocent and amusing to children are indeed laced with preconceived notions and heavy racism. The presence of ‘Mammy Two Shoes’ caused maximum outrage, besides the casual inclusion of blackface, the stereotypical portrayal of “black accent” and the depiction of Native American culture on-screen. 

The character of Mammy Two Shoes is based on the mammy figure that originates from the historic degradation and dehumanisation of black men and women during the prevalence of slavery in the United States. The mammy caricature was used as a falsified narrative to promote the idea of a happy black woman who is perfectly content with her role of being a unique foster mother to white children within the shackles of slavery. While her own children were whipped and worked to death on plantations, the mammy figure, often considered to be heavyset with a nurturing personality, was seen as the caregiver and the caretaker of the house. 

In the cartoon, Tom’s antics were usually followed by Mammy Two Shoes’ intervention and annoyed reprimands. Voiced by Lillian Randolph, the character was abandoned after the campaign and reanimated in several formats. In various episodes, including A Mouse in the House, Mammy Two Shoes was seen getting hit by Tom and Butch in the rear end that lay rooted in the various forms of punishment used during slavery, the stereotypical “black accent” used by the character and the refusal to show her face (except in a scene in Saturday Evening Puss) showed how the character was being reduced the idea of a nurturing mammy who co-existed with a cat and a mouse in a nearly heterotopic place. 

While the figure of Mammy Two Shoes was either reanimated or replaced, there are several other instances within the shorts that drew a lot of criticism. Even now, the cartoons have racism warning tags on Amazon Prime Video. Between the 1930s to the 1950s, cartoons were usually unapologetically racist in the portrayal of other ethnicities. Blackface was yet another existing problem on the show; Barbera, who usually came up with the gags, refused to let his personal racial opinions be connected to the cartoon. What seemed hilarious back then is indeed quite offensive and degrading. Scenes like Tom, Spike and Jerry being splashed with mud to mirror the quintessential blackface in The Truce Hurts to Tom smoking a cigar with a visible blackface and native African accent in one of the episodes to Jerry’s face being blackened by the smoke to a firecracker mishap leading Jerry to sport, yet again, a blackface, all the scenes containing allusions to blackface or other black stereotypes have now been removed. The Blu-ray releases have also omitted a particular scene where Jerry dresses up as a Native American. 

While all these have been edited, Whoopi Goldberg – who herself has been embroiled in controversy – feels that it is important to acknowledge the presence of these ethnic and racial stereotypes within the cartoon to understand and locate the position of the black community and other ethnic communities in those times. As the “products of their time”, the cartoons, with their extremely racist and offensive gags, helped usher in awareness regarding the subsequent effects and consequences. While Tom and Jerry has various instances of sexism as well (with the idea of a mercenary female cat, ideas of women being natural mothers and more), the problem of racism still looms large over the brilliant legacy of the cartoon. 

While viewers cannot ignore the undeniable impact of the animated cartoon on their childhood, it is important to acknowledge, understand and reject the various stereotypes while still appreciating the sheer brilliance and humour within the show.