Most people have heard of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Elmer Fudd. At the least, the classic line “That’s All Folks!”, said by Porky Pig, will bring back memories of watching Saturday morning cartoons. Despite the widespread international recognition of Looney Tunes, the name Charles Martin Jones, or Chuck Jones, is one that is lesser known. Often compared to Walt Disney, Jones was an animator, director, and recipient of multiple awards, including three Oscars and an honorary life membership from the Directors Guild of America. Most famously, he is the mastermind behind the success and mass popularization of Looney Tunes, creating the longtime loved characters of the Road Runner and Pepe Le Pew. (LA Times)
Chuck Jones was born on September 21, 1912 in Washington, and grew up watching avant garde performers like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. He graduated from Chouinard Art Institute, which is now known as the California Institute of the Arts, and was then hired by Friz Freleng. Freleng was an animator at the Leon Schlesinger Studio, which was later bought by Warner Brothers. After Warner Brothers closed, Jones was eventually hired by MGM Studios, where he directed the Academy Award-winning film, The Dot and the Line. (Chuck Jones)
I first heard of Chuck Jones through a current exhibit dedicated to him at the Museum of Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, NYC. Entitled What’s Up Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones, this interactive display of work showed off 23 movies, as well as 134 sketches, photographs, and other production related materials. (Moving Image) Overall, it gave a behind-the-scenes glimpse of Jones’ creative process and experimental techniques. The exhibit exemplified his innovative ideas and personal philosophy. Jones even said “Like our distinguished forebears, we (Chaplin and Keaton) made pictures for ourselves, believing with childlike innocence that if we laughed at and with each other, others perhaps would follow.” (Conversations)
The side not discussed in his biography or this exhibit, however, is the inherent racist and sexist themes that Looney Tunes has been criticized for. This backlash has been acknowledged, though, where Whoopi Goldberg recorded a disclaimer for the Looney Tunes Golden Collection saying that “the cartoons are products of their time… and they are unedited since editing them would be the same as denying that the stereotypes existed.” (Youtube) Looney Tunes also has the notorious “Censored Eleven”, which is the colloquial name for the group of cartoons that have been pulled from the air due to their use of ethnic stereotypes that offended audiences. Included in these eleven are the Speedy Gonzalez cartoons, which are a caricature that depicts “the fastest mouse in all of Mexico.” He has an exaggerated Mexican accent and wears stereotyped outfits of Mexico. Short clips that involve Speedy Gonzalez can be found online. Pepe Le Pew is another character that has faced backlash. He is a hypersexualized French skunk, who often speaks in French towards those he pursues. Pepe is constantly speaking about and looking for love, and refuses to take “no” as an answer from those he is chasing. He also makes many sexual euphemisms and plays by sexual scripts, where he is often pressuring them into being with him by saying they are females and that he is a male, so it is expected. Clips of Pepe Le Pew can also be found online.
Gender roles have also been a problem within the Looney Tunes cartoons. The most popular topic of discussion is about Tweety bird, who was originally seen as a genderless bird, but then was transformed into a feminized character, despite being male. Tweety was further developed into a gendered icon, playing on his innate cuteness and innocence and potentially connecting with women and children due to the yellowish, infantilized color and personality. These are all associated with feminine gender roles, but are not portrayed in traditional and gender-normative ways. This also relates to the ideals surrounding queerness, specifically defying what Lee Adelman calls “reproductive futurism.” Essentially, this is the concept that supports heteronormativity and the public obsession with “fighting for the future of our children.” (Lee Adelman). The feminization of Tweety bird can be seen as a representation of queerness, since it defies heteronormaitivity. Even though it is supposedly the mere result of an advertising scheme, this Tweety bird ploy can still be seen as making a gender-bending statement, without an outward explanation from Looney Tunes about their intentions.
Despite the younger demographic that “Saturday morning cartoons” are associated with, Looney Tunes has mature underlying themes that play into offensive stereotypes. Chuck Jones and his involvement with these cartoons should be looked at under a culturally relevant lens in order to keep the focus on his innovative techniques and ideas.
The Chuck Jones exhibit is on display at the Museum of Moving Image until January 19, 2015.