On History: Revisiting Problematic Images

By | Tuesday, July 21, 2015 Leave a Comment
One of my long-time favorite cartoon characters is Daffy Duck. Well, Daffy Duck up through about 1965 or so. They made him a lot more spiteful after that, which I didn't care for. In any event, one of my favorite Daffy Duck cartoons was The Henpecked Duck from 1941. Daffy is married in this short (I believe it's the only cartoon we ever see or get reference to a Mrs. Duck) and the plot is basically that Daffy loses the egg that he's supposed to be sitting on while she's out. If you don't know the cartoon, you can watch it here.
Despite Daffy being uncharacteristically subservient in this story, I liked that pretty much the all the jokes and gags center on him by himself. He's not playing against another character; he gets himself into his own mess just because he's fuddling around bored. I'm also quite partial to Mel Blanc's acting in this. His "YIPE! The little woman!" gets me every time.

Now, the Mrs. Duck character is unfortunately a bit stereotypical. Demanding, nagging, incredibly emotional, and very fickle. What you might call a caricature of a 1940s feminist. I don't think the cartoonists are really poking fun at her, though, so I'm not overly bothered by her portrayal here.

My problem comes later. In looking for a substitute egg, Daffy pulls the doorknob off the front door and throws it in the nest. As he leaps up to sit on it, however, the doorknob flips over forcing the spindle to point straight up. Daffy then lands butt-first on the spindle, causing him to leap back up in the air. But rather than an exclamation of pain and/or an accompanying grimace, we see this...
The Henpecked Duck
Daffy striking a pose often used a caricature for homosexuality. It's not even for a full second, but it's clearly visible and suggests that Daffy enjoyed having the doorknob thrust up his backside. In fact, Daffy lands back on the doorknob without flipping it over, so he is still sitting (and grinning) with the spindle in his butt when his wife comes in moments later. Indeed, when she yanks him off the nest, we see (via shadow) the spindle still pointing upwards as she lifts him.

It's as if the cartoonists were trying to explain Daffy's verbal emasculation from his wife by saying that he was gay and, therefore, not masculine in the first place. Or perhaps that Mrs. Duck did such a complete job of emasculating him after they got married that he became gay. In either case, it comes across as derogatory. They're equating weakness with homosexuality.

Now, this would have been considered a social more of the time. It was an accepted stereotype, much like how we see (more frequently) bad stereotypes of Black people, Irish immigrants, Asian people (geez, just the fact that Asian cultures often all got lumped together..!) and however many other ugly caricatures are out there.

But the question at hand, then, is: how do we treat this type of imagery? It's part of a cartoon that I enjoyed, but that was when I either did not recognize the iconography being used or it flew by too fast for me to really even see/process. Can I still enjoy a cartoon that shows this?

I can use old comics as a frame of reference. If you look through comics from the early twentieth century, you'll find plenty of examples of offensive imagery. Flip from Little Nemo is a bad Irish caricature. Bumbazine, the Black child from the early Pogo strips, sat around eating watermelon. And yet, those comics are frequently lauded as examples of great works. Just ones that contain some unfortunate images. The work, when it's studied, is looked at from multiple perspectives simultaneously. The illustration skill on display, the overall storytelling and narrative structure, the imaginitive and creative worlds that were created.

But the works are not unilaterally revered. Winsor McCay was an imaginitive genius, and his illustations are beautifully rendered. But they contain racist steretypes. The various aspects of his work that are brilliant do not absolve the unfortunate caricatures, and they do not hold the work above criticism. You can sit in wonder at the work, but you have to acknowledge that it has cultural flaws. Walt Kelly, too, was a powerful storyteller with a fantastic command of his brush. But you, again, have to acknowledge that ran into problems with characterizing Black people. You don't need to dismiss the work outright; you don't need to stop liking it; but you do have to openly acknowledge that it highlights problems we had as a society at the time it was produced.

The Henpecked Duck is, by no means, up to the level of quality as even many other Daffy Duck cartoons. Even just from a technical perspective, the animation is stiff and the audio doesn't always sync up with the visuals. And it doesn't have nearly as many gags Robin Hood Daffy or Rabbit Seasoning, but I do like many of the gags it does have. The cartoon isn't some huge homophobic screed; it has one or two (depending on how you're counting them) "jokes" make at their expense. Which is unfortunate, but that comes with it being a product of its time.

And while I'm talking about this one cartoon in particular, it applies to all sorts of comics. "The Galactus Trilogy" was a product of its time and has some genuinely good parts to it, but the ongoing misogynistic dismissal of the Invisible Girl isn't one of them. The Killing Joke was a product of its time and has some genuinely good parts to it, but the disabling and presumed rape of Barbara Gordon is not one of them. It's okay to like older works, and still criticize them for having social failings.
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