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When Disney and Dr. Seuss Made Racist Cartoons...

Were cartoons like 'Cannibal Capers' and 'Trader Mickey' a reflection of society, or a seemingly harmless way to spread hate?

by Jonah Bayer
Sep 13 2015, 12:10pm

Screencap via

Cannibal Capers

Art often imitates life—and animation is no exception. While today's Disney films like Frozen and Big Hero 6 seem harmless enough, the company's history is littered with everything from horrifying depictions of African natives in Cannibal Capers (1930) or Trader Mickey (1932) to unflattering stereotypes of Jews in Three LIttle Pigs (1933).

It isn't just Disney we're picking on here—in their defense, they did release an anti-nazi propaganda film during WWII, Education For Death. In fact, everyone from Dr. Seuss to Tom And Jerry featured some pretty dubious content, the latter of which now comes with a warning on Amazon Prime and iTunes that reads, "These animated shorts are products of their time. Some of them may depict ethnic and racial prejudices that were once commonplace in American society."

So, were these cartoons a reflection of society or a seemingly harmless way to spread hate? Or was it misguided patriotism or a combination of all of these things?

A big part of the issue is intent. The Creators Project spoke with amateur animation historian and graphic designer Christopher Norris, a.k.a. Steak Mtn., about this shadowy cartoon history. Norris also does the artwork for progressive punk acts such as Against Me! and, mostly recently, their live album 23 Live Sex Acts. He says, "It really depends on what [the cartoonist's] policies were at the time, which in some cases could very well have been a product of the times. It was also not a very sensitive time. People, even if they didn't think they were, were racist and sexist and homophobic."

Trader Mickey

Norris adds that the idea of being a radical outlier was also far less prevalent than it is today, and that events like Pearl Harbor created a political climate where otherness was viewed as a threat and propaganda against them a sort of public service.

That said, it's difficult to deny that the dark undertones of people like cartoonists or comedians—even if Peanuts was never racist, it is really, really depressing. "I mean most cartoonists I know are miserable people and can be serious rain clouds, which I guess could be said for all creative people, really. (It should come as no surprise that in this spirit, Norris has a signature Vannen Watch with the phrase "I PROBABLY HATE YOU.") "I don't think cartooning is specifically revealing the terribleness of the world or anything. Like all creative fields, it has a spectrum of light and darkness—and sometimes they mix and it works as entertainment that makes you think—but most times it's the shadowy opposite, trying to convey the dark soul of man… usually one in a dumb outfit or something."

So did Disney's portrayal of Hitler or "savages" have any influence on the young minds that were their target audience? It's impossible to say. A more relevant question might be, does any of this matter when it comes to the ways we live today?

Education For Death

"Who knows if any art produced matters. Nothing really has a shelf life anymore because everything that is produced has a platform to be seen and heard, mostly I feel because everyone has the same tools to make their material seen," Norris replies. "Our appetites are larger because we know we can get more and we want to experience it all, even if it's just for a second." You can almost hear him perceptibly sigh even though we're communicating via e-mail. "Being a creative now, political or not, almost seems useless. But I think that's for a different article.

Click here to check out work by Steak Mtn. 

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