Wednesday, August 23, 2006

In Which I Come Out for Censorship

Making the rounds of news sites and blogs yesterday was the report that, following a complaint by a viewer (or, presumably, the parent of a viewer) a UK channel had decided to excise positive depictions of smoking from Tom & Jerry cartoons. Which is obviously the cue for all right-thinking lovers of liberty to break out their emergency stores of derision and lament the takeover of our airways and public media channels by a hand-wringing horde of politically correct yahoos imploring us all to please, for the love of God, think of the children. Under other circumstances, I might have joined in the collective eye-rolling, but in this case I'm not convinced that the decision is unwarranted, and I suspect that it may do more good than harm.

The thing is, cigarettes are evil. They're the worst of the legal drugs--by all accounts, far worse than at least some of the illegal ones. By a bizarre confluence of common sense and ruthless self-interest on the part of cigarette manufacturers, we have somehow managed to avoid creating yet another criminal empire devoted to their distribution, and have in fact stumbled upon what may be the only effective method of combatting the proliferation of an addictive substance--we tell people that smoking is stupid. We educate them about the dangers of smoking, and make damn sure they know that cigarettes are as addictive as they are because the cigarette industry has, for decades, engaged in a methodical, systematic campaign to make them so while concealing the risks they pose (which reminds me that I've been meaning to go see Thank You for Smoking). If people choose to smoke in spite of this knowledge, they're free to do so*, but the prevailing attitude of our culture should be that this is an incredibly stupid decision, and nowhere should that attitude be more strongly felt than when dealing with the youngest and most impressionable members of our society.

I'm as annoyed as anyone else by the fact that, in adult entertainment, smoking has become synonymous with evil, and no positive characters are ever allowed to indulge in that vice**, but that's because I'm an adult. I can accept that a sympathetic character has habits I disapprove of without losing my affection for that character or taking up those habits myself. Guess what? I'm not the target audience for Tom & Jerry cartoons. The ability to separate a person's faults from their strengths and to admire the latter while still deploring the former is a learned skill, and one that most six year olds don't possess. While obviously no kid is going to pick up smoking simply because they saw a cartoon cat do it once, these images have a cumulative effect--taken together, they create the perception of smoking as something normal, and we don't want that.

My one caveat is that I don't think it's right to air the cartoons with the smoking scenes excised. There are artists whose names appear on the work and who are now going to be associated with an edited version which they didn't approve. The offending cartoons should be shelved, not redacted.

* Within the bounds of reason. There's nothing quite so ridiculous as a smoker complaining about the 'crusade' against smoking in public areas. It takes a special kind of chutzpah to argue that you have the right to indiscriminately poison complete strangers.

** Given, however, that popular culture has spent the better part of a century glorifying smoking, maybe it isn't so far beyond the pale to ask for a decade or two of its vilification.


Anonymous said...

I disagree, while there are many real issues regarding cartoons and freedome of speech (The banned cartoons showing very vulgar "black" characters or unpleasent images of "Jewishness") smoking is not one of them. I believe that ALL cartoons should be kept and shown on demand (to adults) being a part of what American culture was like in those years. To bane smoking is a bad idea. Let us remember that Will E Coyotee has OCD, that Bugs Bunny is a cross-dresser, and that Speedy is, well, the kind of Mexican charater not all Mexicans are happy to see.

Also, have you actually watched some recent cartoons and read some kid-oriented comics lately? If I was a parent I'm not so sure I'd be happy with the amount of violence and sex going on there. It seems like most female characters have bosoms that only skilled surgery and a life time of sleeping on one's back can provide.

(BUT, remembering how much comics meant to me as a kid, I wouldn't take them away from my kids. I'd try and learn from them why they enjoy it so much.)

Tom and Jerry should be allowed to smoke on screen.

Member of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

Hobsonphile said...

I violently disagree with you on many issues, AN, but you win on this one. As a social con, I've never believed that the freedom of access that I enjoy as an adult should ever be provided to children to the same degree. Not even the small "l" liberal philosophers of the 19th century, if I recall correctly, believed that children and adults were the same under the law.

YES - appropriateness for the target audience should be considered, whether the issue is sex, smoking, drinking, violence, racism, or any other adult theme. What is a six-year-old to make of a nearly-naked model emblazoned on a billboard? And what is that same six-year-old to make of a favorite television character indulging in a vice that her parents are trying actively to discourage? Someone my age can navigate the mixed messages of our popular culture with her own values as her guide, but kids can't do that. I know this because I have made kids my career. I know how they think, and I know how much cultural role models matter to them.

I do believe, as you do, that sex/violence/vice/etc. on TV is not necessarily going to have an enormous impact on a child's moral growth. Sociological studies just don't support that conclusion. On the other hand, I think it is a profound act of hubris to deny that it will have some impact on some kids - especially those kids with uninvolved parents.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I believe that ALL cartoons should be kept and shown on demand (to adults) being a part of what American culture was like in those years.

I agree, and in fact I don't believe I said otherwise. T&J are available to adults on DVD, but we were talking about children - the channel and timeslot in question here are clearly oriented to a juvenile audience.

To bane smoking is a bad idea.

I believe I said the exact same thing. My argument is that smoking should be permissible but heavily frowned upon, so that social pressure can dissuade people from making a bad choice.

Dotan said...

Is smoking ever presented in a positive light in T&J? I don't think so. Why single this out from other stupid and dangerous adult behaviors in the cartoons?
Some of the T&J cartoons also contain racial stereotypes (I recall a black maid or housekeeper who is a southern "mammy" caricature), and all of them contain absurd violence.
Shelving these cartoons is a categorically different act then altering/editing them: I'm more comfortable with the notion that if someone finds existing kids entertainment objectionable they commission new works than with the idea of altering existing stuff - like all the PC alterations that crept into the Richard Scarry books.

Jose said...

A group of UK doctors has published their own classification of Drugs (the UK has a letter grade system for the "nastiness" of drugs). They placed LSD and Ectacy below Tobacco in terms of harmfulness. It was interesting to see how their classification system differed from the "real" one.

P.S. I've posted your commentary on Meme Therapy

Abigail Nussbaum said...


Is smoking ever presented in a positive light in T&J?

According to the reports I've read about this incident, it is presented without comment, as an activity which sympathetic characters engage in.

Why single this out from other stupid and dangerous adult behaviors in the cartoons?

That's a good question, actually, and the best answer I can give you is that smoking is in a very short list of activities that our society seems to have finally reached a consensus about. Racism is another one - we think it's bad, we want it not to happen anymore, and one of the things we do to prevent it is to remove racial stereotypes from childrens' cartoons.

Now, where you get me is violence, because at least superficially it seems that our society has reached a consensus on that too. But the truth is that it hasn't - we tell our kids that violence is wrong and then turn around and endorse it when it's convenient (as the recent unpleasantness has demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt). That's not a very good answer, but it's the best I've got.


I'm curious - where did marijuana rate in that classification? Most of what I've read suggests that as far long-term effects go, it's less harmful than cigarettes (I even have a vague memory of being told so in a high school anti-drugs lecture, but it's so partial that I'm wondering if I've cobbled two different memories together).

Jose said...

Mary Jane comes out pretty low on the list. Lower than tobacco actually. Recent studies have suggested (to the suprise of many) that marijuana use doesn't increase cancer risk.

But the thing about MJ is that most users smoke it with tobacco mixed in with their joints. So discussing it's relative benigness compared to tobacco is a bit moot. A lot of people (myself included) got turned into nicotine addicts by smoking joints. So there is some truism to the old adage that mj leads you into nastier drugs (just not the drugs people originaly thought).

This whole issue is fresh on my mind as I'm currently chewing nicotine gum trying to beat the nasty habit.

Raz Greenberg said...

Funny, just yesterday (in the Comics and Animation Festival) I had a chance to speak with someone who actually had a job of editing out certain scenes in animated shows in the Israeli Cable's Children's Channel. When I asked just what kind of scenes he had to edit out, and he started describing them, I told him "wait a second, what you're describing is no worse than the average 'Road Runner' cartoon." And he told me that's the reason they don't show 'Road Runner' anymore.
To which I replied: "Our culture is officially doomed".

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