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How Pepe Le Pew became the latest character in the culture war

Pepe Le Pew. (Warner Bros./Everett Collection)

Ted Geisel and Chuck Jones, the friends turned creative collaborators during World War II and again many years later for such TV classics as 1966’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!,” are again under cultural scrutiny.

After the news that six of Geisel’s Dr. Seuss books would cease publication because of racist and insensitive imagery, Jones’s Pepe Le Pew has brought Looney Tunes into the culture war over which classic children’s characters are so problematic that they should be updated or disappeared.

The Seuss announcement came last Tuesday on the anniversary of Geisel’s birthday (though the decision was made last year). That controversy prompted New York Times columnist Charles Blow to write a piece headlined, “Six Seuss Books Bore a Bias.” The column noted that some of the first cartoon characters Blow remembers seeing while young are Pepe Le Pew, who “normalized rape culture,” and Speedy Gonzales, whose friends “helped popularize the corrosive stereotype of the drunk and lethargic Mexicans.”

The Pepe reference resonated like a callback to a classic bit from Dave Chappelle’s 2000 standup special, “Killin’ Them Softly,” in which the comedian says that Pepe, whom he laughed at as a kid, later through an adult lens makes him realize: “What kind of … rapist is this guy?”

Over the weekend, Pepe’s name resurfaced when Deadline reported that the lecherously predatory skunk won’t appear in the sequel “Space Jam: A New Legacy” due out in July, after a scene involving Pepe — shot by the film’s first director, Terence Nance — was cut. Director Malcolm D. Lee took over the movie nearly two years ago.

Deadline reported that Pepe Le Pew will “likely be a thing of the past across all media,” and the Hollywood Reporter also noted that “there are no current plans for the controversial cartoon skunk to return.” (The Washington Post reached out to Warner Bros. for comment but has not yet been provided with one.)

On Deadspin, Julie DiCaro said Pepe Le Pew deserved to be “canceled,” writing that since his World War II-era creation, “we’ve learned a lot more about consent and women have fought and won more recognition of their bodily autonomy. And yet, we continued to see these same old ‘she’s just playing hard to get’ trope[s] in entertainment even today.”

Elsewhere, Rex Murphy of the National Post wrote a “letter” to Blow, saying: “What’s next, I wonder. A hit job on Marge Simpson? I wouldn’t be surprised.”

Gabriel Iglesias tweeted: “I am the voice of Speedy Gonzales in the new Space Jam. Does this mean they are gonna try to cancel Fluffy too? U can’t catch me cancel culture,” a term used to refer to this form of scrutiny and ostracism.

The examples keep stacking up: Disney Plus recently removed such films as “Peter Pan” and “Dumbo” from its set of titles designated for children’s viewership profiles, because of stereotypes and racist depictions.

Some golden-age Warner Bros. characters have changed in recent years in response to changing times. HBO Max’s “Looney Tunes Cartoons” showrunner Peter Browngardt told the Times last year: “We’re not doing guns,” meaning Elmer Fudd would no longer carry his hunting rifle and Yosemite Sam would be stripped of his pistols. Looney Tunes reportedly would still feature tools of the stock cartoon chase like Acme dynamite.

Andrew Farago, curator at San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum and author of “The Looney Tunes Treasury,” says Seuss characters and the Warner Bros. animators used “then-commonplace racial and cultural stereotypes,” though “the enduring popularity of Dr. Seuss and Looney Tunes has led to some issues that their creators, born in the early 1900s, never could have anticipated.”

Some Dr. Seuss books with racist imagery will go out of print

The six Seuss books no longer printed include “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” published in 1937, and “If I Ran the Zoo,” published in 1950. Jones co-created Pepe Le Pew with Mike Maltese in that period. The feline-groping character made his visual debut under a different name in the short “Odor-able Kitty,” released in 1945. That same year, Life photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt shot the iconic V-J Day photo of a nonconsensual Times Square kiss once viewed as romantic by many, yet which now speaks to “deeply seated sexual prerogatives” and assault, historian Brooke L. Blower wrote in The Post in 2019.

Pepe Le Pew made his official debut in 1949’s Oscar-winning “For Scent-imental Reasons,” according to “Wild Minds: The Artists and Rivalries That Inspired the Golden Age of Animation,” by Reid Mitenbuler. As voiced by Mel Blanc, the character was partly inspired by Charles Boyer’s smitten French jewel chief Pepe le Moko in the 1938 remake “Algiers” — a film said to have helped inspire “Casablanca.” Pepe Le Pew nods to “Algiers” with his references to getting away to “zee casbah,” the citadel area of the city, and his 1954 short was titled “The Cat’s Bah.”

Jones and Maltese’s intent in creating Pepe Le Pew “wasn’t to glorify bad behavior, or to outrage,” Mitenbuler writes in “Wild Minds,” but rather to spoof and tease Looney Tunes colleague Tedd Pierce, who “was always baffled when women didn’t return his attentions.”

Pierce’s attitude toward sex “was direct and uncompromising,” Jones wrote in his 1989 memoir, “Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist,” adding: “It was only logical, of course, that Tedd would be in on the beginnings of Pepe Le Pew. … His devotion to women was at times pathetic, at times psychological, but always enthusiastic.”

Adds Jones: “Tedd could not really believe that any woman could honestly refuse his honestly stated need for her.”

Jones also wrote that some of the Looney Tunes characters who have swagger or panache, including Pepe and Bugs Bunny, represented a certain wish fulfillment, reflecting his own romantic insecurities as a young man.

The depiction of female animals in Looney Tunes cartoons is also controversial. Lee, the “Space Jam” sequel director, told Entertainment Weekly he was surprised by the “very sexualized” depiction of the anthropomorphic Lola Bunny in the original film, and how for the sequel, he believes it’s important to “reflect the authenticity of strong, capable female characters.” Fans on social media have debated the new Lola, who wears a longer and baggier jersey.

“Lola Bunny’s skill on the basketball court has always been a big aspect of her character,” Carly Lane wrote for Collider. “So, it’s fitting that she’s getting a makeover to her uniform that visibly mimics her teammate LeBron James.”

Six Dr. Seuss books containing caricatures of Asian and Black people that incorporate stereotypes that have been deemed racist will no longer be published. (Video: Reuters)

Such controversies over characters, comic book creator Gene Luen Yang says, speak to how powerful cartoons are. “Cartoons are simplifications — but they simplify in order to amplify,” says Yang, the former national ambassador for youth literature.

Farago says it makes sense why companies would alter and remove certain visual images as they endure through new eras: “Letting these problematic works fall by the wayside is a very reasonable way to address this issue.”

The cartoonist and animation writer-producer Lalo Alcaraz says he is not offended by Speedy, the sombrero-wearing “fastest mouse in all Mexico” originally voiced by Blanc.

“Cartoons like Speedy Gonzales still resonate with people like me. As a Mexican American child growing up along the border, I rarely saw representations of Mexicans or Mexico, and when they are they were always super-negative,” Alcaraz says. “Speedy was like a superhero, who outran the gringo cat and redistributed the cheese to the hungry mice.

“He wasn’t lazy or shiftless — he was the fastest, most lovable mouse in all of Mexico. I can’t even tell you what Mickey Mouse does, or what his personality is.”

Martin Gitlin, co-author of “A Celebration of Animation: The 100 Greatest Cartoon Characters in Television History,” views the trends in character changes as troublesome. “I consider myself as progressive as they come,” he says, “but sometimes I fear that cancel culture will eventually cross over into the realm of ridiculous.”

Farago, though, disagrees. “It’s not ‘cancel culture run amok,’ as some news outlets and their audiences will tell you,” he says. “This is just the beginning of the conversation.”

Read more:

The time is right to cancel Dr. Seuss’s racist books