Looney Tunes Escapes the Censor’s Axe…So Far

Well, except for Pepe LePew

Given all we know about the way culture moves in this century, it should have surprised no one that the various stock characters of the Looney Tunes universe were ever going to make it 2021 without some complaints and some changes.

We’ll note that The Federalist was a year early to the idea of subjecting Looney Tunes to the cancel culture microscope. And now mainstream culture has justified their paranoia. With HBO Max running a new series of cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the rest, and a Space Jam sequel on deck, the inevitable grumbling about comedy that hasn’t aged well turned into a full-blown shouting match after a New York Times Op-Ed piece by Charles Blow (which is mostly about the Dr. Seuss book discontinuation issue) mentioned problems with Speedy Gonzales and Pepé Le Pew. 

The Internet, as it does, took that outrage ball and ran with it. Now, these two characters are under fire for cultural stereotyping. One of them will not be appearing in the upcoming Space Jam sequel: Pepé Le Pew, the one who is very rapey.

Pew

Furthermore, people have called out Le Pew  as an obvious French Lothario stereotype, which turns out to be even more complicated: in France, they changed Le Pew’s ethnicity to Italian, as Tim Soret points out on Twitter. Because portraying Italian lovers as gropey and horny is better, somehow? Not surprisingly, because it’s Twitter, the skunk has his defenders who are presumably all right with persistent sexual harassment as long is it’s between non-human cartoon characters.

On the matter of Pepe and Speedy, I decided to try to remember on my own, without 2021 hindsight, what I thought of these characters growing up.

With absolute certainty I can tell you that Pepe Le Pew always seemed skeevy to me, a sexually depraved Wile E. Coyote who needed chemical castration. Did I know what chemical castration was as a six- or seven-year-old in front of the TV? No. Had someone explained it to me in great detail, would I have supported doing that to the cartoon skunk? I’m confident my child-self would have.

I’m proud to say I didn’t need nearly 40 more years to figure that one out. In the #MeToo era, Le Pew has no business in any new animated properties unless they are underground, unsanctioned, and X-Rated, something like, “Pepe Le Pubis in Pussy Purgatory.” Something classy like that.

The fastest mouse

Speedy Gonzales presents a whole other set of issues, which start with the fact that in the Looney Tunes cartoons, he’s not a lecherous villain/pursuer like Le Pew, he’s a wily and smart hero, more along the lines of Bugs Bunny. He’s tiny and fast and clever even as he’s throwing around extremely outdated Spanglish phrases that seem cringey now.

But to Latino/Hispanic/Mexican kids like me growing up, Speedy was one of the only representations we had on television at the time, let alone in an animated world we actually wanted to watch.

I know I’m not the only Latino kid who grew up crying, “¡Arriba, arriba! ¡Ándale, ándale!” as I tore around the house in my Underoos, waving an imaginary sombrero. We loved the character because he was a hero, an undermouse. His brown mouse skin and diminutive stature spoke to us little kids who either had Mexican accents, or who had many family members with accents. I’m not alone. “He was the only Mexican in Hollywood I knew who never lost–well, him and Cheech and Chong,” wrote Gustavo Arellano in the Los Angeles Times. A lot of us still revere the mouse

Yes, Speedy is a running, hopping stereotype, but so are Yosemite Sam (angry white NRA member), Elmer Fudd (impotent white NRA member), Foghorn Leghorn (southern lawyer?), Tasmanian Devil (Australian rugby player?), Porky Pig (long-suffering stutterer), Marvin the Martian (stereotypical space alien).

It gave me great hope when Gabriel Iglesias, who is voicing Speedy in the new Space Jam, didn’t just tuck his mouse tail between his legs and apologize

Like many Latinos, Iglesias feels strongly for Speedy. Iglesias, who has made a great career as a stand-up comic and TV sitcom star, has always smartly walked the line between using Latino stereotypes for comic hay, and smartly subverting those stereotypes by being smarter, harder-working, and more prolific than nearly anyone in comedy. I’m more than happy to let Iglesias, who has a much closer connection to Speedy than any of us, speak for me: “U can’t catch me cancel culture. I’m the fastest mouse in all of Mexico.”

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Omar Gallaga

Omar L. Gallaga is a technology culture writer, formerly of the Austin American-Statesman, but he's not interested in fixing your printer. He's written for Rolling Stone, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Television Without Pity, Previously.tv and NPR, where he was a blogger and on-air tech correspondent for "All Things Considered." He's a founding member of Austin's Latino Comedy Project, which recently concluded a two-year run of its original sketch-comedy show, "Gentrifucked."

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