A History of Animated Violence: How the Academy Museum Is Tackling the Dark Side of the Craft

A new exhibit at the Academy Museum looks back on the portrayals of racism, sexual assault and violence in the craft of animation.

Pepe Le Pew Animation
Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

When most of us hear the word “animation,” we think of cuddly imagery from Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse cartoons. We generally don’t think about sexual assault, racism and violence.

But the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures’ core exhibition, “Stories of Cinema,” showcases a more problematic side of animation history. A three-gallery experience titled “Inventing Worlds and Characters” looks back at questionable imagery and tropes. Through these galleries, they are exploring animation, effects and encounters. It both exists as its own genre and encompasses every other genre such as westerns, noir, documentaries, and more. It’s also a craft that encompasses all the other crafts such as production and costume design, editing, etc.

“When you have a completely unlimited craft by the laws of physics, you can have wondrous examples of pure imagination,” says assistant curator Dara Jaffe. “Still, you also get these extremely grotesque depictions that reflect the racism of the current time.”

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Disney Enterprises Inc.

One such example: 1941’s “Dumbo,” made during the time of Jim Crow laws and pervasive racism in the U.S., has a black bird named Jim “Dandy” Crow who “talks jive” and is voiced by white actor Cliff Edwards. But don’t worry, kids, big elephant ears are funny.

“Visitors will have to put themselves in a mindset to digest this material,” says exhibitions curator Jenny He. “We’ve purposely included this so we can start the conversation and the dialogue. This is only the springboard to have them.”

In the exhibit are three slideshows that examine the depiction of racialized and sexualized violence in animation — “The Legacy of Minstrelsy in U.S. Animation,” “Racist Portrayals and Cross-Racial Casting” and “Women in U.S. Animation” — each with its own disclaimer.

In the “Women in U.S. Animation” slideshow, the curators don’t shy away from putting a spotlight on imagery that implies sexual assault, such as Betty Boop having her clothes ripped off by an elderly man with one tooth, followed by a look at the aggressively lascivious Pepé Le Pew. (The Warner Bros. character was removed from the “Space Jam” sequel.)

Any kind of movie can be racist and has been racist, so what is it about the cinematic nature of animation that has enabled this expression of racism?

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Mexican Schmoes, 1959, Warner Bros. Entertainment Warner Bros. Enterainment

In “Racist Portrayals,” you’ll navigate early examples like Winsor McCay’s “Little Nemo” (1911) before revisiting such notable missteps as “Mexicali Shmoes” (1959) with Speedy Gonzales. As you travel through the period, you come across the degrading of Indigenous people in “Hiawatha’s Rabbit Hunt” (1941), the depiction of young Black girls in “Fantasia” (1940) and the offensive Middle Eastern stereotypes of “Aladdin” (1992).

In “Legacy,” you’ll find some familiar imagery such as Dandy Crow from “Dumbo” (1941) with painful and perhaps unfamiliar to visitors such as “Mammy’s Li’l Boy” and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

The curators aimed to avoid a checklist mentality when approaching these sensitive subjects. He notes that the exhibit presents only 12 examples of numerous such moments across animation history. “We weren’t attempting to be exhaustive,” she says. “If there is a cartoon that traumatized you, we weren’t trying to exclude you. Rather, this is only the beginning of a larger conversation that the museum wants to have.”

If your story or experience isn’t there, the museum is listening.