Home » The Art of Pepe Le Pew and a Cartoon Cancel Culture

The Art of Pepe Le Pew and a Cartoon Cancel Culture

Today I’m going to discuss Pepé le Pew and the controversy around the classic cartoon character, who won an Academy Award for 1949’s For Scent-imental Reasons. a cartoon we’ll talk about in this blog. I’ll also drop the images of art available for sale representing the character, since purchases have gone through the roof, in case ‘ardent’ fans of the skunk want to add an image of him to their collection.

It all started when New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow caused a stink about Pepé le Pew saying he adds to rape culture, proving once again anyone can get attention even if they know very little about the history of animation.

“blogs are mad bc I said Pepe Le Pew added to rape culture. Let’s see. 1. He grabs/kisses a girl/stranger, repeatedly, w/o consent and against her will. 2. She struggles mightily to get away from him, but he won’t release her 3. He locks a door to prevent her from escaping.” It’s true … Penelope Pussycat was often in Pepe’s clutches.”

While some of that may be true, there’s much more to the story.

First off, and this may be a nitpick, the kitty in early Pepé cartoons wasn’t named Penelope. That name was created and retroactively applied to what the classic WB cartoons called “Le Chat” or “Le Cat” by the Warner Brothers marketing department.

Secondly, there are multiple scenes within the Pepé le Pew cartoons in which the tables are turned, and le Chat becomes the aggressor.

In fact, that occurs in the aforementioned 1949 Oscar winner, as you can see in this video that shows the beginning and end of the cartoon:

That’s not to say that aggression from either side is acceptable, it’s just that ‘Penelope Pussycat’ is still included in the next WB release, and Pepé is not.

And since we are indeed in the thick of Oscar season, it bears mentioning that there have only been 5 Looney Tunes shorts that have won Oscars, Tweetie PieSpeedy GonzalesBirds AnonymousKnighty Knight Bugs and For Scent-imental Reasons.

For my own part, I saw For Scent-imental Reasons in French, which I’d have to say in retrospect is a very interesting experience. French culture has been, without question, behind the curve as it relates to consent, but to this day French women definitely shrug off inappropriate advances as par for the course, creating hard lines in the sand for anyone wanting to cross them. I have given this whole discourse serious consideration, because I am and always have been a strong proponent of consent.

The thing is, Pepé is a cartoon character. He was created in the 40s, (not an excuse) but he was modeled after Charles Boyer, who played abusive characters on more than one occasion, as well as Maurice Chevalier, who was one of the stars of a film that celebrated a teenager becoming a courtesan for a man dozens of years his senior (1958’s Gigi).

There are so many classic characters that could be retired or should at least be reevaluated, but a cartoon character, especially one created by an animator that is no longer alive to defend him, can easily be cancelled.

Since Chuck isn’t here to speak for his creation, here, from Emma Award winning producer Linda Jones, are thoughts on her father Chuck Jones and his Oscar winning creation Pepé le Pew:

From Linda Jones:

Pepe Le Pew is, I think, more than a lothario… like many of the other comedic characters, both animated and live, I think the underlying theme is one of exaggerating those characteristics we all (or those of us who are honest) recognize to some degree in ourselves. That’s much of what comedy is…. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

If the Pepe cartoons were currently being made, I would say they should and would be considered inappropriate. Whether Warner Bros. decides to shelve the cartoons, as well as the character appearing in new movies, that is a decision they have every right and responsibility to consider… These are changing times and changing mores. Pepe’s pursuit of an unattainable goal was (and still is) a well-used story line…the pursuer, the object and the venue vary, but the underlying idea is classic and will continue to be used and, perhaps, overused.

I don’t know what my father would say about this now…but I know for certain that his career was devoted, entirely and always, to entertainment…to helping us all to laugh. Many have assigned motives and messages to his films…political, societal, even religious. None of them are correct. He was an animated film director and he spent his professional life in the pursuit of entertainment.

There has been reference to these particular cartoons contributing to a “rape culture.” Does this infer that “rape” is a current or recent phenomena? Another discussion for another time, but I have a great deal of difficulty believing that anyone, anywhere was so influenced by watching Pepe Le Pew cartoons that they pursued a life of debauchery. Sorry, it just doesn’t make sense to me. However, as a life-long supporter of women’s rights, I believe it is time to re-visit the past policies, arts, norms, behaviors and make sure we are not making mistakes as we move forward.” 

All this fuss has led to WB removing Pepe from all future Looney Tunes storylines and productions. Or did it? Apparently the script was already problematic as it relates to Pepé: In Space Jam: A New Legacy, a scene reportedly involved Pepe hitting on a human character played by Greice Santo and her in turn slapping him away and pouring a drink on him. Then LeBron James was meant to teach Pepe about consent. As Deadline writes, “Pepe then tells the guys that Penelope cat has filed a restraining order against him. James makes a remark in the script that Pepe can’t grab other Tunes without their consent.” There’s no question that’s unacceptable, but it’s also not in keeping with Pepé true character. I suppose if WB isn’t going to stay true to or expand Pepé, it’s better he is left to history, no?

Meanwhile, for fans of the Pepé le Pew character, here are some limited editions created by those who love his history, and you can find them all HERE.

Also, it seems worth mentioning, that a cartoon and real life often bear little to no resemblance. For example, if you think this cartoon ‘mating ritual’ is bad, you should read about the mating of both CATS (which involves teeth and pain and such) and SKUNKS (not much better, to be honest).

What do YOU think about the character being cancelled? It’s a complicated subject, to be sure. I’ve read a number of posts saying American women were uncomfortable with Pepé le Pew as children. That’s not good. I’m sure if that had been my experience, I’d be more inclined to agree with his removal. I do remember thinking I’d have smacked him hard on his little black and white nose. On the other hand, questioning what is consensual, what is crossing the line, and how to be clear about our own boundaries is something we should all learn to do, and early. Perhaps the cartoons could hold a warning, like films that include copious amounts of smoking, or, for that matter, Gone With The Wind (a film I can barely watch, as visually beautiful as it is)?

Sound off in the comments.

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