For kids born in the 21st century, it may be hard to believe – even incomprehensible – the kinds of overtly racist imagery that was employed in cartoons, once upon a time. The offensive, gratuitous lampooning of various groups was rampant and ubiquitous. No single studio was responsible for this behavior – nearly all of them did it. Audiences – those in the cultural majority – found them riotously funny.

Some of the extreme animated characterizations in the 1940’s, during World War II, were specifically targeted at cultural traits allegedly belonging to those from the so-called Axis countries – Germany, Japan and Italy. The on-screen behaviors of cartoon Nazi soldiers eventually trickled down to the average German citizen character in some productions, with exaggeratedly harsh hausfraus behaving like Storm Troopers as they chased mice from their kitchen with a broom.

Native Americans were skewered in Disney’s Peter Pan – with its depiction of peace pipe-smoking “Injuns” singing a little ditty called “What Made the Red Man Red?” (hint: it was kissing an Injun maiden that made him blush).


The Japanese were also in for a shellacking from the creators of America’s cartoons. Buck teeth, thick glasses and unintelligible accents were the standard issue for them – coupled with an extremely sneaky nature and a tendency to erupt in explosive tantrums on a moment’s notice.


But the cultural attacks were by no means limited to the war years. In the US, African Americans had been targeted by animators for as long as the medium existed. Slow-moving, subservient, lazy and superstitious, these characters behaved like hysterical morons when they weren’t acting like scared toddlers.


Hispanic characters fared no better – even as late as the 1970’s, one of the few characters who represented them on screen – commercial mascot the Frito Bandito – sported an unshaven  face, a gold tooth and a tendency to steal.


While today’s cartoons sometimes seem a little too politically correct – attempting to balance the racial and ethnic numbers so strenuously that no one on the planet feels excluded, it’s a much more inclusive and representational art form. There are multiple layers of protection at each network and each kids’ show, designed for the express purpose of ensuring that a child watching the show will never have to endure the indignities that previous generations did.

That’s not to say that today’s shows are perfect; on the contrary, they are too formulaic, they rely on low humor, and they are designed to promote the maximum amount of colorful merchandise and sugary breakfast cereals. 

But there’s a broad awareness of the failings of the past, and a serious determination to proceed with a spirit of inclusion and community. Now if we could only persuade the networks to turn the sound down on their commercials, we’d be moving in the right direction.