First they came for Dumbo, and then they came for Pepe Le Pew

March 11, 2021 • 12:30 pm

The Washington Post reports that Pepe Le Pew, the cartoon skunk who appeared in the first Warner Brother’s “Space Jam” movie in 1996, will not appear in the new sequel coming out in July. Why? The skunk, who first showed up as a cartoon character in 1949 (the year I was born) is a sexual predator, setting a bad example for everyone.

Click on the screenshot to read:

I wasn’t a big fan of Pepe Le Pew (I liked the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote), but I do remember he was always coming on to female animals. I can’t even remember if they were skunks. I guess Pepe came on too strong, as he’s now canceled, and probably for good. He was the Harvey Weinstein of cartoon wildlife:

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] inentertainment even today.”

Oops, there goes Jessica Rabbit, an example of objectification if ever there was one!  Now I’m not sure whether Pepe ever raped anyone (I doubt it, since they don’t show sex in cartoons), but he probably tried to smooch other animals without consent.  He was a roué for sure, but human equivalents exists, and here’s an object lesson for kids. Further, Pepe was actually modeled as a spoof of a Looney Tunes worker called Tedd Pierce, who “was always baffled when women didn’t return his intentions.” But that doesn’t matter: what matters is that he’s a predator. And maybe there’s a point there, but I don’t think it’s a no-brainer to ditch the predatory mustelid.

It’s hard to find Pepe cartoons online, as I wanted to check how bad he was. I came up with one in Spanish (below). Pepe appears at 2:28, and, sure enough, he jumps the faux female skunk and then pursues her relentlessly. Is this going to give kids the wrong idea? Some certainly think so:

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.”

. . . . 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.”

Is it? If you disagree, watch a few minutes of this cartoon, starting at about 2:30:

You know, I can see where watching these cartoons could give kids the wrong idea about how to behave, but isn’t that what parents are for? Do we really need to keep kids from watching them by letting them “fall by the wayside”? (It’s curious that Speedy Gonzalez isn’t getting canceled: he’s a stereotyped Mexican with a sombrero (remember, Halloween costumes with sombreros are out).  Here’s the defiant Gabriel-Iglesias (nicknamed “Fluffy”) who voices Speedy in the new movie, along with a response:

But Pepe Le Pew isn’t the first cartoon they came for. I was horrified to read this:

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.

Somegolden-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.

What the deuce? No pistols on Yosemite Sam? No gun on Elmer Fudd? WHY? would that encourage gun use? And why, then, is Acme dynamite still around. There was FAR more violence in Roadrunner cartoons than in Yosemite Sam cartoons.

What we’ll be left with, eventually, are bland and anodyne cartoons stripped of everything that could offend someone’s modern morality.  No Peter Pan and no Dumbo? Bloody hell! (I have yet to learn how Peter Pan and Dumbo cause “harm.” You might amuse yourself by trying to guess.)

h/t: Randy

86 thoughts on “First they came for Dumbo, and then they came for Pepe Le Pew

    1. My friend Lisa will give you an earful about the crows. She point out that they are the only characters besides Timothy who are not trying to exploit Dumbo. The lead crow (named Jim Crow!) is the very popular white performer Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards. The other crows are voiced by The Hall Johnson Choir.

  1. Dumbo and the circus animals are all PC enough, near as I remember. I think the only controversial characters are the wonderful black crows – obviously from the hood – who find Dumbo sitting up on the telephone wires. They sing a great song about “When I see an elephant fly.” I used to play a record with all the Dumbo music and dance around with my little sister – about a hundred years ago, before we all lost our innocence.

  2. Did Pepe ever get the girl? Or was his constant rejection a signal that his behavior was unwanted and inappropriate? Was Elmer or Sam glorifying guns or showing them as buffoons that were outsmarted by an unarmed rabbit? If anything these characters are teaching children how not to act. If Elmer Fudd was promoting gun culture I imagine the NRA would have made him their mascot.

    1. IIRC, the object of his affection was a black cat who accidentally got a white stripe painted on her, and Pepe didn’t catch on (at least, not initially).

      So part of the humor had nothing to do with appropriate/inappropriate; it was a mistaken identity joke. Letting the kids/audience feel superior because they were ‘in on’ the mistake.

      Very much a classic ‘comedy of errors’ approach.

    2. There is one Pepe cartoon in which the cat turns the tables on Pepe after losing her sense of smell by catching a cold. Unable to smell him, she finds Pepe sexy and goes after him as aggressively as Pepe had pursued her. Naturally, Pepe runs for his life. I think there is another where the cat falls into garbage and Pepe finds her smell as repulsive as she originally found his. The cat refuses to take “no” for an answer.

  3. I got Looney Tunes cartoons for small friends a few years ago & Speedy Gonzalez does have a trigger warning / apology about Mexicans not being lazy, if I recall correctly…
    Pepe usually went after a cat that had got a stripe of paint on her back…

  4. Pepe wasn’t my favourite character either. However he was a good satire on the obliviousness of some people, being unaware that he stunk.
    Most characters have character flaws that are the basis of the humour or plot. Looney Tunes was long-known as the most violent program on television, but I think you would have difficulty finding proof that it scarred a generation or that it incited violence or desensitized us to it. You had a laugh at the ridiculous situations that the characters got themselves into.
    It would be easy enough to make a case that most, if not all, of the Looney Tunes characters are unacceptable to the woke. I wonder how much time they have left.

    1. I rather liked Pepe simply because I loved any time Mel Blanc did a French accent and threw in random French words. Avec!

  5. Next for canceling: Foghorn Leghorn. An obvious white supremacist — a specimen of the whitest, most privileged poultry breed going. And just listen, I say, listen to that accent, son. Always trying to oppress the dog, who is literally in chains. On top of that, he’s anti-intellectual, having no patience with the little cockerel who uses math to successfully figure out baseball. And his misogyny knows no bounds, treating the skinny little she-chicken with such condescension.

  6. BTW Jimmy Kimmel had a funny take on the new Space Jam on … well, what they “did” … to.. I mean, about.. I mean… well, I’ll try to find a link.

  7. As far as I’m concerned, they may just be trying to clear out some old inventory that has not been selling anymore, so why not do it in the name of social justice? A PR stunt, that’s it. If Pepe le Pew was making them lots of money still, I doubt they’d be doing this.

    The whole point of the cartoon, I think, is to show how obnoxious guys’ continued courting efforts become after it’s been made clear that the girl is not into it. That’s why Pepe le Pew keeps getting spurned at every turn. This is the opposite of suggesting to kids that they should harass women.

  8. Are they going to ban Roadrunner in case kids try to copy Wile E. Coyote and whizz over cliffs without looking?

    Still, perhaps they might get round to cancelling that bloody awful Disneyfied Winnie-the-Pooh travesty. The sooner that goes down the pan the better.

    1. They might believe they are safe as long as they don’t look down. Only then does gravity take over.
      I rather like the Winnie the Pooh production from Disney, although the books are far better.

  9. No pistols on Yosemite Sam? No gun on Elmer Fudd? WHY? would that encourage gun use?

    IIRC, we free speechers faced this same opposition to basically the same cartoons in the ’80s. Can’t remember though whether it was the right or left (or both) who opposed cartoon violence at the time.

    1. We’re on our way to having the preachy, lame, BORING, cartoons, like He-Man. I shook my head at the homoerotic imagery I saw on it once: He-Man and whatever his nemesis was, both all buff and in Speedos, saying, “I’m not going to fight you.” And the buxom heroines?

  10. It’s not really so much that these representations are “offensive” but that the cancelers believe the representations are causal. At minimum they think them causal of attitudes. Others believe them to be causal of behavior. You can find the assertions everywhere but evidence of causality is hard to come by.

  11. I suppose if we do away with Pepe it will eliminate all future Govt. Cuomo’s in the world. I really don’t see the connection with 8 year old kids watching Looney Tunes. Maybe parents don’t know the difference between cartoons and real life. Only the kids know this. Do they understand the difference between fiction and non? So after reading the book, Red October the guy moved his entire family to Iceland. Cancelled his subscription to Rocky and Bullwinkle because that is where Boris and Natasha live.

  12. If we could get some of these cancel culture people and lock them in a room with Biffa Bacon, would they maybe revise their opinions? Or San and Tray?

  13. Johnny Depp (also now cancelled, of course) famously channelled Pepé in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies:

    As is now well known to “Pirates” fans, studio executives were nonplused when they began to see the footage of Depp in character. Whereas Capt. Jack Sparrow was initially conceived as a young Burt Lancaster, Depp had re-imagined him as a debauched, vain, slightly fey rock star, inspired by Rolling Stones icon Keith Richards and cartoon skunk Pepe Le Pew.

  14. I like Pepe Le Pew, but he’s not my favorite because there’s basically only one gag. Do these even get shown anywhere anymore?

  15. So at the end of the day the only acceptable cartoon characters will be stick figures saying and doing nothing as someone somewhere will be offended

    1. Yeah, but what colour will the sticks be? White will be racist, so that is a no-no. Black will be anathema as it will portray black people as sticks. Any other colour will offend someone with a different hue.

      Utter madness.

    2. The stick figures used on the doors of public toilets/restrooms are going to be the next to be cancelled…

  16. I’m not sure whether Pepe ever raped anyone (I doubt it, since they don’t show sex in cartoons), but he probably tried to smooch other animals without consent.

    Picking up on the more subtle forms of distaff discouragement was certainly not Pepe’s métier.

  17. As a child my favorite Looney Tune was a one off about a wealthy American Indian and his English butler, hunting a moose in his giant mansion. It did not turn me racist towards Indians. I fear I shall never see it again.

  18. Aren’t the Pecksniffs concerned about all the children who get a false sense that gravity does not apply until one realizes that one has run off the edge of a cliff?

    Who’s looking out for them?

  19. Pepe was my father’s favorite character followed by Tweety Bird. I always believed that one of the reasons he preferred these characters was because the primary victim of the abuse (passive aggressive in Tweeties case) was a cat. Yes Jerry, a cat. My dad loved dogs, but never cared for cats. In Pepe’s case the abuse was directed toward a nameless cat, but the famous Sylvester the Cat was the foil in Tweety’s adventures. Being of solid French heritage, my dad loved Pepe le pew’s strong Maurice Chivalier crooning as he stroked the “faux femaie” skunk. My dad is long dead and would be 109 years old if alive today. He survived as a veteran of WWII, Korea and Vietnam. One of my favorite memories from the 60″s was seeing my old man laughing his head off at these cartoons, and they were the few instances that he would watch TV with me and my brothers and sisters. He survived three wars with Purple Hearts and dozens of other medals. Seeing Pepe treated this way would have injured him greatly.

    1. My strangest memory is of Mom and Dad busting their ribs laughing at Rocky and Bullwinkle. Never failed that after a Pepe le Pew cartoon she’d be singing “Every leetle breeze seems to whispher Louise …” No wonder they were the Greatest Generation. They knew what’s what!

  20. I thing that does cause worry about all this over-done cancellation is that it contributes to an ‘erasure’ of ethnic groups and minorities from view in popular culture. Take for example cancellation and threat of cancellation of sport team names that make reference to American Indians. So now we think of them less often. I just think we should think about that.

  21. “I can see where watching these cartoons could give kids the wrong idea about how to behave, but isn’t that what parents are for?”

    Exactly! It is the ideal opportunity to talk to one’s kids about these matters. Life is not simple and one-dimensional. The challenge for a parent is to prepare children for the ugly, tough, very often conflicted world they will inevitably live in.

    1. “could give kids the wrong idea about how to behave, but isn’t that what parents are for?” – as a parent, I loved the ambiguity in that sentence!

  22. Change the forelock by enlarging it and coloring it “Trump yellow” and there’s your new Trump visual and Pepe does have small hands err claws.

  23. For years I’ve dreamt of authoring a coffee table book about racism, sexism and misogyny in cartoons. We can roll our eyes but kids do emulate what they see. And some of these things are pretty bad. Take Popeye for example – essentially a running gag about sexual assault.

    My favorite though, is Disney’s Little Mermaid – whose lesson can be boiled down to ‘be silent and give up everything you are in order to get that man’.

    1. unfortunately if you did write such a book, the Daily Mail would crucify you for “cancelling” cartoon characters

  24. I’m a fan of the Pepe cartoons and I don’t think he promotes any kind of rape culture….however, I am highly skeptical of claims that this was driven by any sort of so-called ‘cancel culture’ or that he’s been cancelled. WB has not given any reason for leaving him out of the up and coming movie. I can think of many reasons you wouldn’t have him in the Space Jam movie that are to do with story, editing, mechandising, etc etc

    What appears to be happening at the moment is that certain media outlets know that they get clicks and shares by using the word “cancelled” in a headline. Wayne Knight is also not returning and there appear to be no plans for his Sapce Jam character in the future. Has he been cancelled too?

    1. Good point

      I assumed Pepe was in the first one….

      … I observe that all of us have more important things to discuss, yet – we are discussing … a cartoon movie release being promoted to get a big box office haul… consistent with your suggestion.

      1. He was in the first one. And apparently there was a scene in the second one which included him. The voices had already been recorded but it has supposedly been cut from the movie. No one has said why but many media outlets are certain that it’s because of “cancel culture”. Is it? Who knows?

        But you’re right, Space Jam 2 now has more brand awareness and marketing than they could have dreamed of because saying something is cancelled buys eyeballs and column inches.

  25. Why has nobody thought to denounce my own favorite TV cartoon—“Count Duckula”. The protagonist is a vampire duck who is also a vegetarian, and who speaks with an American accent while all around him sound like Brits. The staff of Castle Duckula includes the butler Igor, a vulture who is always trying to coax Count Duckula over to the dark side, and the Count’s huge, blundering, incompetent Nanny, who never bothers with doors and instead crashes right through walls. Another sporadic character is Frankenstein’s monster, who complains about being hung over [“My jaw this morning feels like an old garbage can. Oh, it is an old garbage can.” There are also two
    mechanical bats with Slavic names. Plenty to offend every imaginable group here. No need to cancel it, as it left the air-waves many years ago.

  26. It seems like a common misconception many people have currently is that they assume any portrayal of a specific behavior serves to encourage emulation of those behaviors.
    Certainly the same mob have gone after plenty of depictions which were unambiguously meant to provide a negative example and discourage the behavior.
    They hate “Song of the South” because it does not address the issue of slavery, even though it is set after the civil war. It does not matter that Uncle Remus is basically Disney himself, who believes in positive transformation through storytelling.
    My Grand kids, when and if they come, will be entertained just like my children. They will laugh at the wonderful cartoons of Chuck Jones, who was a genius. They will sing along with Uncle Remus, and know all the words to “Der Fuhrer’s Face”. They may not market or publish this stuff any more, but plenty of us already have copies.

    For those who might not know, Le Pew was inspired by Tedd Pierce, who had an unrealistic view of his own irresistability and romantic potential.
    But it was a light-hearted portrayal.
    A big point is that Penelope is always the victor.

    I admit I am a giant Chuck Jones fan. I have a signed production cell of the Grinch carving the roast beast in my library, and his books there as well. I am not going to be convinced that the cancel fanatics can show moral superiority over people like him, much less have the talent to create what he did.

  27. Honestly, as a parent who grew up on these cartoons, I can attest that there is far superior children’s programming available today. I don’t think anything of value will be lost with these cancellations, and I don’t think today’s kids would resonate with them. We have shows now like The Dinosaur Train, Space Racers, Aquanots for the little ones – all super educational & science forward. I showed kiddo a daffy, elmer & bugs clip to explain a joke I made recently, and while he humored me by watching it, he found it a chore.

    1. “One Froggy evening”
      “What’s Opera, Doc?”
      “The Rabbit of Seville”
      “Duck Amuck”

      Those are art, in every sense of the word. Do you imagine that a particular episode of “Space Racers” will still have such impact 70 years from now?

    2. It’s sad that everything for children today has to be “super educational and science forward”. Isn’t there any room in their lives for a bit of unadulterated and unadult fun?

      1. Rocky and Bullwinkle is kept to modern pace and production by DreamWorks, with comic peril, and all that signature cold war anxiety, at least. Not sure about Wile E. Coyote level though.

  28. 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.

    So, shooting people is bad, but blowing them up isn’t? (Leaving aside the usual imperviousness of toons to both, with the occationall “death” of a character, who comes back either in the same episode or the next nonetheless).

    I get that the depiction of the real and adult world for children is a balancing act on a fine line, but this seems like a very hypocritical ride on the modern train of political correctness to me. What’s more, they forego a chance to teach children about the societal problems of guns by pretending that they don’t exist.

  29. When I was a child of the 70’s, the debate about cartoon violence raged, particularly with respect to Tom and Jerry. As a five year old I thought the debate silly because

    a) it was a cartoon and the whole point of cartoons is you can do outrageous thing that aren’t real

    b) the new ones without as much cartoon violence just weren’t funny.

    As for Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam not carrying guns, that is plainly ridiculous. Elmer Fudd needs a gun or there’s no jeopardy for the hero of the cartoon, whether rabbit or duck. Yosemite Sam needs guns or he can’t do that thing where he fires them at the ground and takes off. Also, you can use him to push a moral message that guns aren’t as useful as you might think, particularly in encounters with talking rabbits.

  30. And yet elsewhere in media land the romantic genre of Hunky Billionaire prospers, and damaging car chases and (strangely bloodless) shootouts abound. Clearly Pepe Le Pew should continue – but only as entertainment for adults.

  31. Such cultural icons are the property of the copyright owners and they can suspend publication and distribution anytime they want. Seems like trying to put toothpaste back in the tube though, actually getting a good dose of the Streisand effect at the moment.

  32. What’s interesting about these old cartoons is that they are a “snapshot” of the cultural norms at the time of their making. I learned a lot about old history (both the savory and unsavory aspects) by watching Bugs Bunny in old WWII parodies, including with characters in blackface. And what we forget is that the reason why Broadway shows such as “The Producers” are so popular is that things that are funny OFTEN MAKE PEOPLE UNCOMFORTABLE. Things can be funny because they are completely improbable, unexpected, shocking, and because they make people think about things that they don’t want to confront in their subconscious. In much the way that giggling at being tickled is often a pain response, rather than an expression of complete joy, things that are depressing can make people laugh. It worked for “Harold and Maude.” And even though Dave Chapelle made some extremely edgy skits that offended people, he made people THINK about unsavory things that were ironic and sometimes true.

    All these Looney Tunes characters are effectively exaggerations of people that we know. It’s understood that the behavior of these characters is wacky and unabashedly naughty, and that’s why watching them is uncomfortably funny! Too bad for the loss of creative works like Dr Seuss’s books. I hope that this will be a temporary situation until people realize that censorship is not the answer.

    1. “What’s interesting about these old cartoons is that they are a “snapshot” of the cultural norms at the time of their making. ”

      (Warning – satirical attempt ahead – proceed with caution ):

      No – the cartoons are the unmistakable residue of oppression, a simple extension from antiquity of dominating races struggling to destroy the other, a nice cute racism and sexism, a tool for the subjugation of the powerless, rearing its head in our very living moment, and they must every character and sound be destroyed.

      Have a nice day!

      (End attempt at satire)

  33. I grew up watching reruns of Looney Tunes on Saturday morning TV in the 80s. The Pepe le Pew shorts were never my favorite because they were one-joke cartoons, but even as a child I understood Pepe was an oblivious buffoon and that his supposed paramours were nauseated by him and didn’t enjoy his company or exaggerated style of romance. Any halfway intelligent child can grasp that.

    “What we’ll be left with, eventually, are bland and anodyne cartoons stripped of everything that could offend someone’s modern morality.”

    In other words, the cartoons produced in the late 60s, 70s, and much of the 80s. During the Golden Age of American animation—the 30s to the early 50s—cartoons were made for cinematic exhibition to a general audience that had lived through tough times. In later years cartoons were cranked out for TV as babysitting fodder and corporately censored to the point of complete blandness. If culture is cyclic then we might be headed for another period of anodyne animated pap (except this time it will promote appropriately woke values). We’re already experiencing neo-Victorianism in other areas of art and culture.

  34. A few readers commented on how there’s something different with cartoons, and the intended audience, between now and, say, Warner Bros. / Bugs Bunny. It is hard to pinpoint but it can be amusing, easy, to consider, and fairly embarassing to express. Here I go.:

    Then :

    Bugs Bunny appears to have been conceived as vaudeville – which I think goes back as far as Mozart and The Magic Flute (if we trust the Amadeus movie). Silly antics, satire, absurd predicaments and mash-ups, ridicule, all in front of a backdrop of a real orchestra. Dialogue if it existed usually propelled the events with very little information conveyed. Protagonists like Bugs generally had their wits about them, villains like Wile E Coyote were dopey and incompetent yet highly destructive with their abilities. Wit triumphed over all, mostly.

    Now :

    Modern cartoons are sit coms mashed up with 90’s-style reality TV. For instance, we can look at – if we must – SpongeBob Squarepants. Extensive dialogue. Self-absorbed characters, bickering, personal needs unmet, sitting around in their own isolated microcosms, etc. Very little happens per unit of time, yet there is plenty of script. Sometimes there are silly things they do, but nothing really like Bugs Bunny. If anything, one wonders what the cartoonists were smoking when they produced it. It is clear they do not or cannot feature objects like guns, tanks, any weapons unless they fire ketchup or potatoes. The audience ranges up to adults – The Simpsons made that happen. Adult Swim is really the most nonsensical, but probably not for low age groups. The lower ages have “educational” cartoons with no risky material, and all sort of idealized concepts like helping (Paw Patrol), learning STEM things, history, and so on.

    I don’t know what to make of that.

    Apologies for riffing at length.

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