To Edit, or Not to Edit: Cartoons as Role Models

Sept. 5, 2006 — -- Cartoon characters have long been role models for movie- and television-adoring children. But not all cartoons are made with kids in mind.

Homer Simpson, patriarch of America's favorite animated dysfunctional family "The Simpsons," guzzles beer, belches and appears severely overweight. He's as bad a role model for kids as anyone could possibly be, but his world is written for adults -- fully formed adults.

But not so long ago, cartoons -- commonly shown to kids now -- were prime-time television features, made for parents and children alike. "The Flintstones," for example, ran at night, long before it was popularized on late afternoon syndication for child viewing.

The early popularity of adult cartoons also made toon characters popular choices for advertisers, even when what they advertised were not kid-friendly. In an early clip, for example, Fred Flintstone and his wife, Wilma, act in a cigarette commercial. Winston was a sponsor of the popular cartoon show at one point.

Other famous cartoon characters also did their fair share of lighting up. Tom of "Tom and Jerry" was often seen puffing cigarettes, a fact that has come back to haunt the owners of these old classics from the 1940s, '50s and '60s.

Ofcom, a British government agency that monitors TV content, issued a statement criticizing too much smoke in "Tom and Jerry" cartoons.

As a result, Turner Broadcasting, which owns "Tom and Jerry" and "The Flintstones," is removing selected tobacco-driven scenes. The task requires an enormous amount of work, and courts controversy.

Jerry Beck, a leading writer of cartoon history, said similar editing has happened before. Often cartoons from another era can offend current sensibilities. Racial stereotypes, for example, have either been edited out or changed. In the old cartoon "The Three Little Pigs" -- created in the 1940s by the Walt Disney Co., ABC's parent company -- the wolf was satirized with a "Jewish" accent, supposedly an elaborate pork joke. As a result of ensuing controversy, Disney eventually changed the voice.

Beck argues, however, that the alterations are effectively changing historical documents. Those who agree say the solution is not to keep editing the cartoons -- instead, keep the originals but restrict their release to children.