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Reading the Rabbit: Explorations in Warner Bros. Animation Paperback – June 1, 1998
"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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While I consider myself to be a reasonably intelligent person, I must admit I had considerable trouble slogging through the dense, polysyllabic prose. Once I did so, however, I found the book did contain some interesting observations:
In one installment, one of the book's many co-contributors examines the deconstruction--and reassertion--of gender roles. No news to those of us who are transgendered--the book points out things that many in the TG community find obvious. Namely the main premise, that gender roles are ridiculed (as with Bugs Bunny's crossdressing) in order to reinforce them. Whether the animators themselves had this intention is questionable--they were merely following a formula as old as vaudeville-- but it does make one think. A related essay covers the lampooning of heterosexual behavior in the Pepe Le Pew cartoons. The contributor noticed what I discovered many years ago--that "gay panic" in straight males forces them into the same sort of blissful denial as poor Pepe. They, like Pepe, try to convince the world they are irresistible to women, because that is what defines them as men. Most of all, however, they're trying to convince themselves.
There is also an excellent overview of the portrayal of blacks in Warner Brothers cartoons--it contends, as I have always believed, that the animators themselves were not necessarily racist even if their cartoons sometimes were. The fact that Bob Clampett went so far as to take his animators to a black jazz club in L.A. (as preparation for the brilliant "Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs") shows a sincere, if naive, sensitivity on his part. Rather, it was the enforced racial separation of the time--and the resulting ignorance of whites toward black people--that were the real culprits. Those who participated in the making of such cartoons now wish they hadn't--they would hardly have been so contrite if they truly were racist. It is a period they--and we--are now trying too hard to live down.
Given the sometimes insightful essays contained in this book, I wanted desperately to give it a higher rating, but it is weighed down too much by wordy "pedagoguese" for me to give it a higher recommendation. The whole in this case is less than the sum of its parts, and no book that requires one to have a dictionary within arm's reach is fun reading.
Thankfully, the contributors to this book don't do that. They're writing some serious history and commentary, but the Warner Bros. cartoons remain the focus, not what Jameson said about what Derrida said about what Foucault said. More to the point, even when criticizing elements of the cartoons (as in the paper on representation of black characters), the reader senses that the writers are fans of the Warner Bros. cartoons, flawed though some may be. There's always the sense that, no matter how serious the discussion, this is ultimately about something fun.
Oh, and the editor's comments in the introduction, about the recent dumbing down of the classic characters into friendly TV commercial shills and merchandise movers, is right on the money (so to speak).