Updated: Dec 5, 2021
Co-written by Hafsa Khan and Zaria Adnan
Media is the primary pedagogue even before the formal means of education begins, making cartoons a major arena of learning for kids. So, if we were to pose this question if you have ever watched Tom and Jerry, the likely answer is yes. This itself showcases the need for a critical assessment of such cartoons as they are an integral element of the primary years of socialization. The relevance of Tom & Jerry can be seen through the fact that more than 2 billion people, mostly kids, watch it (D’Alessandro). It is a cartoon show depicting a cat and mouse, Tom and Jerry trying to one-up each other in various manners.
One of the first elements that one would pick from the show is the instances of extreme violence it shows. This would have an impact on the audience which largely comprises children. In her latest interview with Nogoum FM, Psychiatrist Seham Hassan claimed that games and cartoons such as “Tom & Jerry” can cause children to behave violently and grow up with a violent mentality” (Essawy). She claims that when children are continuously exposed to extreme instances of violence, they lose their sense of reality and think of violence as a way of playing. As Tom and Jerry are constantly hitting each other but no one dies.
This relationship could further be analyzed using Saussure’s theory of signifier and signified. The signifier is the idea that could take the form of an image, shows, etc., and the signified is the corresponding concept that it triggers in your head. When we apply this to Tom and Jerry, the scenes of violence could be taken as signifiers and the implementations that could potentially take place as the signified. The meaning fixed here by the media product is violence as a joke and its translation by the kids as it has no serious consequences.
To further understand the themes depicted a character analysis would help us gain more insight. Spike is one of the lead characters who is very aggressive and has a violent character. He is usually shown to use brute force against tom and jerry. Connell's theory of hegemonic masculinity could be used to unpack his character. Hegemonic masculinity refers to the stereotypical ideal male traits that legitimize dominance over not just women but other men lacking such traits. Spike has this muscular and authoritative character that allows him to dominate Tom and Jerry because they don’t carry the same persona. The children could potentially internalize such toxic notions of masculinity including the use and show of physical strength for domination.
The first observation many would be able to make is that women characters are scarce. Therefore, discussed below are the two most frequent recurring women characters in the series: Toodles Galore and Mammy Two-Shoes.
Toodles is a recurring love interest of Tom; she has white fur, wears a neck ribbon, and is considered the most attractive of all the feline characters. She has never once spoken in the series nor moved around. Her character can be analyzed through the concept of the male gaze, which in feminist theory is an act of depicting women from a masculine, heterosexual perspective that shows women as mere sexual objects for the pleasure of the male heterosexual viewer (“Feminist Aesthetics”, 2012). Toodles has always been portrayed in an overly-sexualized manner: cherry red lipstick, seductive eyelashes, and a slow tantalizing walk that caused Tom’s eyes to pop out of his head in desperation. Mulvey argues that such characterizations in media are reflections of the sexual imbalances prevalent in society, which have been split between the active/male and the passive/female. Women characters are created to exhibit a “looked-at-ness”. Furthermore, Mulvey asserts that women have no importance on their own as characters. For instance, Toodles’ character is only defined by Tom’s desperation and love for her (Mulvey, 1975).
Limiting Toodles’ representation to the male gaze reduces women’s personalities to their sexual role, creates gendered expectations, and ostracizes those who do not conform. Similarly, brands promote products that characters such as Toodles wear, which may deepen insecurities; therefore, in today’s global economy, Western beauty standards become commonplace.
The second woman character in question is Mammy Two-Shoes, a middle-aged, and the only African-American character in the show. She is Tom’s unreasonable and disciplinary guardian. Her character is written in accordance with racial stereotypes, which then also reinforces said stereotypes. Stereotypes, as defined by Stuart Hall’s Representation Theory, are “..a preconceived idea of what a person is like, based on a range of different factors such as culture, race, sexual orientation, age, gender or appearance.” The three main stereotypes embedded in her character and their depictions are mentioned below:
Mammy Two-Shoes’ character has a hefty, bear-like build with an exaggerated bust & bottoms. This feeds into the common misconception that black women are obese.
She wears rag-like clothing implying her lower socioeconomic position.
Verbally abuses Tom, physically beats him up, and neglects his basic needs (e.g. by not providing him with food as punishment), feeding into the idea that black people are violent and unintelligent.
In fact, the character’s name itself is a historical stereotype. “Mammies” was used as a term depicting larger-sized, dark-skinned women working as domestic servants in affluent white families. The origin of the mammy stereotype is rooted in American history of slavery where black slave women were tasked with domestic and childcare work. However, it is an inaccurate depiction of slavery. It downplays the horrors and exploitation that the African-American community faced such as structural violence, exclusionary policies, death.
Sociologist Stanley Cohen argued that continuous stereotypical representation of communities in the media is harmful. It constructs a narrative of the racial group as something out-of-the-ordinary and against the status quo. It paints them as the “folk devil”, i.e., the clear villain that must be countered. Therefore, “moral panics” are created amongst the white majority against the black minority; this is “a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.”
Though the mammy stereotype is damaging to the black community, white-owned brands have continuously capitalized on it. This is the case for specifically food ads because of the assumption that mammies are great domestic workers. For instance, a mammy is the face of Aunt Jemima’s Pancake Flour; however, the product is owned by Quakers Oats Company, which was founded by a white businessman.
The question as to why these characters have been so poorly written remains unanswered. Perhaps it can be owed to positionality, i.e., the idea that no media product is free from the mark of its maker.
The initial writer was a white man, Fred Quimbly. Firstly, his male-heterosexual identity may explain the scarcity and over-sexualization of women characters. Secondly, his being white may also have to do with the harmful black stereotyping. The most recent writer for the show is a white woman, Kelly Jarvis. Contrary to the common solution of an increase in diversity leading to inclusive content, Tom & Jerry has still had oversexualized characters such as Toodles. Is this the result of “new sexism” (Gill, 2011) in the media industry whereby newer exclusionary mechanisms have been adopted to exclude women from the general narrative?
The show itself contains a disclaimer that it has elements of racial prejudices. This disclaimer has also caused controversy. In the sense that it has been attacked for reading history backward and judging people in the past by our values. To understand this idea of reading history backward we could use Foucault and his theory of knowledge production. He uses the idea of discourses through which knowledge production takes place and claims that the same discourse would appear at any one time in history which he calls the episteme in various institutions. Therefore, the themes present in the show reflect the prevalent discourses of the time including racial prejudices and stereotyping.
Therefore, this complicates our understanding of how to look at such media products and through what lenses we should judge them given their relevance and popularity.
Hall, S. (1997) Representation, Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, Milton Keynes: Open University, (Chapter 1, pp. 15-64).
D’Alessandro, Anthony. “Warner Bros’ ‘Tom & Jerry’ Opening Higher In Monday Actuals; Still Second-Best Debut During Pandemic – Update.” Deadline, 1 Mar. 2021, deadline.com/2021/03/tom-jerry-weekend-box-office-opening-pandemic-1234702484.
Connell, R. W., and James W. Messerschmidt. “Hegemonic Masculinity.” Gender & Society, vol. 19, no. 6, 2005, pp. 829–59. Crossref, doi:10.1177/0891243205278639.
Essawy, Omnia. “Attention, Children! Tom and Jerry Can Make You Violent!” Identity Magazine, Identity Magazine, 4 Dec. 2018, https://identity-mag.com/attention-children-tom-and-jerry-can-make-you-violent/.
Coughlan, Sean. “Tom and Jerry Cartoons Carry Racism Warning.” BBC News, BBC, 30 Sept. 2014, https://www.bbc.com/news/education-29427843.
"Feminist Aesthetics". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Winter 2012. Retrieved 13 May 2015.
Mulvey (L), Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, 1973, pp 19.
Cohen, Stanley (2011). Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers
Gill, 2011. Sexism Reloaded, or, It’s Time to Get Angry Again. Feminist Media Studies.Vol.11, No. 1. pp 61-71.