Censorship in American animation dates back to the Motion Picture Production Code of 1934, during an effort that preceded the Motion Picture Association of America’s film ratings system.
The code was defined as the set of moral guidelines to be followed within the film industry; it ultimately became the only institution governing the production and censorship of most motion pictures produced or distributed within the United States before the film ratings system was implemented. While all motion pictures were subject to censorship under the Motion Picture Production Code, animated shorts and features were carefully inspected due to their impact on children as well as the ability of animators to draw characters in any way or engaging in any act. Perhaps the most famous example of censorship in American animation comes with the “Censored Eleven,” a group of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons that were banned from syndication in the United States in 1968. The United Artists studio, which owned the distribution rights at the time, decided to stop the future broadcast of these eleven specific animated shorts due to their political incorrectness.
Because these cartoons were banned for being too offensive for contemporary audiences, they have not been officially broadcast on television since their banning in 1968. This fact alone provides us with understanding the power of censorship. In the instance of the “Censored Eleven,” racial themes are so essential to these cartoons that no amount of selective editing would make the collection acceptable for syndication, distribution, or broadcast. With this example, we understand that censorship in animation is different than other media due to how selective it is in nature. Censorship in war eras (specifically after or around World War II) was less rampant than in other time periods.
Superman could easily get away with fighting the Japanese in 1942 because Fleischer and Famous Studios had gone through great lengths to explain the type of enemy they were and why we must defeat them. This version of Superman as an American super-weapon has actually been quite popular throughout the life of the character, which could be argued as relatively expected. Who better than a truly American role model to show children that the United States can do no wrong? Additionally, there is an interesting commentary on the role of censorship in this instance. Are animated terroristic-like acts and racism suddenly acceptable once the Japanese or Nazis became involved with the affairs of United States citizens?Perhaps censorship serves a fundamental role in the attitudes of Americans by choosing what sentiments to share.
The answer to these questions is unfortunately still being written. The Production Code of 1934 required a priori censorship, meaning scripts and storyboards needed to be approved by the censorship authority prior to the finished product being placed on the market. However, in the world of animation, most of the editing and censorship has been post hoc, meaning a finished product being removed from distribution or edited without the consent of its creators. This form of selective censorship brings several moral, ethical, and artistic ambiguities with it and still affects us as Americans today. Censorship in cartoons is sporadic and almost hypocritically in its nature, as seen when comparing the racist nature of “Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs” (one of the “Censored Eleven”), with the violence in wartime Superman and the Eleventh Hour.
This lack of a uniform standard concerning censorship across the animation industry leads to the spotty and incomplete removal of potentially harmful material. Perhaps the most important thing to note when looking at censorship within the animation industry is the fact that animation is considered in many instances an entertainment form designed specifically for children. Additionally, rarely does an “Edited for Television” disclaimer preface a content-edited cartoon. This directly relates the hypocritical nature of American censorship in animation; we want to ensure that our kids are safe from questionable material, but we also want to ignore its happening.
This also shows a lack of respect for the artists involved in the production of these cartoons and once again brings up the moral ambiguities concerned with censorship. Now, the American animation industry is more about commercialization than characterization, and the art of the animated short has nearly vanished from television in the United States altogether. This is direct evidence that we have moved to developing narrative within full-length animated shows and features. As the political climate in the United States becomes more progressive and moderate, animation censorship has as well. We now rely primarily on a ratings and self-censorship system in which parents are assured that studios will uphold the moral values and standards appropriate for the audience’s respective ages. Why are we still talking about censorship in 21st century America? Perhaps, at least when examining the case of animation, censorship in the Golden Age of animation (and even today) had little to do with the processes surrounding animation itself.
As mentioned before, these cartoons were typically edited post hoc, after production was complete; this gives us the notion that someone down the line believed that they were morally and socially acceptable to create. Censorship, because we can now understand its inclinations fully, can be defined more as a reflection of society and what we determine to be acceptable as entertainment. The conversation about censorship, though old, is still relevant and continues today, as our ideas concerning morality and tolerance are constantly changing.
Couvares, Francis G.
Movie Censorship and American Culture. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1996. Print Heraldson, Donald. Creators of Life: A History of Animation. New York: Drake, 1975.
Print. Cohen, Karl F. Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators in America. Jefferson, NC: McFarland &, 1997.
Print. Yenika-Agbaw, Vivian S. , Ruth McKoy Lowery, and Laretta Henderson. Fairy Tales with a Black Consciousness: Essays on Adaptations of Familiar Stories. New York: McFarland &, 2013.