Racists and Cannibals: JUNGLE JITTERS (Friz Freleng, 1938)

Not a movie this week, but a cartoon! Even today, many cartoons depict racist and sexist stereotypes, but JUNGLE JITTERS was so gratuitous that it was placed on a list known as the Censored Eleven, a list of  Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes cartoons taken off television in the United States in 1968 because of their offensive stereotyping of black people. The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia links to this cartoon, as well as to several other real stinkers.

This cartoon, which is well under a hundred years old, followed the favoured interpretation of colonialism – the native people were uncivilised savages, probably cannibals, waiting for the white man to bring them into the modern age. This process was always violent and exploitative and often involved the expropriation of their lands and even extermination. But the public image of colonialism was the semi-human cannibals, as amusing as apes, and the civilised Europeans, who might be running the place, or could be poaching in a cauldron. This cartoon managed to fit all of that ideological baggage into less than eight minutes.

The idea that those who are not part of the Western liberal tradition must be primitive cannibals seems strange to us now, but let’s not forget that Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel and many other European philosophers considered indigenous people, whose strange customs were reported by the explorers, to be primitive savages, urgently in need of enlightenment. H.G. Wells in his 1920 book Outline of History wrote, “At first, the only people encountered by the Spaniards in America were savages of a Mongoloid type. Many of these savages were cannibals”. Even in this century, the weary trope continues to raise its head – a British Secondary School exam board recently apologised for approving a psychology text that contained a question on teamwork, involving a group of cannibals cooking a missionary.

In the “plot” of this cartoon, a travelling salesman brings a case of useless consumer goods to a fenced village. At first, the natives don’t want to let him in, but then change their perception of him.

Of course, he is soon in a cauldron, with jokes about “hold the onions” etc.

Then there is the love interest. This was a problem – depicting primitive natives indulging in cannibalism was unproblematic, but the “Hays Code”, which set the moral guidelines for American cinema from 1934-1968, definitely frowned on miscegenation – any hint of sex between the races.

The solution in this was to make the Queen into a white woman, without explanation, and have her see the salesman not as the cooked chicken envisaged by her tribe, but as Clark Gable and Robert Taylor.

While he appears to be some sort of dog, she seems to be based on a chicken (but not edible for some reason) and of course she is the kind of spinster that Hollywood loved to show as desperate and dateless.

She arranges an instant wedding, but he is repelled by her and, hilariously, chooses to leap back into the cauldron, expressing the hope that

“…they all get indigestion!”

I guess people still make racist and sexist videos today, in ever greater numbers, probably, but at least they are no longer distributed by major entertainment companies and aimed at children. Perhaps we are making progress. Or is racism and sexism simply becoming more sophisticated?