The Most Controversial Cartoons

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10. Speedy Gonzales

In 1999, the Cartoon Network ceased to air Speedy Gonzales. In an interview to Fox News on March 28, 2002, Cartoon Network spokeswoman Laurie Goldberg commented, “It hasn’t been on the air for years because of its ethnic stereotypes.” This is widely believed to refer to Speedy’s fellow mice, who are all shown as being very slow and lazy, and sometimes even appear intoxicated. This is particularly true of Speedy’s cousin, Slowpoke Rodriguez, who is exceptionally slow and lazy. Slowpoke is also known to carry a gun.

In Gonzales’ Tamales, the town mice instigate a feud between Speedy and Sylvester the Cat because Speedy has been stealing the hearts of all the females. Much of the dialogue between Mexican characters is in English and the small amount of Spanish that peppers the dialogue consists of basic greetings, goodbyes, exclamations, and misplaced references to popular Mexican foods. This criticism prompted Cartoon Network to largely shelve Speedy’s films when it gained exclusive rights to broadcast them in 1999.

However, fan campaigns to put Speedy back on the air and lobbying by the League of United Latin American Citizens saw the shorts return to air from 2002. Despite the controversy in the USA, Speedy Gonzales remains a very popular character in Latin America. In Mexico, the Speedy Gonzales show has been on and off part of the regular programing of Televisa’s Canal 5 national channel ever since it was created. In 2010, a Looney Tunes New Year’s Day marathon on Cartoon Network showed the episode “Mexican Boarders” having both Speedy and Slowpoke.


9. South Park and Scientology

“Trapped in the Closet” is the 12th episode of the ninth season of the Comedy Central series South Park. It was originally broadcast on November 16, 2005. The plot of the episode centers on character Stan Marsh, as he joins Scientology in an attempt to find something “fun and free”.

After the discovery of his surprisingly high “thetan levels”, he is recognized as the reincarnation of the founder of the church, L. Ron Hubbard. The title is a reference to the R. Kelly serialized song of the same name.  The episode generated significant controversy. Tom Cruise, who is portrayed in the episode, reportedly threatened to back out of his promotional obligations for the Paramount Pictures film Mission: Impossible III if Viacom, the owner of both Comedy Central and Paramount, allowed a repeat of the episode to air.

Though the episode was originally scheduled for rebroadcast on March 15, 2006, the episode “Chef’s Chocolate Salty Balls” was shown instead. Comedy Central representatives stated this change was made as a tribute to Isaac Hayes, but South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone thought otherwise; they issued a satirical statement saying they (Parker and Stone) were “servants of the dark lord Xenu”.

Hayes, the voice of staple character Chef, asked to be released from his contract shortly before the start of the tenth season. The reason for his departure, as reported by Matt Stone, was due to his membership in Scientology and this episode, which—despite initially supporting the show’s satirical take on several talk shows—Hayes claimed was very offensive. The episode has since been rebroadcast on Comedy Central multiple times, and the episode is available on the South Park Studios


8. Aladdin

One of the verses of the opening song “Arabian Nights” was altered following protests from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). The lyrics were changed in July 1993 from “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face/It’s barbaric, but, hey, it’s home,” in the original release to “Where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense/It’s barbaric, but, hey, it’s home.” The change first appeared on the 1993 video release. The original lyric was intact on the initial CD soundtrack release, but the re-release uses the edited lyric. The rerecording has the original voice on all other lines and then a noticeably deeper voice says the edited line. Entertainment Weekly ranked Aladdin in a list of the most controversial films in history, due to this incident.

The ADC also complained about the portrayal of the lead characters Aladdin and Jasmine. They criticized the characters’ Anglicized features and Anglo-American accents, in contrast to the other characters in the film, which are dark-skinned, have Arab accents and grotesque facial features, and appear villainous or greedy.

Protests were also raised to another scene. When Aladdin is attacked by the tiger Rajah on the palace balcony, Aladdin quietly says “Come on… good kitty, take off and go…” and the word “kitty” is overlapped by another, unidentifiable sound, possibly Rajah’s snarl. Some people reported hearing “Good teenagers, take off your clothes,” which they considered a subliminal reference to promiscuity. Because of the controversy, Disney replaced the phrase with “Down, kitty” on the DVD release.


7. Pokemon Panic   

Twenty minutes into the episode, there is a scene in which Pikachu stops some vaccine missiles with its Thunderbolt attack, resulting in a huge explosion that flashes red and blue lights. Although there were similar parts in the episode with red and blue flashes, an anime technique called “paka paka” made this scene extremely intense, for these flashes were extremely bright strobe lights, with blinks at a rate of about 12 Hz for approximately four seconds in almost fullscreen, and then for two seconds outright fullscreen.

At this point, viewers started to complain of blurred vision, headaches, dizziness and nausea. Some experienced seizures, blindness, convulsions and loss of consciousness. Japan’s Fire Defense Agency reported that a total of 685 viewers, 310 boys and 375 girls, were taken to hospitals by ambulances.

Although many victims recovered during the ambulance trip, more than 150 of them were admitted to hospitals. Two people remained hospitalized for over two weeks. Some other people had seizures when parts of the scene were rebroadcast during news reports on the seizures. Only a small fraction of the 685 children treated were diagnosed with photosensitive epilepsy. Later studies showed that 5-10% of the viewers had mild symptoms that did not need hospital treatment.

12,000 children who did not get sent to hospital by ambulance reported mild symptoms of illness; however, their symptoms more closely resembled mass hysteria than a grand mal seizure. A study following 103 patients over three years after the event found that most of them had no further seizures. Scientists believe that the flashing lights triggered photosensitive seizures in which visual stimuli such as flashing lights can cause altered consciousness. Although approximately 1 in 4,000 people are susceptible to these types of seizures, the number of people affected by this Pokémon episode was unprecedented.


6. Family Guy and Sarah Palin

In February 2010, following the airing of the episode “Extra Large Medium”, in which Ellen, a female character with Down Syndrome, mentions that her mother is a former governor of Alaska. Bristol Palin, daughter of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, criticized the show for mocking her brother Trig, who has Down syndrome, and people with special needs in general. Stating on her mother’s Facebook  page, “If the writers of a particularly pathetic cartoon show thought they were being clever in mocking my brother and my family yesterday, they failed. All they proved is that they’re heartless jerks.”

Sarah Palin herself also criticized the episode in an appearance on The O’Reilly Factor, calling those who made the show “cruel, cold-hearted people.” MacFarlane responded that the series uses biting satire as the basis of its humor, and that it was an “equal-opportunity offender”.

Andrea Fay Friedman, the actress and public speaker who voiced Ellen, and who herself has Down syndrome, responded to the criticisms, saying that the Palin joke in the show was aimed at Sarah and not her son, and that “former Governor Palin does not have a sense of humor.”  

In a subsequent interview Friedman rebuked Palin personally, saying she was angry with Sarah Palin for using her son Trig as a political prop to pander for votes, that she has a normal life and that Palin’s son Trig should be treated as normal rather than like a “loaf of bread.”


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5. The Boondocks

McGruder has defended the show’s heavy use of the word “nigga” by arguing that the large-scale usage of the word provides the show with a level of realism, due to the word being commonly used in the everyday conversations of many African Americans.

In 2006, Reverend Al Sharpton protested Martin Luther King, Jr.’s use of the word “nigga” in the episode “Return of the King”. Sharpton felt it defamed the name of King, and sought an apology from the series producers. The controversy was later referred to in the cartoon strip five times and in the TV episode “The Block is Hot” in the form of a morning radio announcement.  According to an article in The Washington Post, references to Rosa Parks were removed from one of the series’ completed episodes within a week of her death.

In the second episode, “The Trial of R. Kelly”, Parks was originally outside the courtroom protesting Kelly when she was hit with a large piece of fried chicken. The scene appears as a deleted scene in the season one DVD set. She is nonetheless seen, unidentified, at the end of the episode being enthusiastically embraced by the woman who had assaulted her with the fried chicken.


4. Song of the South

Even early in the film’s production, there was concern that the material would encounter controversy. As the writing of the screenplay was getting under way, Disney publicist Vern Caldwell wrote to producer Perce Pearce that “The negro situation is a dangerous one. Between the negro haters and the negro lovers there are many chances to run afoul of situations that could run the gamut all the way from the nasty to the controversial.” When the film was first released, the NAACP acknowledged “the remarkable artistic merit” of the film, but decried the “impression it gives of an idyllic master-slave relationship.”


3. The Simpsons

Various episodes of the show have generated controversy. The Simpsons visited Australia in “Bart vs. Australia” (season six, 1995) and Brazil in “Blame it on Lisa” (season 13, 2002) and both episodes generated controversy and negative reaction in the visited countries. In the latter case, Rio de Janeiro’s tourist board – who claimed that the city was portrayed as having rampant street crime, kidnappings, slums, and monkey and rat infestations – went so far as to threaten Fox with legal action.

Matt Groening was a fierce and vocal critic of the episode “A Star Is Burns” (season six, 1995) which featured a crossover with The Critic. He felt that it was just an advertisement for The Critic, and that people would incorrectly associate the show with him. When he was unsuccessful in getting the episode pulled, he had his name removed from the credits and went public with his concerns, openly criticizing James L. Brooks and saying the episode “violates the Simpsons’ universe.” In response, Brooks said “I am furious with Matt, […] he’s allowed his opinion, but airing this publicly in the press is going too far. […] his behavior right now is rotten.”

“The Principal and the Pauper” (season nine, 1997) is one of the most controversial episodes of The Simpsons. Many fans and critics reacted negatively to the revelation that Principal Seymour Skinner, a recurring character since the first season, was an impostor. The episode has been criticized by Matt Groening and by Harry Shearer, who provides the voice of Principal Skinner.

In a 2001 interview, Shearer recalled that after reading the script, he told the writers, “That’s so wrong. You’re taking something that an audience has built eight years or nine years of investment in and just tossed it in the trash can for no good reason, for a story we’ve done before with other characters. It’s so arbitrary and gratuitous, and it’s disrespectful to the audience.”


2. The Censored Eleven   

Many cartoons from previous decades are routinely edited on international television  (and on some video and DVD collections) today. Usually, the only censorship deemed necessary is the cutting of the occasional perceived racist joke, instance of graphic violence, or scene of a character doing something that parents and watchdog groups fear children will try to imitate (such as smoking, drinking alcohol, ingesting pills and dangerous chemicals freely, playing with fire, and abusing animals).  

For example, one classic cartoon gag, most prominent in MGM’s Tom and Jerry cartoons, is the transformation of characters into a blackface caricature after an explosion or an automobile back-fire. A script for an episode of Tom and Jerry entitled Mouse Cleaning (1948), had plans to turn Tom into an African American blackface caricature. Upon questioning by the maid, Tom answers “No, mam. I ain’t seen no cat aroun’ here…uh unh, ain’t no cat, no place, no how-no mam,” in stereotypical African American dialect.

Such small amounts of objectionable material only require relatively minor cuts in the cartoon to make it palatable to censors, in spite of objections and sometimes boycotts by fans.  However, in the case of the Censored Eleven, racist themes are so essential and so completely pervade the cartoons that the copyright holders believe that no amount of selective editing can ever make them acceptable for distribution.  

Of the cartoons included in the Censored Eleven, animation historians and film scholars are quickest to defend the two directed by Bob Clampett, Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs and Tin Pan Alley Cats. The former, a jazz-based parody of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, is frequently included on lists of the “greatest” cartoons ever made, while the latter is a hot jazz re-interpretation of Clampett’s now-classic 1938 short Porky in Wackyland.



1. South Park and Muhammad

One of the most prominent storylines from “200”, which continued into “201”, was the character’s efforts to bring Muhammad into public view. This is based on two past controversies in 2005 (Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy) and 2007 (Lars Vilks Muhammad drawings controversy), when European newspapers published cartoons of Muhammad, resulting in violent riots, global protests, and death threats toward the artists. As a result of those incidents, many publications and television studios have refused to broadcast images of Muhammad in any form, which was the inspiration behind Tom Cruise’s efforts to harvest Muhammad’s apparent immunity to satire and ridicule.

Parker and Stone have previously voiced dissatisfaction that images of Muhammad had been censored on the show, despite the fact that his image was shown during the 2001 episode “Super Best Friends”, without any censorship, before the cartoon controversies began. “201” continues the theme from “200” that argues against fear and censorship, and calls for support of free speech, both of Muhammad’s image and any subject considered taboo.

In the week between the broadcasts of “200” and “201”, the website for the New York-based radical Muslim organization Revolution Muslim posted an entry that included a warning to creators Parker and Stone that they risked violent retribution for their depictions of Muhammad. The entry stated that they “will probably wind up like Theo van Gogh for airing this show.” Filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was murdered by an Islamic extremist in 2004 for making a short documentary on violence against women in some Islamic societies.

The posting provided the addresses to Comedy Central in New York and the production company in Los Angeles. The author of the post, Abu Talhah al Amrikee, said it was meant to serve as a warning to Parker and Stone, not a threat, and that providing the addresses was meant to give people the opportunity to protest. The entry included audio clips of a sermon by radical preacher Anwar al-Awlaki calling for the assassination of anyone who has “defamed” Muhammad, saying, “Harming Allah and his messenger is a reason to encourage Muslims to kill whoever does that.” Subsequently, the website for the organization was hacked, temporarily redirecting web traffic to pictures of Muhammad.


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