Cartoons and Intolerance: A Cultural Filter

(By Noor Ibrahim, Queen’s University)

Recently, I’ve taken up the habit of re-watching my favourite cartoon shows from when I was a little girl. Keep in mind: I am doing so for the sole purpose of academic curiosity. In other words, this is serious research that requires hours of laborious critical examination. That’s not to say I’m not enjoying it – there is little to complain about when you’re revisiting old memories like your childhood cartoon shows. There is no feeling quite like the cold rush of nostalgia after watching the same televised episode you did when you were six years old.

That is how I like to measure changes in my mindset; by revisiting the same book or film over different periods of time and examining the manner in which my perspective on it might have changed. This is an especially effective technique in terms of children’s television shows. Not often enough do people consider the fundamental impact cartoons have in terms of shaping the morals and beliefs of an individual throughout their childhood. We worry about violence and explicit content but tend to ignore the fact that these cartoons are riddled with subtle social and cultural undertones that children absorb as the universal norm, making way for potentially problematic mentalities to develop as they grow older.

One of my earliest memories was waking up early in the morning to watch a little animated cartoon show called ‘Sailor Moon’. This show was unlike any other I had seen before – it continued to perplex and amaze me on a variety of levels. It subconsciously introduced me to different notions of diversity and acceptance. The female heroines were versatile, strong, and most importantly – unapologetic about neither their preferences nor their identities. Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus were two female heroines openly engaging in romantic behaviour. Moreover, Sailor Uranus took on a more masculine exterior, while Sailor Neptune maintained a more feminine physical preference.

Eventually, it was made to me clear that the creators were intentionally mindful of the different sexual and gender identities. They attempted to be inclusive of all these varieties within the show itself. What really stood out to me was the fact that these heroines were far from marginalized throughout the show, and instead were given space that allowed their unique characteristics to flourish in the form of major plotlines within the show. There was never any mention of labels. There was no need for distinct ‘clear cut’ categories to place each character in. They were beautiful, powerful women fighting for justice – and nothing else really mattered. Keep in mind, however, I am almost positive this was only due to the fact that the producers in my home country were too lazy to really examine the content they were airing to children.

When I got around to re-watching this show, it was in a completely different context. I was watching it here in Canada, and I got my hands on the English-dubbed version. When you are in a position like mine, it is easier to observe and appreciate subtleties in cross-cultural varieties. In that sense, I consider myself blessed with unique insights into dual realities. The one I had originally watched was an Arabic-dubbed version in Jordan, where they surprisingly aired it as it was originally created. It was completely uncensored. After watching the English version, I began noticing many differences in the characters and checked twice just to make sure. The queer partners were now, instead, referred to as ‘cousins’. Any reference to their sexuality was filtered out. The character of “Fisheye”, a gender queer character, described originally as ‘a miraculous creature that surpasses genders’ was being presented as a strictly female character. All the corners were cut, all the categories were divided – there was no more grey area, no more difference, and no more diversity.

The value of awareness when it comes to this kind of censorship cannot be emphasized enough. When one thinks of anime, we are immediately drawn to an image of a fantastical paradise in which sexuality and gender – in all its forms – is celebrated and exaggerated on a variety of levels. This cultural phenomenon is riddled with bold statements with regards to a variety of social bodies and discourses. In order to deconstruct these ideals and fully comprehend the reasoning behind this global fascination, it is necessary to examine the manner in which these social bodies are constructed and presented in Western culture as well. Thus, it may be said that even in the ideal world of children’s cartoons, subtle undertones of ideas that exist predominantly in the real world manage to manifest themselves on a continuous basis – ideas that ultimately act as an ideological foundation for future generations to come.

Without a full understanding of the extent of the problems at hand, then it is impossible to reach a solution. We live in a world where The New Yorker finds it necessary to mention that an 11-year-old girl who had been raped was wearing ‘clothes more suited for a woman in her 20’s’. Where, in some counties, it is still legal for a waiter to refuse service to someone based on his or her sexual orientation. Where the authorities have the right to arrest, torture, and refuse legal aid to a person based on their ethnical background. In the words of Jiddu Krishnamurti – “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society”. It is crucial for us to strive towards understanding and examining the social construct that continues to limit and imprison us. They exist in many different ways and on a variety of levels, and the healing process starts with the way we nurture and expose our future generations.


Noor Ibrahim