For many, cartoons served as our initial introduction to on screen entertainment. We tend to associate these animated films and shows with silly adventures and colorful characters, as well as the easiest, most innocent and naive years of our own lives. At the same time, some cartoons taught us good values and the difference between right and wrong.
He-Man’s battles with Skeletor served as an introduction to the war between good and evil long. Our idea of relationships came stemmed from the happily-ever-after love story depicted in Aladdin. Back then, Scooby and the Gang were goofs who hunted spooks.
Yet, for a medium many of us associate it with simpler times, cartoons have a history of being anything but innocent. Some contain controversial subject matter with the aim of teaching children of how dangerous the world can be. Others are inappropriate knowing that the content will either go over kid’s heads or won’t do any long-term damage. As we get older and pick up on the edgier subject matter, the cartoons we loved as kids can develop brand new meaning.
From double entendres and socially conscious commentary to racist stereotypes and more, here are 15 Most Controversial Moments In Kids’ Cartoons.
15. HIV VIRUS IN CAPTAIN PLANET
Captain Planet was one of several ‘90s animated series which promoted a strong environmental message. The story followed a group of teenagers with special powers who used their abilities to combat villains posing a threat to the ozone and earth’s ecosystems. However, in the episode “A Formula for Hate”, the show also warned kids about the HIV and aids epidemic.
In the episode, it is revealed that a popular high school student (voiced by Neil Patrick Harris) has contracted HIV and has been shunned by his peers as a result. One of the show’s villains, Skumm Lord, is responsible for spreading the information in order to distract the community from his own nefarious plots for world domination.
While targeted toward kids, it still had a lot to say about society’s treatment of AIDS sufferers. Tackling such subject matter would be controversial even today, but the show educated younger viewers on a serious issue that can affect anyone, regardless of age.
14. RACISM IN STATIC SHOCK
Based on the DC Comics superhero Static, Static Shock was a series which ran for four seasons in the early 2000s. The show revolved around Virgil, an African American teenage superhero who possesses the ability to control and manipulate electromagnetism. He used his powers to fight supervillains and mutants, but even Virgil wasn’t equipped for encountering his best friend’s dad’s prejudice.
In the episode “Sons of the Fathers’’, Virgil is shocked to overhear an argument between his buddy Richie’s parents – of which Virgil is subject. After returning home in a bad mood, the old man loudly voices his displeasure about having one of “them’’ in his house. The rest of the episode sees Virgil and Richie’s dad forced to work together to find Richie after he disappears.
The comic tackled issues which affect the African American community as well as teenagers, so it’s understandable that the show would follow suit. And it did so with subtly while still getting its message across effectively.
13. FAT ALBERT IN GENERAL
Starring the disgraced entertainment personality Bill Cosby, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids ran between 1972 and 1985. The show was based on memories of the comedian’s own experiences growing up with his friends, and most episodes contained a strong moral message of some kind. The show didn’t shy away from controversial subject matter either, including racism, gang culture, STDs, and child abuse.
In one episode, the gang learns that the captain of the school’s hockey team has been absent because he’s contracted VD. In another, they find the dead body of their Latino friend, Fernando, after he gets shot. On top of that, you actually see the boy’s body on screen. These are just a couple of examples from a Saturday morning cartoon which opted for realism.
Even though Cosby’s rape allegations have besmirched his legacy, the issues Fat Albert depicted still reflected anxieties some kids do experience. It’s just a shame that the show’s cautionary tales and positive messages have been overshadowed by its star.
12. DIRTY MAGAZINES IN ED, EDD & EDDY
Sexual innuendos are nothing new in kids cartoons. From Scooby Doo to The Smurfs and beyond, the dirty minds of the adult creators are visible throughout. As kids, they go over our heads, but when we revisit them years later and pick up on the jokes, we can develop a brand new appreciation for our childhood viewing habits. Cartoon Network’s Ed, Edd, and Eddy, however, just so happens littered with sexual references.
In the episode, “The Day The Ed Stood Still”, Eddy and Edd are seen lying on a bed reading magazines with beautiful women on the covers while surrounded by scrunched up tissues. While other episodes contained references to adolescent awkwardness of the touching-yourself variety, this one doesn’t even bother trying to cover it up.
As previous mentioned, this isn’t the only nod towards self-love; there’s another where a note can be seen in a bathroom reading “Don’t Touch Yourself.’’ On top of giving bad advice to the lonely among us, the show wasn’t subtle with its debauchery by any means.
11. BLACK BUGS BUNNY
Bugs Bunny has always been a rascal, but in the banned episode “Southern Fried Rabbit’’, he might have crossed the line. Here, the rabbit poses as an African American slave in the South in a bid to cross the Mason-Dixon line, only to be continually thwarted by Colonel Yosemite Sam.
In the episode. Yosemite is reminiscent of a Confederate slave master who confronts Bugs for singing a song which celebrates the northern enemy. Bugs, in black face and on his knees, pleads, “Don’t beat me, Master.’’ You can see why people deemed it offensive.
However, while far from politically correct, you could argue that it sought to teach its younger viewers about an important era of inequality in American history. The uncut and fully restored version of “Southern Fried Rabbit” is available on Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 4.
10. NUDITY IN THUNDERCATS
Thundercats is one of the best Saturday morning cartoons from the ’80s glory days. Airing for four years between 1985 to 1989, the animated series followed a group of humanoid cats heroes as they battled their sworn Mumm-Ra enemies, along with other mutations. The first episode sees our heroes forced to vacate their home planet after it gets destroyed, and they forget to pack a change of clothes for the trip.
The episode “Exodus” portrays our feline warriors as nudists. This is notable in a scene where the main character Lion-O wakes up from a cat nap to find his compatriot, Cheetara, standing next to his bed completely topless. The other episodes saw them get some sweet threads, but our introduction to the gang was a naughty one.
The show was full of WTF moments, but seeing protagonists without clothes in a cartoon geared towards children ranks among the highest. Sure it wasn’t blatant or crude, nor did it contain any dangling appendages, but it was still pretty edgy for a show of its kind.
9. CIGARETTE ADVERTISING IN THE FLINTSTONES
Kids shouldn’t smoke. However, The Flintstones creators didn’t seem to mind polluting the lungs of their young viewers when they were shilling Winston cigarettes in early episodes back in the ’60s. Naturally, the response was a consensus of Yabba Dabba Don’t and it didn’t take long for the powers that be to ban the promotion of such harmful products in media.
In 1970, Congress passed an act which prohibited the advertising of cigarettes in TV shows and commercials, and reruns promptly removed the promotion of cancer sticks. That said, if you were a kid during the ’60s who was prone to the drag of a cigarette, it may have been because The Flintstones made you aware of their existence.
8. HAPPY SLAVES IN SONG OF THE SOUTH
Slavery is no laughing matter. Yet, if Disney’s 1946 cartoon Song of the South was all you ever knew of the most inhumane periods of human history, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was an idyllic experience. Set on a plantation in the post-Civil War American South, the film tells the story of Uncle Remus, a former slave who tells a young boy moralistic tales featuring the animated B’rer Rabbit. While it sounds like typical Disney fare on paper, the company themselves even consider it too offensive to release.
The film’s song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”, won a 1947 Academy Award and has since become a classic in the Disney library, but the film was heavily criticized for its racist stereotypes and blissful portrayal of slaves. Disney refused to release the film on home media fearing the backlash it would cause, and it remains locked in their vaults, collecting dust to this day.
7. ALADDIN’S ANTI-ARABIC SONG
Disney classic Aladdin – a film about a humble street rat with a heart of gold who befriends a genie and falls in love with a beautiful princess – is one of the most beloved films in Disney’s canon. That said, the film also pokes fun at Middle Eastern stereotypes with its opening musical number, which contains the lyrics, “where they cut off your ear/ If they don’t like your face,” followed by “It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” These caused outrage among the Arab-American community at the time.
In an interview with Variety following the film’s release, a spokesperson for American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee deemed it inappropriate for children. “Can an Arab-American child feel good after seeing Aladdin? The answer is no,” was the sentiment echoed by many in the American-Arab community at the time, and while Disney countered the claims by highlighting how the story portrayed an Arab hero and heroine, they later changed the lyrics for its soundtrack release.
6. HOMOPHOBIA IN DEXTER’S LABORATORY
Dexter’s Laboratory was accused of homophobia with its Silver Surfer parody, the Silver Spooner, in the “Dial M for Monkey” episode from 1996. Voiced by Rob Paulsen, the character was a flamboyant villain from outer space who rides around on a giant spoon. Due to his overly campy demeanor, ballerina-esque motions, and idol worship of Judy Garland, the Silver Spooner embodied gay stereotypes which many found offensive.
You’ll never see reruns of the episode Spooner was featured in, but it’s not for the reasons you might think. While it’s assumed that the episode was banned because of potential backlash from the gay community, the reason it was pulled was because Marvel threatened to take legal action for copyright infringement. The creators of Silver Surfer considered his fabulous evil twin a misuse of their character and the episode hasn’t been aired or featured on any home media releases since.
5. TALESPIN TERRORIST PLOT
Disney’s TaleSpin is a 1990 animated series derived from their classic, The Jungle Book. In the show, Baloo from the movie becomes a pilot and gets into all sorts of predicaments. A couple of those even resulted in two episodes being hidden away for good.
“Lost Horizons” was the first of two episodes of the show to be banned, in this instance due to perceived Asian stereotypes. The next episode to face the ban hammer was “Flying Dupes”, which sees the bear Baloo tasked with delivering a gift, unaware that he’s been tricked into delivering a ticking bomb.
Since it originally aired, the episode has only been shown once on non-independent television stations. The 9/11 attacks are thought to have ensured that “Flying Dupe” remained permanently banned going into the 2000s, though it’s not difficult to find online.
4. SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS “FUNEMPLOYMENT”
In “Spongebob, You’re Fired”, the aquatic sponge is fired from the Crab Shack and sent to the unemployment line. In a bid to cheer his friend up, Patrick boasts some of the benefits of being out of work, even referring to his idle status as “funemployment.” However, SpongeBob is intent on doing whatever it takes to return to the working world, and this pissed off a lot of people within the socio-political conversation.
The episode was criticized for referencing the Supplemental Nutrition Program (food stamps benefit). Many political activists interpreted it as a criticism of Americans who needed it to feed themselves and their families. Civil rights activist Al Sharpton labeled it conservative propaganda, claiming “The right-wing found a new hero in its war against the poor.”
The creators defended the episode as a metaphor for the harsh economic climate at the time, but it was mainly right-wing press who agreed with the sentiment. Nickelodeon defended the episode for tapping into a contemporary social zeitgeist, but most lambasted it as an attack on welfare claimants.
3. DONALD DUCK NAZI SALUTE
In Disney’s 1943 anti-Nazi short film Der Fuehrer’s Face, Donald Duck is portrayed as a reluctant Nazi who salutes and reads Mein Kampf. Upon release, it widely praised and, in 1994, it was voted one of the best animated films of all-time. As commentary about World War II, it’s considered an important work, but that didn’t stop Disney from removing it from general circulation until the 21st century.
While the film is meant as a satirical indictment of Hitler’s regime, the movie wasn’t released on home media until 2010 due to its propagandist themes and portrayal of Donald as a feathery fascist. Elsewhere, it was deemed potentially harmful; in 2002, a Russian court added it to the country’s list of “extremist” materials. However, it was revised again in 2016 and removed from the list.
2. BRAVESTARR DRUG OVERDOSE
Although it was created with the intention of promoting an accompanying toyline, ’80s space western Bravestarr. Taking place in the fictional frontier of New Texas, the show blended the Old West with outer space and often pushed boundaries by dealing with some weighty themes. The most notable episode containing controversial subject matter is “The Price”, which sees a drug epidemic break out in the town that turns citizens into addicts.
As if a kids’ cartoon featuring townsfolk addicted to drugs wasn’t adult-natured, there is a scene where a young character dies from an overdose. As shocking as the scene is, it’s not without merit. The social commentary about government’s treatment isn’t exactly subtle, but it’s an opinion that many people shared during Reagan era, as the administration seemed more focused on combating the war on drugs rather than paying more attention to suffering addicts.
1. POKEMON SEIZURES
We’ve all heard the argument that certain entertainment is harmful to children, but one episode of Pokémon literally was. So much so, many of the show’s younger viewers ended up in the hospital due to induced seizure attacks as a result of hyperactive strobe lightning effects.
Titled “Electric Soldier Porygon” and airing in 1997, the episode allegedly sent nearly 700 of Japan’s children to a medical facility. The adorable Pikachu was to blame for the atrocities, as the effects in question were used to enhance one of his lightning attacks against some incoming missiles. In the true spirit of Japanese anime, it ended up all kinds of crazy.
The incident was reported by the media as “Pokémon Shock” and caused the show to be withdrawn from circulation for months. When it did return, it did so with alterations to ensure that no more kids would suffe, saving the show from more terrible publicity and declining sales.
What are some of your most memorable controversial moments in kid’s cartoons? Let us know in the comments below.
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