Amazon applies "racial prejudice" warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons

The lede on this story pretty much says it all.

Tom and Jerry cartoons on television are being accompanied by a warning that they may depict scenes of “racial prejudice”.

The classic cat and mouse cartoons, some made more than 70 years ago, carry a warning for subscribers to Amazon Prime Instant Video.

There have been claims of racist stereotyping in the depiction of a black maid in the cartoon series…

Amazon’s streaming subscription service, formerly branded as LoveFilm, includes the cartoons in its comedy collection.

But Tom and Jerry: The Complete Second Volume is accompanied by the caution: “Tom and Jerry shorts may depict some ethnic and racial prejudices that were once commonplace in American society. Such depictions were wrong then and are wrong today.”

A British professor of sociology, Frank Furedi, is quoted as saying that the warnings are a form of “false piousness” which judges people of the past by the values of modern society. Dr. James Joyner sees it slightly differently.

While my initial instinct is to agree with Furedi, I’m inclined upon further reflection to agree with Amazon. The purpose of these warnings is to help parents make judgments about which programs to allow their children to watch and to help inform their discussions with their children about said programs. As such, contemporary values, not those extant at the time a film is produced, are what matter.

I don’t, therefore, object to the message “Tom and Jerry shorts may depict some ethnic and racial prejudices that were once commonplace in American society.” Where I believe Furedi’s “false piousness” charge correct is in the needless appending of “Such depictions were wrong then and are wrong today.” We really don’t need Amazon to render these judgments for us.

The story sounds too crazy to contemplate at first blush. If you’re going to be putting parental warnings on video entertainment, cartoons which date back to before even I was born seem an unlikely place to start. It’s a cat chasing a mouse who generally makes a fool of him. The violence is fake and there is, for the most part, no voice work. Yes, the depictions of the maid would never be shown today in a live action film unless it was a period piece, but that’s how things were in the fifties. But I can also see where this is a protective measure.

On one level I understand what Joyner is saying, but for more reasons than social responsibility. It’s true that there are probably any number of younger parents who want to be on guard against any form of social injustice, and if Amazon applying such a label helps to prepare them for a discussion with their own children about the cartoon’s contents, I suppose that’s fine. And I’m guessing that it doesn’t really cost Amazon much.

But what could cost them more – and is not covered by the author above – is a lawsuit. Yes, I know how crazy that sounds. Who could possibly think they could successfully sue someone over the social injustice inherent in Tom and Jerry? And then I look around at the rest of the headlines making the news in 2014 and I remember that it’s not crazy at all.