Prestige is often needed to combat controversy, which is how the significance of a motion picture like Snow White exceeds its artistic merit and becomes a touchstone for public opinion. In the U.S., at least, the special Academy Award presented to Disney for Snow White served as the definitive answer to the question of whether or not animation could aspire to something more than cheap, disposable entertainment. That sort of prestige came in handy any time politicians sought to make hay by condemning cartoons for their depictions of violence.

Paul Terry, best known for Mighty Mouse and Heckle & Jeckle, could borrow off of that prestige, but never had much on his own. His Terrytoons studio had a decidedly third tier reputation, and even animation enthusiasts by-and-large talk about animation history as though Terry’s work stood outside it. Apart from the occasional mention of his influence on Astro Boy creator Osamu Tezuka, a student of animation history is unlikely to even encounter the name of Paul Terry.

Which is why it’s interesting to see him take a different approach in defending cartoon violence. Jerry Beck of Cartoon Brew recently came across a 1955 TV Guide article penned by Terry, and was kind enough to provide a scan. Therein, Terry (whose filmography is often explained as the work of a businessman, rather than an artist) points to 40 years of “study and analysis” in support of the violence in the shorts he produced. It boils down to this:

Perhaps I shouldn’t come right out and say so, but it’s true that children react best to situations in which there is a slight suggestion of violence. This does not mean that a child will laugh at gory, sadistic scenes. On the contrary, too much violence will scare a youngster.

That could be read quite cynically as the sort of demographic analysis that’s intended to attract children without much concern for the product’s affect on them. You could probably say with equal validity that kids react best to filtered menthols, rather than to straight tobacco, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we should be passing out Salems in kindergarden.

That said, there might be an argument in favor of exposing kids to some cartoon violence. Childhood is, in large part, a process of learning to connect the things we want to happen with the bodily limitations and capacities that determine the scope of our abilities. At some point in that process, children learn to recognize violence as a kind of event, often beyond their control, with steep negative consequences. Naturally, most of them quickly develop an overwhelming fear of violence, and taken to extremes, that fear can restrict their ability to cope with the world at large.

Pandering politicians and concerned parents have, since time immemorial, worried that exposing children to cartoons and comic books would acclimate them to violence, with the end result that those children would go on to behave violently and with few moral qualms. To an extent, they’re probably right. Depictions of violence probably do acclimate children to violence, but seeing that as a simple cause-effect relationship may be conceiving of it too narrowly.

Cartoon violence (or even simply cartoonish violence, like that in certain action and horror movies) can be a way to allow children to observe violence in an atmosphere defined by control. Done properly, it can serve as a way to ratchet the child’s horror of violence down to a manageable and appropriate level of fear and respect. The problem, then, is not that cartoons are violent at all, but rather that there’s a tricky balance between depictions that present violence as something can be faced, and depictions that present it as a tool of control. Terry’s “brutal truth” can serve as a starting point for exploring that line.

is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
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