Since I was a little girl, my favorite cartoon character has been Pepe Le Pew. I looked at him as a poor, rejected little skunk who just wanted Penelope to love him.
After learning today in WAPO that Pepe is on the block to ‘exit, stage right’, I’m both saddened and disturbed. Sad, because I there won’t be any more Pepe Le Pew Hallmark ornaments to add to the ten or so I already have for my xmas tree. Sad because that little bugger was a big part of my childhood TV viewing, and he was cute. And sad because the reality is hard to deny, when you take a cold, hard look at those old cartoons through adult eyes.
What bothered me more, however, was realizing how I never really thought about the underlying theme of every one of the Pepe and Penelope cartoons – that men force themselves on women because they want to, and that women can do nothing but accept this as the status quo. Sure, as a little girl this wouldn’t have crossed my mind, but that’s the problem; repeatedly exposing little minds to these images, children absorb the lesson that it’s okay for a man to force himself on a woman. They take that out into the world, along with all the other media exposure of women as playthings for men, and it’s no wonder that so many of us have at least once in our lives been sexually harassed or abused.
I say this having been sexually assaulted by a friends’ cousin when I was in eighth grade. I played hookey one day with her and her brother, so during and immediately afterwards I told myself it was all my fault. It didn’t cross my mind at the time that the fact I was wearing my catholic school uniform when he came to pick me up should have been enough to make this grown-ass man make tracks and drive off as soon as he saw me. Or the fact that he knew I was 13 years old and in elementary school with his cousin. I was precocious, as an only child in a home with three adults, and so sounded older than I was. I have no idea how old he was.
When he was done, he drove me back and dropped me off on the corner of my street. Walking home, I contemplated telling my mother what had just happened. As I imagined the conversation in my head, I got as far as this:
“Mom, while Sue (not her real name) & I played hookey today, I got into a car with her cousin and went to his house somewhere where he took me to his bedroom and made me play with him until something squirted out of his penis.” (I was physically mature, but emotionally not so much.)
“If you hadn’t played hookey, this wouldn’t have happened.” Nope, not gonna happen.
I didn’t tell anyone about it until I was 28 years old. Mom, aghast, asked me why I didn’t tell her then. When I told her what I’d thought at the time, she admitted that I was probably right. I know she felt really bad about it, but there wasn’t much that could be done at that point. Ironically, I think I was prompted to say something after we’d watched the Bill Cosby stand up video that was so big back in the late 80’s. Weird.
Anyway, I think it would be better if Warner Brothers would revamp Pepe Le Pew into something less creepy, like maybe have Pepe and Penelope in a consensual relationship. I’m not sure what that could end up looking like, but it could show how people are supposed to treat someone they really care about, and how no means no. But with humor. Kinda like a Looney Tunes cartoon.