Tommy and Jerry.
Cat and mouse. Who’s the real victim here?
I’m in the middle of an interesting conversation over on Twitter about Tom and Jerry cartoons.
Which we’re not allowed to watch anymore because they’re insensitive. But I had no idea how insensitive they were until I did a little reading into World War I.
Now, before I go on, I am about to make a speculative claim that I have no real evidence of, and I don’t intend to claim it as factual or even particularly brilliant. But it created an interesting discussion about victims and predators, so I will make the claim that, no matter how historically relevant it may or may not be, this connection is, I think, fairly interesting.
Because — what it is, see? — goes like this.
In World War I, the Germans called the Brits Tommy, and the Brits called the Germans Jerry.
Tom and Jerry.
Which, if there’s a connection there at all, probably just suggests that the phrase “Tommy and Jerry” was present in the culture while Hanna and Barbera had a bully session when they came up with some new characters for their next short, and in that less interconnected time these two gentlemen with a gift for branding settled on Tom and Jerry. Probably it never entered their mind that they really wanted to create a metaphorical representation of the conflict between Britain and Germany in the World Wars in cartoon form.
But the thing is, if you practice a little bit of literary obnoxiousness, it becomes easy to look at Tom and Jerry cartoons and draw a few uneducated conclusions that are, in spite of their shallowness, excellent to bring up at dinner parties.
Because it turns out that Tom and Jerry cartoons might serve as a kind of barometer for your world view on a particular issue.
In the west, we get an awful lot of mythology to support the idea that Tom, the big cat, is the bad guy. Makes a lot of sense to me. He’s big and brutish and slavering. He’s clearly in a position of power, and he’s aggressive about it. He’s usually the instigator — I mean, if he changed his idea about what to eat then we wouldn’t have these conflicts at all. He has many clues that make him look like a bully, and we don’t like bullies in the west, do we? We are a non-bully kind of people, aren’t we? Not having with that whole “might makes right” attitude, are we?
But the thing is, I always had so much pity for Tom. He may be bigger and more powerful, but at the beginning of every episode he is starving.
Which doesn’t make it RIGHT to go and eat another ostensibly sentient being, but what it does do is make Tom a desperate individual. The righteousness programmed into me by my upbringing tells me that it doesn’t matter if you’re starving: you don’t eat your friends.
But I’ve read enough to know that I’ve never been desperate before. Not starving desperate. I don’t know what become “okay” when I’m desperate.
So that right there always got me uncomfy before the conflict even started. I grew up just poor enough to know exactly how close we were to being desperate, so I always felt sympathy for Tom.
Then they started to fight, though. I mean, these Tom and Jerry cartoons took a similar shape, didn’t they? Usually, Tom felt hungry, he spotted Jerry, and shenanigans ensued. Sure, Tom was hungry, but he shouldn’t have so eagerly misused his weight and power to pursue the smaller and therefore more innocent character. Right?
That’s what we saw in Jerry, right? He’s smaller. He’s more vulnerable. He’s got those big, doe eyes with the big eyelashes. He’s the good guy, right?
Is he, though? I mean, who usually escalated the conflict? Who usually introduced some technological superiority the increased the potential strife and heightened the stakes?
And in what attitude did he do it? I mean, one of my most prevailing memories of Tom and Jerry cartoons I have is an image of Tom, the worse for some trap, either tied up or smashed down or in some other way incapacitated, and Jerry walking up — strutting up is more the term — with a smug fug on his mug, to deliver some insulting last slap across the face or something. Jerry’s already got his win over Tom — Jerry’s already scored a victory — and he feels a need to smile while enacting some cruel vindication. I mean, Tom is literally starving at this point, and then that happens.
That is not the behavior of a good guy.
Jerry might be the smaller guy. He might be the prey animal. He might be on the menu.
That may be true. It probably is. But that mouse had the devil in him.
Yes. I am describing my a bias. Which is what we do, you see. We discover our bias, and we view the world through it.
I understand that a lot of people saw Tom as the bad guy and Jerry as the good guy. I never once saw their conflict in those binary terms, when I was a kid. Tom and Jerry cartoons always made me feel uncomfortable as a kid, because I saw a victim of circumstance acting out of desperation, which made me uncomfortable, and a victim of another person’s desperation being turned into a vindictive troll by the stress of a really awful struggle.
And maybe that feels like a lot of thought to put into a cartoon, but that’s how thought experiments work, you see. They serve a purpose. Thought experiments always do. They’re a chance to let an idea loose within a predictable and controllable set of parameters in order to see how the idea works.
And how it works for me is that I conclude that every episode of Tom and Jerry felt a lot like the first Rambo movie.
I’m not going to draw any direct correlation between the conflicts in Tom and Jerry cartoons and the first and second World War. Partly because I don’t know enough, and partly because I’m not sure they’re there to be drawn. Especially in the second World War. If there was a war in history where you could make a binary judgment about it, I think that the second World War could raise its hand for that prize.
Lately, though, I’ve been reading a lot into World War I. And the reading I’ve been doing is the kind of reading where I’m looking more into the stories than into the politics or the grand movements or the economics or any of the bigger things.
This reading into World War I hasn’t made me eager to be all forgiving toward the Germans, who seemed to make some pretty stupid and awful decisions at the beginning. Nor has it made me think I ought to condemn the Allies, because I’m discovering that they “obviously had economic interests,” or something like that.
Instead, I’ve been learning that, basically, everyone was stupid in that war. Yes, I’m being an elitist child, sitting in my cushy twenty-first century not-having-been-in-a-global-conflict chair and attempting to cast judgment over one of the most peculiar events of human history, as I if know anything.
I don’t know anything. But the reading I’ve been doing makes me think that all those dudes back then who got through that war thought it was a pretty stupid war too.
Which isn’t the point I want to make, but it helped me think about the point I wanted to make.
The point I want to make is that I have been given a lot of opinions in my life. Things like, “Germans! Scary. They start wars. Kill a lot of people.” And that I spend most of my time acting on those opinions that I have been given.
I say given, because I don’t know where they came from. Not precisely. All I know for sure is that I didn’t think them through myself. Which concerns me, because it means that I am capable of “believing” things that I’ve never thought through.
Which concerns me.
I don’t know.
I may represent the minority in this particular opinion, but I don’t think that Tom is the bad guy and Jerry is the hero. I think they’re both victims.
That one I have thought through.