Tex Avery was a filmmaker, producer, and voice actor during the early 20th century. He is known for his cartoons that dominated the golden age of American animation, and its now iconic characters, such as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Avery gained widespread popularity by producing movies with sexist and misogynistic themes that continue to persist in present-day society. His protagonists and main characters (almost always male) frequently displayed boorish behavior, such as drooling and howling at women. Although Avery’s cartoons did not invent catcalling, their widespread popularity allowed and normalized the misogynistic habits to continue into current culture.
Avery’s films were targeted toward young audiences—hence the childish animation style and foolish, halfwitted characters. Because children’s shows are seemingly innocent and without hidden messages, aiming these cartoons directly at impressionable youth normalized catcalling, and conditioned kids from a very young age that the behavior modeled in Avery’s productions was acceptable.
Avery’s short films such as “Red Hot Riding Hood”, “Little Rural Riding Hood”, and “The Shooting of Dan McGoo” portray female leads through a sexual lens of sultry appearance and seductive behavior. This is the “male gaze”—the sexualized and objectified depiction of females for heterosexual males to view, then to develop a desire to overpower and possess. Many of his works showed main characters howling at female performers, furthering the idea that women are objects to be ogled at. In these scenes, women were dressed in low-cut, revealing outfits and danced on a stage for male enjoyment. This propagates the idea that women exist merely as sexual objects for the sole purpose of pleasing men, giving rise to harassing behaviors such as catcalling. With the ubiquity of Avery’s cartoons that aired during children’s Saturday morning programming hours, these antiquated concepts and conduct that should have been abandoned long ago remain prevalent today.
“Little Rural Riding Hood” is a quintessential example of Avery’s many sexist productions. The movie highlights men not only fantasizing about sexual assault, but continuing their aggression after women have voiced their objection. The cartoon normalizes the disturbing trend of sexism and abuse that is not explicitly denounced. It is no surprise that this “no mean yes” school of thought feeds into rape culture. In the film, Country Wolf is the classic “wolf in grandma’s bed.” But instead of adhering to the traditional story of craving to consume Red Riding Hood, in “Little Rural Riding Hood”, Country Wolf would rather, as he puts it, “chase her and catch her and kiss her and hug her and love her.” Country Red (the knock-off version of Little Red Riding Hood from the classic story), initially tries to flee from the wolf, but she ultimately surrenders to his constant harassment. Instead of portraying Country Wolf’s acceptance of rejection, and walking away from the situation, Avery shows the wolf’s relentless aggression and pursuit of the girl, despite her unambiguous spurning.
The violation and conquering of women through the refusal to acknowledge lack of consent is representative of modern-day rape culture. Unapologetic and entertaining depictions of catcalling men winning out over unwilling, resisting women gives the green light by validating men who believe it is perfectly fine to continue harassing behavior even when women signal clear discomfort, irritation, or rejection.
“Animaniacs”, a show created by Tom Ruegger and influenced by Avery, is about the three Warner siblings: Dot, and her two brothers, Wakko and Yakko, who were notorious for causing mischief around Warner Bros. Movie Lot. This show created the famous line “Hellooooo nurse!”—the catchphrase used by the two brothers whenever they encountered attractive women. The brothers continued this throughout the series without ever being stopped or reprimanded. The women who were given unwanted attention either ran away or put up with sexist and abusive behavior. Wakko and Yakko were viewed as being fun and energetic children who were simply and “innocently” complimenting attractive females. This was normalized throughout the series and, while this was a legitimate cause for protest, audiences were not motivated to make any changes.
Tex Avery’s work promoted objectification of, and aggression towards, women by featuring entertaining, buffoonish characters who regularly demeaned the women around them. This was a common formula used by those who controlled the media at the time. The immense popularity and high viewership of Avery’s cartoons continues to have a lasting negative impact that must not be ignored. Avery promoted these ideas by absorbing them into playful narratives, resulting in audiences becoming desensitized to inappropriate and harassing behaviors. Whether or not it was intentional or conscious, Tex Avery made a business out of endangering the safety of women—a major theme of his cartoons 30 years before the term “male gaze” was first used. In spite of all this, it is undeniable that the pervasiveness of catcalling and sexual harassment woven into his shows still impacts present-day discussions and social norms of sexism and misogyny.