04 October 2012

Rooting for the Predator

My son, who is thirteen but wise beyond his years, asked me a question last night that is better than any blog writing prompt I have seen to date. He asked me, "Do you root for Tom or Jerry?"

"That's easy," I said. "Tom."  And then, after a pause, I added, "Also Wile E. Coyote and Sylvester PuddyTat. For the same reasons." My son agreed without further comment. We understand each other, he and I.

Just in case you're too young to know them, Tom and Jerry were the stars of an eponymous Hanna-Barbera television cartoon series, aired on weekends and after school during my childhood. Tom was a housecat, and Jerry was a mouse. Tom spent every single episode chasing Jerry around, trying to catch him and, presumably, eat him. Each episode is full of hilarity and comic violence (and great sound effects) as Jerry narrowly and ingeniously escapes the claws of the vicious predator. On occasion, the two act as allies against a common enemy (usually the family dog), but most of the time it's just a big cat-and-mouse chase. Often, Tom gets an anvil or a baseball bat to the head for his efforts; as with our friend Wile E. Coyote, the constant injuries smart but are gone by the following frame.

When I was a little girl, I always sighed with relief at the end of each episode, glad that Jerry was safe and would live to appear on my television screen the following Saturday morning. I didn't want to see a cute little mouse get dismembered by a mean cat. As I grew older, though, I realized that Tom wasn't really all that mean. He was just a cat, doing what cats do. His owners might even have adopted him with the understanding that it would be his job to eliminate Jerry. He not only failed, episode after episode, at that pursuit, but he got injured and humiliated in the process. Jerry was smarter and quicker on his feet every single time.

Jerry was a bully.

The little mouse could have just run into his mouse-hole to avoid injury, but he couldn't leave it at that. He had to mortify Tom, pound him over the head, drop a burning iron on his tail, lock him in the freezer, or do something else equally mean to drive his point home. There was no stopping at détente.

Of course, the cartoon would not have been entertaining - hilarious even - if it had not involved the violence, but that's beside the point of my son's question. My son's question was a moral puzzle with huge implications. If we cheer for Jerry, we are endorsing the same type of over-the-top violence that regularly sent Wile E. Coyote over cliffs, dislocated Daffy Duck's bill, and left Tweety Bird simpering disingenuously in his cute little cage while that little old lady handed him treats. That sort of sympathy just isn't right. And our conflicting emotions about the safe little prey animal are part and parcel of the cartoon's conceit. It's logic turned on its head, and that's one of the things that make for great comedy.

Also, great moral discussions at the dinner table. Your thoughts?

1 comment:

David Jón Fuller said...

My friends and I took the same question to heart when watching "Aliens" as teens -- are the Aliens just trying to survive, maybe? The question of whether devouring people to survive is worse than people enslaving a species for its bioweapons R & D was one we argued about, after cheering on every explosion.