As some of you may have noticed, due to some life circumstances I haven’t been able to write much for the past year or so due to parenting requirements and career constraints. I’m going to try to rectify that, but in the meantime, if you love sandwiches and pop culture musings, I’ve got a lot more content over at Ordinary Times like this piece, which I considered my best of 2021.
Editor’s Note: This piece discusses sexual harassment, rape, and related issues of women being targeted and/or attacked, so trigger warnings and mature content notice.
Pepe Le Pew, amirite?
We’ll be circling back to him in a minute, but first I want to talk to you about India.
You may not be aware of this, but there is, at present, a human rights travesty happening in India. According to The Guardian, right now India is the least safe country to be a woman on Earth, with a woman or girl raped every 20 minutes. Because many of the victims are lower caste, the crimes are not typically investigated unless they’re horrifying in severity, and even if they are, are oftentimes not prosecuted. Of course, this statistic does not capture the many, many more women who are harassed, groped, molested, and who were too afraid to report their assault to the police.
Today I read a thread on Twitter about this terrible situation, and some uninformed person who will remain unnamed chimed in to ask the following:
The assumption underlying this tweet is that the reason a woman is raped every twenty minutes in India is because they must have some manner of inferior “rape culture” that needs to be “fixed” and that is in no way racist/ethnophobic either BTW.
A whole lot of people believe “rape culture” and not human choices are what creates rape. “Rape culture” causes rape, and these same people generally believe that “culture” is something that is very trivial and easy to change, like defeating racism by striking images of Aunt Jemima from boxes of pancake mix. People who believe in “rape culture” tend to believe that Pepe been a bad, bad boy, so Pepe needs to go.
Supposedly, if not for “rape culture” human men would be just big ol’ snuggle bunnies despite repeatedly proving themselves to be the most dangerous animals on the face of the globe in pretty much every other purview. Hey, let’s interview this passenger pigeon about how kind and gentle men are in the absence of Pepe Le Pew, shall we? Oh wait, we can’t, because passenger pigeons are all dead. Somehow, amazingly, men hunted passenger pigeons to extinction despite never once seeing a comical cartoon skunk doing it.
You may have detected some sarcasm in my previous paragraph. That’s because I have a pretty hard time believing that men rape because of Pepe Le Pew. Because that’s what we’re being told, right? We are being told that Pepe Le Pew is part of rape culture just like Han Solo and Prince Charming kissing Sleeping Beauty without her consent, and if only we eliminate these characters from the pantheon of pop culture, rape will up and vanish, or something, I guess – the details are hazy. Maybe somebody slipped me a roofie.
Because apparently, even though rape is supposedly not at all innate to humanity, all it takes to turn a normal decent guy into a rapist is the slightest incidental contact with a fictional character. Apparently, even though “not all men”, all it takes is seeing a horny cartoon skunk to turn a good man bad. Men are pure of soul and clean of heart, until they see a cartoon character, and then watch out!! The inherent purity of the human male, so fragile, so delicate, dangling by the slimmest of gossamer threads, will be corrupted. A switch gets flipped and then bazinga, altar boys turn into Matt Lauer and Harvey Weinstein entirely against their will.
That girls can see this same cartoon character and not turn into a sexual harasser is somehow not relevant to this convo.
Using this logic, even though they don’t even show kissing in Bollywood movies, somehow India’s rape crisis must somehow be caused by their “rape culture”.
Rape, I hate to inform you all, is part of the human condition. It is something human males do to human females, (and in some cases other human males, but that is not my story to tell). If you are a human female, you already know this because I don’t think there’s a one of us who hasn’t gotten those icy fingers down your spine when you encounter a dude who is considering doing it to you. Even if he changes his mind, and fortunately they usually do, you know it was on the table for a time, even if the man in question was never fully aware he was thinking about it. You know it in your gut even if you were unfailingly polite the whole time since that’s what society taught you to do – constantly question your instincts of getting the hell away from there because you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, because the worst thing a woman can ever do is hurt a man’s feelings. You know it even if you later go on to be friends or more than friends with said guy.
You can uncover this indisputable fact that men rape women by studying humanity – rape is found in all human culture, even, shockingly, those that came into existence before Looney Tunes. Punishments for rape are codified right into the most ancient sets of laws we are privy to. Laws against rape predated the existence of Pepe Le Pew by a solid three millennia. Rape was invented long before cuneiform, and both scientists and historians alike believe rape occurred long before our ancestors were ever even what we recognize as people.
Long story short, the idea that Pepe Le Pew is the driving force behind rape is ahistorical, unscientific, and completely ludicrous when judged dispassionately by the laws of common sense. It’s probably more legit to say it was a short skirt (but don’t say that either). Men rape women for a lot of reasons that are beyond the scope of this piece. But the biggest reason is that they wanted to.
Some of you are probably pretty offended by this, and would like to give me some song and dance stating “but rape is about POWER” or “not all men tho” depending on your political persuasion. But surely my fair-minded masculine friends, supposed purveyors of manly logic over girly emotion, surely you must admit that regardless of the whys and wherefores and whosits and whatsits, if you’re walking around as the human equivalent of a loaded gun, you can’t fault a girl for not wanting to play Russian Roulette with you. You’re the greatest guy in the whole wide world, undoubtedly. I know you, and I know you would never, ever. You’re just a really realistic looking Nerf Gun. But that guy over there, who knows, and so it simply behooves all women to treat every gun we encounter as potentially loaded.
Until that gun goes off, you don’t know if there’s a bullet or a foam dart in it, so please do not question my desire to protect myself, to protect others, from that hulking TotallyNotYou over there, who would also swear on a stack of religious tomes that he would never, ever, either. Women have some pretty valid reasons to take the possibility of rape with great seriousness, thus dismissing/diminishing female concerns in this regard, and acting all butthurt when we have said concerns is really exceedingly crappy.
To put it another way, attributing rape to Pepe Le Pew somehow controlling the male brain (which some of you claim is sooo much smarter and dispassionate than the female brain) is so damn insulting it nearly flabbergasts me. It insults my intelligence, and worse, it’s insulting to my safety because it trivializes and beclownifies the motives that lay beneath rape. If it’s so easy for a man to succumb to his darker instincts that the presence or absence of a cartoon skunk triggers the reaction, maybe, just maybe, menfolk aren’t trustworthy enough to have around, even the ones that are Nerfs.
Now hold on, there, missy, I can hear some of you saying. I KNOW you believe in toxic masculinity because I’ve read your stuff and you’ve talked about it in the past. And it’s true. I do believe culture has a role to play in imparting ethical values, up to and including “hey douche, rape is bad, mmmkay”.
Or as I have mentioned in the past:
You may point out that Pepe Le Pew does this stuff, and you would be quite right. He’s like a poster boy for bending the rules of consent, so therefore he’s a bad guy, right?? Surely little children shouldn’t see such a thing on their morning cartoon shows?
But Pepe Le Pew, unlike a whole lot of other guys the media parades out before and rubs into the faces of our nation’s impressionable children, is not portrayed as an aspirational figure. He’s the JOKE. The animators and by extension, the audience, are making fun of him and by extension, all men who behave in a boorish, sexually aggressive way.
You see, the thing with Pepe Le Pew is, he’s a skunk. He stinks. The pretty pussycat doesn’t want to be with him and he refuses to take the hint. We laugh and laugh at how clueless he is. No one, but no one, sees Pepe Le Pew and thinks “when I grow up, I want to be THAT guy”. (unlike Bugs Bunny, who is cool as f*ck, and is totally aspirational.)
Banning Pepe Le Pew doesn’t undo all the myriad examples of toxic masculinity and rape culture that exist, including the massive and unignorable things that exist in our culture that DID NOT COME from works of fiction. Banning Pepe Le Pew doesn’t erase the impact of thousands of other sources telling boys to get laid at any cost in order to be a man. Nor does it erase the impact of thousands of sources telling girls that cool chicks put out in the face of pressure, and if you do it the boy will love you forever and ever, and the even more thousands of sources telling women to doubt their instincts and they shouldn’t hurt boys’ feelings and “not all men”. Banning Pepe Le Pew simply eliminates one of the few things in media that is warning against boorish male behavior!
To put it another way, no one wants to be Pepe Le Pew, any more than they want to be the eternally defeated Wile E. Coyote. These are not aspirational figures! But a whole lot of dudes consume massive amounts of media in which women are mocked, scorned, belittled, treated as objects, and media in which men who treat women badly are painted as thoroughly justified, insanely cool, and get lots of play. Any men you encounter in said media who attempt to be chivalrous, kind, loving, or cooperative are belittled as betas and cucks. A whole lot of dudes watch PUA on YouTube; a whole lot of girls find dates on Tinder, swiping right to be treated as a cum dumpster for some dude who will never call them again, enthusiastically consenting all the while because that’s the message they got loud and clear from the media they consumed.My friends, we’ve walked into the doctor’s office to inquire about a hangnail when we’re actually dying of leprosy.
Banning Pepe Le Pew simply takes away information about the world from children, information that it is sadly of paramount importance to learn somewhere along the way. (Trust me, learning that the world we were told was safe actually wasn’t the hard way like so many of us have had to, sucks and is terrible and can haunt you the rest of your life – both emotionally and physically, because lest we forget that sex, let alone rape, can have very real physical and mental consequences for women that last a lifetime). Girls need to learn that men like Pepe le Pew and Harvey Weinstein exist, and boys need to learn that in a functional society, being a man like Pepe or Harvey renders one ridiculous and unlovable and the butt of everyone’s joke.
The real question about men and rape is not why do men rape, since it’s obviously a part of human nature to rape (of course, just because something is natural, doesn’t make it desirable, don’t @ me folks), but why do they NOT?
And the weird answer to that question is that answer is also “culture”.
Culture does transmit values, boy howdy, does it ever! But if you take one thing away from this piece make it this: the WAY we impart values is not always or even usually a case of straight up mimicry. If it was, those rebellious youths of the 60’s who grew up with Dick and Jane and pledging allegiances to flags and learning that the policemen were their friends would never have thought to become hippies and rebel. Whatever “culture” creates in the hearts and minds of small human beings, it CANNOT be a case of straight replication because if it was, culture would never change, it would stagnate, and we would pass down the same culture as human beings over and over again throughout history and all around the world. Culture cannot be straight up mimicry, because if it was, it sure the hell would not have changed as rapidly as it has over the last 200 years.
Just because something unpleasant that human beings do is represented in culture doesn’t mean that it INFLUENCES culture in that way. I can listen to Martina Mc Bride’s song “Independence Day” all day long and not light my house on fire, and it’s a hell of a lot more inspirational than Pepe Le Pew. I listen to The Chicks, be they Dixie or no, singing “Goodbye Earl” and don’t feed my husband poison black eyed peas. Impoverished cancer victims can watch Breaking Bad and not sell meth. The things we see may make us think, may give us a better understanding of the world, but they do not directly affect our behavior.
Cultural values are not imparted by monkey see, monkey do, and they never have been. There are messages that kids take away from the things they see, including fiction, and they take those messages away in ways that are much more insightful and cleverer than simply imitating Pepe Le Pew as if they’re little programmable robots, garbage in, garbage out. One of the best, the very best ways to influence people against bad behavior is to turn said bad behavior into a joke. Archie Bunker was a great tool in the fight against racism because he revealed the truth about racists, that they were pitiful blustering idiots who were scared because they were dying out. And Pepe Le Pew demonstrates quite clearly that men who don’t take no for an answer are laughable buffoons that women should run from and the rest of us should laugh at.
Viewed through this lens, it makes far more sense for the folks behind Looney Tunes to ban Speedy Gonzalez than Pepe Le Pew, and the reason is that Speedy is a misrepresentation of Hispanic people (though many Mexicans, my family included, adore Speedy and would be irate if he was cancelled) and adds nothing to our lives other than comedic racism. Speedy Gonzales does not impart necessary information about how to navigate the world. Pepe Le Pew on the other hand absolutely DOES contain a life lesson in his very inception, and is highly informative about the types of people and situations you may encounter in this world. Speedy Gonzales is just a pointless stereotype. Pepe Le Pew is a warning.
I mean seriously, do you think Pepe Le Pew was made a skunk on accident? Of course not. Skunks are black and white for the same reason as monarch butterflies are so distinctively orange. A bird who tastes a monarch butterfly quickly learns to avoid them. You learn quick in this world that you don’t want to get close enough to a skunk to be sprayed by him, just the same as you don’t want to get close enough to a creep to get groped. My dudes, you don’t want to BE a stinky creep, either. Lesson imparted; lesson learned.
Something happened there in the world for a minute there and for a brief shining moment it was safe for women in a pitifully few nations on the planet. Not perfectly safe, but safer than we had been ever before in human history. Ironically, this brief shining moment of female freedom happened at the same time and place in which Pepe Le Pew was running amok.
And the geniuses of cancel culture want to ban every means by which women uncover the reality that men can be scum? You want to ban any and every representation of men behaving badly, and send women out into the world unwarned about the depths to which some men will happily sink to if allowed? You want to send women out unprepared and uninformed, into a world in which every incarnation of male sexuality is constantly elevated, celebrated, promoted as just this side of holy?You can see attitudes of male entitlement in tens of thousands AITA Reddits, you can see them expressed in the pages of men’s magazines and pro-sex websites like Vice, you hear them expressed by MRA and incels and Jesse Kelly and his ilk on Twitter. You can see these toxic attitudes in movies and TV shows and commercials, and you can hear the sentiments expressed when men turn to each other and say, ‘I’d tap that”. Male entitlement, 2021-style, tells men, again and again, from just about every venue possible, that women are objects to be used sexually and discarded. At the same time, it tells women that if they want love, the way to get it is by letting themselves be used sexually and then discarded, and hope that maybe one of these times the dude will stay with you instead of chucking you in the garbage. And it tells a whole whole lot of men that the women who refuse this treatment are denying them what is theirs by divine right.
Just do it, Nike says. Just do it, our whole culture says. You deserve it. Take what you want. Don’t take no for an answer. I want it NOW! These are the messages we, especially we of the male persuasion, have drummed into our heads from countless sources. Is it any wonder some men take that message and extrapolate that into their own sexual entitlement?Suffice it to say, we have bigger cultural fish to fry than Pepe Le Pew.People, wake up – that glorification of sex, sex, sex as the highest pinnacle of human achievement, of trying to get laid as the most noble goal to which all mankind can aspire, IS rape culture. A culture that presents male sexuality as sacred and keeps women in the dark about their safety or lack thereof while telling them that they should put out at the drop of their panties because men NEED it, men deserve it, and you don’t want to hurt their precious manly feelings, IS rape culture. Whether it is in the US or India or Timbuktu, male entitlement is at the core of rape culture, and unfortunately getting rid of that is going to be a hell of a lot harder than banning a cartoon skunk. Because the reason why those attitudes are so endemic in fiction is because most fiction is made by men and it’s an attitude that is present in the men who are making fiction.
You guys want to chicken and egg this, I’ve seen you try it, but the reality is, rape culture comes from human culture and human culture comes from human minds and you can get rid of all the cartoon skunks and Han Solos in the whole wide world, you aren’t going to eradicate these attitudes from the wellspring they emerged from – the human brain. Even if you get rid of the very overt Pepe Le Pew, you won’t be able to get rid of the 10 zillion covert pro-rape-culture messages men receive every day over the course of their lives, at least not without creating a culture so restrictive it will be hell on earth. All we can do is warn, and Pepe Le Pew performed that function quite nicely.
Why do some of you want women to be unwarned in this world, anyway? Is it that your delicate sensibilities don’t like to be reminded of the reality of the world because it’s more comfy to you to live in your bubble and never look human nature in the face? Because that’s pretty shitty, serving up women like lambs to the slaughter, or perhaps a drunk girl at a frat party. The world SHOULD be safe, we whisper to young girls. IT SHOULD BE SAFE because people like Pepe Le Pew should not exist. Watch us wave our magic wands and make that bad skunk go away!
But Pepe doesn’t go away, now does he? He simply goes to work for NBC and has a button installed on his desk to lock the door from afar, he simply becomes famous and gives you a drink with drugs in it and gets away with it, for years and years he keeps on getting away with it. The Pepes among us do exist, it is inarguable that they exist, so many of them exist that you can take your “not all men tho” and shove it up your Nerf Dart Repository. The Harveys and Matts and Bills and Louies and all the many men who have gone unnamed for so long, exist, and preventing them from being represented in media – not celebrating them, but as a cautionary tale – does nothing to make them not exist. It only makes women not expect them when they enter our lives. And they may even make people with skunky tendencies to be less aware of their own foibles, to be more likely to indulge their darkest instincts, because no one ever held up a mirror to their faces and showed them what their behavior really looked like from the outside. Because seeing it from the outside, ain’t nobody wants to be Harvey Weinstein.
There is a propensity among the people who engage in cancel culture to mistake things that make them uncomfortable with things that should be banned, even when things that make them uncomfortable are otherwise of artistic, educational, or philosophical value. I’ve written about this in the past regarding the movie A Star is Born and the character of Harley Quinn, both of which, like Pepe Le Pew, have strong elements of cautionary tales buried within an otherwise palatable story.
Just because a program shows a person doing a bad thing or being a bad person, this does not necessarily INSPIRE anyone to do a bad thing or be bad person. Cautionary tales are a very valuable weapon in the arsenal of imparting positive cultural norms and personal values. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a lesson that comes with a gripping or hilarious storyline attached to it is better received than a preachy preachfest, and can enable people who would not be otherwise receptive to such a message to receive one.
Thus, if, as a culture we decide some things are truly too toxic for our culture to withstand, and we choose to leave them in the past, we need to take great care we’re selecting the right things for the right reasons. Pepe Le Pew is a representative of behaviors and attitudes that are endemic, hellz yeah he is, but he is neither inspirational nor aspirational. Nor is he even the tip of the iceberg when it comes to rape culture.
At least Pepe Le Pew lays the issue where it belongs, at the feet of un-self-aware men, rather than telling women it’s THEIR fault for not being as strong and powerful as Captain Marvel.
When it comes to women’s rights, America ain’t India. Women have it pretty good here, but there are some pretty ugly undercurrents of misogyny swirling, coming at us from a variety of sources. I think a lot of us gals are starting to see that, and are waking up to realize that somehow, some way, despite the world being systemically oppressed by hordes of males of varying hues, that the end result of all of it is that a lot of people have suddenly simultaneously concluded that women are the Actual Bad Guys. A whole lot of people are expressing hate towards women these days, and there ain’t no hate like the hate men who hate women have burbling within.And that, that right there, is the biggest driver of rape culture there is.
Banning Pepe Le Pew is like putting a band aid on a bullet hole. It does nothing to fix the problem, it only serves to make some people feel they did something to camouflage a problem that is potentially fatal.