Approaching the Cartoon
We love it and we fear it: the children’s cartoon Courage the Cowardly Dog. Never before had a television show so captivated an audience of children cowering behind couches, anticipating the newest baddie—and sometimes ending up with a deeply philosophical message that they didn’t know how to react to. At least, this was the experience of my sister and myself, as we sat in rapt attention absorbing every detail. But what if we absorbed something darker than the concepts of courage and the love of our pets? And what if these darker themes were not, as one would expect, the fears of the unknown, but rather something more deeply ingrained in America’s cultural history? I speak of ideologies, those subtle notions that urge us toward a standard of culturally-accepted ideals and values. It’s true that even our childhood cartoons were not free from the influences of our society—and sometimes they manifested in quite odd ways. The methods by which these ideologies are revealed are housed in the study of visual rhetoric—the communcation of ideas through visual means—which I shall use against itself in a sort of visual combat. It’s going to be their scenes versus my memes, all for the glory of answering one question: Has our collective childhood been ruined?
Breadwinners and Homemakers
In the Courage the Cowardly Dog episode “The Magic Tree of Nowhere,” several ideologies are displayed. One of these makes its appearance at approximately four and a half minutes into the episode; in this scene, Eustace is upset that Muriel is sick—not because he is concerned for her welfare, but because he is disgruntled that she is unable to provide for him. This is demonsrated prominently in the conversation that takes place:
Muriel: “Courage, could you get me some water, dear?”
(Courage runs off to do the errand.)
Eustace: “How about breakfast?”
Muriel: “No, thank you, Eustace; I couldn’t eat a bite.”
Eustace: “I meant for me!”
The ideology at work here is that of the breadwinner/homemaker model. In this model, Eustace is the breadwinner, or the person who works outside the home in order to provide the house with financial stability. This is demonstrated when, in response to Muriel stating that the magical tree is providing for their family, Eustace asserts that it’s supposed to be his job to do that. He is the adult male of the household, which is typical of the breadwinner. Muriel is his counterpart; being the adult female, she is relegated to the homemaker role, which consists of staying at home, cooking, cleaning, and generally catering to the breadwinner. This model is part of the “nuclear family” ideology that took hold over much of America during the mid-20th century, which relies on the perception of women as passive and men as active; as Muriel and Eustace are elderly country folk, this may present the idea that they are simply backward, that they were just raised under different norms, and that we have come further as a society since then. Yet, this model contributes to the female-as-servant, female-as-prize, and female-as-temptress stereotypes that have been prevalent in media even today to an abhorrent degree. As Dorfman and Mattelart discuss in How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic,
. . . [T]he woman has no chance of switching roles in the dominator-dominated relationship. Indeed, she is never challenged because she plays her role to perfection, whether it be humble servant or constantly courted beauty queen; in either case, subordinate to the male. Her only power is the traditional one of seductress, which she exercises in the form of coquetry. She is denied any further role which might transcend her passive, domestic nature. (37-38)
Muriel serves her role as the passive homemarker to a degree that makes her an intensely sympathetic character. She is often the damsel in distress whom Courage—the canine protector drawn just anthropomorphically enough to allow us identification with his emotions (McCloud 36)—must save, most typically due to her good-natured naïveté. Thus, she performs her role as the submissive housewife excellently.
Barbarians and Noble Defenders
A second ideology is displayed just before seven minutes in, where Eustace steps up, brandishing a rough-hewn axe, similar to a Stone Age tool (despite having spent the previous minute sharpening an apparently modern axe). A camera pan upwards shows him to be wearing brown roughspun garments under a cloak made from a bear skin, obviously meant to portray him as barbaric. The change occurs after Eustace has finally given in to his anger at and jealousy of the tree; he is determined, in the most primitive way, to remedy his plight.
Courage, within the walls of his dirt castle, plays the role of the civilized defender, while Eustace becomes the one-man savage horde; simply by donning a skin and wielding a stone weapon, the connotation that he is a vicious attacker is cemented—regardless of whether people who actually wear such attire and use such tools are actually violent. Once more, we may turn to Mattelart and Dorfman in How to Read Donald Duck for illumination on this occurrence:
While the city-folk are are intelligent, calculating, crafty, and superior; the Third Worldlings are candid, foolish, irrational, disorganized and gullible (like Cowboys and Indians). The first are spirit, and move in the sphere of ideas; the second are body, inert matter, mass. The former represent the future, the latter the past. (46)
It is not so simple as Eustace donning his primitive attire; he furthers it through his irrational actions, urged on by his anger. He is disorganized, opting for a stone axe despite having just sharpened one of metal. He acts the fool by desiring the destruction of what could be considered an objectively good asset. What he wears is indeed of the past; what he does, therefore, is considered tantamount to that period. He who looks the barbarian, acts it.
However, contrary to what one might expect, the noble defender is eventually defeated, the prized tree laid to ruin; it is the barbarian who wins the day (though Eustace, back in his normal attire, does get what’s coming to him by the end of the episode).
The Curse Model
In the Courage the Cowardly Dog episode “King Ramses’ Curse,” a far different set of ideologies are displayed, with the central ideology of the episode being that of the Egyptian curse. The model is fairly simple: an ancient artifact is removed from a tomb or similar structure in a place almost invariably designed to seem Egyptian, by people of European descent. Following the theft, a mystical curse manifests in one or several of various ways, harrowing the thief and anyone else who comes into contact with the object; this results in the death of the original thief, typically in addition to several others, before the artifact is returned (by another person of European lineage) to its original resting place.
This episode follows the formula quite accurately; not only do the original thieves perish in a swarm of locusts—echoing one of the Biblical plagues—but the unfortunate subsequent owners of the artifact (Courage’s family) are beset by a curse-bringing mummy the likes of which surely appeared in the nightmares of all children who viewed the episode. The depiction of King Ramses is utterly unexpected, featuring stiff yet somehow fluid movements rendered by a computer, as opposed to the normal 2D animation style of the rest of the cartoon. His mouth works of its own accord, regardless of the words he speaks, lending his echoing voice an even eerier quality. He is, in short, a horror—one brought into being by Egyptian magics.
This ideology emphasizes a highly modified version of ancient Egyptian culture, while ignoring its modern aspects entirely, painting Egyptian people as mysterious and vengeful, ever the antagonists, even after death. King Ramses and his artifact are the products of foreign powers, both dangerous and unknowable, yet single-minded—similar, perhaps, to how imperialists view the people they conquer: easily taken advantage of, but ready to take savage revenge at the first opportunity. Such imperialist ideologies are also discussed by Dorfman and Mattelart in How to Read Donald Duck:
Though the artifact was stolen rather than surrendered, and the setting is in the land of the more technologically advanced rather than that of the artifact’s origin, the perceptions presented here of the involved people are accurate. Eustace is certainly a child-adult, subject to his own whims—particularly the yearning to keep the valuable artifact for himself. King Ramses, similarly, may be considered the child-noble savage, for his is the unwavering pursuit of his own desire.
In order to liberate the satellite/colony/slave, it is also up to the modern white male (or, in this episode’s case, the modern pink dog) to save the day. The subjugated party (no matter his plagues) is unable to gain power over the dominator; thus, the white/pink savior must be the one who steps in.
The Archaeologist and the Artifact
Hand-in-hand with this ideology is the trope of the intrepid archaeologist—also white, also upstanding, though far more likely to be a bumbling fool or ineffectual scholar than the adventurous savior. This episode showcases both in one:
This character is closer to yet separate from the ancient culture, and this closer association often comes with either a devotion to that culture, or an aloof disdain for it. Even in the former case, the devotion is often still of an aloof quality—the objective academic studying uncivilized peoples or their culture. The latter case emphasizes this relationship in a supremely negative direction, often leading to the exploitation of the native inhabitants, but the former remains dangerous, instilling such values as the desire to “uplift” more “backwards” peoples, rather than respecting different cultures as simply different, and not better or worse.
Furthermore, the ancient civilization depicted is one laden with riches, the artifact itself of supreme value, though no mention is ever made of how the artifact came to be. In this case, despite appearing to be nothing more than a carved stone slab, the artifact is valued at a million dollars. A similar situation is described by Dorfman and Mattelart in How to Read Donald Duck:
Marx had a word—fetishism—for the process which separates the product (accumulated work) from its origin and expresses it as gold, abstracting it from the actual circumstances of production. It was Marx who discovered that behind his gold and silver, the capitalist conceals the whole process of accumulation which he achieves at the worker’s expense (surplus value). (65)
The artifact is an enigma, with no past beyond its use as an artifact; the people who constructed it no longer matter, as to the mind of the viewer, it was not constructed. It simply always was, existing in the form as we now recognize it.
Thus, our childhoods are ruined, are they not? Well, not necessarily. By being able to recognize the ideologies that are being taught to our children through the media they consume, and by being able to recognize what we ourselves consumed and continue to take in, we become more aware of our world and the values of our society. This is the profit we gain from analysis of visual rhetoric; simply by being aware, we are able to make determinations about whether we agree or disagree with these ideologies, and why. Our childhoods were not ruined; they were preparing us to look introspectively and analytically, and to remake ourselves anew—hopefully, for the better. It is up to each of us, not only to examine the cartoons in front of which we sat in rapt attention, but also to note how other media affected and continues to affect us as well. Magazines, movies, and even commercials all have a way of subtley influencing our thought patterns—not through subliminal messaging, but through tones of voice that indicate a certain person is undesirable; through the laughter of characters at others who deviate from the norm; through the nonacceptance of peoples and cultures into the mainstream, but only as the “foreign” or “exotic;” through the submissiveness of certain characters to others without question, and with no one fighting for their side; through the portrayal of the deviant as bad, while the conformists are hailed as good. These and others are all portrayed through the visual, are all presented to us as indisputable, and all influence us and mold our minds, especially as young children. So let’s be rhetoricians. Let’s look deeper at what is being shown to us. Let’s give the next generation a more worldly, accepting future, and make sure they never have to answer the question of whether their childhoods were “ruined.”