Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

Pepe Le Pew should be canceled, but Space Jam misses a huge opportunity

Space Jam missed a chance to teach kids about consent.
Space Jam missed a chance to teach kids about consent.
Illustration: Warner Bros/Getty

“Now they are canceling Looney Tunes characters!”

You can already hear the howls of indignation from the right, who, whilst Americans continue to struggle to keep their heads above water amidst a global pandemic, have spent the majority of their time and TV appearances concerned about racist, obscure Dr. Seuss books and the gender of anthropomorphic tubers.

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When I first heard that Pepe Le Pew — the French skunk who spends all his time terrorizing poor Penelope cat — had been “canceled,” I was actually ecstatic. If you’ve never seen Pepe Le Pew (what rock have you been living under?), his schtick is that he grabs women (cats), holds them in place no matter how much they struggle to get away, and plants kisses all over them, not only without their consent but to their very visible disgust. I guess the joke is that Pepe is French and his behavior is supposed to be a hilarious French stereotype. Having studied in France and dated French guys, I never found this to be the case, but cartoons exaggerate everything, so whatever.

The problem with Pepe Le Pew is that, since he was created in the post-World War 2 era (1945 to be exact), we’ve learned a lot more about consent and women have fought and won more recognition of their bodily autonomy. And yet, we continued to see these same old “she’s just playing hard to get” trope in entertainment even today. The scene in Ghostbusters where Peter Venkman refuses to leave Dana’s apartment, even after she firmly and repeatedly asks him to, still makes me cringe. On his way out, he begs her for a kiss, though she’s been clear that she’s not interested. And in how many movies do we see a woman slap a too-forward man across the face, before changing her mind, grabbing him, and kissing him passionately?

The times may have changed, but the message young girls receive is that women’s consent is changeable, men will be forgiven for disregarding their wishes, and that man refusing to take “no” for an answer is just a sign of how much he wants her.

I have a very clear memory of a 5th-grade boy holding me down on the back of the school bus and, after me rejecting his suggestion that we “make out,” holding me down and shoving his hand down my pants (I hope you’re reading this Mike, I haven’t forgotten). Why didn’t I move or tell the bus driver? I don’t know. Why doesn’t Penelope cat go to the cops? At 11 years old, that wasn’t a message I had learned about boundaries and power over my own body. Every woman I know has a story like this.

Do I blame Pepe Le Pew? Of course not. Pepe’s only fault is that the men writing the character still think it’s funny when he blows past all the stop signs a woman put up for him. Which makes the scene that was reportedly cut out of Space Jam: A New Legacy so tragic. Here’s how Deadline describes the now-deleted scene:

Pepe was set to appear in a black-and-white Casablanca-like Rick’s Cafe sequence. Pepe, playing a bartender, starts hitting on a woman at the bar played by [Greice] Santo. He begins kissing her arm, which she pulls back, then slamming Pepe into the chair next to hers. She then pours her drink on Pepe, and slaps him hard, sending him spinning in a stool, which is then stopped by LeBron James’ hand. James and Bugs Bunny are looking for Lola, and Pepe knows her whereabouts. Pepe then tells the guys that Penelope cat has filed a restraining order against him. James makes a remark in the script that Pepe can’t grab other Tunes without their consent.

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This would have been a great lesson for Pepe, as well as the tons of children who will flock to this movie in droves. What a brilliant way to educate the public about consent. And good for Penelope, she SHOULD have gone to law enforcement for help with Pepe’s stalking long ago.

So the problem is not so much that Pepe Le Pew has been canceled (he hasn’t been, though probably should be), it’s that he’s been denied the opportunity to learn and grow as a character, teaching kids an important lesson about right and wrong in the process. Why this scene would be deleted from a movie in a country where an American is sexually assaulted every 73 seconds is bewildering. Especially when children enter the “highest risk” category for rape at the tender age of 12 years old.

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What an absolute whiff by Hollowood. And by LeBron James, who is producing the film. Why not insist a scene about consent must stay in?

I supposed the next time we see Pepe Le Pew, he’ll be back to forcing himself on women (cats), and the public at large will continue to laugh uproariously, even though rape culture is on steroids in this country. Just yesterday, Bauer Hockey put Patrick Kane, accused of sexual assault in 2015, in its International Women’s Day video. Sexual assault is so ubiquitous, society tends to forget who was accused of what after about a six-month attention span. Meanwhile, only 4.6 out of every 1000 rapists will ever serve jail time.

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But having someone with the stature of LeBron James educate kids about consent would have been a watershed moment for awareness of bodily autonomy. It’s a depressingly obvious missed opportunity.

After all, how does an 11-year old boy insist something is OK if LeBron tells him it’s not?

Co-host of The Ladies Room podcast. Author of "Sidelined: Sports, Culture, and Being a Woman in America." Former law-talking chick.