Monday, August 22, 2005

Beacon No. 60: More Soft Power with Tom and Jerry


In May I quoted the Wall Street Journal as saying that Tom and Jerry cartoons could be seen on TV in otherwise insulated North Korea. That was remarkable enough, but it turns out that the animated cat and mouse had other fans as well.

In the September Atlantic, David Samuels submits an extremely long takeout on the late Yasir Arafat. He paints a Palestinian leader completely devoted to the cause of a Palestinian state, but willing to tolerate corruption that kept the Palestinian people from enjoying the fruits of foreign aid and their own industry.

In the middle of Samuels' piece there's this nugget on some of Chairman Arafat's idiosyncrasies:

The Palestinian leader was fond of time-saving measures, and could cite the exact number of hours that shaving once every five days, as he did, could add to a man's life. He spent his spare hours watching cartoons on television. His favorites were Road Runner, Bugs Bunny, and Tom and Jerry.

The cat and mouse again! How could American cartoons like these—some of which are old enough to collect Social Security—maintain their popularity around the world and transcend cultures as they do?

Animal characters are easily understood and, being inhuman, are politically neutral. Cats and mice, dogs and roosters, rabbits and ducks can be seen the world over, competing over scarce resources.

A lack of dialogue also helps since it cuts translation costs and avoids potential censorship.

Slapstick is the universal language of comedy. There's some primate instinct people retain that makes it impossible not to giggle when someone trips on their dress, slips on a banana peel or gets a pie in the face.

No one dies. This gets discussed explicitly by the characters—and actually becomes a plot element—in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the 1988 movie that is a brilliant exception to the no-dialogue rule. There's almost never permanent trauma in cartoons, only joy or just desserts.

Characters don't evolve. They can be counted on as either bright, plucky underdogs or overbearing, short-sighted buffoons. Put another way: You just can't believe the coyote is going to run over the edge of the cliff again—but you wind up laughing anyway.

And finally, the good guys always win.

I'm sure someone in academia has developed a longer list of factors than this. Anyone who wants to create universally understood characters and memorable situations could do worse than to look at cartoon art through these lenses, and keep in mind that Tom and Jerry is something that Jerusalem, Pyongyang and Washington all agree on.

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