Pepé Le Pew was always my least favorite Looney Tunes character, followed closely by Speedy Gonzalez. Introduced in the mid 1940’s, he’s a skunk obsessed with love, and he always looks for it in all of the wrong places, particularly with the ever-unfortunate Penelope Pussycat.
It’s interesting to see how cultural and social attitudes change over the years. While as a kid, I never thought of Pepé as a rapist or sexual harasser, I never found his shtick all that funny. He chases around a poor cat who somehow gets a stripe of white paint down her back in every cartoon, and she gags and squirms violently every time he pulls her close enough to smooch. It’s all the fun of a “will-they-won’t-they” story with none of the suspense or appeal, but three times the annoyance.
I asked a few people from previous generations to explain the “joke,” so to speak, and all of them seemed to give me some variation of, “He’s funny because he’s outrageous and clueless.” …Okay, so he’s a sort of proto-Max Bialystock from The Producers?
…Yeah, I’m still not buying it.
As I mentioned in my review/comparison of The Producers, the reason we should be laughing (as opposed to horrifyingly shaking our heads in dismay) at Max’s machinations is because they highlight what a pathetic scumbag of a human being he is. There is no question about the wrongness of his actions, and no one person that he hurts or uses (other than the comically neurotic Leo Bloom) is too dragged out or overemphasized. They mostly come and go, or at least provide him with some obstacle or frustration in exchange.
What is also very important to remember is that while he has clearly not given up his conman ways by the end of the movie, he failed. He got nothing! He lost! Good day, sir!
However likable he may be, he’s still a louse and a jerk and he gets exactly what he deserves. It’s cathartic, funny, and even contains the slightest bit of commentary.
For a closer comparison, look at Daffy Duck, a fellow Merrie Melody/Looney Tune. He’s a self-proclaimed louse and is often greedy, jealous, and arrogant, but he’s funny because he never succeeds. Bugs Bunny and the other characters always outsmart him, which is good, because he’s usually trying to use or harm them to save himself (see Chuck Jones’s classic hunting trilogy of shorts: Rabbit Fire, Rabbit Seasoning, and Duck! Rabbit, Duck!).
Meanwhile, Pepé Le Pew is meant to be a lovable dolt, and with the exception of a few cartoons, he wins or gets away unscathed in the end. Say what you want about Johnny Bravo; he may never have learned his lesson, but at least he got pummeled repeatedly and painfully by every woman within a 15 yard radius!
Newsflash: a guy who won’t take no for an answer is NOT charming. Harassment (whether it be a singular incident or repeated pattern) is an issue that is very real, terrifying, and traumatizing for a lot of women. In some form or another, it all boils down to one basic point; either explicitly or implicitly, a man tells you that you are an object for him to use and act upon. Your personal comfort and feelings are secondary to his whims, if he even acknowledges them at all.
Not that I would wish this upon anyone, but men as a group don’t get consistently told the same thing by women. And I’m not meaning to imply that men can’t go through something similar, that all men do this, or that comments about looks are always meant to be hurtful or derogatory. By no means! But it’s the thoughtless nature of a lot of comments and actions that belie these attitudes; this idea that a man is entitled to treat a woman he fancies any way he wants, or lay a claim on her when romantic feelings are not mutually held. And these kinds of attitudes are reinforced over time, typically by peers, family, and media that normalize them…
One cartoon in which the tables get turned on our loathsome little skunk friend is the 1949 short Scent-imental Reasons, which is admittedly satisfying, but has, in my opinion, one of the most horrifying sequences in his entire history as a character:
Finding that Penelope has locked herself in an air-tight box, Pepé silently begs her to open it and come back to him. First of all, if this purposeful action of hers isn’t a big enough sign that she doesn’t return his feelings, I don’t know what would be. There is such a thing as too stupid, you know?
Second of all, he clearly throws a tantrum at one point and keeps demanding that she open the box with stern, down-pointing gestures.
Third, when these “charming” and “hilarious” tactics don’t work, he proceeds to pull out a gun and threaten to kill himself, even going so far as to walk off-screen and pull the trigger!
Good Lord, what is wrong with you?! I don’t know why suicide was ever considered funny in the first place, 1940’s and 50’s, but what the hell?!!!!
Penelope, like a reasonable person, would clearly want to stop someone from trying to commit suicide in front of her. She unlocks the box and races out to see Pepé, only to be caught in his arms and told, “I missed. Fortunately for you.”
I know it’s a silly cartoon and not an actual situation between two actual people, but I can only forget reality to a certain extent, no matter what I’m watching. It’s suspension of disbelief, or willingness to forgive a character’s flaws because he or she is funny or likable in other ways.
There is nothing funny or likable about this moment. Maybe there used to be something to it, but frankly, I’m happy to not be living in that world anymore. This is a despicably low, manipulative move on Pepé’s part; it’s way more screwed up than people realize. If a character like Pepé were created in the modern day, there would be a justifiably loud outcry of protest.
But to swing back around to my question above, no, Pepé Le Pew is not a rapist. Like, at all. Seriously, people on the Internet throw this word around without knowing its meaning, which is “one who commits the act of rape”.
But he certainly is a harasser and a skillful, downright sinister manipulator. I don’t even care that Penelope technically “wins” in the end (and she does so in a few other shorts as well); simply getting a taste of his own medicine doesn’t give this stinker the punishment he truly deserves.
Gee, dude, it’s almost like unwelcome advances are unwelcome!
Adults who know better might still get a kick out of Pepé, but kids definitely shouldn’t be watching and laughing at his antics. He’s a flimsy, unlikable character who has been framed poorly since his conception. Penelope doesn’t invite his advances – and in fact she very obviously tries to get away from him – but still he persists, all because he thinks she’s a hot piece of skunk ass. And maybe his smell is her only objection, and maybe it isn’t; these days, someone can refuse a romantic relationship for any number of reasons, and that’s cool. Penelope shouldn’t pursue him if he doesn’t want her to, although through sheer karma and catharsis, I find myself applauding when she gets all pushy back.
Even if new, tamer versions of him come and go (and why not? Speedy Gonzalez is a lot less of a racist caricature these days), I’m glad to see he’s mostly being retired. Arrogance, pushiness, and stupidity are not attractive separately and they are potentially dangerous when put together and labelled “charming” and “funny.” Much like D.W. Read and post-movie Patrick Star, I think Pepé Le Pew is a bad character that should just go away.
*None of the images and clips in this post belong to me. Pepé Le Pew is owned by Warner Bros.