“Steamboat Willie” is completely whack, shows potential in the classroom.

Inspired by a recent viewing of Spongebob Squarepants that featured a fake “early Spongebob” cartoon that was clearly a reference to “Steamboat Willie,” I dialed up “Steamboat Willie” on the YouTube and discovered that this cartoon is completely insane and loaded with animal cruelty.  Now, I am not one to get all up in your grill about cruelty to animated creatures, but seriously–this thing is whack:


Dig that scene (@5:45) in which Willie/Mickey gets the suckling piglets to squeal to the tune of “Turkey in the Straw” by pulling on their tails, and then yanks them off of the mother hog and goes to town on her teats to continue the tune!  You have to just see it to believe it, friends.  A young companion who watched this video with me turned to me very concerned and said, “I don’t like this!”  It wasn’t as challenging as the “Dealing with Ma’s Racism in Little House on the Prairie” moment but it was more challenging than, say, the “using Wonder Woman the TV show from the 1970s to teach about Nazism” lesson.  (It was more like “Worker and Parasite,” the Soviet substitute for Itchy and Scratchy one day on Crusty’s show:  What the hell was that???)

“Steamboat Willie” is a freakin’ nightmare!  And who knew, because (for good reason, it turns out) the only samples we ever see of “Steamboat Willie” involve Mickey standing at the steamboat wheel whistling away?  It’s such a popular film to reference in animation–I seem to remember a “Steamboat Itchy” cartoon on The Simpsons back in the day, as well as other brief quotations by animators in other films and shorts.  I get it why “SW” was so important and influential–you can see how the future animators of Fantasia were clearly inspired by it, for example.

But because of my “WTF” moment, it occured to me that “Steamboat Willie” has the potential to be a terrific tool for teaching students about the strangeness of the past, and how we should use primary sources to appreciate that strangeness and seek to understand it rather than to seek familiarity with the past.  You modern historians can do better with this than I can, but I think one could use this (for example) to 1) get students to think about the use of barnyard creatures in this short film at a time when most Americans had until recently lived in rural rather than urban places, 2) encourage them to think about the fact that this film would have been an urban entertainment, and 3) what does it say about gender relations to have Minnie Mouse winched into the steamboat?  (Just kidding, kind of, with that last question.)

10 thoughts on ““Steamboat Willie” is completely whack, shows potential in the classroom.

  1. Wow, Laura–thanks for that! I never knew.

    My knowledge of politically incorrect cartoons started with the WWII Bugs Bunny ones they never broadcast any more (but did in the 1970s, when I saw them), and ended with South Park.


  2. Subversive revisiting of sources is always so much fun. Everyone knows what [insert name of cultural item here] is – NOT! I think that some American historian could go to town on SW.

    And who has access to “Song of the South” to show in the classroom these days? Now there’s a film chock full of representations Disney doesn’t want people to see. I remember watching it in the 1970s and giving it the ol’ side-eye as a young adult. I’d love to watch it again and see just how bad it really was.


  3. Oh, my goodness, Janice: I’ve long thought the same thing about Song of the South. I think it would be the equivalent of “hatereading,” only more cringing on my part. Cringewatching? Is that a thing?


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