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.)