The incongruity of a cartoon gorilla and a cartoon alligator agreeing to a mutual protection / revenge pact was ridiculous.
As Monty Python has pointed out:
Accountants acting like accountants or Vikings acting like Vikings = Not Funny
Vikings acting like accountants or accountants acting like Vikings = Funny
What’s doubly ironic is that these two characters have diametrically opposed goals: Magilla Gorilla wants to be purchased and cared for as somebody’s pet, Wally Gator wants to escape the zoo and recover his lost freedom.
Some have asked if it’s too soon for this sort of humor, and all I can do is repeat what Lenny Bruce said as he took the stage for the first time after President John F. Kennedy was shot: “=phew= Vaughn Meader…”
One can sympathize with the terror and tragedy of a two-year old's death, or the deadly peril of a child who fell into an ape pen, while at the same time recognizing the irony of gorillas and gators being punished for acting like gorillas and gators after humans intrude on their habitats.
But even as I was typing that, I became conscious a connection between this cartoon and a different problem on a different scale that I had obviously “seen” in the cartoon, only didn’t realize it at the time.
What happened to those two poor unfortunate children and then to the animals they encountered parallels the arrogance of racism and white privilege.
Now, I am most emphatically not saying the parents in either case were arrogant; far from it.
But they were certainly benefiting from an arrogant human mindset that said destroying a gorilla’s native habitat for human needs was okay and imprisoning those surviving gorillas in a small enclosure was okay, a human mindset that said building elaborate recreational facilities in the middle of a deadly predator’s native habitat was okay and if the animals did not go along with the plan then they were expendable.
No, I am not saying any number of gorillas or alligators are equal to one human life.
But I am saying the families who experienced these terrible events wouldn’t have experienced them if there hadn’t been a presumption on somebody’s part that it was okay to imprison large primates for the amusement of humans or build human vacation resorts in the middle of gator country.
Those families who suffered those horrible encounters certainly did not arrogantly demand that the zoo or resort be built and animals exploited for their personal benefit…
…but when they saw there was a system for that already in place, they thought, hey, why not?
No, strike that. They didn’t think anything. Going to the zoo or the resort was as natural to them as breathing. All their lives they had been told that zoos and resorts were good things and if the topic of the animals in them ever came up, it was probably dismissed with a PR claim that the animals were actually safer and better off now than they had been before.
A few weeks ago we had dinner with a Dear Friend whom we’ve known for close to thirty years. I won’t identify Dear Friend any further other than to say they’re slightly older than us.
Dear Friend told us they didn’t like President Obama.
“The country has gotten worse under him.”
By what metrics?
“Well, the economy…”
Whip out the smartphone*; a few quick keystrokes and… nope, economy’s doing fine. We’re enjoying a recovery.
“Those numbers don’t mean anything.”
Those numbers are the same statistics and measurements both parties use when they’re in control, they’re not whipped up in some publicity hack’s office.
“Crime is going up…”
Another quick flurry of keystrokes. Nope, crime has been falling for the last two decades. The numbers vary from year to year, of course, but the overall trend is down. Last year, in fact, had less crime than the year before.
So says the FBI database.
“Well, maybe nationwide, but here in Los Angeles it’s going up.”
More keystrokes. Nope, crime in L.A. is falling. too, about at the same level as the national average.
“Well, maybe in Los Angeles as a whole, but in my neighborhood…”
Ahh, and now the little light comes on. Dear Friend, your neighborhood isn’t becoming more dangerous.
It’s becoming more brown.
Now, Dear Friend is as kind and as generous a person as you could hope to meet. If Dear Friend was told there was a non-white family that needed help, they’d chip in what they could. Dear Friend certainly has several non-white people whom they love dearly in their circle of friends.
And Dear Friend certainly wouldn’t go around slandering or libeling non-white people.
But Dear Friend grew up immersed in a culture that said, overtly and indirectly, explicitly and implicitly, by word and by image and by deed, that there was something wrong with being non-white, and if not wrong wrong, then certainly not as right as being white.
And Dear Friend has never questioned this.
Dear Friend, like the parents cited above, would never question why we have zoos, or what those zoos mean in the larger scheme of things. Dear Friend might recognize in the back of their head that a resort for families that abuts right against an alligator habitat might not be the wisest thing in the world, but it would never occur to Dear Friend to question the whole idea of having a resort.
That’s what we mean when we say “white privilege”.
“No white skin off my nose.”
Which brings us full circle to Magilla Gorilla and Wally Gator, and why this cartoon resonated so deeply with me.
I grew up with these characters as a child, and encountered them in various professional venues when I was writing for animation.
Both lead lives of anxiety and longing based not on what they would have wanted in their natural habitat, but on demands placed upon them by the humans who dominate them.
And mind you, for all intents and purposes, these characters are the equals to human beings: They speak, they can plan, they even wear clothes.
Despite this, and for purely arbitrary reasons, they are regulated to animal status in their cartoons; conversely Huckleberry Hound and Top Cat are treated as equals by the humans in their cartoons.
Magilla Gorilla has been told his function in life is to be the pet of a human being; he is typically found confined to a pet store at the beginnings of each episode until a new owner is located, but by the end of the cartoon his hopes are dashed and he’s returned to the pet shop.
Conversely, Wally Gator is trapped in a zoo and constantly schemes to escape; when he does he is returned to his pen.
It would be a gross oversimplification to say Magilla Gorilla represents the African-American experience in America while Wally Gator represents the Native American experience but dang, they fit, don’t they?
The more I thought about the cartoon above, the more I realize the reason it resonated with me so strongly was because it reflected a very real change that is going on in American racial and cultural attitudes right now.
And a big part of that change is that various minority and ostracized groups in America are realizing they no longer need the permission of white America to live fulfilling lives.
In the cartoon above Magilla Gorilla and Wally Gator realize they have no friends in the human camp, their lives are circumscribed by roles the humans have forced them into. They realize they will receive no support or protection from the humans, either.
The only choice left is to look after one another or live and die miserably alone.
Here’s another cartoon, this one from Sophie LaBelle of Assigned Male webcomic.
Not a funny cartoon, pretty tragic actually, but it uses humor (okay, sarcasm) to make a point:
The privileged always want to make it about them.
And minorities and ostracized groups are getting tired of it, and are starting to say no.
And the fact they’re doing that is making some privileged people lose their s4!t.
So that’s the way my mind works, those are the connections I see.
* I am a total fncking asshole when it comes to using my smartphone in an argument; I will not let you fob off some egregious piece of b.s. without a fact check. My late aunt used to say, “Put that thing away!” whenever she saw me reaching for it.