Although it’s probably evident based on the headline, a quick trigger warning before we dive in: This post explores sexual assault and issues of consent in considerable detail. If that’s not your cup of tea, I won’t blame you for clicking away!
Okay, here we go. I have a lot of opinions on cancel culture as a concept (those who know me know I have a lot of opinions on absolutely everything) but I don’t usually weigh in on cancel culture in a long-form capacity like this. However, this one matters to me, so here we are.
Yes, I’m one of those annoying feminists who will call you out for making a rape joke.
I was sexually assaulted a few weeks before I turned 15. I’ve talked about it a ton before, and I’ve had years of therapy and self-reflection to process the trauma and heal. Despite that, my recovery is ongoing. Some days I forget all about it, and some days it jumps back to the front of my mind like a mosquito in my ear.
The mosquito has been there, buzzing incessantly for a good few days now, all thanks to a cartoon skunk and his unwilling feline love interest.
Like many people around my age, Pepé Le Pew and the Looney Tunes crew were staples of my childhood. I would laugh my little head off as he chased Penelope Pussycat around, just like everyone else. In fact, when I first heard Pepé was being “cancelled,” I was confused. I couldn’t remember him doing anything particularly problematic. Looking back now, I can’t believe I ever found him funny.
As a rape survivor, I legitimately worry about the people who see nothing problematic about Pepé’s behaviour.
You probably know about the infamous “one in five” statistic, but what about this doozy that came from the UK last week? An investigation by UN Women UK found that 97 per cent of women aged 18 to 24 in the UK have been sexually harassed or assaulted. A further 96 per cent chose not to report it, because they believed doing so would not change anything.
I’ll let you sit with that for a second.
Has it sunk in yet? Good, because I’m willing to bet that things aren’t much better here in North America. Don’t believe me? Talk to five women you know and ask them if they’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted. I’ll wait.
But how did we even get to a point where nearly all women are being sexually harassed, while one in five are being assaulted at least once in their lifetime? It almost sounds ludicrous. But the reason we are where we are today is because we exist in a society that normalizes rape culture and treats consent as the butt of the joke.
That sounds harsh, and people love to deny the existence of rape culture. In fact, since the #MeToo movement gained traction, consent has been consistently at the forefront of public discourse. Which is great! But what about when we’re not specifically talking about consent? What about during our everyday conversations, or when you’re in a game chat with friends or strangers, or when we share memes on our social media pages? Or when you’re watching TV?
That’s when rape culture rears its ugly head. It’s so pervasive in our society that, often, we don’t even realize when it’s happening. Pepé Le Pew is a perfect example of this.
“But it’s just a joke! It’s just a cartoon,” they say.
Are you telling me that you see absolutely nothing wrong with marketing a cartoon to children that shows them from a young age that it’s not only okay, but funny, for a boy to force himself on a girl? Sorry, but I’m not laughing.
That is why we are where we are today. Because those seemingly harmless cartoons and “jokes” are minimizing the issue of consent and making people who feel entitled to other peoples’ bodies feel validated. You may think I’m shitting all over your fun by calling you out, but the creepy construction worker across the room is hearing that rape joke and thinking that it must not be a big deal to cat-call every woman that walks by the site during his workday. Because it’s funny, right? It’s just a joke.
And that’s a mild example. I’ll leave the worst case scenario to your imagination.
Coercion played a huge part in my own sexual assault. I think that’s one of the reasons why this gets under my skin so much. When people tell me that Pepé’s behaviour isn’t a big deal because he’s not being “violent” and he’s supposedly “in love” with Penelope, what I’m hearing is that you don’t believe my sexual assault was valid.
The nature of the characters’ relationship is irrelevant. I considered my rapist to be a close friend. He wasn’t physically violent, either, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer and when I begged him to stop, just like Penelope Pussycat does with Pepé multiple times per episode, he did not. Just because Pepé’s behaviour doesn’t match your own preconceived idea of what constitutes sexual violence doesn’t mean it’s acceptable.
Another pro-Pepé argument I see quite often is that the character presents a learning opportunity for kids – a chance for parents to impart a valuable life lesson. I’ve also seen this argument come up in regard to the Dr. Seuss fiasco. And it would be a wonderful idea, if we could rely on and trust parents to follow through. But unfortunately we don’t live in a utopia where every parent will do the right thing. I was lucky enough to have a wonderful parent who did call out harmful media when she noticed it, but not everyone is so privileged.
I know people who say they were raised by the media they consumed as kids. Kids also learn a lot from other kids, so what’s going to happen if an impressionable young boy sees Pepé forcing himself on Penelope and then the next day Billy on the playground is laughing about how funny it was? They’re going to register that as something that’s acceptable. Something that’s funny. Something that’s normal.
And the cycle continues. Another “boys will be boys” scenario to add to the list. It’s a long list, and until that list gets smaller, women won’t be safe.
That said, I do think this whole situation presents a valuable learning opportunity in another way, both for children and for Pepé himself. I’ve mentioned before that one of my biggest issues with cancel culture is that it’s limiting in the sense that it doesn’t allow people to learn or grow. What if Pepé were to learn from this, and they made it part of the narrative?
What if Penelope Pussycat stopped enabling Pepé and told him straight up that his behaviour is unwanted and unacceptable? That way the show and the character could carry on and be better for it, and everyone involved could get a much-needed and long-awaited lesson in consent.
That way, everyone wins. The world would be happy and everyone would get along, right? Okay, probably not, but a girl can dream.
All in all, is this the most important issue in the world for us to be worrying about? Probably not. But to me, any step toward eliminating rape culture is a step in the right direction.