In the Cancel Wars of the early 21st-Century, Pepe le Pew made his last stand at Space Jam and was roundly defeated at the Battle of Rape Culture. Who won? Who knows! Who lost? Culture. That hands-heavy pest is not that important, of course, but I sense a much larger point has been left out of the echo chamber of this debate: archetypes in art and media are a necessary part of culture. Modern, delicate inclinations to banish or complicate them seem far more like a denial of truth than a concern for perpetuating undesirable aspects of society.
Take Pepe le Pew as an example. What was the skunk’s salacious offense? Charles Blow wrote in the New York Times that Pepe “normalized rape culture”. Further, the Washtington Post reported that “on Deadspin, Julie DiCaro said Pepe Le Pew deserved to be ‘canceled,’ writing that since his World War II-era creation, ‘we’ve learned a lot more about consent and women have fought and won more recognition of their bodily autonomy. And yet, we continued to see these same old ‘she’s just playing hard to get’ trope[s] in entertainment even today.'” What a snide, superficial reaction to such the truism that some men just do not know when to quit. These fancy postmodern terms have become commonplace catchphrases; the terms “normalize” and “rape culture” are ideological at best and embarrassingly reductive at worse.
What does “normalize” even mean? Normalization has social engineering embedded in its meaning, a trendy term that attempts to bring abnormal behavior and ideas into mainstream acceptance or change the minds of others to view something as normal. This could even be something that is a low statistical phenomena, such as being gay or being in an interracial marriage. Does two men holding hands in the street offend your sensibilities? Well let’s have more men holding hands to “normalize” it. Except it won’t become “normal” because most men do not want to hold each other’s hands! And that’s okay. Things that are “abnormal”, or in other words something you do not typically see, stand out. And that’s okay. However, a line is crossed once people develop and project prejudice. Prejudice towards two men holding hands in America used to be “normal”. Now — it isn’t. Most would agree prejudice is certainly a dangerous thing to “normalize”. The truth that we do not have to perceive something as “normal” in order to reject prejudice towards it seems left out of the debate.
If you think Pepe le Pew “normalizes” rape culture or teaches children to enjoy tormenting each other in a gendered way for their own delight — congratulations… you are likely an ideologue. The word “normalize” is recklessly derivative of pseudo-intellectual feminist rhetoric to the point of nausea, along with this obtuse attempt to frame our society as “rape culture”. These aims of social criticism, I think, are arrived at from a lack of rich historical awareness of how civilizations have attempted to grapple with the interactions between the sexes, criminal or otherwise; from egalitarian courtship, to chivalric modes of romance, to the horror of rape, and others, civilizations have constantly tried to interject between two people, consenting or otherwise. And they should. They must. That is the point of civilization. Yet, we must be cautious in how.
Arbitrarily picking a trope and archetype and labeling it as “problematic” and demanding its obliteration is not a useful way to engineer appropriate social interactions between the sexes. If it is useful, then who decides what archetype is okay? What trope survives? Besides, when did we return to the magic-bullet theory of the 1930s and 1940s that told us that media goes straight into the heads of passive consumers, affecting them like magic! What a trivial turn of mindsets. It’s infantilizing — an insult to the human conscience! This neo-Puritan reactionary hogwash is evidence of too many vocal people in our society being utterly miseducated on communication, media, and culture and being taken far too seriously. An enlightened public would develop a token way to frame their positions and dismiss them outright. Instead, these ideas are only respectfully nodded at with a polite “Good point.”
This is 2021 and we have a culture who wants to stop presenting the archetype of a male character overly pursuing a female character to the point of her discomfort, sometimes her rage — because why? Does Pepe make someone uncomfortable? GOOD! He is supposed to! Pepe can be awful. Men can be awful. That is his purpose (Pepe, not men). Because awfulness is inherent within human interaction sometimes. Some people are insufferable. These types of characters must exist in media, cartoons, and our stories. Is Pepe rewarded for his indecency? Is he glamorized? These are different conversations if so — but this is not the case. So why “cancel” him? I believe I have an answer that is an unsettling, chthonian truth.
In Medieval England, Geoffrey Chaucer of the 14th-Century wrote The Canterbury Tales. In it, one character has stood out to me as one of the most compelling literary figures of that century: The Wife of Bath, Alisoun. Alisoun is tasked to tell a story to the group on their religious pilgrimage to Canterbury, so she tells the tale of a knight who rapes a maiden: “He saw a maiden walking all forlon / Ahead of him, alone as she was born. / And of that maiden, spite of all she said, / By very force he took her maidenhead” (282). In Alisoun’s story, the King, who is following the law of the land, intends to execute this knight. Is this justice? Not too bad, if you ask me.
(Optional aside: a better argument for “rape culture” would be that we are not executing and castrating men for this crime; instead of fighting for that battle, we bemoan depictions of discomfort in media; we are darling to think discomfort and horror lessens in civilization when perceived symbols of horror and discomfort are censured.)
Alisoun’s King gives dominion of this rapist to a woman, his Queen, letting her determine his fate, instead of outright executing him. What does she decide? “‘You stand, for such is the position still, / In no way certain of your life’ said she, / ‘Yet you shall live if you can answer me: / What is the thing that women most desire? / Beware the axe and say as I require'” (282). She gives him one year to find out what women want. Of course, there is a degree of dark humor in this. One level is that men cannot know what women want (haha?), being the mysterious creatures men have so historically framed them as. Another level is that it is the ultimate twist of punishment — after all, how can a rapist ever truly understand what a woman wants? Oh Chaucer, is this poetic justice?
The knight spends the year asking all kinds of people and he is given the typical answers . Some that are relatable to our own modern, material culture, and others that are perhaps not:
“Some said that women wanted wealth and treasure,
‘Honour,’ said some, some ‘Jollity and pleasure,’
Some ‘Gorgeous clothes’ and others ‘Fun in bed,’
‘To be oft widowed and remarried,’ said
Others again, and some that what most mattered
Was that we should be cossetted and flattered.
That’s very near the truth, it seems to me;
A man can win us best with flattery.
To dance attendance on us, make a fuss,
Ensnares us all, the best and worst of us.'” (283)
The knight spends the year asking everywhere and, on the last day, feels hopeless and defeated. That is, until he comes across a mystical group of women dancing in the woods. An old, crone-like wise woman emerges and offers to help him. The crone is a very common archetype throughout history, folklore, and literature. The wise woman, spiritual, earthly, asexual, and wise, embodies both masculine-knowing sage and feminine-knowing spirit together. This archetype, seen more-modernly in Moana’s grandmother and Pocahontas’ grandmother tree, feels indiscernible in people we know in American culture — reflecting our lack of appreciation and reverence for the weathered-woman of our times. To Medieval England, particularly amongst more Pagan-esque crowds, the crone was known and respected, magical and terrifying.
The knight, a beacon of virtue and duty, the ultimate Apollonian soldier of masculine heroism, is reduced to a pathetic excess of debased malevolence, a perversion of his role in society to honor the virtuous maiden who is an archetype that so many civilizations have determined must be preserved and protected. The crone helps him with these failings in mind, but only upon the agreement that once his life is spared he will do whatever she asks of him. Can’t be worse than execution, right? So — what do women want? The Knight gives the answer to save his life, provided to him by the mystical wise woman:
“‘My liege and lady, in general,’ said he,
‘A woman wants the self-same sovereignty
Over her husband as over her lover,
And master him; he must not be above her.
That is your greatest wish, whether you kill
Or spare me; please yourself. I wait your will.'” (286)
It is not a coincidence that the entire crowd of this speech is made up of women: “Maid, wife, and widow cried” (286). Look, the women agree! What do women want? Mastery! Now that his life is spared and he can move on, his penitence was the year of pursuing an understanding of the desires of women, the crone makes her move. Remember the deal she made? She’ll tell him the “secret” if he does the one thing she says. The price for giving this profound answer is that he must marry her. Gasp! Shock! The horror! This old, sexless creature demands this youthful knight marry her? This is comical to Chaucer’s medieval audience, I imagine, as it subverts the traditional archetypal feminine path from maiden to mother to crone by trying to reverse that cycle. It’s somewhat less comical to me. After all, if The Golden Girls taught me anything, it’s that older women do not stop liking sex. But that’s not that point. From his point of view, this is bad.
Horrified, the knight pleads his case. “Take all my goods, but leave my body free” (287). A turn of events — he sees his marrying of this crone as rape, a subjugation of his body taken without regard and consent. She refuses his rejection and marries him. This complicates things a great deal. You see, how can we have the crone and queen be under the jurisdiction of male rape as punishment for female rape? In this female-authority world Alisoun creates, that seems crueler than the execution the knight was spared of. And so, as the knight walked “back and forth in desperate style” (287) on their wedding night, a negotiation is made. The newly married crone says:
“‘You have two choices; which one will you try?
To have me old and ugly till I die,
But still a loyal, true, and humble wife
That never will displease you all her life,
Or, would you rather I were young and pretty
And chance your arm what happens in a city
Where friends will visit you because of me,
Yes, and in other places too, maybe.” (291)
What does this mean? He either gets an old and ugly, but loyal and true, wife or a young and pretty, but capricious and unfaithful, wife. Who could choose that? “With a piteous groan” — he doesn’t. Relinquishing the seemingly impossible decision, much like the King did to the Queen, to his wife, he unknowingly makes the correct one. You see, he submits to her, giving her authority and sovereignty of not only him, but her own fate by extension, letting her choose for him. This, according to Alisoun, is what women want.
The knight is rewarded from a kiss, and the crone turns into a woman who is loyal, true, and, of course, beautifully young. So what the heck does this have to do with Pepe le Pew? Well this story may make some uncomfortable. Let’s take the logic of the “rape culture” and “normalization” people, who seem to insist on the long-dismissed magic-bullet theory of early American censorship. Not only does the knight rape someone, but he is not punished, per say, but is instead offered a redemption arc. Ultimately, he is redeemed. This should teach men that if they rape, they can be redeemed. Because that is what media, literature, and stories do, right? They teach people things? This is a reductive and middle school approach to literature — and by extension, art. Taken from that point of view, this could mean that men simply need help in understanding what women want and rape will diminish if not vanish once this is done. I find this connection startlingly relevant to modern discourse. Is that not the aim of those who are proponents of the notion we live in a “rape culture”? Pepe le Lew is “teaching men to rape” or at least not value their consent, they say. So would-be-rapists are merely lacking proper social construction?
Psychopaths are psychopaths precisely because they do not give a shit about your social construction. This hopeful attempt of social engineering is born from the limited scope of social constructionists who believe that we are born blank and the rest is society. I understand why. Insulated by luxury and civilization, we have fully honed in our attentions to the peak of the pyramid of needs. That is, we have food, shelter, relative safety, the appearance of education, careerism, swathes of pseudo-social interactions via interpersonal and digital means — so what is left? What is at top of the pyramid that we must contend with? I see what remains being the ruminations of our comfort. We want to presume we have some control over psychopathy, what dwells beneath the top. Pepe le Pew is that manifestation of control, some gesture of preserving the comfort many at the top of the pyramid want and think they have — but it is an illusion — look down.
Beneath, and among, the pyramid of our society is sadomasochism, rape-fantasy narratives, churning chaos of barbarity, and psychopathic individuals who would only exploit any system created to protect — these may be inexplicable truths that terrifyingly confront the comfortable surface of our conscience, the comfortable position of those privileged enough to, in public, be offended of their existence, and, in private, indulge them. Pepe le Pew, then, is not a symbol of “rape culture” or a normalization of anything — he is an abandoned archetype that makes some people uncomfortable with reality, a reality that still exists even if we never depict another man in media who fails to understand what women want, even in a cartoon, even in a caricature that mocks him being real. What we cancel may actually be a suppression, a gesture of willful deniability. That was the point of archetypes, you see, to help us understand humanity, not suppress, approve, deny, or reject it.
Of course, Pepe is an idiot. No one is watching that skunk and glorifying his actions. He’s a failure at his goals. His methods are woefully embarrassing and pathetic. Penelope could have stopped him in his tracks, I suspect, with one singular, powerful, audible laugh at his expense. One moment of mockery and he would dissolve in utter humiliation, but then it would become the thing that alarmist think it is: a device for making a social point. The instinct to rip apart our art and media like this likely stems from the insistence that we “analyze” everything from a cultural lens of power instead of just appreciating art, literature, and humanity as being worthy of appreciating by itself, perhaps even with universal humanistic embodiments. This modern cynicism must end!
I may be overly representing the significance of Pepe, but he is not the point. He is but one example of how a terribly mal-educated public reacts to archetypes that do not fit a social agenda born from a moralistic ideology of sycophants they do not even know or understand. (Theorists just may be the first cult leaders to have cultists that do not know their leader.) You see, Pepe is simple. He mistakes Penelope for a skunk, and that is the joke. He is not rewarded or upheld as a symbol of anything more than an idiotic male that fails. You need a passive female to depict that accurately without subverting the trope. Penelope, then, is not a symbol for perpetuating a cultural phenomena. The great failings of modern thought is in the assumption that archetypes perpetuate instead of simply represent.
The new task of locating uncomfortable archetypes, selectively, in our culture and then picking them like a dandelion to be discarded should reveal to us how desperate many are to return to Victorian, feinting couch sensibilities. These outrages are symptomatic of a culture far removed from the base of the pyramid, comforted by the luxury of being offended by the unseemly representations of the unseemly. “Take it away, take it away!” say the delicates, the back of their hand forever clasped to their forehead from being overwhelmed by the vapors of potential discomfort. The fragility is nauseatingly weak.
As we convince ourselves that we are moving towards more and more of a utopian civilization, we pretend chthonian impulses and actions recede — but they only move. Some men do not care what women want; the creation of this cartoon is a reflection of very real men that exist in the material world, and its “cancellation” is a reflection of a mindset that wants to pretend they don’t.
Geoffrey Chaucer. “The Wife of Bath”. The Canterbury Tales. Penguin Classics. Penguin Group. 2003. Print.