What’s It All About, Pepe?

I hardly ever use rubbing alcohol these days. The bottle I found in my bathroom cupboard this morning had expired back in 2007. How can alcohol go bad? Is it the rubbing part? 
My husband had inherited a bottle of Mezcal that his father bought in Mexico in the early seventies. When my niece and a family friend were helping us move, he insisted they take a shot at the end of each day. They did, gamely avoiding the dregs of a disintegrating worm drifting around the bottom of the bottle. Like his dad, Clarence didn’t like to waste things. I said Hell, No! to the drink on offer. Were these young people more game than me, or just too polite to say no?

I’m not alone in feeling out of touch with life these days. I had to stop someone on the street a few days ago because I thought it was Tuesday, but it was still Monday.  The woman and I exchanged looks of deep understanding. These groundhog days are getting tiresome. 
I feel out of place in other ways. Every time a ‘that’s so bad!’ label is slapped onto a person, program or book, my knee jerk reaction is one of shock. It takes time for my brain to process how things I take for granted might different to younger generations. After I think about it a while, I usually get it. 

It took me a while to understand the fuss over Laura Ingalls Wilder’s, Little House on the Prairie series. They were beloved in my family, and read to each of my children. But I never noticed the dehumanizing effect of her stereotypical view of Indigenous and black people, because I am white. One book opens with her saying that the land was empty and ready for settlement, except for the Indians who didn’t count. How could I not notice that? I believe the books can still be read to children, but there needs to be some discussion about the racist aspects. I believe if the author was alive today, she would write those parts differently. Her characters were kind and tenderhearted, but she was a woman of her time. When we know better, we do better.

I’m a woman of my time, still clueless about cultural offenses and worried that I’ll say the wrong thing. I don’t like to hear bad things about people, and have grieved the loss of those like comedian/actor, Bill Cosby. We’re all saddened by the actions of characters who turned out to be different than we thought. I go through periods of denial and disbelief for days after the wrong doing is uncovered. These people enter our lives and homes via screens, radios and books. We know them well. Or, we thought we knew them.
One of the latest ‘Get the Hell Out of Here,’ victims is the cartoon character, Pepe Le Pew. Like many kids of my generation, I enjoyed all the Bugs Bunny characters: Yosemite Sam, Foghorn Leghorn, Daffy Duck and Wiley Coyote. (Actually, I hated that last one and wanted him to die every single show. He never did.) But when I think about Pepe Le Pew, I remember how I felt as a little girl. The show was funny, but not. I felt claustrophobic at times, knowing that this female skunk could not escape him for long. Her visible ‘no’ didn’t mean no to Pepe. A friend on Facebook recently said that she knew it was just a cartoon. I did too. But as a lifelong member of over-empathizers anonymous, I felt bad for that anxious skunk girl. I imagined how I’d feel if someone I knew, a boy I didn’t like, was always trying to catch me and kiss me. Or worse. Who knows what Pepe had in mind?
A movie that is not in trouble, but that I dislike for the same reason, is Mash. A huge hit, I saw it in my first year of high school. At one point, an unlikeable female character, Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ Hoolihan, prim and condescending, gets taught a lesson. While she’s taking a shower, two doctors (good looking, popular, funny) play a trick on her by pulling down the walls of the tent and exposing her to everyone walking by. Cue the laughter and her running away in tears. 
As the people around me laughed until they wept, I found myself curling up into a ball in my seat. I couldn’t imagine how it felt to be her. She’s already unpopular. I knew people like her in high school. Those who weren’t likeable and couldn’t figure out why. She became a target. In the TV series, her character is fleshed out and allowed to be three dimensional. But not in the movie. Not as I remember it. 
So, as a member of the public, I would like to nominate Mash to be cancelled, culturally. This will not be a popular opinion, but I don’t care. You’re all big enough to handle my opinion, and inside me is still the fifteen year old girl cringing on behalf of a naked woman who had nowhere to run. 
When I was young, I disagreed with my parents about many things. They were good people with strong values, but like their generation, held traditional beliefs. Of course, baby boomers made it their business to disagree with almost everything that came before them. But as they aged, they got that same, set in their ways attitude. I remember telling my dad that Jesus believed in communism. I thought he was going to have a heart attack.

Today’s Boomers, especially the more conservative among us, are struggling with what we perceive as the lunacy of the younger generations. But it’s their right and their responsibility to make the world better in a way that makes sense to them. And what moves us in the right direction more than being thoughtful about the feelings of others? This is what many of today’s movements, even cancel culture, is about. 

I’m going to try to repress my knee jerk reactions when I read or hear things I don’t agree with. I’m a white, middle class woman trying to understand the pain others experience when their culture or race is diminished by mean spirited jokes or outright violence. Things that were considered funny in the past were often a socially acceptable form of bullying. So the next time you disagree with something you see regarding cancel culture, check your heart. Are you genuinely right, or just unwilling to let the joke go?

Published by Judith Pettersen

Judith Pettersen is an author living in Canada. She blogs about her life in the north and the ups and downs of being a writer.

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