Film and media historians have long noted that American animation is in-
debted to blackface minstrelsy. Yet that observation too often has added up
to little more than a mere nod or at best a shaking finger—yes, the Ameri-
can cartoon’s debt to the minstrel is undeniable and wrong, now could
we please move on? This leaves an unanswered question: why did early
animators decide to use cartoon minstrels to build an industry in the first
place? Or if not why, how did they do it, and to what ends? It is not enough
simply to remark on a thing, especially something as simultaneously
ephemeral and significant as that, and then to say little more. Animation
studies, often protective of the playful spirit of the ’toon itself, have until
recently tended to avoid this sort of knotty question— bracketing anima-
tion’s less than honorable history of representational, performative, and
industrial practices of racism, misogyny, and homophobia—perhaps fear-
ing that animation’s subordinate status when compared to live cinema,
its perpetual dismissal as childish, will be once more confirmed. With a
winsome shrug, defenders of a form seen as itself vulnerable and perpetu-
ally disrespected sometimes seem to say, “C’mon, can’t you take a joke?”
Those reticent to delve deeply into the less noble aspects of Ameri-
can commercial animation’s past (or present) include not only its chroni-
clers but also animators, collectors, and critics who bristle at critiques
of cartoons’ crimes and misdemeanors when leveled by those who lack
knowledge of the form’s history and craft. Given animation’s tradition-
ally subordinate aesthetic status as a “low art,” this defensiveness is very
understandable. Yet, as it becomes ever clearer how integral animation is
to cinematic practice, that attitude also becomes less acceptable. Now that
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