After a prolonged period of breathless play my son and I settled down on the sofa to watch some TV this morning.
I was in a nostalgic mood and decided to search for The Flintstones on Netflix and Amazon Prime. It wasn’t available but instead Amazon suggested we try Scooby Doo. After a couple of episodes of watching those pesky kids foiling diabolical plots the streaming service recommended we try Tom and Jerry. So we did.
It’s been decades since I watched this animation but the basic premise is understood; a cartoon mouse and cat will attempt to unleash all manner of violence onto one another. Its gory slapstick is brilliantly satirised in the Itchy and Scratchy characters in The Simpsons.
I try to be careful about the mass media my son consumes but, I suppose, this sort of violence is accepted because it is so obviously cartoonish and over the top. At the very least I can present it as the sort of TV I used to watch when I was a kid.
Then the episode began. And this is what happened.
It started with a deflated and weeping Tom sitting on railway tracks while Jerry watches him from a bridge high above. Jerry then becomes the narrator and relates a sad story. Tom’s descent began after a female cat moved in next door. All his attempts to woo this obviously foxy feline are unsuccessful. He spends all his money on her but she rejects his advances in favour of another, more wealthy rival cat. Tom hits the bottle (milk) until we see him broken in the desperate state on the railway track.
All Jerry’s attempts to rouse Tom from his stupor are unsuccessful. Then, in a final twist, Jerry produces a photo of the female object of his own affections. But when he looks sideways he sees his sweetheart in a marriage car with another mouse.
Now Jerry is also crushed. He descends onto the railway track where Tom moves aside to make room for him and the two main characters sit there weeping on the rafters while sound of a train can be heard coming closer behind them.
And then the credits run. That’s it.
I was now in a slight daze. My son had not quite followed all the intricacies of the plot and was asking ‘Why are they sitting on the track daddy?’ I mumbled some sort of diversionary response and began to fumble with the remote control.
But another episode had already started and Tom and Jerry were alive and well. Suicide could not cause them to perish any more than being electrocuted, shot or chopped into small bits.
Which started me thinking, had I any right to be surprised by the suicide cartoon storyline? I’d already accepted that attempted murder, mutilation and torture were semi-acceptable subject matter for a children’s cartoon. And was it really such a leap from that to suicide being treated in such a glib way for juvenile entertainment? And did I really want to be that preachy parent complaining about content when I’ve spent so much of my life refusing to believe in censorship?
But the truth is that I was deeply troubled by what I had watched and by the potential message it sends to an impressionable young mind. This was clearly dealing with dark issues, albeit in a comic way. Dark issues that I’d prefer my son not be introduced to until he is able to understand their complexity and to be sure that what he is watching is being handled responsibly. After all you can’t really put a message at the end of an episode of Tom and Jerry stating ‘If you have been affected by any of the issues in this programme….’
I fumbled some more with the buttons on the remote control, trying to find an alternative programme to watch. Eventually my son looked at me and said: ‘Daddy, can we just put YouTube on instead?’
That’s Youtube where parents are being constantly urged to monitor the suitability of content that their children are watching. Where concerns over the availability of material which encourages self-harming are whipped up into hysterical media scare stories. I read this week about a parent who has two children who have been left unable to sleep at night after being terrified by stories of the Momo challenge. The following day the BBC reported that fact-checkers claimed that Momo is a hoax.
As a parent it’s really easy to be confused.
And though I’m often queasy about YouTube my child has yet to be exposed to anything there which disturbed me quite so much as the Tom and Jerry episode we watched today.
As ever I suppose the best you can do is to be vigilant in all directions and to use your common-sense to deal with situations as they arise. And once you have gone through this filter, trust your child’s ability to process and rationalise the information they view.
I don’t believe that my wee man has been adversely affected by watching that one episode of Tom and Jerry. But I still don’t think we’ll be watching it again. And I wouldn’t recommend it for any other child. In fairness, this cartoon was made a long time ago, but it’s still available at the click of a button.
Tom and Jerry – they don’t make them like that any more.