Toronto voice actor Eric Bauza can’t think of a cartoon he adored as a child that wasn’t also culturally inappropriate in some way.
“I keep trying to think of something — all the stuff that we grew up with in the '90s sugar-coated the terrible,” says Bauza, adding with a laugh: “I mean, I was going to say 'Aladdin,' but wait a second, there’s still bad stuff there.”
In the six-episode CBC and CBC Gem series “Stay Tooned,” Bauza spends a good deal of time re-examining his old cartoon loves.
Combining archival animated footage and interviews with voice actors, experts, cartoonists and the general public, “Stay Tooned” sets out to provide a critical social lens on cartoon history.
The L.A.-based Filipino-Canadian, who became the first non-white actor to voice Bugs Bunny in 2018, says he’s had to confront some difficult aspects about his old favourites that weren't immediately apparent to him.
That includes the ways Asians were portrayed in numerous cartoons from “The Flinstones” to “Bugs Bunny — often with Coke-bottle eyeglasses and buck teeth. Then there are the many villains who seemed to be coded with queer traits such as Scar from “The Lion King.”
“It’s like me doing a feature on Taco Bell, and I love Taco Bell, but now I’m going to tell you how to make a taco and what’s in it, and it’s like, how do you enjoy it?” jokes Bauza, who has also voiced Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and others.
“How do you enjoy cartoons after peeling back and talking through all the necessary evils that unfortunately come with this?”
The series includes input from pop culture experts and voice personalities in the industry including Tara Strong who voiced Bubbles from “The Powerpuff Girls,” Lake Bell, who voices Poison Ivy in “Harley Quinn” and Ken Jeong from “Bob's Burgers.”
They discuss the ways cartoons have interpreted gender, sexuality, race, morality and consumerism throughout the 1980s and '90s.
“We grew up watching this stuff as it was happening. I was buying those Transformers as they were being made,” says Bauza.
“Fast forward, and I’m auditioning for the reboots — I buy a toy that I’m voicing, which is a Transformer that my son’s now into, so it’s kind of like a cat eating its tail.”
Bauza adds that these failings were either under the surface or obvious tropes but have become increasingly difficult to overlook today as online platforms including YouTube share them with new audiences.
Closer scrutiny of onscreen representation has moved into the spotlight in recent years with several big media companies and broadcasters vowing greater diversity across the industry, both in front of and behind the camera.
Among the most high-profile is an upcoming live-action remake of Disney's animated 1989 film “The Little Mermaid,” which cast Black actress Halle Bailey in the lead role, offering a new generation of Black viewers a way to see themselves.
Bauza says the issues explored in "Stay Tooned" must continue in order to further change.
"There has to be progress — you don’t want to just sweep things under the rug,” says Bauza. “How else are we going to know? How else are we going to move on unless we take a serious look at ourselves and what we considered normal?”
It’s a task that Bauza has no qualms about shouldering, even if it means stepping out of his recording booth and in front of a camera.
“It’s insane to think that these cartoons were just a reflection of who we were back then,” says Bauza. “I’m just glad to see that we’re paying attention to it. If it’s going to be someone, it might as well be me.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 2, 2022.
Noel Ransome, The Canadian Press