Why Pepé Le Pew and not Speedy Gonzales? 'U can't catch me, cancel culture'

With Pepé Le Pew already cut from the starting lineup of Space Jam: A New Legacy, is Speedy Gonzales the next controversial Looney Tune to be benched from LeBron James's high-profile sequel? Not if Gabriel Iglesias has anything to say about it. The comedian — who often goes by the stage name "Fluffy" — recently revealed on Twitter that he's voicing Mexico's fastest mouse in the Malcolm D. Lee-directed movie and taunted "cancel culture" to try and catch him. "Does this mean they are gonna try to cancel Fluffy too?" Iglesias wrote, after reports surfaced that a sequence featuring amorous skunk Pepé had been dropped from the movie. "U can't catch me cancel culture. I'm the fastest mouse in all of Mexico." (Reached through representatives, Iglesias declined to comment for this article.)

Iglesias didn't reveal any additional details about Speedy's exact role in Space Jam 2, but his defiant note resonated with fans of the character, who first sped onto screens in 1953 — although he didn't become the Speedy everyone recognizes now until he starred opposite Sylvester the Cat in the 1955 short "Speedy Gonzales." Originally voiced by Looney Tunes vocal maestro Mel Blanc, the character remained a staple of the Warner Bros. cartoon universe for decades, and even built a substantial following among the Latinx community. Some of Speedy's Latinx fans expressed their support for Iglesias on Twitter.

Frederick Luis Aldama — a distinguished university professor at the Ohio State University who specializes in depictions of Latinx culture in film, television and other media — is also glad that Iglesias spoke up in defense of the character. "It's not surprising that Fluffy is defending him, and that's his right," he tells Yahoo Entertainment. "This isn't the first and only time it's come up: We've been saying this about the character for awhile. But does that mean that we obliterate him? No, what it means is that we educate and open discussions so that our kids can understand how stereotypes have existed and how they continue to exist so they can become a critically informed consumer. If we erase the past, how are we going to learn from the past and make it a better future?"

Aldama, whose books about Latinx pop culture include ¡Muy Pop! and Latinx Superheroes in Mainstream Comics, credits Speedy's popularity with Iglesias and other members of the Latinx community to the overall lack of representation they saw in cartoons growing up. That helped them look past some of the aspects of the character and his larger world that were more crudely caricaturish at the time, and even more so today. "Why in the heck did they have him saying things like '¡Arriba Arriba!' instead of '¡Adelante Adelante!'," he notes, adding that Speedy's cousin, Slowpoke Rodriguez, was even more of a negative stereotype. "He fits all those molds: He's lazy and speaks with a slow drawl. But there are some positives about the Speedy character we all saw growing up as Latinx kids with no representation out there."

In the 1990s, some of those grown kids were involved in a fan campaign to bring Speedy Gonzales back to the airwaves after Cartoon Network retired the cartoons. Since then, Warner Bros. has made modest strides in the direction of updating the character, most notably by hiring Latinx performers to provide his voice. Prior to Iglesias, Dino Andrade voiced Speedy in Cartoon Network's New Looney Tunes series. Meanwhile, Mexican superstar Eugenio Derbez is in the process of developing a Speedy Gonzales feature film that was originally announced in 2016.

Aldama sees that kind of behind-the-mic change as a positive progression. "That's important: These characters change over time and within time and place precisely because of these kinds of conversations that Gabriel is reacting to. I've talked about brown-voice minstrelsy and what it means for Latinx's to be the ones chosen for these roles. We're making change, and I'm of the position it's better to educate than to obliterate."

Pepe Le Pew is the one Looney Tunes character who will not appear in the upcoming sequel 'Space Jam: A New Legacy' (Photo: Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection)
Pepé Le Pew is the one Looney Tunes character who will not appear in the upcoming sequel Space Jam: A New Legacy. (Photo: Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection)

Speedy's continued presence in Space Jam 2 and the larger Looney Tunes universe stands in marked contrast to Pepé, who appears on the cusp of permanent retirement due to specific behaviors that many believe are out of step with contemporary culture. Created in 1945 by legendary animator Chuck Jones, the skunk's animated antics primarily involved his relentless pursuit of a female black cat named Penelope Pussycat, who strenuously dodged his advances. In a recent New York Times column, Charles M. Blow argued that Pepé's cartoons "normalized rape culture" for a generation of young viewers. "This helped teach boys that 'no' didn’t really mean no," he latter added on Twitter.

According to an account published in Deadline, Pepé's since-deleted Space Jam 2 scene would have directly addressed his behavior. The film's original director, Terence Nance, conceived and shot a sequence where Jane the Virgin star Greice Santo confronts the skunk after he comes onto her in a bar, pouring her drink over his head and slapping him silly. During the course of the scene, Pepé also reveals that Penelope filed a restraining order against him, and Santo's character pointedly tells him never to grab any woman without their consent. That entire encounter was cut from the film after Lee took over the film over a year ago.

In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, Jones's daughter, Linda, said that she understood the studio's decision to scrap the scene. At the same time, she defended her father's legacy and expressed hope that Pepé would find his way back to the screen, even though Warner Bros. has no plans to feature him again. "The essence of the character might be carried into something that's more acceptable now," she said, comparing him to vintage French actors like Charles Boyer, who specialized in playing suave ladies' men during Hollywood's Golden Age. "There's a difference between the decision to identify these cartoons as not being appropriate now, and that they contributed to the rape culture then."

Aldama also believes that cutting Pepé from A New Legacy represents a missed opportunity, not just for the cartoon character, but also his real-life co-star. "Greice has come out and said that she's a Latina victim of sexual harassment, and she was really upset that they pulled that scene," he explains. "For her, it was a real opportunity yet again to educate and to empower, but no — someone is just coming along and deciding this isn't going to happen. We should take these opportunities to critically reflect on and transform a character that was created in the past, and in this case Pepé was going to be put in his place by a Latina who felt it was important for her. And I imagine it would have been very important for young Latinas to see in general."

Bugs Bunny and Lola Bunny in the original 'Space Jam.' Lola has been given a makeover for the sequel, 'A New Legacy' (Photo: Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection)
Bugs Bunny and Lola Bunny in the original Space Jam. Lola has been given a makeover for the sequel, A New Legacy. (Photo: Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection)

It's worth noting that the makers of A New Legacy have already taken the opportunity to transform at least one popular character: Bugs Bunny's teammate, and love interest, Lola Bunny. Introduced in the original Space Jam, Lola has been given a makeover for the sequel that significantly tones down the exaggerated va-va-voom sexiness from her previous appearance. "Lola was very sexualized, like Betty Boop mixed with Jessica Rabbit," Lee recently told Entertainment Weekly. "This is a kids' movie, why is she in a crop top? It just felt unnecessary, but at the same time there's a long history of that in cartoons. This is 2021. It's important to reflect the authenticity of strong, capable female characters."

While Lola's new look generated criticism amongst conservative circles, it has been largely embraced on social media as an example of how problematic characters can be reinvented and reimagined, instead of being tossed away. And that's a way forward Aldama would prefer to follow instead of the cyclical — and cynical — debate over "cancel culture," a term he'd like to see canceled in favor of his preferred hashtag: "Don't obliterate, educate."

"Get that thing out of our brains," he says of "cancel culture," adding that the term frequently functions as a distraction from more important issues, like confronting pop culture stereotypes from the past and learning from them. "Maybe take a breath, step back a second and maybe there's an opportunity for you to open a space for discussion and dialogue and a sharing of opinions. You may not change your opinion, but let's think about how we can improve, and how we can learn and grow."

In Aldama's view, the road to improving Speedy Gonzales is allowing Latinx creators to ultimately decide the character's future — not the corporation that owns him. "Let's get someone like Peter Murrieta into that space," he says, referring to the TV producer and writer whose credits include the Netflix series, Mr. Iglesias, starring Fluffy. "Let's make that happen and not follow business as usual where you have a bunch of white dudes writing the character because they've been watching reruns for a couple of weeks. If we continue to have gatekeeping where only a set number of people are working on these characters, storytelling will never reach the kind of innovations it can. Let's have Latinx, African-American, Asian and indigenous brothers and sisters in those writers' rooms and those creative spaces and, as we've seen, something really powerful and magical will happen."

Space Jam: A New Legacy premieres July 16 in theaters and on HBO Max.

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