In Watership Down (1978), there are several famous (or perhaps infamous) scenes in which terrified rabbits are chased and violently attacked by other animals. Similarly, in the classic Tom and Jerry series (1940-1958), Tom the cat is often harmed by Jerry during their ongoing cat and mouse games. However, whilst these two animations depict very similar scenes (i.e., animal-on-animal chases resulting in violence), the audience and critical response to these texts have been vastly different. But why? Why was the violence in Watership Down viewed by some as unacceptable (leading it to become one of the most complained about films ever in the UK), yet Tom and Jerry and similarly violent animations haven’t attracted the same level of criticism or complaints? What is the difference in violence that causes such a difference in attitude? This post will try to understand what it is that makes animated violence acceptable or unacceptable to audiences.
Some researchers (such as Kirsh  and Islam et al. ) have found that the difference between controversy and comfort with animated violence is quite simply comedy. When animated violence is comedic, it is non-threatening. Yet, when it is realistic and serious, it is uncomfortable (Kirsh, 2006: 549). This is why the bloody scenes of Watership Down are notorious and Beauty and the Beast (1991) has been heavily criticized, but the constantly violent, yet light-hearted, battles between Tom and Jerry are overlooked. Whilst Beauty and the Beast does have comedic scenes, these are notably separate from the film’s many violent scenes, such as the aggressive hunt for the beast towards the end of the film. In contrast, the violence in Tom and Jerry is almost always comedic, it is slapstick, it is cartoonish. Despite the harm that Tom experiences, he never dies, bleeds, or is in pain for long. Therefore, the violence towards him isn’t serious and is thus non-threatening.
However, while it seems that comedy is probably the most important factor in making animated violence acceptable, there are other aspects at play. In animation, both the perpetrators and victims of violence seem to be male characters (Türkmen, 2016: 33). Many animations feature violence towards females, but this is often not comedic. This might help explain the controversy towards films such as Watership Down (in which several female rabbits die) and video games such as Grand Theft Auto. Interestingly, it has also been found that it is more common to see violence towards men by women than vice versa (Türkmen, 2016: 33). This is significant given that it is generally the opposite of reality. It is well-known that male violence towards women and girls is a serious problem globally; therefore, it would be extremely difficult to make this comedic. Violence towards men and boys is of course also problematic, yet it generally isn’t viewed as seriously. This is perhaps why in an animation series such as The Simpsons (1989-present), we often see Homer strangling Bart in a comedic fashion, yet we never see Homer behave in the same way towards his wife or daughters.
Further to this, as well as acceptable animated violence being unreflective of reality in regards to the demographic harmed, it is also unrealistic in regards to its appearance. Acceptable animated violence is usually sanitized, i.e. there is usually no blood, scars, or death. Therefore, violence in animation is only acceptable when it is not real on several levels; it can’t be too serious, too bloody, or too much like violence in real life. It is almost as if the uncanny valley effect is also in motion with violence. Animated violence simply can’t look or be too real, or else it becomes uncomfortable to viewers. The violence viewers accept has to be so far removed from what we know of the truth to be accepted and to be enjoyable.
Relating to this, in a study of high-grossing animated films, it was found that the most common forms of violence depicted were punching and kicking (Türkmen, 2016: 23). It is clear that some forms of violence, such as sexual abuse, are only depicted extremely rarely, and on the few occasions in which they have been, such texts have been significantly controversial. For instance, in the video game series Grand Theft Auto (1997-present), players can drown women, kill & mug prostitutes, and even sexually-assault other characters. Unsurprisingly, these games have attracted much criticism from feminist scholars for such depictions.
In conclusion, violence is a common feature in many forms of animation and is likely to continue to be so. It is however clear that there are distinct boundaries as to what can make such depictions comfortable or controversial, notably: comedy, gender, realism, and the form of violence. Animated depictions of comedic non-sexual violence towards males (such as Homer strangling Bart in The Simpsons or Jerry hitting Tom with a frying pan in Tom and Jerry) are regular occurrences and somewhat insignificant within their texts. However, depictions of serious violence towards females (such as the aggressive treatment towards Belle in Beauty and the Beast or the killing of prostitutes in Grand Theft Auto) do not allow the viewer’s belief to be suspended in the same way. Therefore, for animated violence to be comfortable to viewers, it simply must be removed from reality in several ways. If not, it becomes controversial.
Brown, N. (2017). British Children’s Cinema: From the Thief of Bagdad to Wallace and Gromit. London: I. B. Tauris.
Cummins, J. (1995). ‘Romancing the Plot: The Real Beast of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast’, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, 20(1), pp. 22-28.
Islam, M. et al. (2021). ‘Tom and Jerry Projecting Violence in Slapstick Comedy: A Qualitative Content Analysis’, Malaysian Journal of Media Studies, 23(1), pp. 65-82.
Kirsh, S. J. (2006). ‘Cartoon Violence and Aggression in Youth’, Aggression and Violent Behavior, 11, pp. 547–557.
Olson, K. M. (2013). ‘An Epideictic Dimension of Symbolic Violence in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast: Inter-generational Lessons in Romanticizing and Tolerating Intimate Partner Violence’, The Quarterly Journal of Speech, 99(4), pp. 448-480.
Rodenberg, C. (2013). ‘Grand Theft Auto V Makes It Cool to Pick Up – Even Kill – Prostitutes’, The Guardian.
Türkmen, M. (2016). ‘Violence in Animated Feature Films: Implications for Children’, Educational Process: International Journal, 5, pp. 22-37.
Rebecca Stanton is the conveyor of SAS’s “Animals and Animation” SIG. She holds a Ph.D. on depictions of animal harm in Disney films. Her first book, The Disneyfication of Animals, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2020. Her research interests include animals, violence, feminism, and documentary.