My only exposure to French culture as a child was Looney Tunes cartoons featuring the lecherous skunk, Pepé Le Pew. When I grew up, my views of France changed, and I thought of the French as romantic, a view that seems to contrast with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, whose alleged sexual assault on a hotel maid is remarkably similar to Pepé Le Pew’s antics. Maybe Warner Brothers got it right.
I recently visited France where I learned that the French were also raised with Looney Tunes characters from an early age, and they are all familiar with Pepé Le Pew. In France, the cartoons are dubbed into French and Le Pew loses his French accent; it isn’t widely known that he is supposed to be French. One French lady I spoke with told me:
“We never knew Pepé Le Pew was French — I didn’t learn that until I grew up — and I was shocked. We thought he was just a jerk.”
As a flood of news of past liaisons pours in, everyone now agrees that Strauss-Kahn is a jerk. This is the season for political-Le Pews, with Euro-Le Pews Schwarzenegger and Berlusconi joining our own chorus of American-Le Pew oldies: Clinton, Gingrich, Spitzer, Sanford, Vitter, Ensign, Edwards and more. It is a parade of schadenfreude delights for editorial cartoonists.
The French are remarkably tolerant of their leaders’ sexual indiscretions, and I was interested to see the America-bashing that accompanied the Strauss-Kahn news, as the French press was eager to bash the American legal system for publishing images of Strauss-Kahn in handcuffs. The American press wouldn’t publish the name of Strauss-Kahn’s victim — not so in France, where the victim’s name was broadcast widely.
I wondered what the French thought of sexy maids, and I just did a Google search — oh là là! It seems that every aspect of the Strauss-Kahn story reinforces our stereotyped images of the French. I suspect the same is true on the other side of the Atlantic as the French roll their eyes at puritanical Americans with their backward legal system.
I once got a job from a French magazine whose editors asked me to draw the archetypal American; they gave me a list of American attributes to incorporate into the image; they wanted an overweight man with: cowboy hat, hamburger, soda, jeans, sneakers and iPod. Hamburgers are an international cartoon symbol for America, understood worldwide, except in America.
Superman is another international cartoon symbol of America, a fact that may have recently led Warner Brothers to have Superman renounce his American citizenship. I hate to think that Warner Brothers might do the same with Pepé Le Pew. Without his French citizenship, Le Pew would be as pointless for us as he is in France.
Daryl Cagle is a political cartoonist and blogger for MSNBC.com; he is a past president of the National Cartoonists Society. Daryl’s cartoons are syndicated to more than 850 newspapers, including the paper you are reading now. Read Daryl’s blog at www.cagle.com/daryl.