Tom and Jerry’s Discourses on How to be A Human…Or why “Everybody Wants to be a Cat” is Objectively True
In 1941’s “The Midnight Snack,” Hollywood icons William Hanna and Joseph Barbera introduced viewers to Jerry the Mouse for the first time, exiting a refrigerator, holding a wedge of cheese, sliding down a celery stalk that he positioned as an escape chute. Within the first 30 seconds we immediately know that we’re not dealing with some regular old mouse. Next we meet Tom, a cheesy-grinned cat who, despite observing Jerry’s craftiness, plays with him responsively, stacking plates and cups on top of his cache of food to weigh him down (in a very Atlas-esque posture). While it is observable in nature that cats often play with their prey, they usually do so from the position of agency, but is clear from their embodied movements and expressions, and the tone set by the musical scoring that it is Jerry, not Tom, who is playing puppet master in this animated world. (DISCLAIMER: The symbolism behind the African-American “mammy” trope in this episode would require a semester’s worth of classes to unpack. For the sake of this essay, I’m sitting on my fingers and putting her to the side for now, but suffice it to say, she too has epistemic meaning).
Tom and Jerry’s success as a cartoon goes beyond its mere ability to make its audience laugh because it speaks to certain essential truths and premises about human life that give it particular resonance, premises that I would claim form the basis of an epistemic understanding of what it means to be and live as a human. If one accepts the contention that “reason is the only oracle of man,” then one takes the view that success at the “game” of being a human, if you will, has come as a direct result of the human’s ability to use her reason to interpret sensory perceptions, to find patterns out of seemingly-caprice phenomena, to mediate and interpret the zone of our responsive emotions, and to deliberate and make purposeful, informed actions and decisions. The elevation of reason to the primal definitional characteristic of humanity is what birthed the Enlightenment and the great liberal projects that have resulted have reaped more benefits to the lot of human experience than can truly be quantified.
But humans often use our own epistemic way of viewing the world to assign qualities to the animals that we share it with, and this has created a number of tropes within cultures that have persisted across time. One example of this is seen in road kill. No, really, road kill. Squirrels can watch thousands of cars drive down a road in their lifetime, and yet they still dither in the middle of the street as your 3,500 lbs. box of metal destruction hurls towards them. They scurry to the left, then to the right. We have cataloged their inability to parse out cause and effect, to observe the pattern that running backwards to the sidewalk is the only guaranteed way to avoid death, and we fault them for it: we label some humans as having squirrelly character, and that is never a compliment. However, deer serve as yet another example of human anthropomorphized road kill philosophy because most deer have sufficient mental capacity to observe the patterns associated with road traffic. And while it is known that deer running into traffic usually do so in response to some other externality (acknowledging some kind of rationality on the part of the deer) we still fault the deer for not being as sophisticated in its attempts to act as rationally as we, the humans. If you’ve ever had your face described as having a “deer in headlights” expression, trust me, nobody was lauding you for your sophisticated rational faculties.
Some animals, though, seem to mimic human reasoning in their natural states. Herein lieth the power of the trope of the cat. Human fascination with feline nature is ancient and based upon the recognition that normative cat behavior, in lots of ways, seems to approach the level of reasoning, deliberation, and purposeful action that is usually reserved for Homo sapiens sapiens. Humans recognize something within the cat that reminds us of ourselves, but at the same time this makes the cat truly a cat, creating a concord between humans and cats on epistemic levels.
It is this common approach to interpreting the sensory data of our world that allows for both the Sphinx to be a captivating symbol for the imaginations of Ancient Egyptians and Tard the Grumpy Cat memes to thrive in the interwebs. Humans ascribe the independent, self-sufficiency of the lion as courageous, and of course we’d all prefer to be “cool cats” instead of “jive turkeys.” And let’s not forget Cats, the second-longest running show in Broadway history that features the poignant yet heroic standard “Memory” about the personal quest to discover the meaning of happiness, sung by Grizabella, the “Glamour Cat.”
But at certain times this hyper-sentience on the part of cats disturbs humans, because it is jarring for us to come into contact with a non-human life form that presents itself as equally-knowing and deliberative as us. The cat that stares at you motionlessly from the corner of the room for hours will doubtlessly leave you more unsettled than you staring back at the cat will leave it. He knows too much. In the Middle Ages, black cats featured as the familiars of witches who used their “dark” knowledge of the natural world to create potions that harnessed the earth’s inherent “powers,” threatening the safe ignorance of their fellow human societies. In the epochs of human history that were defined by their direct negation of reason being the lodestone for life, it is no surprise that cats and witches (read: free-thinking, independent women) became symbols to fear. In the Bohemian enclave of Montmartre, Le Chat Noir cabaret, with its street sign imploring, “Passant, soi moderne!” (Passerby, be modern!) reappropriated it as symbol of Romantic individualism and personal freedom.
Tom and Jerry is yet one more iteration of this human fascination with making inferences about our own nature through cats. Though the original Tom from 1941 was quadrupedal, by the late 40s he had morphed into a fully bipedal, hybrid human-catlike creature. However, if the cartoon only played out this cat and mouse theme predictably, it would be boring and lack it’s humor and staying power. Tom and Jerry‘s premise as a cartoon, indeed its biggest philosophical didactic, hinges upon the fact that Tom by his nature should be able to outsmart Jerry. The scene of flipping on a light switch at night only to catch the scurrying of a mouse out of the corner of one’s eye is familiar to many humans. We expect that the small, irrational mouse brain would immediately trigger flight from the first appearance of any external stimuli. Imagine how strange and unsettling it would be to turn on a light in the dark, only to confront a mouse sitting in the middle of the room waiting for us in catlike, steely-eyed repose.
Tom fails at his essential “catness” because by every defining feature of felinity, he is measured deficient, and rendered to look like a fool by Jerry, a mouse that should never be able to use its reasoning faculties as a tool that flips the script on the cat. Humans love this cartoon for this trope, and while we find much to admire in Jerry’s plucky determination and wit, we resent Tom, the cat that just can’t get it together and do his job as a cat.
We mock him for his inability to harness his superior reason and marshal it in fulfillment of his objectives. In essence, we laugh at his failure to understand his nature, and how his nature has equipped him to exploit (in the truest sense of that word) the natural world around him. Mammy (still playing the part of her racialized stereotype) speaks as the voice of truth at the end of “The Midnight Snack” when she kicks Tom out, declaring him “good for nothing”: valueless.
Cartoons like Tom and Jerry provide evidence that these discourses about human nature seem to approach normalizing, de re premises for describing what it means to live as a human. For if they weren’t on some level elementary, they would never be apprehended in the laughter of a child. Or a Tard meme.
P.S. Ayn Rand worked as a reader for MGM in New York during the same time period Hanna-Barbera created Tom and Jerry for MGM Studios in Hollywood. Is this just a mere coincidence of history, or is there a deeper back story here yet undiscovered?
P.P.S. No, I don’t consider Jerry to be a looter. Mice are gatherers, not cultivators, by nature.