It’s always tempting to take comfort in the nostalgia surrounding your favorite childhood shows. Bright, fun and innocent, they’re a warm reminder of a simpler time before life and its endless responsibilities got in the way. As it turns out though, the classic shows you look back on so fondly as you grow older may not be quite as innocent as you remember them being. While your typical Saturday morning cartoon may be aimed at kids, it’s easy to forget that it’s adults who make them -- and adults don’t always have the best judgement regarding what is and is not suitable for children.
In fact, it’s nothing short of a miracle that there isn’t more controversy surrounding kid’s cartoons, given the thousands upon thousands of episodes that go into production. After all, these children’s stories have to be pushed through an adult filter before airing on TV -- and it’s always just a matter of time before someone slips up and upsets someone. While some controversies end up being more heated than others -- and some episodes are more intentionally risky than others -- it’s always interesting to watch the resulting debate unfold. Here are 15 controversial episodes of classic cartoons.
15 TRANSFORMERS - "THIEF IN THE NIGHT"
While the Transformers franchise spanned several hundred episodes over the course of its various incarnations, there’s a surprising lack of controversy surrounding the classic ‘80s cartoon -- although the live action movies are a different story altogether. One episode that did catch some heat upon its initial release however, was the season three episode “Thief in the Night”, which has since been criticized for featuring some pretty over-the-top Middle-Eastern stereotypes.
Taking place in the fictional country of Carbombya (subtle, right?), the episode sees the Decepticons plotting with the country’s leader, Abdul Fakkadi, in an effort to steal several of the world’s most famous landmarks. After ultimately being saved by the Autobots however, Fakkadi promises to never act so foolishly again, swearing “on the grave of my mother’s camel, my uncle’s goat, and even my sister’s donkeys.” And yes -- that’s an actual line from the episode.
14 MIGHTY MOUSE - "THE LITTLEST TRAMP"
Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures was the successor to the original Mighty Mouse series, and was co-produced by Ralph Bakshi, creator of the controversial adult cartoon Fritz the Cat. In the show’s seventh episode, entitled “The Littlest Tramp”, the titular character, Mighty Mouse, inhales a crushed flower through his nose, causing the head of the American Family Association, Donald Wildmon, to accuse the show’s creators of promoting cocaine use to the public.
Using Bakshi’s history of creating adult cartoons against him, Wildmon created a media firestorm with the accusations, and while Bakshi initially intended to leave the scene intact as a profession of his innocence, the increasingly public controversy stemming from the episode ultimately forced his hand, and the scene was cut by three-and-a-half seconds.
13 GARGOYLES - "DEADLY FORCE"
Airing as part of Disney Afternoon’s programming block back in 1994, Gargoyles received a cult following after the series ended due to its dark tone, complex characters and involving stories. It was the series’ dark tone that got it into trouble in “Deadly Force” however, after Elisa is accidentally shot by Broadway.
Intended to serve as a commentary on gun control and safety, “Deadly Force” was initially banned due to both its graphic content -- particularly the imagery of Elisa writhing around in a pool of her own blood after being shot -- and the sensitive subject matter of gun control, particularly in the US. The episode was eventually re-aired on TV, albeit with cuts made to ensure the absence of any blood in the offending scene.
12 POKEMON - "THE LEGEND OF DRATINI"
Although many might think of the seizure-inducing “Electric Soldier Porygon” when talking about the most controversial episodes of Pokémon, the subject matter of the episode itself was ultimately pretty benign. That’s more than can be said for “The Legend of Dratini” though, which was banned almost universally outside of Japan due to content deemed inappropriate for children.
Heavily featuring the use of guns and other firearms -- including scenes in which the series’ protagonists are threatened at gunpoint -- the episode was perceived as too dark for young fans of the series, and the controversy didn’t end there. Featuring a scene in which Meowth wears a mustache and clothes reminiscent of Adolf Hitler, this only added fuel to the fire, resulting in the episode being pulled from syndication completely.
11 TINY TOON ADVENTURES - "ONE BEER"
Initially intended as a PSA of sorts, “Elephant Issues” was an episode of Tiny Toons Adventures that was supposed to deal with three different social issues in the three segments of its episode. While the first two managed to remain controversy-free, the third and final part of the episode, “One Beer”, caused quite a stir due to its misguided and heavy-handed content.
Featuring the characters Plucky, Buster and Hamton as they stumble across an unopened beer, the episode sees these beloved children’s characters get blackout drunk, before stealing a police vehicle and accidentally driving it off a cliff, killing themselves in the process. The episode reportedly disturbed many children, who were unsurprisingly distressed at the sight of their favorite characters’ demise, and the episode was yanked from almost every network airing the show as a result.
10 RUGRATS - "A RUGRATS CHANUKAH"
Rugrats was a show known for dealing with sensitive subject matter in a careful, well-rounded manner, frequently addressing topics such as religion, parental death and adoption. Still, when dealing with this kind of subject matter you’re bound to land yourself in hot water with someone eventually.
Although the show was often praised for its respectful portrayal of different faiths and cultures, the holiday episode “A Rugrats Chanukah” soon drew the ire of the Anti-Defamation League, who claimed that the depiction of Boris and Minka -- the central character’s grandparents -- were reminiscent of anti-Semitic cartoons posted in '30s Nazi propaganda. Nickelodeon’s president at the time, Albie Hecht (who also happened to be Jewish), deemed the accusations absurd, and it seems the general public ultimately agreed, given Rugrats reputation as one of the most socially conscious kid’s shows of the ‘90s.
9 THUNDERCATS - "EXODUS (PILOT)"
Is it possible for a character covered head to toe in fur to be truly naked on screen? That’s exactly the question parents found themselves asking when the pilot episode of ThunderCats, entitled “Exodus” first aired back in 1985.
Spending a significant amount of the show’s first episode sans uniform, the ThunderCats stroll about their ship almost completely nude -- depending on your definition of the word, that is. This was enough for some parents to forbid their children from watching the show altogether, and although this kind of thing never happened in the show again, it’s entirely possible that the show’s very first episode limited its potential viewership right out of the gate. Luckily for ThunderCats, the show became popular enough that this really didn’t matter.
8 TALESPIN - "LAST HORIZONS"
One of the more beloved shows in the revered Disney Afternoon line-up, TaleSpin was a pseudo-spin-off of The Jungle Book, featuring the character Baloo as a pilot in the fictional town of Cape Suzette. Naturally, Baloo would often get in over his head during his high-flying adventures, and this was certainly the case in the episode “Last Horizons”, which did not sit well with audiences for several reasons.
After crash landing in the mysterious country of Panda-La, Baloo is treated like a king by the country’s citizens -- only to discover that the residents of Panda-La are using him for information to orchestrate an attack on Cape Suzette. Not only was the episode criticized for offensive Asian stereotypes, but the plot’s close resemblance to the events of Pearl Harbor and World War II at large were met with hostility, and the episode was eventually pulled.
7 ANIMANICAS - “HERCULE YAKOO”
During its time on the air, Animaniacs managed to build itself quite the reputation for subtly slipping in adult jokes as a wink to its older viewership, constantly pushing the boundaries of what the censors would allow in a variety of creative ways.
This aspect of the show was always great, and Animaniacs has aged very well in the eyes of its fans as a result, though some felt the show went too far in the episode “Hercule Yakko”. After taking on a case involving a missing diamond necklace, Yakko instructs his sister Dot to search the room for prints. Mistakenly returning with the musician Prince rather than the evidence he needs, Yakko corrects her, yelling “fingerprints!”, after which Dot stares dubiously at the now excited-looking musician and responds with “I don’t think so”, before throwing him out of a window.
6 DARKWING DUCK - "HOT SPELLS"
Initially airing on October 31st 1992, Darkwing Duck’s Halloween episode “Hot Spells” attracted controversy due to its overtly religious content, with the episode featuring Beelzebub (aka the Devil himself) as the episode’s primary antagonist, something that didn't sit well with some.
During the episode, Darkwing Duck’s daughter Gosalyn is tricked into using dark magic by Beelzebub in a plot to trap Darkwing in hell. The episode isn’t actually as dark as it sounds however, with comical moments and a less-than-intimidating depiction of the Devil resulting in something objectively kid-friendly. With that said, religion has always been a sensitive topic on any TV show, let alone one aimed at children, and the episode had many parents up in arms as a result of Beelzebub’s inclusion in the show.
5 ROCKO'S MODERN LIFE - "LEAPFROGS"
Along with the likes of Animaniacs and Ren and Stimpy, Rocko’s Modern Life was a ‘90s cartoon known for containing inappropriate content. The show was subject to scrutiny several times over the course of its lifespan for including overtly sexual content, including one episode in which it’s hinted that one of the show’s central characters is working on a sex line.
The first controversy the show received came as soon as its second episode however, which was titled “Leapfrogs”. Containing sexual humour, innuendo and themes of adultery, the episode follows Bev Bighead as she attempts to seduce Rocko after feeling unappreciated by her husband. The sexual connotations in the episode are pretty clear, and Nickelodeon decided to ban the episode due to parental concerns, although the episode was eventually re-aired in 2002 and can be found on the show’s DVD and digital releases.
4 COW AND CHICKEN - "BUFFALO GALS"
Cow and Chicken was one weird show. Following the titular siblings Cow and Chicken -- who are somehow the biological children of two humans -- the show was frequently grotesque, containing a lot of gross out humor and even a central character who was basically a naked Devil.
The show ruffled a lot of feathers with the episode “Buffalo Gals” however, due to its questionable sexual content that primarily targeted lesbians. The episode featured a female biker gang known as the Buffalo Gals, who according to one character would “break into people’s homes and chew on their carpets”. While the implications here are rather clear on their own, the stereotypical appearance of the Buffalo Gals combined with their affinity for softball left no question as to what the creators were aiming for, and Cartoon Network quickly pulled the episode from syndication to avoid further controversy.
3 REN AND STIMPY - "MAN'S BEST FRIEND"
Ah, Ren and Stimpy -- the king of slipping adult content into kid’s cartoons. In the show’s defense, it would appear its creators didn’t have an interest in creating a kid’s show in the first place, as evidenced by the creation of the TV-MA rated Ren and Stimpy “Adult Party Cartoon”. Nevertheless, the show’s violent and mature content landed it in hot water many times, with the most notable controversy taking place in the wake of the episode “Man’s Best Friend”.
Considered too violent for children, the episode featured a vengeful Ren as he mercilessly beats a character to a bloody pulp with a wooden oar. While many cartoons such as Tom and Jerry contain plenty of slapstick violence however, “Man’s Best Friend” really blurred the line between slapstick violence and gruesome violence, leading Nickelodeon to not only ban the episode, but fire the show’s creator John Kricfalusi, too.
2 DEXTER'S LABORATORY - "RUDE REMOVAL"
In what has to be one of the riskiest ideas ever implemented into a kid’s cartoon, Cartoon Network’s popular show Dexter’s Laboratory declared war on parents back in 1998 with a controversial episode titled “Rude Removal”. In the episode, Dexter builds a machine that will separate the rude character traits of his meddlesome sister Dee Dee from her polite ones. Predictably, both Dexter and Dee Dee end up trapped in the machine together, creating an obnoxious pair of foul-mouthed doppelgangers in the process.
For the remainder of the episode, these Doppelgangers run amok, cursing like sailors. The profanity is censored of course, but the context in which the words are used combined with the character’s mouth movements make what they’re saying incredibly obvious. Sadly, Cartoon Network never officially aired the segment on their network, but the episode made its way around several animation festivals, with an uncensored version appearing online.
1 G.I. JOE - "THERE'S NO PLACE LIKE SPRINGFIELD"
Known primarily for its gung-ho action, patriotism and penchant for PSAs, G.I. Joe is often considered one of the quintessential Saturday morning cartoons, so it was definitely weird when the child-friendly show suddenly became a Cronenbergian body horror in “There’s No Place Like Springfield”.
Focusing on Cobra’s attempts to extract a formula from Shipwreck’s mind by inducing delusions in his head, “There’s No Place Like Springfield” goes full psychological horror at times, with Cobra’s plot serving as a torturous gauntlet of psychological warfare for Shipwreck. Constantly driven to the point of lunacy as he questions his own sanity, Shipwreck is even forced to watch his wife and daughter (who unbeknownst to him are clones) melt into a sticky, plastic mess at the climax of the episode, sending him over the edge of madness. Needless to say, this episode was probably nightmare fuel for a whole generation of children.
What's the most controversial cartoon episode you remember? Sound off in the comments below!