Defending “John Willy-Man”, a Children’s Cartoon About a Prehensile Penis

Notable political cartoonist Stella Perrett sets out a defence of the Danish children’s cartoon ‘John Willy-Man’.

I’ve already defended this Danish  TV children’s cartoon on Spinster and had some pushback – but no abuse – yet.

As a defender of Free Speech I am happy to argue my point.

I am a political cartoonist in the public sphere, so I feel a duty to stand up for other artist’s freedom of expression – when it’s not gratuitously violent or obscene, abusive, and NOT ‘grooming’ or ‘paedophilia’, both of which “John Willy-Man” has been described as, by feminists.

As a controversial cartoonist myself, I believe John Willy-Man is none of these things.

From Dennis The Menace and The Bash Street Kids onwards, parents have complained about children’s cartoon characters.

I thought it important to set this newest ‘outrage’ in the context of previously problematic children’s cartoons.

Children’s cartoons drawn and produced by adults are always going to have problems associted with them – for being too patronising, too bonded to one culture, too bizarre, too violent, having references to adult themes like sex and drugs.

Disney films have attracted plenty of calls for censorship throughout their history, with their depictions of violence, death, adult themes, and old attitudes to race. 

They have been slated as too traumatic for children; a recent example being The Good Dinosaur. It’s been said that it isn’t a Disney film unless one parent dies!

However, it is the adult’s decision to take a child to the cinema, and there are sites like commonsensemedia.org to advise them, before they go and spend their money.

But children’s TV, which young children can access on their own if parents are not around, is more of a problem area.

There is a list of children’s TV cartoons which have been accused of pandering to adult themes, even though those themes are well over the heads of the children themselves.

Take Tom and Jerry – apart from it’s extreme violence, it depicted the lower legs and slippered feet of the woman who ran the kitchen, and frequently scolded Tom after the mayhem he created, chasing Jerry. She happened to be an old time ‘Negro’ maid. 

But I grew up with Tom and Jerry, and living in England, although I shuddered at its violence, I never even realised the woman was black, or that she was a servant. Nobody I knew had servants. If I thought anything, it was that she was the woman of the house – the mother.

To those who say “but just because the children do not realise what they are looking at, they are still being groomed”, I have to say, that is nonsense. I certainly never grew up to think that everyone should have black servants from watching Tom and Jerry, and neither did anyone else, I am sure.

Then we move onto the Magic Roundabout, with its several references to the psychadelic drug culture of the 60s. Again, although I thought Zebedee was a disturbing, hideous monster, it never occurred to me that the laid -back rabbit Dylan was on drugs. Because I was a CHILD. If I thought anything, it was that Dylan was a lazy sood who should be helping in the garden.

Again, I did not grow up to take drugs because of watching the Magic Roundabout! 

Another cartoon deemed inappropriate by many parents, and now taken off Canadian PBS Kids TV after 20 years, was Caillou. Caillou is a brattish little boy who bullies his little sister, gets into all sorts of scrapes, and runs crying to his parents when he doesn’t get his own way.

But he is no worse than PINGU, who famously runs to the toilet to sick up the green vegetables his father has just forced him to eat. 

Pingu is another cartoon accused of violence and being too scary for kids.

Sexual references in children’s cartoons.

There are actually very few.

Captain Pugwash was accused of this – but the so called smutty names of its carachters were ‘fake news’, and its creator, John Ryan, won libel cases against  the BBC in 1991 after they repeated the accusations.

Pingu had an episode in which Pingu and his girlfriend kept trying to hide from adults so they could have a snog. This episode was not shown in the USA,

I previously mentioned that as a child I found “Zebedee” scary, in the Magic Roundabout. Unlike the children and animals, who were fairly normal looking, he was an ugly red head with a minute body, who bounced around on a giant spring, positioned in the place  of the male genitals, and declared “Time for Bed” at the end of each episode. You can see how that could be construed – if you are an adult.

The modern equivelant is “John Willy-Man” from Denmark’s DR TV, aimed at children aged 4-8. Exactly the age at which children start laughing at willies. 

The TV channel have robustly defended themselves, saying that the cartoon is so asexual that it cannot be considered inappropriate. 

It is no surprise that Denmark has produced a cartoon like “John Willy-Man”.

Denmark’s Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, stood up to China in January 2020 when they condemned a cartoon of the Chinese Flag in Jyllands-Posten newspaper. She defended Denmark’s long history of freedom of expression, including cartoons.

John Dillermand, which runs as a daily 5-minute episode, has so far been very popular, but there has been a backlash from women’s groups around the world, who say that his ridicuous red and white striped flexible willy, which can perform all kinds of tricks for him (such as holding the leads of a load of dogs while he goes in a shop to buy a hotdog) is somehow fuelling the Patriarchy.

The cartoon is produced in stop-go motion, with plasticene carachters, like an old fashioned toy-town. In the course of 13 episodes so far, John Willy-Man has his member set on fire on the barbecue, chomped on by dogs, cut off by the neighbour’s garden shears, and tangled in the strings of balloons, which carry him upside down into the sky. 

He is the butt of the townspeople for these ridiculous scrapes it gets him into, and when his wife shouts at him, it shrinks back into his matching red and white Victorian bathing suit. 

I can only say that if you would not have laughed at this between the ages of 4-8, you must have been a seriously humourless child.

Far from supporting the Patriarchy, John Willy-Man is shown as the “village idiot”. It is more likely to encourage little girls – and boys – to laugh at boys who try to boast about their members, as “Silly John Willy-Man”.

There will be a natural end to this cartoon – there has to be a limit to the ludicrous situations they can think up  – but as a political cartoonist, I have to support DR TV’s freedom of expression.

As they say, they could have chosen to depict a woman with an expanding vagina that got her into scrapes. (The outcry from the feminist world would have been even worse)! 

I am actually surprised that men have not been complaining about John Willy-Man as belittling towards them. 

Because of the outcry, no doubt there are parents who make sure their children do not watch it, and that is what the ‘off’ button is for. 

But I can imagine the scene all over Denmark, as the credits roll at the end of John Willy-Man. The mother turns to her little boy, (who is looking a bit green, as well he might, after yet another episode of willys being chopped, mashed, pinged, bitten); and says the immortal words of Mothers throughout history:

“See what happens if you don’t keep it in your pants!”

1 Comment

  1. Wonderful punch line Stella after a very good survey of all the terrible things one COULD read into cartoons if one looked hard enough, or was easily shocked. Where would we be though, if we felt the safest thing for our children would be to bowdlerise life into uneventful and un-surprising banality: even Beatrix Potter gives more than a hint of possible grim outcomes for her characters.

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