Earlier this week, an episode of Netflix’s children cartoon Maya the Bee was pulled after a hidden phallus was discovered by an angry parent. Now, the studio behind the cartoon looks to be pursuing charges against the penis-drawing artist. But in truth, sneaking dicks and other sex jokes into cartoons is weirdly long-standing animation tradition.
As long as there have been children’s, well, anything, there have been adults sneaking in things that should go over the heads of the target audience, whether it’s “Finger Prints” from Animaniacs or that time on Cow & Chicken when a bunch of biker women showed up and started munching the carpet.
Animation has sometimes gone a step beyond just jokes. In the days when movies either just played in theaters, or when pausing a VHS at just the right time was a tricky proposition, slipping a dirty drawing into a single frame was the source of a number of true stories and urban legend.
Disney has been accused of it several times, though it has mostly denied it. Famous examples include 1992's Aladdin, where Aladdin sounds like he’s saying “Good teenagers take off your clothes,” and 1994's The Lion King, where someone reportedly wrote “SEX” in the sky (some say it was SFX, for special effects). But sometimes, animators have to get extra sneaky to get their jokes past the censors. Hence, the hidden dick.
Now, one of the most famous—and one of the earlier—purported hidden dicks was from The Little Mermaid’s home video box art (which I owned a copy of). It came out in 1990, six months after it was in theaters, and people pointed out that one of the spires on King Triton’s castle looked remarkably like a penis. Snopes later debunked this theory by chatting with the artist himself, who said he drew the cover in a hurry and didn’t notice that one of the spires looked like a dick until someone in his church group pointed it out. Still, no one has ever forgotten The Little Mermaid’s castle penis. Once you see it, you can’t un-see it.
And while The Little Mermaid penis scandal was denied, there was another hidden sex bit even earlier that Disney did end up confessing to. In 1977's The Rescuers, there’s a scene where Bianca and Bernard fly through the city on the back of Orville the albatross, and there are two separate frames where a real topless woman can be seen through a window of a building in the background. According to Snopes, Disney recalled over three million copies of The Rescuers Down Under in 1999, over 20 years after the film came out, because of the images.
There’s an obvious penis in 1991's An American Tail: Feivel Goes West. While Tanya Mousekewitz is singing “Dream to Dream,” where there’s a brief flash of a penis doodle right next to her face. I recently watched the movie on Netflix. And yep, it’s there. You can’t miss it.
But it’s not just dicks that are being snuck into animation, you’ve also got female anatomy. In 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Jessica Rabbit’s vagina gets a brief exposure after she and Bob Hoskins are thrown from a cab during a car accident. Someone removed her underwear for a few short frames, leaving her completely bare.
The studio behind Maya the Bee might be furious that a penis snuck its way onto the show (read its apology here), but it’s not the first time that’s happened in the history of animation. But in the era of streaming and screencapture, maybe it’s time for everyone to grow up a little.