The Cultural Work of Cartoon Frogs

Emilia Medina

Frogs are, in large part, responsible for the success of Beavis & Butthead. The episode in which they play frog-baseball earned them their shot at fame. Plenty of things, animals, & persons are destroyed in the cartoon, but mashed on a bat in extreme close-up, frogs stick out. Persons are very often struck or beaten, punctured with fish-hooks or burnt, but frogs have their bodily integrity compromised in unique ways. I don't recall a lot of guest appearances by other animals on Beavis & Butthead. That leaves frogs as the non-human animate. They make passable baseballs, but they make even better targets.

The history of cartoon frogs involves a famously singing one. The discoverer of this marvel, naturally, wants to use it to turn a profit: naturally, audiences would flock to see a singing & - what's more - dancing frog, in a top hat & tails.

Too bad, though, that the frog will sing only for its discoverer, who sees a side of that gifted amphibian no one else can see. No one else, of course, because for the rest of the cartoon world, the frog sings only the most average croak - nothing spectacular, so nothing to see or - for that matter - hear. Only the would-be, wishful profiteer knows both sides; I can't be sure if his final gain is a trip - complete with straitjacket - to the off-stage asylum or just continued poverty.

But we as audience are standing beside or, maybe better, behind him. And, of course, we don't get carted off, having learned from that example the failure of an American success story.

I'll assume that there's a kind of cartoon collective mind or unconscious; that there's a cartoon intertext or - maybe by now - hypertext; & that there's more or less recognized use of the imagery available.

It's not the dandy, top-hatted frog that ends up on the more contemporary bat. It's, instead, a non-descript frog, one of several, & of provenance unknown - or unremembered by me. Cartoons seem less narratives than images or blips, & this may increase whatever power they have to establish & enforce cultural meanings. Without some kind of narrative frame, images seem meant to be free-floating & easily attachable to whatever narrative. Images set off associations of meanings in some ways like linguistic shifters; images can be code words that light a field that's formed by contradictions, & permit a sort of navigating of it. It may be that those blips let you see just enough.

Cartoon frogs are less a way out than a way into this kind of field. A baseball field, for instance, where the all-American game, frogs & lizards (& other unfortunates), & all-American boys like Beavis & Butthead end up together.

So far, there are no frogs on South Park.