Cartoons, and Kids These Days

March 5, 2017

I still regularly watch cartoons. Kids these days are so fortunate to have the cartoons that they do.

The cartoons that aired when I was growing up were different. The cartoons of the 1980s served mostly as opportunities for companies like Mattel and Hasbro to advance the grand ideals of capitalism. Every day, young viewers were inundated with the principle to buy a full gamut of tie-in merchandise. It was a vicious process: you watched the cartoons which sold the products that you begged your parents to buy in order to prove your love for the cartoon. Marketing on that scale wasn’t unique to 80s, but it certainly was mastered during those years. Through weekly half-hour installments, advertisers could promote a multitude of toys, lunch boxes, bed sheets, t-shirts, cereals, pajamas, coloring books, and more. But the cartoons (and the products) were entirely redundant, gender biased, lazily written, and otherwise, not really that great.

Peeking back even just a few decades, you wonder how cartoons ever devolved to such a crude state. From the 1930s through the 1970s, various studios were pushing animation entertainment forward, maturing in style and audience. Disney’s feature-length films for children are still objectively gorgeous and technical masterpieces. Warner Bros. focused on composing comedies aimed at slightly older audiences. Hanna-Barbera produced primetime sitcoms for adults. Yes, within those years there were loads of crap, too, but for every Jabberjaw there was a Rocky and Bullwinkle to balance it out.

Shortly after television executives officiated the marriage of cartoons and action figures, the 1990s made things a little weird. Cartoons were predominantly an entertainment format for children. And within those limitations, animators grew restless and wanted to start telling their kinds of stories. A whole genre of adult-oriented cartoons began to emerge, beginning with CalArts outsiders and The Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation. It’s not a coincidence that a show like The Simpsons, breaking all the rules of decency, worked as an effective bridge between the two decades. Aimed at an adult audience, it only gained infamy after spawning its own merchandising empire.1

With the growth of cable television in the mid-90s, networks were able to start taking risks in airing subversive animation. There was MTV’s entire Liquid Television line-up with Beavis and Butthead and Æon Flux or Comedy Central with Dr. Katz and South Park. By the end, even Cartoon Network, a channel designed to rerun nearly all the previous generation’s children’s programming, came out with its own late-night Adult Swim block, anchored by Space Ghost and Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

Animation is a very expensive medium to produce, and daring to do something different is always a financial liability in any industry. At first, cable television gambled with new cartoons almost exclusively for content catered to adults. When it comes to radical children’s programming, one is hard-pressed to find many early examples.2

But this decade? This decade is intent on examining the effects of its actions in ways unlike years prior. Mainstream media has only just begun reflecting on the global impact of a relentlessly destructive society, whether it concerns the food we eat or the wars we wage or the people that make up our communities. Narratives about people from different backgrounds with different bodies living with different experiences began surfacing in television and movies, and are now being represented in cartoons.

Popular cartoons these days don’t just sell a lot of toys; they provide a kind of self-awareness that hasn’t typically been the focus of children’s programming. It feels like the natural culmination of a slow movement over the years to capture a much wider audience. Rather than focusing solely at children or adults, animators understand that a successful show needs to be “smart” and span generations. Plenty has been written about how Adventure Time is a “kids’ show that’s OK for adults to like”, or how a cartoon with “adult humor” like Bob’s Burgers can still be family-oriented by not resorting to obscenity.

More than ever, cartoons take cues from the world around them, rather than serving as distractions.

Take a look at this clip from Star Wars: Rebels. I realize this might sounds hypocritical: “Just a Star Wars fanboy leaning on a Star Wars cartoon to make a point, even though it’s obviously a glaring example of franchise-driven cartooning!” Regardless of what it appears to be on the surface, Rebels actually takes a close look at the effects of war. It definitely contains the very bland trope of “good versus evil” running throughout, but there’s also recurring representations of the consequences of one’s actions. The main character’s parents are killed for being outspoken opponents to the Empire; soldiers regularly defect or, in this case, muse upon the effects constant conflict has on the living:

You would never find an episode of G.I. Joe where a character tries to explain what post-traumatic stress disorder looks like. We live in a world of perpetual war and endless celebrations for military force over diplomacy. But rather than follow the same well-trodden path towards praising the violent, the show encourages you to take a more sympathetic attitude to those who participate.3

Or, consider a show like Steven Universe which is more overt in stating its progressive agenda. An average episode is about ten minutes long; each still manage to quickly demonstrate ideas about love and self-respect. Here’s a one minute clip as an example:

In that clip, representing a tenth of the whole episode, there was:

When did Barbie ever lash out against someone’s xenophobia?

Cartoons teaching inclusivity and compassion are becoming the norm. It’ll be interesting to see what the next few years will mean for cartoons. It’s likely possible that, just as cable television in the 90s paved the way for new types of cartoons, the streaming services of today will also be motivated to produce new intelligent content catered to children, just as they have already done with adults.

Cartoons may be the proof that there is hope for the future.

  1. Without question, until that point, no other cartoon had as large an effect on popular culture. What other cartoon could boast about its disputes with the White House

  2. At the least, there ought to be more serious examinations on the impact a show like Dora the Explorer had for daring to showcase non-white protagonists. 

  3. A much earlier cartoon that operated much the same was Mobile Suit Gundam. Airing in 1979, it was a mecha-war anime that routinely reminded viewers about the terrible cost of war. The closest thing that the States produced around the same time and with the same message was M*A*S*H