Hi there! It’s been a while.
Today I want to talk about the wonderful soda pop and rainbow skittles world of ANIMATION.
Let me start by saying that I’m a fierce defender of animated content in all its forms. Some people think it’s because I’m actually 11 years old and would rather live in a brightly colored fantasy world than in the dreary dregs of Adult Land. *shivers* Oh, Adult Land, will we ever be friends?
In any case, while all those things might be somewhat true and while I should at some point accept that as a twenty-something mortgages, taxes and unemployment are all ever-looming problems, I don’t think it’s fair to discredit cartoons as “childish” programming.
I cannot tell you how many times people have stared at me like I’m a total FREAK (I’m starting to realize this happens way too often, but I kind of dig it) for spazzing out over the Power Puff Girls – I know I’m a total Bubbles, but Buttercup was always by fave – or for crying all over my tea from my Steven Universe feels – GAHHHH! It’s such a good show though! *cries*
So, I wanted to write some thoughts on the merits of the incredibly profound story-telling behind animation. Now, in this post I will not talk about anime. Though it is amazing and flawless, and if you don’t watch it, you should immediately. Instead, I want to talk about Western animation as it stands today. As opposed to wacky and beautiful Japan, in the West we tend to look at cartoons as mostly made for children.
Of course, there are “adult” cartoons out there, like Family Guy, Archer or Bob’s Burgers, that are definitely not marketed to kids, but these shows constantly try to highlight their distinction from the genre with the monicker of “adult” programming. As such, they affirm they are “adult” shows that happen to be animated and, therefore, are “more mature” than their child counterparts.
But I think this is limiting for a series of reasons. I would argue that animation targeted to kids can be equally if not MORE mature. Shows like Adventure Time explore extremely complex and dark themes creatively, seamlessly tying them into the outlandish and colorful world of its protagonists. Kids cartoons, much like children’s literature, not only frame our understanding at an early age and provide us with necessary tools to grow, but they remind us as adults that we are still growing, changing and discovering who we are.
Zeroing in on AT for a minute, I want to discuss reasons why I think it is not just a great animated show, but an amazing piece of broadcast TV. At first glance, it might seem like a bunch of randomness and non-sensical situations. It follows the adventures of Jake the Dog and Finn the Human in the magical world of Ooo, filled with slap-stick humor and silly catchphrases.
However, the show is far from just an episodic string of events. Rather, between its bubblegum colors and googly expressions, it hides darkness, harrowing existentialism and nostalgia. The Land of Ooo is not an absurd dream, but a post-apocalyptic reality – its magical textures and surreal inhabitants rising from the (*SPOILER ALERT*) nuclear devastation of the Mushroom War. A war that destroyed humanity and left Finn as the last surviving human.
Like the realm they inhabit, characters are also equally complex. They are not one dimensional caricatures, but beings that suffer from loss of love, abandonment, madness, grief and deep identity issues, growing from episode to episode.
Take, for example, the Ice King and his heartbreaking descent into madness, Marceline and her troubled self-image, Princess Bubblegum and her obsession with control, or even Finn himself, the only human left, who is trying to understand his place in the universe amid chaos.
Side Note: I’ll talk more in depth about Adventure Time in a later post because I have way too much to say. I could fill an entire dissertation. Geez.
As an adult, I appreciate the richness of AT‘s story and the surrealism with which it is told. I identify with its long list of characters, even when they are at their most ridiculous. Even the Earl of Lemongrab, who is beyond insane, makes me think deeply about the Frankensteinian consequences of power and human creation. Also, his face has spawned an entire generation of fabulous memes that give me life.
The show explores important lessons on human nature that make me think and feel deeply, and it does so without talking down to the audience, be it adults or children. It uses humor and wit, and speaks directly to the viewer not shying away from hard truths.
Steven Universe, the first show to be created by a woman on Cartoon Network, is equally compelling. It’s not only a beautiful, majestic rainbow of badassery and silliness, but THE most representational and progressive show on TV maybe ever.
From its representation of cultural diversity and its inclusion of non-heteronormative relationships to its portrayal of gender beyond destructive binaries and body positivity, this show exudes so much humanity and heart for a show about alien crystal gems.
Steven, like Finn, can be silly, but he can also be profound. He is a hero who doesn’t have to be bound by the outdated norms of masculinity, but finds heroism in his own self-worth. His relationship with his three gem guardians – Pearl, Amethyst and Garnet – promotes feminism and gender empowerment, and his unyielding belief in goodness is nothing short of inspiring. I always end each episode thinking we should all be a little more like Steven.
(Please, WATCH IT! I cannot promote this show enough. It is up there as one of my favorite programs of all time and I take my TV very seriously. No joke.)
It’s also easy to forget that behind all these animated landscapes are a team of incredibly talented artists and writers, all highly capable adults who put a lot of time and effort into each work. People like Patrick McHale, Natasha Allegri, Pendleton Ward, Alex Hirsch and Rebecca Sugar.
I have to take a moment and praise Rebecca Sugar who is not only a BOSSASS ukulele player and the creator of Steven Universe, but one of the most inspiration women working on TV right now. I owe her so much. *tears*
And let’s not talk about the teams upon teams of storyboard artists, writers, voice actors, editors, musicians and animators that work tirelessly to develop compelling stories and beautiful artwork. Animation is art and making a 10 minute episode can take anywhere from 9 to 12 months! That’s insane!
These creators have brought on what many are classifying as a Cartoon Renaissance of animated content that is not just beloved, but also critically acclaimed – series like Regular Show, Gravity Falls, The Legend of Korra, Phineas and Ferb, Over the Garden Wall and more. These are shows that try to say something without being a Sunday school lesson in morality, and without forgetting the lightheartedness and fun of animation. As much as they are deep and dark, they are also hilarious and full of light.
Disney’s Gravity Falls is a show that embodies this perfectly, as twins Mabel and Dipper come face to face with the supernatural and mysterious while on vacation in the town of Gravity Falls.
Their humorous shenanigans are intertwined with the paranormal – from their time travel escapades and their feud with the vindictive rainbow-puking gnomes to their discovery of the biggest conspiracy in American history. While they are pseudo-detectives unraveling the dark corners of the town’s history, they are also working through the even more paradigm-shifting mysteries of growing up.
However, like Adventure Time and Steven Universe, Gravity Falls never forgets to be hilarious and goofy. I find myself laughing out loud and choking on my breakfast on the regular when I watch it in the morning.
What can I say? I’m a hardcore like that.
Cartoons like these provide a perfect balance, teaching us as adults that it’s okay to be silly and loopy from time to time, and that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously or lose track of who we are and what gives us life. They allow us to escape into rainbows of color and humor, but also ground us in our reality by never straying too far from it.
I don’t discredit live-action programming, but I think animation deserves more recognition and respect for all it’s work in rearing generations and making us all better people. As a kid and now an adult, I feel enriched by animated shows. I believe more adults should stop their snobbery and watch cartoons with their kids, with their friends or by themselves while taking a a bubble bath. The possibilities are endless.
Maybe I’m just a crazy fangirl and maybe I’m super in tune with my inner-child, but I really do believe in the power of animation to enlighten, entertain and make us dream.
So, take some time. Watch some cartoons. I guarantee it will be well worth it.