There's an Animation Revolution Coming and We Need to Pay Attention
There is an animation revolution coming and we really need to start paying more attention to it. If you were born during the 1990’s, you experienced what I like to call the “Golden Age” of cartoon series in America. This was when Cartoon Network actually had a huge set list of cartoons for children, as well as provided exposure to Japanese animation (i.e. Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, and Pokémon), before Spongebob was the face of Nickelodeon, and you didn't have to go to some other channel to enjoy quality cartoons from Disney.
We may not have noticed it when we were young, but a lot of these cartoons actually had depth in the sense of the lessons we should be applying to our lives. The Powerpuff Girls taught to us all that you should always fight for justice, no matter what kind of person you are; Kim Possible showed us that you could be a girly girl and still kick some ass; Pokémon stimulated our imaginations, and motivated our sense of adventure. Those are just a few examples, but for each person, it was different.
Unfortunately, after the early 2000’s, there was a decline in quality animated shows for kids. For the longest time, if you weren’t into anime (Japanese animation) then all you really had to choose from were shows like Dora the Explorer or Family Guy. There was no good in-between, until now.
Like I said, Cartoon Network used to have a huge set list of cartoons until recently. They were the cartoon elitists. It is literally a network for cartoons. And it’s not like they haven’t noticed. Whenever Cartoon Network does a movie special, there is a segment where all their cartoon characters gather in an imaginary movie theater to “watch” with us. During my childhood, the theater was always full. But that was in the early 2000’s. In 2012, there was a photo going around on the internet showing that they brought this segment back, However, instead of an imaginary theater with a huge crowd full of a variety of characters, there were about ten characters. The photo compared the 2002 version to the 2012 version, and it was very depressing. Most of the characters in the 2002 version are now found on Cartoon Network’s sister channel Boomerang, a channel meant to show Cartoon Network originals that are 10+ years old.
Cartoon humor in the 90’s was arguably crude but not necessarily in a negative way. It was full of a lot of sarcasm (to say the least) or poking fun at real life social issues going on. Some cartoons like The Proud Family were explicit about these issues, whereas cartoons like The Powerpuff Girls would touch on issues without explicitly saying which ones they were talking about.
Suddenly, the only cartoons that actually related to real life issues were featured on adult cartoons channels, leaving children with no real exposure on how to actually deal with real life social issues. I found this to be a real issue. Media is very influential, and most kids watch cartoons. People seemed to forget that cartoons can be educational, as well as entertaining, and sometimes can be a lot easier for children to retain information from them because it sparks their imaginations.
The only cartoon that seemed to still be doing this during this period of animated decline was Avatar: The Last Airbender. When the series ended in 2008, there seemed to be an uproar. People were craving a good plot filled with life lessons. Then in 2010, Adventure Time debuted, a new and satisfactory aesthetic of cartoon expectations began to arise.
We are in a time where the values of diversity and relatability are targeted more often by audiences, especially by us millennials. This is because we want future generations to feel as included as possible, because despite the great shows we watched while growing up, there was still a lack of diversity from race to sexuality. We also, as a society, seem to ignore the age group of eight- to twelve-year-olds who are not quite young enough that they need cartoons to learn how to count, but also should not be exposed to the crudeness of Family Guy and the like. It is when Adventure Time debuted that this age group started to actually receive attention. This period of development between ages eight and twelve is so important, because this is the stage when kids develop prime social skills and do so through what they see, especially on TV.
However, sometimes kids don’t want to watch actual people on TV. I know, because I was one of those kids. So we need to have a little something for everybody. Adventure Time definitely started out as something that seemed like 15 to 20 minutes of nonsense, but as it gained popularity, it also gained more depth.
The series follows the adventures of Finn, the last human on earth, and Jake, his adoptive brother who is a magical dog, in the Land of Ooo. As the series progressed, it sparked several conspiracy theories from fans and the creators of the show went off of those theories, created storylines for episodes that either validated or invalidated them. The episodes would provide life lessons about being who you want to be, having trust in others and yourself, not letting people take advantage of you, and much more. The show also grew with the audience. The voice of Finn has admitted that as Finn got older, he would change the pitch of his voice to match the time that has passed.
This show paved the way for more shows with solid plot lines filled with life lessons like Gravity Falls, Star vs. the Forces of Evil, and–my personal favorite–Steven Universe to make an impact. All of these shows have a complex story line and/or diverse and relatable characters. In their own unique ways, they teach kids life lessons in similar ways as cartoons in the 90’s did.
A lot of these shows are very popular with millennials, which is not a bad thing. Millennials are arguably the most nostalgic generation. Growing up happened in a blink of an eye to a lot of us. To get the feeling of being a kid again is something that drives us, to some degree. It is the diversity of these cartoons that is attractive to us. Star vs. the Forces of Evil features a Latino main protagonist; Steven Universe fights the stigma of hyper-masculinity with a cast of mostly people of color and several strong female characters; Gravity Falls features an eccentric, strong, and girly main character and emphasizes the importance of healthy familial relationships. When we see something that remotely relates to our childhood, we try to hold onto it and keep it as pure as possible. Thus, our interest in these cartoons keeps views up without us asking to alter in any way to make it seem more “adult”. With millennials being interested in these kinds of animated shows, it leads to a “trickle down” theory in a way. Let me explain.
For the most part, cartoons for adults really only include crude, insensitive humor. The Simpsons was the only adult cartoon that had some kind of depth to it until recently and somehow, Seth MacFarlane managed to dominate the adult animation game. Even so, the same trope was followed: dumb, unattractive father; attractive housewife who is either equally dumb or slightly smarter, and is secretly unhappy in some aspect of her marriage, which is tested constantly; daughter who does not fit in, and is ridiculed either by the rest of the family and/or the society around her (or daughter who is slut-shamed for being sexually active); dumb, reckless son; and baby who is secretly smarter than everyone in the house. This can only be entertaining for so long, and Seth MacFarlane managed to make three shows (Family Guy, American Dad, and The Cleveland Show) with these exact same tropes, making them get older even faster.
Then in 2011, Bob’s Burgers debuted. It was another animated sitcom about a family living their everyday life. However, the difference was that the tropes had a little bit of a spin. You have Bob and Linda who are actually happily married. When they fight, it is never serious enough where the plot is focused on it. They encourage each other, and neither of them are smarter than the other per se. Then there are their children Tina, Gene,and Louise. Tina is a very confident, socially awkward teen whose means for going about things is never attacked for it by her family. When she is attacked for how she is by people in the society around her, her family comes to her rescue without hesitation. Gene, the only boy, is arguably very genderfluid but again, never attacked for it. This aspect of Gene is also never used as a means of tension between him and his father. Louise is very eccentric and, you guessed it, never attacked for it. Instead, the whole family accepts the kind of person she is. Also, all of the children act as they would in their respective age groups despite the jokes that are made and the audience is definitely reminded. As a collective, the family is weird but they are all super supportive of each other, something that was only really seen on The Simpsons. But even then, the supportiveness was usually seen after they were encouraged to suppress it, or after a family member was ridiculed by another . Bob’s Burgers has also demonstrated respect to pronouns with a recurring character named Marshmallow: a transwoman for whom the family always makes sure to use the pronouns “she” and “her”. Bob’s Burgers has been running for a good six years now and has been very successful. The show is still has some adult humor, but it is not as crass as that of any of Seth MacFarlane’s past creations.
We are entering a new age of cartoons that needs all the attention it can get. We need to make sure that kids of all ages have access to life lessons no matter what form of media they decide to look at. It is our job as millennials, and also the duty of parents, to make sure access to these shows is readily available. I love cartoons and I really think you should too.