Continuing last weeks thoughts when it comes to children’s media is giving credit and acknowledgement to current media in particular children and family animated TV shows that are getting it right in terms of teaching good things, having proper representation or challenging usual tropes and stereotypes and presenting them all in a manner that is not only helpful to teach kids but is entirely organic and does so rather effortlessly alongside it’s entertainment value. I think the key thing to have a successful piece of media is, and I think this is why Nintendo and their properties are so popular; you need to create material nearly anyone could get something out of and enjoy without it dumbing itself down for anyone.
This is why, barring some generational and racist issues here and there and overt violence, I find the original “for everyone” Tom & Jerry, various MGM shorts and Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes shorts (especially those that were literary and theater filled adaptations such as What’s Opera Doc) all shown before movies in the 30s and 40s and 50’s, are fundamentally the best examples of providing fun for everyone involved but being smart about it. Today we have a bit more substance in our television cartoons but to a degree in some ways, but cartoons were also in other ways dumbed down much too much to be exclusively “for kids” and it’s taken a long time to get that sophistication back. We had that in the 90’s but it sort of fizzled a bit. When’s the last time a cartoon parodied The Barber of Seville? I find the need for that kind of generality, both erudite humor and allusions and then slapstick is important.
The new wave of kids and family entertainment that are coming to TV as of late are proving that after what seemed to be a bit of a lull, the animation field is getting it’s legs back and are producing more and more daring and or interesting series again after the very much creator driven 90’s trend in animation which brought many smart classics had lost its steam in the mid 2000’s. The tackling of certain real world issues and circumstances are being presented in less of an overt preaching and instead are as mentioned, being presented much more subtle and yet incredibly strong manner. I’d like to at least acknowledge some of the cartoons meant for kids and teens and beyond that I know of that are doing just that;
While I am not a fan, as mentioned last week My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic has since it’s debut won a lot of praise in belying the expectations one could have about a show that features brightly colored magic ponies, by avoiding tropes both in dealing with gender and just usual tropes period that would normally afflict or what you may (unfairly stigmatized) expect from a series that looks like this and instead is a whole lot more smart. And of course its eponymous “brony” or “bronies” fanboy title for grown men who are fans of the series is notable, but personally I think is a bit counterproductive towards showing or reiterating that anyone should and do enjoy it, and that it’s okay to enjoy it. You don’t have to set aside a separate label for yourself as that reinforces the idea that “I shouldn’t like this (most likely because I am a man) but I do because it’s awesome so I should get a moniker” instead of “I just like this and I am a fan of the show because it’s awesome and you should like it too”. That discrepancy aside I think it’s at least worth mentioning as a player in this new wave of animated media.
Gravity Falls is a unique odd-ball of a show for Disney whose animated TV shows were always at least for me, lacking something, some sort of je ne sais quoi that never quite gelled all the time. It may be the strange programing schedule or how they handled seasons on the Disney Channel as opposed to Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. Whatever it may be, their shows lacked something and I could never understand what it was. At long last in a way they have found that je ne sais quoi in Gravity Falls. Why? Because it, for all the world, resembles in content, aesthetics, characters and overall widget series fun a classic Cartoon Network cartoon or at least what that station has become known for. Not a Disney show. And perhaps that is the difference. The series features twin protagonists Dipper and Mabel Pines dealing with supernatural and other strange occurrences. The series can probably be effectively praised for its use of a female character as a lead in a duo, and not just the lead but in a way the lead comedic relief as Mabel is the more outrageous one of the two siblings. Their positive sibling relationship is also unique where most cartoons pit siblings against each other. Other elements I think really set it apart include Dipper being a big fan of bubblegum pop and other quirks that even if really bizarre ring true and relatable. I know for a fact it is a big favorite of my young nine and six year old cousins.
Adventure Time is a huge absolute huge player in helping get even more and more progressive shows on the air. It’s original pilot and overall original seeming purpose was to be a purely widget series; random, trippy and chaotic for the sake of being. However as it has gone on the show has revealed through stellar writing not only a very complex plot about a post-Apocolyptic war world but also attacks and inverts issues, tropes, and lessons that adolescents (and admittedly a ton of adults) need to know. The show has in many ways tackled without being too overt or preaching but always blunt and beautifully executed episodes with topics on gender and gender stereotypes (Jake the Dog’s recent children with Jake Jr’s appearance and name exemplify this) transgender aspirations, (attempted) suicide, self-confidence and self-image, fitting in, autism, parental issues, abuse in relationships and dealing when a loved one has Alzheimer’s. The list of the good things the show has tackled amidst the wackiness is astounding and gutsy. Even the lecherous once main villain Ice King has been given a tragic and interlocking story with Marcelline the Vampire Queen explaining his history with the said Alzheimer’s analogy. There have been progressive growths in character too. Finn has matured rather naturally. Princess Bubblegum has changed from “just a princess” and love interest who gets kidnapped a lot in the pilot to a fully (candy) fleshed out character, a mad scientist genius and a deliverer of lots of important lessons at times, and is also person who makes mistakes and is overall someone who can in fact take care of herself. The embrace of the gender-bent world of Fiona and Cake into animated form is also highly commendable. It keeps just getting better and better too. I could have an entire article about the show.
Other things to keep an eye on are another new Cartoon Network series called Steven Universe by Rebecca Sugar, the first cartoon by a female creator to be featured on the channel. The show’s star, Steven is the sole boy character in a family-like team of intergalactic magical girls called The Crystal Gems. The premise is that unlike his three teammates and sister figures, Steven’s own power gem has not activated and the series is thus his coming-of-age story in dealing with that and finding his purpose. Steven is not an idealized hero; chubby, stout and curly haired he’s not a poster-child and is not the generically good looking and unoffensive adolescent lead like Ben in Ben-10 and all it’s subsequent sequels. I have a feeling he will be immensely popular because of his struggle and his atypicalness and the emphasis on his female team-mates. It will probably be popular as well because of it having such a skewed gender ratio. You almost never have that many girls to male ratio in something, so it’s interesting to finally get a series that has the token boy instead of the the token girl on a team. Another are the Super Best Friends Forever shorts featuring Batgirl, Supergirl and Wondergirl on Cartoon Network’s DC Nation blocks. While short and snappy the shorts have a lot of potential especially since it repeats the forever recurring and winning formula of “blonde, brunette, redhead” trope which Powerpuff Girls has long held the crown for when it comes to female animated heroines (not to sideline Josie And The Pussycats and the revived Totally Spies!). The Powerpuff Girls themselves are set to return in a stylish new redesigned special (which may be a test in the waters for a revival series at least I theorize it to be) later this year and are back in a monthly comic from IDW as well. Other shorts such as Amythest and Thunder and Lighting continue the trend of female starring cartoon shorts which if popular enough could be promoted to their own T V shows like Teen Titans Go!
It is interesting to note that three of the above cartoons have two people in common; Lauren Faust and Rebecca Sugar. Lauren created My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and SBFF. Rebecca was a writer and storyboarder for Adventure Time. It’s not that ironic that the two people burning up the animation scene and are forging gender-breaking and just overall good progressive narratives that don’t talk down to or underestimate the viewer, are women.
Food for thought overall. I’m sure many already watch these shows, but if you don’t you most certainly should give them a try or let your kids watch them despite some of their bizarreness or perceived at times crudity. Next time I will continue this conversation about media by showcasing some comics (Princeless and the not yet released Earthward) that I feel are also exemplifying good media, and then what shows and media are surprisingly, not as good or progressive as people hoped they would be.
Do you have any good comics and other shows YOU think are getting it right? Let me know, I’d like to start an open conversation.
Staff Writer/The Doctor