Communicating Through Cartoons

By Allie Caton on July 20, 2017

I used to be embarrassed about my taste in television shows. Shows about a bunch of kids living in a T-shaped building or an element-manipulating 12-year-old with glowing tattoos aren’t exactly what the cool kids were into. When asked about my favorite shows, I would usually whip out something edgy, intellectual, and far too mature for my age — extra points if it was on the outskirts of the mainstream to add just a dab of pretentiousness.

As I grew older and less of a self-important jerk, I began to care less about the implications that came with enjoying shows that were supposedly meant just for kids. I was old enough to fully understand the shows like LOST and Entourage that I used to keep in my back pocket as ammo against anyone challenging my pubescent maturity, but they didn’t interest me anymore.

I felt dissatisfied and wanted more from the dark, serious shows that were popular among my friends. They lacked the color, artistry, originality and straight up bizarreness that shows like The Fairly Odd Parents and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends were defined by.

I’ve heard many people criticize the bizarreness in cartoons, complaining that “cartoons these days are TOO weird.” It’s true, cartoons are out there. If you look at Adventure Time or Rick & Morty, they are really, really weird.

But that weirdness is exactly what makes them gripping.

So often cartoons are labeled as “useless” or “mind-numbing” because they lack ties to reality. The mere fact that they are 2D severs them from real life, and this allows people to devalue them as a legitimate art form and storytelling method. On top of that, the characters often defy scientific laws and cultural constructions, removing them even further from reality. However, this removal situates animated storytelling in a place of power as a tool for constructive societal criticism.

The very fact that illustrated stories aren’t realistic is what makes them so real.

More often than not, the randomness of cartoons is not random at all. The exaggeration that animation is able to employ is what allows for so much freedom to tell a meaningful story in ways that have never been done before. Flinging an anamorphic squid back and forth through time in order to make a commentary on loneliness and solitude couldn’t have been done so clearly and impactfully if not for the flexibility that animation allows. This story, and the thousands that share its outlandish narrative style give tangible and visual insight into otherwise invisible human emotions and desires.

pixabay.com

However, just because cartoons have the ability to critique society in such a unique way doesn’t mean that they aren’t written without certain biases. Like any piece of media, they aren’t completely objective, but they are able to use impractical, and often silly, things to draw attention to very real and troubling aspects of society.

There are so many things that become ingrained and accepted throughout our day to day lives, that it takes something nonsensical for us to see it. As with any media, the messages that writers are conveying through their shows are up for debate and critique, but the importance of the messages are not devalued because they are reflective of the writer’s own opinions. After all, opinions are the basis of constructive criticism and open the field for deeper analysis and counter-critique.

And we need to counter-critique them. We need to be as critical of cartoons as we are about Mad Men or Game of Thrones — perhaps even more so because the largest demographic of cartoon-watchers is also the most impressionable.

Cartoons are an invaluable education tool for children; they teach them morals, life lessons, and even their ABC’s all the while playing into their limitless imagination. However, what cartoons lack also teaches a potentially harmful message. When imagined worlds that can literally have any cultural norms lack diversity, it sends the message that minority groups are not only unimportant in real life, but also in worlds where there are no social limits. It teaches children of color that they are unnecessary, and deprives them of characters they can look up to.

The use of racially and queer-coded human and non-human characters in cartoons is an even murkier and more dangerous area that is specific to the genre. It allows for a much more subtle, subliminal form of bigotry to seep into the TV shows and movies that are forming children’s worldviews.

What Scar’s limp paw and the high voice and melodrama of HIM teaches children is that effeminate qualities are inherently evil. Children’s cartoons often situate queer-coded villains, like the flamboyantly clothed and made-up Jafar, as the main obstacle keeping the male protagonist from true love with his female counterpart.

As children get older and begin to understand sexuality and stereotypes, they learn that the scariest villains from their childhood and mainstream portrayals of queer people share many of the same characteristics. Because of this, the “sissy villain” trope works to sustain the very real problems of demonized femininity and the interpretation of queerness as a threat to the heterosexual norm.

Fortunately, times are changing. With shows like Steven Universe and Legend of Korra that turn race and gender roles on their head, children are being exposed to more inclusive fantasy realms that are, ironically, more realistic representations of our immeasurably diverse world.

So the next time you are feeling nostalgic for Saturday mornings watching cartoons with your dog, don’t feel bad about settling in for a Netflix binge of Pokémon or Phineas and Ferb. Experiencing the world through the eyes of a landscaping Blue Jay is way more exciting than through the viewpoint of the same speckle-bearded white man with a savior complex anyway.

By Allie Caton

Uloop Writer
Allie is a creative at heart. She loves to draw and fawns over comic book illustrations and animation. She hopes to be able to use the skills she has cultivated as a Communications major to bring value to the creative industry. Her goal is to one day work somewhere where she can be around creatives while utilizing her writing and illustration skills.

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