Some of what I learned from cartoons is dumb but it didn’t really change my life, like how I used to think invisible meant “had a white outline”. Or that so-called “secret doors” were activated by bricks that are clearly a different colours from the rest of the wall. But some of what I’ve learned from cartoons have been really moralistically warped – things that subconsciously formed my idea of the way the world works (for better or for worse).
While many shows had overt morals like GI Joe’s “Knowing is Half the Battle” bits, or He-Man’s pulpit passage at the end of every episode, they also passed on many messages they weren’t even aware of.
ADDICTION ISN’T THAT BAD
Popeye got strength from spinach. The Gummi Bears could jump really high after a hit of Gummiberry juice. Underdog had his Super Energy Pill. There were a bunch of cartoon heroes that gained power from consuming powerups, just like video game characters, or Adam and Eve with that apple. True strength doesn’t come from within apparently. I need to drink, pill pop, or something else to become super. Not a cool lesson to a child who isn’t going to look for a deeper metaphor there.
But the lesson doesn’t end there because these powers didn’t come without cost. Scooby Doo’s crippling addiction to Scooby Snacks allowed him to be manipulated by his so-called friends into being the bait for criminals who were off-kilter enough that they’d pretend to be ghosts. The animated ads between cartoons reminded me that cereal was also magically addictive. Dudes would mug an adorable mascot for a hit. But there was always someone who could control it. Trix was like K for rabbits, but not for kids. Kids would chase Lucky the Leprechaun across razorblade volcanoes for 99 red balloons and purple horseshoes, but he didn’t seem to be strung out. If the rest of the Mystery Inc had tried Scooby Snacks, it was only Scoob and Shaggy who formed an addiction. So I realized that only losers couldn’t handle their cereal/booze/pills/spinach. So, since I was a loser, I probably shouldn’t start. I was straight edge until age 30. Better to be Fred than Shaggy, I decided. I wasn’t a slave to my friends’ manipulations.
GUYS ARE DUMB FOR BLONDES
Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the Roadrunner taught me that if you put blonde hair, false eyelashes and heavy make-up on something it makes it irresistibly sexy. Even if its on animals or dynamite. I feel as if porn stars, female impersonators, and Real Housewives have proved these cartoon animals are completely wrong.
KIDS CAN’T WIN
Children on adventure shows let the audience identify with them, like Penny on Inspector Gadget, Jubilee on X-Men, or Wily Kit and Kat on Thundercats. The kid heroes did amazing things to save the day which changes their purpose from being being relatable, to being about wish fulfillment. Too bad the censors had rules about how much danger a child could be in. That meant the heroic children get stern lectures from Wolverine, or no credit from Inspector Gadget. Who wants to be that kid now? It’s basically teaching me that even if I do something awesome, grown ups will be a jerk about it. And those kids took that from their elders “I’m sorry, Lion-O”. Which made me not want to relate to them. Why be a hero who everyone walks over? It was cool if I caught an older show like Johnny Quest, where kids were allowed to throw grenades and stuff without much grief, but the new ones were really worried about me getting hurt/making a difference.
Meanwhile on shows where there were no kids, like He-Man or The Real Ghostbusters, I was free to imagine myself as those heroes without being reminded that I was a kid without any real power. Orko and Slimer provided the non-heroic surrogate, but I can’t imagine I was supposed to identify with a flying elf or fat, legless ghost. So, I discovered that children weren’t welcome on children’s programming. I was better off trying to watch shows about or for adults. Maybe this is why so many super hero stories are for adults now? When you make shows for kids, the rules seem to automatically poop all over them.
DIVERSITY IS BAD
There’s only one reason to have woman on your team. Because the bad guys have a woman and it’s bad manners for a bro to dropkick a lady. But be warned: if you have a woman on your side, and there isn’t one on team dastardly, she’s probably just going to be a hostage like April O’Neil on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Sometimes it’s not even worth have a woman on the team. So either women are there for tokenism, or are a liability.
Speaking of TMNT, I also learned that the heroes are usually all of the same race, or possibly one or two more other racial allies. There were four turtles, a rat, and Casey Jones but the baddies were humans, robots, a rhino, a warthog, an alien brain that lived in a pinhead golem, an alligator, rock men, etc. He-Man’s friends were mostly human, but Skeletor was willing to employ a variety of furry, scaly, and/or fanged Eternians. The Caucasian Powerpuff Girls fought a chimp, green-skinned teens, a gnome, living broccoli,and a transvestite devil. The Thundercats were all cats but the bad guys were a mummy, a toad, a vulture, a jackal and a monkey. When you take into consideration how the human characters were pretty much all white, it even a child could see through that metaphor. Even if race wasn’t an issue, I learned that since I was an outsider, I’d probably be better off being evil. They’d be more likely to accept me on the anti-establishment team. I grew my hair long and listened to teeth-grinding metal instead of joining the swim team.
But shout out to G.I. Joe for having Buffalo Soliders, while Cobra was all white (and a few token Asian ninjas). It was nice to see some diversity on the good guys part. I learned it’s a good things to have minorities serving in the army.
YOU’RE NOT NEEDED
These days I watch cartoons with my kid and I see a newer trend: fake interactivity. Dora the Explorer and it’s imitators ask the viewers to yell at the TV, to help the heroes on their quest. “Which way should we go? (pause) You’re right, the red path!” For now, this is part fun, and part irritating for my son. Sometimes he is proud to yell out the right answer. The other some of the times he doesn’t like the TV bossing him around, demanding help he can’t give. When he gets older, I can imagine a day when he realizes that it doesn’t matter what he says, or whether he says anything at all. The story keeps going along its predestined narrative, despite asking for input. It’s a lot like how jaded, lazy people view politics. If you can’t change the script when you were asked for input, you might as well shut off. I hope he doesn’t learn that lesson, but it looks like that’s the way things are heading for everyone.
I gave up counting how many times I saw a hero overcome Herculean obstacles for 20+ minutes, only to let the villain escape as soon as their plan was foiled. The bad guy would be like 30 feet away from the good guy shaking his first yelling “You haven’t seen the last of me!” and still the hero doesn’t even try to get them. You just watched the good guy fight his way through a giant gorilla robot, and swing over a pit of lava-breathing alligators, but now a slow-moving helicopter is too much to be bothered with? Instead, the hero either grits his teeth in annoyance, or turns to their friends and uses a pun (usually based on a phrase a child wouldn’t understand), and everyone on screen laughs.
This is obviously because the toy line wanted to keep the same main bad guys, and that the networks had a syndication policy stating every episode must make sense, even when seen out of order. That meant no character growth. Even though Evil Lynn was way smarter and more powerful than Skeletor, she wouldn’t take over for the him after he goes to jail. (Story-wise it would make sense that Skeletor has served jail time. Where else would a scrawny skeleton have time to bulk up like that?)
Thanks to those rules, I learned that’s okay to give up if you’re maybe a bit tired or something. Don’t go the extra mile and actually catch the bad guy with the same gusto you put into ruining his plan. That the hero never had a backup plan to catch the fleeing bad guy, even though this happened every episode, just made the hero seem dumb. Maybe this is why anti-heroes are so popular now. We want gritty, dark heroes who seem more like villains. Villains had a plan and executed on it, even if they failed. Heroes just run up and smash things until the bad stuff stops for a minute.
Then again, maybe they don’t bother to catch the bad guy because…
THE PRISON SYSTEM IS A JOKE
Prison never seemed to be a punishment for the baddies, but a zone to pass off responsibility from the hero. The hero just plops them down in front of the law and says “I stopped him from poisoning the water supply, you guys babysit him until he comes up with another plan.” And there was always another plan. The reused villains showed up, with no explanation of how they even got free, or got startup money to pay for more henchman, guns, and flying machines – and we’re talking about the expensive kind. The gear that is personalized with the bad guy’s face or logo. These were clearly so you would buy the villain’s personalized toys yourself, instead of repurposing your Tonkas.
By not even showing how the Penguin or Green Goblin got out of jail, they are placing jailbreaks into the realm of obvious and boring. Like how screenwriters don’t bother to show action heroes waiting on hold to sort out a mistake on their cell phone bill, or taking a poop. It’s just a fact of life. Prison is useless at holding people. Or reforming them.
The bad guys never learned their lesson. Actually, I was watching a Japanese cartoon, Digimon, and the main bad guy was a kid who abused his magic powers, but then learned the errors of his ways, and tried to make up for the wrong he did. He joined the heroes in defending the realm in future episodes. It blew my mind. That stuff never happened on He-Man or Care Bears. I’m not sure what simpletons felt children couldn’t understand remorse and forgiveness, but there you go. Instead, I learned that people never changed. We might as well let bad guys run around free because it’s not like there’s anything we can do about it.
THE POLICE AND ARMY ARE USELESS
The police and the army never caught the bad guy. It was the super hero’s job to do that. The boys in uniforms are just there to mop up, and then ineffectually guard the villains.
But some shows focus on the military or the cops as the heroes, so shouldn’t I learn that they are awesome? Nope. Even when the army and police are main characters, they aren’t regular guys, but special units, like G.I. Joe and C.O.P.S. Otherwise they’d be useless. Like how Commissioner Gordon’s contribution to crime fighting is paging a billionaire vigilante.
Unfortunately, it turns out that even special army guys were useless. Standards and Practices prevented children from seeing death and carnage. So, despite making a cartoon about the American army, the battle between G.I. Joe and terrorist organization Cobra had no casualties.
The good guys never kill anyone, even with accidental friendly fire. Apparently, guns are useless as weapons. It made Superman being faster than a speeding bullet pointless. I didn’t see what the big deal about them was. Joining the army wasn’t a scary proposition. Plus, they’d give me a cool code name. Even Tollbooth or Airtight was better than my nickname at school. Although Skidmark’s codename proved even Joes had formalized hazing.
Plus, the worst bad guys never killed anyone. Or torture anyone. They might put you in a prison cell or tie you up, but they’d never hurt you. Which makes the idea of war seem kind of stupid. If our enemies’ worst weapon is monologuing, why can’t we just talk things out? What’s with all the laser gun battles? How bad are they really? Why are you fighting Cobra instead of real bad guys? If the army wasn’t dangerous, it also wasn’t effective, so there was no reason to want to serve. The whole military system was pointless.
WEAPONS AREN’T DANGEROUS
Thanks to rules that prevent children’s TV from showing blood, heroes never use their blades for battle. But that didn’t stop creators (and I use the term lightly) from making magic swords the weapon of choice for Lion-O, Voltron, He-Man, Blackstar, Thundarr… pretty much everyone who didn’t own a proper shirt. The swords were only for pinning escaping bad guys’ clothes to the wall, or to cut ropes attached to perfectly-placed chandeliers. So I was being taught that swords were safe for parlour tricks, but that you don’t use them for hurting people. Sure, some shows had the heroes use swords to rip through robot villains, but I think that taught me bad physics. Katanas shouldn’t be able to slice through robots like hot butter, especially if the robots were strong enough to smash through brick walls. And when the sword-swingers got to a human villain, suddenly the sword found its way out of their hand. Poppycock!
While some might learn that not using swords to cut people up teaches the use of restraint of one’s power. Instead, I saw further evidence that heroes were stupid. They were too dumb to use their favourite objects in the manner they were intended. Other characters, who weren’t saddled with ineffective swords, became the cool ones, like Panthro and his nunchucks.
Why did they get away with non-sword action? There were way less rules about characters bludgeoning each other. Characters were free to suffer blows that must have led to internal bleeding. It was the site of blood that was not allowed. Sword and gun-wielding heroes would join their truncheon-armed allies by throwing aside their useless swords and guns in favour of fistacuffs. GI Joe’s Roadblock was the “heavy machine gunner” but he spent more time knocking bad guys heads together like coconuts. Thanks to them, I learned that it was very easy to knock someone out with a heavy object, but that it would never truly hurt or kill anyone. I remember being baffled by “candlestick” as a murder weapon in Clue. Luckily I didn’t try to hit anyone with one to test the theory out, or I’d be covered in terrible prison tattoos by now. And as over-buff as Skeletor.
THE WORLD ISN’T DANGEROUS
If things designed to hurt people weren’t going to hurt people, nothing would. Even human heroes like Batman were routinely smashed into, and through, concrete, they’d get up and keep fighting. I knew the cartoons who left silhouettes of themselves in the wall were jokes. But when the Hulk shattered concrete, my understanding of physics, mass, and architecture was shattered too. Or, it just reinforced what I had learned about walls from making gingerbread houses. I watched a lot of city-wide destruction as a kid. I was supposed to assume that everyone just got out of these office towers in time. Post-911 they’re a bit more aware of this problem, but just because it might push the wrong buttons. Not that we’d learn bad physics.
This help feed my teenage self’s indestructible impulses. I loved mosh pits and crowd surfing, but was not prepared for the inevitable trips to the emergency room with friends dropped onto the floor at the wrong angle.
Speaking of falling, cartoons taught me that if you fall from any height, so long as you land in water, you’ll be okay. Action cartoons have lots of planes getting shot down, and people falling off of bridges. No worries. That person will never be killed by the impact, drown, or be eaten by sharks. We can turn the camera back to the heroes pummelling people with the wrong end of a sword.
Wierdly, video games seem to tell me the opposite. Any time you touch water in sidescrollers, you’re dead. Unless its an underwater level, in which case you can suddenly swim no problem. WTF? Since I had never died from having a bath, I tended to believe cartoons were right about how safe water was. I think I really learned that water was dangerous when I found out the one person to have been reported dead at amusement park, Canada’s Wonderland was a healthy young man who dove into the Wonder Mountain pond to retrieve a Frisbee. Apparently, the undertow from the waterfall was too great for a guy who had been swimming for 10 minutes. Imagine swimming back to shore in a Cobra uniform.
YOU CAN’T SWIM A MILE IN SOMEONE ELSE’S SHOES
Falling into water was one thing, but there are also people live underwater. There’s a new show called Bubble Guppies where little mermaid kids learn about numbers and shapes and other things parents are too busy to explain. But the show also tries to teach about things like how flowers grow, and how firefighters put out fires… underwater. Sure, my son’s going to learn his colours, but he’s also going to think the sea floor is flammable. Nevertheless, that’s not the weirdest thing to learn.
I watched an episode of SubMariner where he was thrown into a bottomless pit, on the ocean floor. The writers couldn’t perceive of how living underwater would change something like that. They had no idea it would be the equivalent to dropping Hawkman out of a plane. I bet the did an episode like that too. It’s from that stupidity that realized how hard it is for people to imagine how other people live. These were professionals who were chosen as the right people to work on the SubMariner cartoon. If they can’t be bothered to figure that basic stuff out, then what chance do most of us have to imagine our world as different? Can your average Idahoan really picture what it’s like to live in Manhattan? Can a one percenter really imagine what its like to be poor, undereducated, and unemployed? Can a scientist imagine what would might wrong if you put a human brain on circuit board, or vat-grown veal in your belly? Can a Standards and Practices employee predict how bloodless war will shape kids understanding of the military? It’s all unintended consequences of people’s narrow scope of expertise and experience. At least we’re smart enough to know we’re not smart enough.
You might think that I’m going to say that the moral of these weird morals is that parents should watch TV with their kids and discuss what’s coming across in RGB. But since all these examples are the result of unintended consequences, I have to know that any advice I’d give will probably fail in unforeseen ways. In fact, anything you do could ruin everything. Or at least that’s what I learned about consequences from time travel stories. By reading this article right now, you might be causing a hurricane in the Seychelles, and waving your arms around might cause an ant to be stepped on. So, there you go.