Children’s TV shows have taken on aspects of the video game culture, which does not bode well for the innocence of cartoons, writes Jacqueline Setai
With antisocial messaging, world-weary cynicism and dark absurdity, there’s nothing kid-like in modern-day children’s TV shows.
The most popular kids’ cartoons these days are extremely weird. I’ve heard people say that they have tried to watch, but could not follow them. Yet, children seem to know exactly what is going on, laughing loudly and talking along with the characters.
Repeat ratios for children’s TV shows are very high – a single episode of a show is often repeated six times in one day, so it’s not surprising that avid watchers quickly learn all the dialogue.
There are more things wrong than the basics parents have been taught to look out for – such as the negative effects of rapid-fire editing, rapid dialogue, bad language and violence.
Kids’ shows have taken on aspects of the video game culture, which does not bode well for the innocence of cartoons. Video game content is unique in that often the exhibition of antisocial behaviour is the entire point of the game – violence and destruction.
More concerning, though, is a kind of world-weary cynicism found in video games, an acceptance that the world has gone to hell. Defenders would say that these games help with problem-solving and troubleshooting. Sure, but the one thing they are not, is innocent.
From the three shows I wish to highlight, The Adventures of Gumball is closest to a conventional cartoon – except that Gumball’s mom has a huge anger problem. She works a nine-to-five job, cooks all the meals and does all the disciplining. When she loses her temper, she breaks dishes and smashes things against the walls. She gets angry because Gumball gets up to a lot of mischief, but mainly because Gumball’s dad is a gibbering idiot who is of no help as a parent.
This role modelling of the lived experiences of a modern woman who was raised to believe she could do anything, only to find that she was alone, is relevant, but is also pretty cynical for a children’s show.
Don’t be fooled by the title, there is nothing regular about Regular Show. In fact, it’s quite absurd and dark. It follows the antics of two friends, Rigby and Mordecai, who work at a local park and have an assortment of friends and enemies, some of whom are half-human, walking animals and electronic gadgets come to life. The characters have the kind of voices that make you wonder why this is a children’s cartoon, because many sound like boozy mechanics or uptight middle managers.
Regular Show has an obsession with getting its male characters to hook up with girls. Many of the episodes revolve around Mordecai, supported by his male friends, trying to make out with a current girlfriend, an ex or a brand-new female character. Which brings us to the uncomfortable matter of sexual consent, not an issue you would imagine we would have to address in cartoons.
Regular Show is disturbing because while the audience is aware of what is going on, the girl characters are often kept in the dark and the boy characters never make their intentions clear. The boys never simply ask a girl permission, then wait for a positive response before going in for a kiss.
Experts advise that parents should start speaking to their kids about sex from the age of five. Whatever your position on this, just know that Regular Show is already doing much of the talking, by role modelling dodgy behaviour.
Adventure Time is even more absurd and darker than Regular Show. Human boy Jake travels across a crazy world with his yellow dog and fights off myriad predators.
One of the major characters has a tinge of a sexual predator about him – an evil magician who abducts girls to force them into marrying him. His main target is Princess Bubblegum, the ruler of this crazy land and the object of Jake’s affections.
Surely I’m not the only one who raises an eyebrow when the point of a cartoon is to show how a boy character has to defend girls against a slimy old man?
Maybe the thing to do is for us to sit with our kids and ask them: What do you think happens after the evil magician marries a girl? Should Mordecai ask before he tries to kiss? What can Gumball’s dad do to make his wife happier?