I wanted to do a piece about kids networks and recent rash of man-children cartoons for a while now – by which I mean, cartoons staring mostly adult-ish characters who have simplistic pleasures and seem more prone to skirt responsibilities in order to engage in juvenile behavior or activities. In some ways, the “man-child” has always been part of the animated landscape – Bullwinkle J. Moose is a fairly classic man-child – but it was tempered with a sense that the character, at least at some level, had a clear direction, an idea that he was doing something right, a guiding voice (in this case, Rocky), and a sense of logic that drove his actions. Bullwinkle was goofy, sure, but he was a loveable goof, loyal and passionate and at least somewhat-down-to-earth. Jay Ward’s titular cartoon was also loose and free with its characters, easily plopped into simple plots that doubled as smart-ass satire against current events. Other cartoons, too, emphasized semi-silly characters who were at least dedicated to their jobs – Super Chicken, Roger Ramjet, Dudley Do-Right.
AO Scott wrote this pretty interesting piece about the fall of adulthood recently, and while it’s a little rambling, it made me think about current cartoons today, particularly on Nickelodeon, and their emphasis on man-children adult characters. After all, Nick’s call for animation pitches only allowed for ‘toons with kids or man-children adult protagonists (mainly due to their research stating that kids today just want comedy). There’s really nothing inherently bad about the man-child adult icon, but the recent batch of cartoons with such characters helming the show are dialed up to eleven. These are not characters who enjoy their childish pleasures while working their way through their (often newly-earned) responsibilities. These are characters who thrive in their juvenile behavior, behavior that is encouraged and often ends up saving the day despite the fact that such behavior would be dangerous and/or illegal. This can only go so far before the true nature of growing up becomes muddled.
To clarify, the rise of man-child entertainment arose from three specific events: 1) the social embrace of “nerd” culture – things like comic books and cartoons, media originally created for kids, 2) the recession, which leaves the younger generation aloof from job/domestic responsibilities due to the difficulty and ambiguity of acquiring them, and 3) what can be described as the “new sincerity,” which in some ways arose from “ironic culture.” [The best way to describe this would be to think about someone who enjoys something objectively terrible because of its terribleness like The Room, or Saved by the Bell; if there’s a certain self-awareness about liking something terrible, it’s ironic, but if there’s a fondness for that terribleness, its sincere. The line between the two is obviously muddled, but a lot of that tends to cleared up by how much interest in paid into the creation of the entertainment in question – the actors, the crew, the producers, the networks/studios, and so on. Liking The Mighty Ducks might be ironic if you laugh at its awfulness, but it may be sincere if you immerse yourself in Mighty Ducks lore, discuss the writing of David Wise, talk with animators about their time on the show, etc.]
Part of the appeal of the man-child (and a lot of the aspects of Scott’s piece, particularly with his sections on Beyonce and Taylor Swift) is the emphasis of the individual’s stake in his enjoyment. Pushing against the social tract that tended to instill adulthood at one’s mid-20s, which included marriage, kids, a home, a job, a car, and “most importantly,” the dismissal of all forms of children-marketed entertainment, man-children (and their female counterparts) thrive and proudly embrace their love of such pleasures, like video games, comics, cartoons, and young adult books. These are people who absolutely believe they can take care of their responsibilities along with loving what they love, even if such responsibilities will have to occur months or years later. And let’s be clear: these people are one hundred percent right, but there is an asterisk, as that passion can be all-consuming. Criticisms against such behavior and/or the juvenile media tend to come off as a personal attack, which can explain things like more aggressive sides of gamergate, the MLP fandom, and lovers of Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games.
Life’s always been about the balance between one’s responsibilities, particularly the ones associated with adulthood, and pleasures, although back in the day, the pleasures were always of the “adult-ish” kind: fishing, vacationing, playing a sport, reading. There was a distinct line between the two, too – there was a time for work, and there was a time for play. Blurring the line was a strict no-no. Ducktales and TaleSpin, for example, were clear to make this distinction. Scrooge McDuck was absolutely serious about his pursuit for business and financial deals; his pleasure, ironic enough, came from literally dipping into the money he earned. Scrooge has always been an “adult” in that way, and any sense of his business acumen as a symbol of being uptight and suppressed was rare. In only a few instances was his “greed” portrayed as a real issue for the character, and that greed was always set in some “character-removed” manner. In the “Treasure of the Golden Suns” saga, the greed was only a problem when he became fully afflicted with gold fever. Additionally, it’s in this five-part pilot that he gains a real family, the “other” mark of adulthood, emphasized later in “Once Upon a Dime.” Everything about Ducktales was built around characters being and embracing adulthood, and the insanity culled from it.
With TaleSpin, Disney is directly tackling the man-child idea, delineating the idea that pleasures are okay but only up to a point. Going beyond that point is more trouble than its worth, or prone to cause trouble. Baloo is a safe man-child, a lazy, baffoonish bear who thrives solely in his skills as a pilot. His juvenile behavior often masks his crippling insecurity, pushing him to levels of petty ridiculousness, like his conflict with Ace London in “Mach One for the Gipper,” or Louie in “For a Fuel Dollars More,” or even Becky in “The Bigger They Are, the Louder They Oink.” Yet that push also drives him to be level-headed at times and even heroic, like when he called out Becky’s reckless business behavior in “A Touch of Glass” or when he went up against Don Karnage’s laser gun in the pilot. TaleSpin shows often that while there’s a certain value to Baloo’s goofball antics (like in “My Fair Baloo,” where, it should be noted, that the goofball antics are tied directly to hands-on, working class intuitiveness), that there is a limit. When things go too far, things go bad; it’s only when you act like an adult do things fall in line. (Becky learns this lesson in a most serious way in “Her Chance to Dream,” dismissing the pleasure of leaving the stress of life behind in order to stay and raise her daughter).
The Disney Afternoon was emphatic on adults cartoon characters needing to act like adults, comic or cartoony-slant be damned. Gummi Bears was marred in the need to care for Gummi Glen. Darkwing Duck’s more ridiculous pursuits were tampered by his need to take care of his daughter (and his struggles with his girlfriend). Rescue Rangers overall was about its characters coming to terms with various degrees of adulthood – Monterey Jack tackled his addiction, Gadget confronted her insecurities multiple times, Chip often dealt with his role as a leader. Dale might seem the exception, but the show, like TaleSpin, delineates Dale’s behavior. When he goes too far, things go bad (and likewise with Chip, when his practical jokes go too far in “One-Upsman-Chip”). The show makes it clear that Dale’s childishness is necessary in the sense that its unpredictability gives the team an edge, and when it comes down to it, Dale indeed will pull up his metaphorical pants and get to work. (In truth, it probably wasn’t until Donald in Quack Pack did the Disney Afternoon push against the role of adulthood. Goof Troop and Bonkers, despite their problems, emphasized its characters attempting to be responsible grown-ups.)
Adult characters in cartoons were simply adults, flawed and broken of course, but not so much as the crazy world around them. Rocko’s Modern Life was perhaps the clearest example of this, the show about a young adult just simply trying to run his life, notably away from his parents way back in Australia. It’s the world that’s insane, not the character, and the comedy was in watching Rocko try to do simple, mundane, adult things, like the laundry or going to the beach or getting to work on time. Hefer, Rocko’s friend, is definitive the show’s man-child, and at no point does the show suggest that Hefer’s behavior is warranted or ideal. The show’s clearest direction of adulthood, oddly enough, is created through Philbert, the one who literally has to go on a pilgrimage to become “a dolt” (note the play on words here), and he’s the one who ends up getting married. Rocko gets a lot of discussion over the various ways it got away with adult gags, but it’s ironic that a show known for its juvenile gags masks its emphasis on maturity and growth.
Somewhere along the lines, the cartoon philosophy changed, and we can’t quite place the blame on Nickelodeon. CN brought us Johnny Bravo, starring a character epitomizing the worst of the man-child, a walking Dane Cook-esque “bro-seph” who only loves himself and treats women terribly. The show, of course, makes it clear that Bravo’s behavior is absolutely abhorrent, that his sexist actions result in him put through physical pain. Yet Johnny has no job and no prospects, and he lives with his mother (more or less), emphasizing his separation from adulthood. We are meant to laugh at Johnny and in no way look up to him.
Then there’s Spongebob Squarepants. I mean, it’s easy to just call this show as the catalyst for the man-child adult run in animation today, but Spongebob is a curious case. At least prior to the movie, Spongebob relished in his pleasures, such as blowing bubbles, jellyfishing, and karate, all of which are representative of his immaturity (in addition to his complete inability to get a boating license). However, Spongebob owns his own home and he works at a job that he not only loves but he’s actively good at. Spongebob engages in the things he enjoys, but even he knows when things go too far, and he always keeps his job (and taking care of Gary) first.
I think Nickelodeon took the wrong information from show’s popularity. Instead of observing the various components that made the show function so well – in that a character who enjoys his pleasures also is relatively dependable, to a fault – they saw “man-child adult” and doubled down on it. This in some ways explain Spongebob’s current failings – the character is a lot more irresponsible, dangerous, and stupid, like marrying Krabby Patties, and it also explains Nick’s current off-putting shows, like TUFF Puppy and Breadwinners.
The titular lead in TUFF Puppy, in contrast to Johnny Bravo, is supposed to be admired, I think. We’re supposed to laugh at Dudley similarly to how we laugh at Johnny, but while Johnny’s behavior leads to bad, comical scenarios, Dudley’s behavior is, at worst, a comic distraction, and, at best, heroic. The similarities are uncanny – both live with their moms, both are moronic to a fault, both wear black shirts – but while Johnny falls flat on his face, Dudley is rewarded with a new job, friends who tolerate (and accept) him, and amazing ass-kicking abilities. (Note how Johnny’s martial arts are a joke, hyperbolic posturing, while Dudley’s nonsensical movesets can handle all sorts of criminals). In a way, Dudley is more akin to Rescue Rangers’ Dale, but Dale, as mentioned, is distinctly tempered. Dudley, meanwhile, is free to go overboard, and the show goes along with him, with its criminals and fellow agents free to go ridiculous as well, consequences be damned. I’d argue that there was a minor attempt in the first season to bring some sort of pathos to its man-children setup, with the show attempting to establish strong if goofy relationships between Dudley and characters like Kitty, the Chief, and his mother. That pretense was dropped quickly, turning all the characters (even Kitty) into unrepentant goofballs. TUFF isn’t so much a crime fighting agency as an unsupervised playground; the show isn’t so much about balancing work and pleasure as its about unrestrained comic inanity.
Breadwinners, likewise, portrays its workplace and its workers as instruments of chaos. To Buhdeuce and SwaySway, delivering bread isn’t just a job they enjoy but a massive game to them, an endeavor that allows them to be wildly goofy and destructive sans consequences. Breadwinners has a slightly better handle on its character relationships – the strong bond between the main characters; the easy-going connection with their mechanic, Ketta; the tense relationship with the antagonist cop Rambamboo – but again, it’s all a means to an end, excuses to have its characters engage in juvenile behavior within (ostensibly) a working environment. There’s no meaning to their role as breadwinners other than it’s vaguely important, and, like Dudley, their chaotic behavior often saves the day more so than it ruins it. Notably, both Breadwinners and TUFF Puppy can’t define their workplaces or relationships with any clear-cut boundaries, since that would break the protagonists’ hold on their childish behavior. In other words, these are characters who can essentially do whatever they want; forces that try to tamper that down just don’t get it, despite such dangerous behavior. No one even questions it.
It’s sort of why the 7D never feels like it’s getting off the ground. Like TUFF Puppy and Breadwinners, 7D seems primarily concerned with its workplaces and relationships as excuses for its characters to be comically nonsensical. There’s little hint that the dwarfs’ mining or the queen’s ruling is other than a means for hilarious stuff to happen. And, like Kitty and Rambamboo, 7D’s Starchbottom (note the name) is the show’s stick in the mud, since he’s the only one who takes his job with any sort of seriousness. Locales and relationships, again, are ill-defined, since that would interfere with the joke-telling. Grim and Hildy, the show’s antagonists, are married, but there’s no sense that the marriage is anything beyond the comic scolding of Hildy’s aggressiveness to Grim’s submissive stupidity. In 7D, TUFF Puppy, and Breadwinners, (wo)man-children rule, with nary a thought.
There are two holdouts to this questionable trend. My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, for its faults, is refreshing, since its six main characters have real, adult-ish roles and pursuits (even Pinkie-Pie, who pursues her childish passion for partying with an adult-level fervor). The world of Equestria is chaotic, but there are rules and limits, and the characters are forced to pay attention to those limits to thrive. Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness is wildly flawed too, but at its best, it strikes the right balance between Po’s love of childish things and the need to engage in responsibility. It does struggle with this at times, but it does showcase Po’s childishness within a “work” environment as problematic, not rewarding.
I’m ending this this piece by mentioning Wander Over Yonder, which is quite analogous to Rocky & Bullwinkle – a childish “adult” (Wander) who is guided by a more mature figure (Sylvia). Both shows are loose enough allow their man-children characters to behave chaotically unchecked, but, like its forebear, the show is loose enough to plop its characters in random scenarios to let the comic behavior breathe, and the episodes balance the sillier stuff within its own brand of satire (“The Hero,” “The Troll”), and again, it’s clear when Wander’s behavior goes too far or is portrayed as dangerous (“The Void,” “The Box”). Here, man-child behavior is celebrated but is distinctly curbed – there’s a time and place for it. That’s really the issue in a nutshell: the best shows embrace the enjoyment of adult characters and their “toys,” yet understand that there’s a time to put them away. THAT’S the lesson I fear is being lost.