5 Cartoons That Handle Serious Issues Better Than Most Shows

When exactly was it decided that cartoons are for kids? Even now, when a show like BoJack Horseman takes on depression and self-loathing, people act like it’s a gimmick. (“Can you believe we’re getting ADULT themes from this CHILD’S medium?”) Not only does this make no sense, but cartoons have been ahead of the curve on some serious issues for decades. Like how …

5

In Rick And Morty, Nihilism Is A Philosophy, Not A Character Flaw

Nihilism has got a real bad rep on the mean streets of pop culture. It’s usually boiled down to “Nothing really matters, so why bother doing good things?” which usually manifests in the “villainous nihilist” stereotype. Anton from No Country For Old Men is a violently efficient nihilist, giving speeches about how life and death are as meaningless as a coin flip.

The nihilist gang in The Big Lebowski use it as a goofy affectation. In True Detective, Rust Cohle’s nihilism is a character flaw he heroically overcomes in the finale.

Dour, cranky, cold-hearted … nihilists are pretty much portrayed as sociopathic versions of Eeyore.

The Cartoon That Does It Better:

One of the best things I’ve ever seen on TV was the Rick And Morty (i.e. subject of the deadly Szechuan Sauce Riots of 2017) episode “Rixty Minutes.” Summer, Morty’s older sister, discovers that her birth was an accident which, it appears, made her parents’ lives worse. Morty then confides in her that he’s not the guy she thinks he is, and that he’s actually a Morty from another dimension who replaced the Morty she knew after his death. He ends this story by saying, “Don’t run. Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s going to die. Come watch TV.”

That’s where they leave it. There’s no happy, “This was all meant to happen!” revelation later. She has to come to terms with the fact that nothing was meant to happen … and that’s OK. That is, in fact, the running theme of Rick And Morty. Yes, life has no higher meaning and nothing ultimately matters, except the things that matter to you. Rick, being a godlike multidimensional supergenius, knows for a fact that nothing was meant to happen. But he once killed a jellybean king because he suspected he had tried to molest Morty. It’s, uh, a little hard to convey out of context.

Still, all of this is a surprisingly accurate (though extreme) representation of what nihilism really is. Life is without objective meaning, purpose, or morality, and you’re free to do good things because you want to, not because you think the Universe will reward you for it.

4

In Steven Universe, Child Heroes Have To Deal With Trauma

It’s only the grittiest of war movies that actually deal with the psychological aftermath in a realistic way. When the subject comes up in more lighthearted fare like Iron Man 3, the cure is for Tony to get right back into the action.

The omission of post-traumatic stress is never more glaring than in kids movies. Stranger Things Season 2 and Harry Potter Movies 2 through 7.5 should have taken place entirely on therapy couches. Those kids have seen. Some. Shit. But all is well as soon as the bad guy is defeated. Knowing your cause was righteous makes the PTSD go away! That’s the way it works, right?

The Cartoon That Does It Better:

It totally doesn’t. Just ask Steven Universe.

Steven is the titular character in a show about himself and his fantastical gem-themed buds protecting the world from a rogue’s gallery of gem-themed villains. Steven is a bubbly, quipping action hero who dispatches bad guys the way you’d expect a cartoon character to. And then comes the episode “Mindful Education.”

In it, Steven is helping his friend Connie deal with her guilt over accidentally beating someone up. His stellar advice? Shove everything deep, deep inside you and pretend it doesn’t exist.

As hilarious as it would have been to just end the episode there, soon Steven is faced by hallucinations of things he’s done in the war that he feels terrible about, things that no one (including the audience) knew he was still dealing with. He’s literally left in the fetal position crying and screaming, “I didn’t want to hurt anyone!”

After four seasons of Steven consistently saving the day with a punchline and a smile, we learn that he’s been internalizing every single horrific memory of what he’s had to do to save his planet. Think about how profoundly the pop culture landscape would change if every movie and series had to do this. Not in gruff, “We didn’t ask for this war!” kind of way, but actually letting the heroes show utter vulnerability in the face of guilt. Here’s the exchange:

Connie: “It’s OK!”

Steven: “No, it’s not!”

Connie:”But it’s OK to think about it!”

Steven: “It feels so bad!”

Connie:”That’s OK, too. There was nothing else you could have done.”

Steven: “I don’t want to feel this way.”

Connie: “You have to! You have to be honest about how bad it feels, so you can move on.”

3

Bob’s Burgers Portrays Budding Female Sexuality In A Way Normally Reserved For Dudes

TV shows will spend multiple episodes devoted to helping a teenage boy out with his sudden outbreak of boners. Tim Allen’s favorite thing in the world is to sit down and explain that shit to whoever happens to have been tricked into playing his son at the time. But girls hitting puberty is usually translated into one of two equally inept tropes. They either mature beyond their age and start doing stuff like sleeping with teachers (like in a bizarre number of teenage shows), or are rendered as unattractive punching bags (like Meg on Family Guy, who is hated for simply existing).

On TV, pubescent girls aren’t allowed to be weird in a likable, relatable way. They must either have the sex drive of a porno pizza delivery man or be an amoeba with glasses.

The Cartoon That Does It Better:

Tina on Bob’s Burgers is an anomaly. She’s unabashedly curious about sex in a way that’s not supposed to be sexy to the audience or the men she’s interested in. That’s where most TV shows stumble. Because a character is trying to wade through the swamps of her own sexuality, writers decide that we need to find her sexy as well, or at least adorable — otherwise, she’s a punchline. (“Can you imagine if unattactive people wanted to have sex?”) This is Tina:

She ogles guys, she writes alarming erotic fiction, she openly pursues the guys she wants. Tina’s journey is not seen through the “male gaze,” as they say, so her exploration of her changing body is actually all about her as a human being. That’s super rare on TV, much less in animation.

The sad thing is that a good part of that may be because Tina was originally supposed to be a male character. The writers liked the character, but thought it was too close to the character of Eugene, so they changed the gender but little else. So basically, the only way you can get Hollywood to portray a woman’s coming of age in a funny yet honest way is to get them to pretend it’s a dude.

2

Captain Planet Was Taking On AIDS Hysteria In 1992

Words cannot describe the love I have for Eddie Murphy. I was raised on his movies, and his seminal stand-up specials Delirious and Raw might have single-handedly gotten me through college. But I cringe every time I hear the parts in his specials where he talks about gay people, especially when he talks about AIDS, which he jokes about with all the nuance of someone throwing a golf club at a seagull.

And unfortunately, he wasn’t alone — back in the day, when AIDS was just some mystery disease that people associated with homosexuality, no one wanted to be in a room with someone who had it, let alone talk about it in a thoughtful way. People with the disease were treated like monsters. Ryan White, who contracted it while he was in middle school, was forced to use separate bathrooms and eat his lunch with disposable utensils, which is so horrible that after typing it, I spent a moment staring into space.

The Cartoon That Does It Better:

Somehow, in the middle of all this, the people behind Captain Planet decided to do an episode about AIDS. In 1992’s “A Formula For Hate,” a high school basketball player (voiced by Neil Patrick Harris!) gets HIV, and the bad guys get the town to riot against him. Captain Planet, that unceasingly kind blue-skinned beefcake, steps in to speak up on the boy’s behalf, sets the town straight on the facts about AIDS/HIV, and convinces them to let him play basketball again. There’s also a PSA at the end on not freaking out on people who have AIDS, just in case you saw the actual episode and thought it was mostly about basketball.

This was a year before Tom Hanks’ AIDS drama Philadelphia, and an era in which evangelical pastors were calling AIDS a judgment from God and warning terrified parishioners about AIDS-infected blood being used as a weapon against Christians. Captain Planet beamed this episode directly to the very children of the grownups who’d bought into that hysteria. Grownups who, in the episode, were made to look like sad assholes led astray by their own gross ignorance.

1

Sailor Moon Was Way Ahead Of The Curve On LGBTQ Relationships

If you want to cringe your heart out, go watch any ’90s sitcom dealing with LGBTQ issues. Even when queer characters were presented as people who could sustain basic human relationships (like in Will & Grace), they were countered by shows like Friends, in which males couldn’t even touch each other for fear of being deemed, and I hope you’re sitting down for this, gay. If you don’t believe me, here’s a montage of some of the homophobic moments from Friends. Also, this video is a fucking hour long:

Not that it was any better in film, where “deviant” sexuality was code for sociopathic amorality (see: Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, or Buffalo Bill in Silence Of The Lambs). This was not that long ago, kids!

The Cartoon That Does It Better:

Before Will & Grace and Buffy The Vampire Slayer‘s Willow and Tara, there was the beautifully ass-kicking Sailor Moon — specifically, the relationship between Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune (Haruka and Michiru). Introduced in Season 3, the girls were suave, competent superheroes who just happened to be in love with each other, and it was shown as perfectly OK in that world, before it was perfectly OK in our world.

There were gay male relationships too, like Kunzite and Zoisite, though they were villains, because no one ever truly escapes the ’90s unscathed. And while there weren’t any actual transgender characters, there were the Sailor Starlights, a boy band that turned out to be women when they transformed into superheroes. In a kid’s show! In 1996!

And it was all handled very casually. “Oh, you guys aren’t really boys? Aight.” If it was on Friends, Ross and Chandler would’ve seen the band and then comically taken a self-loathing shower together for an entire season, and then even MORE comically have been forced to wash each other. Then they’d have been panicked about any gross gay feelings it may have stirred.

Ugh. Fucking Friends.

Archie doesn’t just spend all her free time watching cartoons; she writes about ’em too on BlackGirlNerds.com. Feel free to talk shop with her on Twitter.

Man, can you imagine if Dallas Buyers Club had been animated?

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