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Animation, Content And Cultural Coding: The Cartoon Study

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
August 17, 2011

The Parents Television Council, which regularly issues reports lamenting elements of television content from profanity to violence to the sexualization of teenage girls, has a new report out in which it argues that there’s an unreasonable amount of adult-oriented content in animated programming — specifically, in what it calls “the cartoons that kids today are watching the most.” (Here’s the summary; here’s the full report in PDF form.)

There are a few very important caveats about this study.

The first is that what they mean by “the cartoons that kids today are watching the most” is, more specifically, “the highest-rated primetime animated cable shows among children ages 12-17.” Think about that for a minute. We’re not talking about little kids watching Saturday morning cartoons; we’re talking about teenagers watching primetime cartoons on cable. We are not talking about “cartoons” in the sense that some of us watched Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd or the Superfriends as small children wrapped in blankets whose parents weren’t yet awake.

A good number of teenagers wouldn’t be caught dead watching that stuff, and it’s certainly not what they flock to in primetime. When I was a teenager, I don’t think my friends and I watched cartoons at all, except perhaps with a sharp sense of nostalgia that we had somehow already managed to develop. So the fact that animated programs watched by teenagers in primetime are not children’s programming the same way Fat Albert was really doesn’t represent a change from Fat Albert to what the Cartoon Network shows in the evening. It’s a new kind of programming that never existed, being watched by teenagers. And even if those teenagers watched a very, very small amount of this particular programming, it might well qualify as “the cartoons [they] are watching the most.”

But the study is right about one thing, and that’s that the cultural coding of animation on American television has changed substantially, and that parents who monitor what their kids watch should know that. It’s absolutely true that televised animation long served as an almost — not quite, but almost — bulletproof guarantee that what you were watching was a program aimed at little kids, or at least specifically designed to be suitable for them.

At the same time, though, it seems only fair to point out that much of what the PTC is most aggravated about airs as part of the evening programming at what’s the Cartoon Network during the day but designated as “Adult Swim” at night. I must admit that for me, that seems like a reasonable way to signal that you’re flipping that coding and perhaps defying that expectation. There’s nothing inherent in animated programming that makes it innocuous. It was that way on our particular airwaves largely as a matter of custom, and since that expectation is ingrained, if you want parents to be in charge of deciding what’s okay for their own kids, an alert that you’re defying that custom seems fair. I don’t have a problem with informing parents, the same way I wouldn’t have a problem with letting them know that you were going to interrupt a televised baseball game to show stripping.

But … that’s what labeling your programming block “Adult Swim” does.

The animation on Adult Swim is, by PTC standards, pretty raunchy at times. It includes episodes of some of the adult-oriented animation Fox has brought along in recent years, including Family Guy, which takes great delight in being just nasty at times. (And honestly, if your 15-year-old stops watching Family Guy, that’s cool with me, although my reasons are more about quality-of-show than quantity-of-profanity.)

Much of this clearly traces back to the balancing act that is The Simpsons, which has elements of both little-kid television and not-little-kid television, but which itself isn’t the equivalent of a smug shock jock the way Family Guy is. Not only is Family Guy not The Flintstones; it’s not The Simpsons, either. There’s no reliable coding on animation anymore, and for the most part, that’s a good thing — it’s the result of innovation and, in some cases, some very smart work. (Adult Swim’s sadly departed Frisky Dingo was the kind of show that would give the PTC fits; it was also hysterically funny.)

I can’t bring myself to regret the advent of non-kid-oriented animation, but I also don’t have a problem with making sure parents understand that “this is a cartoon on television” no longer means “this is appropriate for my seven-year-old” the way it once did. So if you’re in the habit of letting the non-adults in your house watch Adult Swim, take it under advisement. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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