The Double-Edged Stigma Faced By Western Animation
Animation as a medium has faced several hardships that are still prevalent today, which proves to be frustratingly ironic, as franchises like Looney Tunes were made with adults in mind, but were watered down to appease the kid-friendly crowd over the years. It has a difficult time being taken seriously and is often dismissed as an alternative for babysitting. For an extra layer of humiliation, it is often regarded as its own genre, even by apparent professionals like the American Film Institute, implying that it is unable to stand with the likes of literature, music, and its live-action counterparts as a legitimate medium and art form. Even the popularity of beloved characters brought to life by animation, such as Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, or Homer Simpson, does not prevent the medium from stopping dead in its track towards grandeur when confronted with the judgemental attitude the public has towards it.
While toning down the content is understandable in some regards (such as getting rid of the racial caricatures from older Warner Brothers cartoons), animation being stereotyped as a free daycare enforces a tiresome cycle that leaves a very relevant part of our culture confused.
The ‘kids’ problem
The primary issue animation has to deal with is its reputation as a children’s entertainment machine. People with a decent reputation shoving a well-done animated work aside for a live-action contemporary just because of the medium used to convey the plot, can be quite a common occurrence. On the other hand, people are just as likely to forgive a work of animation for having glaring flaws for the same mundane reason. (“It’s for kids”) Hence, people fall victim to a thought process that is summarised by dismissing animated movies and shows, which are generally family friendly, as works that are strictly made for children. Thus, animation is indirectly labelled as an immature medium with no stories that adults can fall in love with.
While animation, especially the American variation, is prone to having a capitalistic side that releases merchandise with kids as its sole target audience (the Minions being probably the biggest offender), it does not automatically render most of the works that inspire these products as what some people like to call “kiddy-fodder”.
The Toy Story series (1995-present) is a prime example of animation being capable of captivating an older audience just as much as younger viewers. The franchise’s ability to explore themes such as the dangers of envy (Woody’s insecurities about being replaced slowly taking over his psyche in the first movie) and the effects of abandonment (Jessie, in the second movie, getting a panic attack at the thought of being stuck in storage like when her original owner gave her away) in a realistic and relatable way is part of the reason of its success with critics and the public. Despite this popularity, none of the films (except for the third one) have received a nomination for Best Picture, which is bizarre considering its critical lauding and the technical innovations brought upon by the first instalment, which are traits important to the industry.
However, it is no shocker. Being animated is essentially the mainstream award equivalent of having a handicap in a video game. As some reactions to Beauty and the Beast (1991)’s nomination for Best Picture show, a lot of people used to (and still) scoff at the idea of animation having any respectable artistic value, despite one of the most praised aspects of the 1991 film being the well-paced development of the titular characters and their relationship (AKA the writing). It is not just ‘artsy snobs’ that hold this pretense, the general public is also extremely guilty.
Hilariously enough, one of the best examples of how much animation is stigmatised as a medium is the Amazon reviews of the film Rango (2010), which has darker writing than most animated flicks despite its cast being composed of anthropomorphic animals. Indeed, several of the negative opinions come from parents that were upset at the movie being inappropriate for children, although the PG rating should’ve mildly implied it.
Another more blatant case of ignorance is the infamous Sausage Party (2016), whose advertising has several warnings that it is not a child-friendly movie whatsoever despite its colourful, Pixar-like art style. Yet, some people still decided to ignore the obvious sexual innuendo in the title and the glaring “R” rating, bring their kids to go see the film, and then complain about its raunchy content. Whether Sausage Party was a well-made film or not and whether the American rating system is a fair procedure or not, the “R” rating is a blunt sign of a work containing an element that might make adults too uncomfortable to show it to their kids. Therefore, people still voluntarily taking their offspring for a cheerful viewing of Sausage Party just demonstrates the absurdity contained in the reputation of animation and how much the public is affected by it.
The ‘adult’ problem
On the far end of the stigma spectrum is a response to the “animation is only for kids” comments. It got corrupted as quickly as it drove the more conservative audience members crazy. Primarily started by Ralph Bakshi’s films such as Coonskin (1975) and Fritz the Cat (1972) and popularized by shows like The Simpsons (1989-present), Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995) and Beavis and Butt-head (1993-1997, 2011), is an anti-establishment ideology proclaiming that animated works are only appealing to adults if they are filled to the brim with black comedy, which consists of swearing, physical violence, vulgar humour, and blatantly sexual content.
South Park (1997-present) is the most popular perpetrator of those thoughts, with its writing consisting of everything that made Bakshi notorious, but tenfold. While its older brethren proved that adult animation could be successful, South Park’s politically incorrect humour normalised contemporary Western adult animation. Aiming to offend every group imaginable, the show’s goofy and snappy satire that contrasted its choppy and colourful animation has been frequently imitated, but never replicated. Despite its influence, South Park cannot work under a different name with a different crew. Adult animation is infamous for being full of crude provocateurs, and the worst of the works belonging to that group failed to develop an identity beyond embodying the aforementioned crudity. The success of South Park set an unrealistic and ridiculous standard, one where animation is only “adult” if it’s a comedy where the violence is bloody, the dialogue is raunchy, and the intimacy is filthy. Part of the beauty of having no age restrictions when writing a story is the ability to explore usually forbidden themes and more complex ideas in a way that adults can relate to. But to the corporates in the entertainment industry, it seems that only the most misanthropic of actions, instead of the truly thought-provoking, are endearing to the older crowd.
As a result of messy public reactions, animation is plagued by a stigma that cripples it whether the work is child-friendly or not, but for opposing reasons. Animated shows and films made with children in mind are dismissed by professionals and casual viewers alike for being supposedly overly optimistic, cutesy and one-dimensional, while adult animation is expected to be as inappropriate as possible by having content that is rather immature in hindsight. The medium is constantly being stabbed by a nasty double-edged sword that is slowly deteriorating, with shows like Adventure Time (2010-present) and Gravity Falls (2012-2016) proving that “kid’s” programs and films can be dark and relatable to grownups, while other works like Rick and Morty (2013-present) and Bojack Horseman (2014-present) showcase that adult animation can be more than a bland brand of cynical edge.
As one of the biggest names in the animation industry once said:
“You’re dead if you only aim for kids. Adults are only kids grown up, anyway.”-Walt Disney
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