Across the wide expanses of streaming services, obsolete cable, and online piracy exists a vast universe of TV, with countless types of genres and stories. Out of the bunch, however, few have struggled as much as the mature cartoon. Now, when I say “mature cartoon”, what most people imagine are shows like South Park or Rick and Morty, which rely on shock value and profane humor in order to entertain audiences. Now, this style of show, often referred to as animated shock comedy, CAN potentially make for some quality storytelling. At its best, we have The Boondocks, which used vulgar, biting humor to underline the racial commentary behind its satirical writing. At its WORST, however, audiences are stuck with crudely drawn men swearing and yelling about toilet humor or turning into pickles, all under the misguided guise that crude equals funny.
…And unfortunately for viewers (and everyone else), the latter is the much more frequent outcome.
It’s almost paradoxical, in an ironic sense. I mean, we’re talking about cartoons for MATURE audiences. So what exactly is mature about watching a lazily animated cartoon crack jokes about genitalia and the mere existence of swear words? What is mature about watching a show claim that it’s being socially conscious and satirical, only to present audiences with the most childishly wish-washy opinions and messages? Followed by another toilet joke?
In all honesty, nothing about it is mature at all. Calling our modern excuse for western adult animation “mature” is pretentious, and woefully lacking in self-awareness. But how did it get this way? Why is this shallow, crude smorgasbord of middle-school humor perceived as the limit of how mature a cartoon can be?
In order to better understand the conundrum the animation industry faces, we’d have to look at one of the most historically pervasive stereotypes to plague the artistic medium: its alleged lack of value for adults. Now, animation as a medium has been around for almost as long as film itself, with its earliest origins stemming from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. However, for much of this history, televised animation was primarily relegated to low-budget, cheap quality programming aimed at children. This reached its peak in the 50’s and 60’s, where animation became synonymous with the likes of The Flintstones and The Jetsons which, while classics in their own right, only perpetuated the notion that the medium was cheap and juvenile. To this day, many networks, producers, and general audiences merely see animation as a specific, child-oriented genre with little to no adult appeal.
Time and time again, however, artists and storytellers have tried to scale the wall built by this pervasive stereotype, taking full advantage of animation’s endless creative potential. One extremely notable example is Arcane, a Netflix animated series based off of Riot’s video game League of Legends. The series focuses on a cast of heroes and villains alike as they navigate the rising conflict and tension between two starkly different societies. Since its release, Arcane has become the subject of critical acclaim for its nuanced storytelling, beautiful art and animation, and widespread demographic appeal. In a similar vein, Netflix dramedy Bojack Horseman became universally loved after the show shed its early roots of typical shock comedy, growing into a beautifully twisted exploration of the human mind that tackles concepts such as depression, drug addiction, and toxic romantic relationships.
Unfortunately, this movement towards creatively mature stories has been met with constant pushbacks, rejections, and cancellations from a greater industry that refuses to fully appreciate the value of animation, and shows like Arcane and Bojack Horseman are the increasingly rare outliers of a medium in decline. To illustrate this point, take note of how I mentioned that both shows were released on Netflix. Want to know something about Netflix? The company has ALSO just made a series of massive cuts in its animation department, which has led to the cancellation of, among other projects, the popular comedy Inside Job as well as an upcoming movie centered around the virtual animated band Gorillaz. Netflix isn’t the only culprit, however, as demonstrated by the early and untimely demise of Infinity Train. A Cartoon Network/HBO Max series centering around adventures inside an otherworldly, labyrinthian train, Infinity Train has received praise for its extremely creative premise, as well as its tact addressing of juvenile and adult themes. Sadly, the series was canceled halfway into its envisioned lifespan due to the networks’ fear that it was too dark, and that the creator’s desire to include an adult protagonist would leave the show without a “child entry point”.
Events like these make it clear that animation is seen as a more expendable medium, and one with clear restrictions as to what it should cover. Shows that demonstrate captivating creative promise are pushed away to make room for the typical, obnoxious, shock-reliant fodder that only reinforce the association between western animation and immaturity. What makes this all the more frustrating is that the value of adult animation has ALREADY been proven not only through the artistic merits of the struggling western animation landscape, but also through the commercial and cultural successes of an adjacent industry that has similarly tried to incorporate mature themes and storytelling into animation.
Anime. I’m talking about anime.
Over the course of the past recent decades, and especially now more than ever, anime has grown into an international pop culture juggernaut with audiences across all demographics. The most popular and/or mainstream anime DO admittedly tend to fall into the shonen and shojo categories, which are generally marketed towards adolescent boys and girls respectively. However, these stories express an extremely wide degree of flexibility in terms of content, often incorporating mature themes and narratives about the human condition or greater society as a whole. This is exactly WHY the anime industry has been able to reach such mainstream critical and financial success even overseas, and why the most popular series have garnered dedicated fans of all ages. Attack on Titan, for example, is an extremely popular shonen war story that revolves around concepts like the apocalypse, class/ethnic discrimination, and political brainwashing. Countless fans, young and old, eagerly follow the story of this modern pinnacle of animation. Overall, the thriving success of anime blatantly disproves the stereotyping of animation as juvenile and lacking in mature, adult interest.
So the market is there, the creative forces are there, and there is a blatant gap looking to be filled by this desirable niche of media. So why can’t things change for western animation? Why are the promising cut short while the mediocre thrive? The rather unfortunate answer is that this would mean having to directly challenge the stereotype that has become so prevalent in our cultural/artistic landscape, and at the end of the day, networks and producers NEVER like rocking the boat like that. But I fantasize about a better day. A day when “mature cartoon” means more than inane, dirty humor. Animation has always been, and can always be, a medium used for silly stories and childish chaos. But that shouldn’t be, and doesn’t have to be, its one and only limit.