3 Apr

Last week, I started watching T.U.F.F. Puppy.

T.U.F.F. Puppy is a Nickelodeon show by Butch Hartman (The Fairly Odd Parents, Danny Phantom) which follows the adventures of Dudley Puppy, an excitable, boneheaded mutt and new agent of T.U.F.F., the Turbo Undercover Fighting Force. He works with his extremely capable partner, Kitty Katswell, as they protect Petropolis from anthropomorphic villains.

Kitty Katswell and Dudley Puppy following an explosion caused by Dudley.

While watching this show, I realized something: There are an awful lot of dimwitted, idiotic male characters in children cartoons that are offset by competent and intelligent female characters.


In T.U.F.F. Puppy, Dudley is completely untrained as a secret agent and essentially gets a job at T.U.F.F. by complete accident. Nevertheless, he still manages to earn the same respect from his boss and peers as Kitty does, even though she has been training for years and is ridiculously talented and perceptive. Although Dudley often sabotages his missions with Kitty, he still manages to be successful—in fact, Kitty is almost always inconvenienced by Dudley’s negligence and stupidity, yet Dudley almost always benefits from Kitty’s abilities.

This unbalanced male-female relationship is exceptionally prevalent among current programming, and the characterization of male leading characters as incompetent and female leading characters as intelligent—or, at least, more intelligent than their male counterparts—has become a cliché.

L to R: Darwin, Gumball, and Anais.
L to R: Darwin, Gumball, and Anais.

For instance, let’s look at The Amazing World of Gumball. Gumball and Darwin, two boys, are goofy and always getting into trouble because of their negligence. Conversely, Anais, Gumball’s younger sister, is a brainiac. Considering that she is still of the age to ride in the child seat of grocery carts, she is basically a genius.

We can see the same dynamic between Gumball and Anais’s mom and dad. Dad is an absolute moron—albeit a hilarious one—who always gets himself caught in jams and never really seems to understand much. Mom, on the other hand, is the voice of reason; she is logical, perceptive, and always makes the right decisions.

Think also about We Bare Bears. Grizz, Panda, and Ice Bear (all male) are often impulsive and rarely think through their decisions, yet their human friend, Chloe, studies hard and always weighs the consequences of her (and the bears’) actions.

We also have Timmy Turner of The Fairly Odd Parents, who is simultaneously clever and aloof, and his new female counterpart Chloe Carmichael, who is considered intelligent by nearly everyone and is both enthusiastic and a perfectionist.

Even Adventure Time‘s Finn and Princess Bubblegum fit nicely into this trope-esque dichotomy. While Finn is certainly capable, he is nowhere near as intelligent and collected as Princess Bubblegum.

There’s SpongeBob and Sandy, the boys and girls of the Teen Titans, the Breadwinners and Ketta, and surely many more.

But, why?

Why do these primarily male-centered cartoons belittle the intelligence and capabilities of boys while uplifting and celebrating the intelligence of girls?

Finn helping Princess Bubblegum with one of her many experiments.
Finn helping Princess Bubblegum with one of her many experiments.

In some ways, it does seem like an effort to break stereotypes. In the past, female characters did not have much of a role in the action. They played the damsel in distress, stood at the sidelines, or, in some other way, needed a male character to incite progress. While this still occurs in some cartoons, it is certainly something that arises much less frequently. Through this male-female character dynamic, these cartoons help show boys that girls are their equals (or perhaps even their superiors), not their inferiors. Clearly, as these cartoons show, girls can compete with boys intellectually. While girls may still be the objects of some character’s affection, at least they are also valued for their intelligence.

And that is wonderful. We should always do what we can to uplift girls and encourage high self-esteem.

However, fighting the incompetent girl stereotype so consistently only creates an entirely new stereotype which positions boys as the incapable, empty-headed sex. While this may raise the self-esteem of girls and encourage boys to value girls as competent and capable individuals, what effect does this have on boys? Shouldn’t we now worry that we are leaving the boys behind?

While it is great to have goofy, sometimes dimwitted characters, we need to be conscious of attributing these characteristics to only one sex in such a prevalent pattern. Diversifying not only the gender of the characters in current cartoons but also their personalities can help ensure that everybody is portrayed fairly, without sacrificing entertainment value. There is no need to rely on clichés to develop characters or tell stories, and diversity leaves no one behind; no one is left as the weaker sex.

[Images from Nickelodeon‘s T.U.F.F. Puppy and Cartoon Network’s The Amazing World of Gumball and Adventure Time via Hulu. Feature: T.U.F.F. Puppy Episode 2, Season 1. “Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’.” Inline: 1) T.U.F.F. Puppy Episode 1, Season 1. “Doom-mates.” 2) The Amazing World of Gumball Episode 6, Season 1. “The Dress.” 3) Adventure Time Episode 1, Season 1. “Slumber Party Panic.”]

27 Mar

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If you have not yet seen Over the Garden Wall, you need to.

Over the Garden Wall is a Cartoon Network miniseries created by Patrick McHale, who is also known for his work on Adventure Time and The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack. This 10-chapter story follows Wirt and Gregory, two half-brothers, as they journey through The Unknown, a simultaneously menacing and whimsical wood whose locations and characters echo old wives’ tales of centuries past, in an attempt to find their way back home.

Beware of spoilers ahead.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, male characters noticeably outnumber female characters—at this point, this is par for the course. With the atmosphere of days gone by in The Unknown, it also may be unsurprising that the only occupations we see women in are tavern keep, midwife, and school teacher. (There is one woman who is the owner of a tea company, which we will return to later.)

Male-dominance subtly pervades the entire series—a male owner of a different tea company Quincy Endicott only raises male peacocks; Greg takes great offense when Wirt points out that he has been referring to his frog companion with male pronouns even though they have no way of knowing what its gender is; and the two central conflicts of the series focus on 1) the struggle between the male Beast of the forest and a male Woodsman who keeps his daughter’s soul alive, contained within a small lantern and 2) Wirt’s efforts to impress a girl and prevent her from falling in love with a male competitor.

However, these subtleties do little to stop the show from introducing some really intense, really dynamic, and really awesome female characters.

Auntie Whispers and Adelaide are sisters that fulfill a dichotomy of light and dark, good and evil. Each play the role of antagonist or ally at different points in the story, and their short-lived character developments are some of the most intriguing aspects of the series.

Lorna is a quick-thinking girl and an assistant to Auntie Whispers with a dark secret. Like Auntie Whispers and her sister, Lorna occupies a dual position of antagonist and ally at crucial moments in the story.

Marguerite and Quincy.
Marguerite and Quincy.

Marguerite Grey and Beatrice have similarly fascinating roles. Unfortunately, however, their presumably rich backstories and compelling developments are overshadowed by the overarching male narrative of the series.

Marguerite Grey is the female owner of a tea company, who lives in a massive mansion of beautiful French Rococo style and whose fascinating character probably deserved more exploration than it was given. Her story is a mirror image of that of Quincy Endicott—both live in two distinct halves of a simply overwhelming mansion yet, for the longest time, have no knowledge of one another. Upon their first few encounters, each mistake the other for ghosts, until they reveal to each other that they are actually the owners of two competing tea companies.

However, in spite of this paralleled tale, we are guided through the narrative by Quincy rather than Marguerite. Quincy invites Wirt, Greg, and their companions into his home; Quincy reveals his fear that he is either crazy or has encountered a ghost in his mansion; Quincy steps into Marguerite’s half of the mansion; and Quincy tells the story of how he feels that Marguerite is the ghost of his “own true love.”  When Quincy finally has the courage to face Marguerite, this is their dialogue:

Quincy: What do you want with me, spirit?!

Marguerite: Spirit? But YOU’re the ghost!

Quincy: My lady, I assure you I am flesh and blood, and I. . . I welcome you to my home!

Marguerite: Your home? Good sir, you’re in my home!

Quincy: Impossible!

Marguerite: Look here. You see? This is my camellia garden for my tea company.

Quincy: Marguerite Grey? Why, with all due respect madam, this is my tea garden.

Marguerite: Quincy Endicott?

Wirt: Your guys’ mansions are so huge, they’re actually connected!

Quincy: So, you. . . You mean that beautiful ghost was really just. . .

Marguerite: That dashing specter was really just. . .

Both: My business competitor?!

Marguerite is merely present as a plot device to affirm their paralleled experiences—her own narrative is never explored individually; only in relation to Quincy’s perspective.

Beatrice the bluebird.
Beatrice the bluebird.

Beatrice’s fate may not be quite as obvious, but it is certainly more disappointing.

Beatrice, a former human who was transformed into a bluebird, could easily be considered the third protagonist of Over the Garden Wall. She is with the two heroes for a majority of the story and acts as the impetus for much of the progress made by Wirt and Greg. Realistically, Beatrice is on her own heroic journey, but the focus on Wirt and Greg’s journey leaves hers by the wayside.

Beatrice explains to Wirt that she and her family were cursed to live as bluebirds after she struck a bluebird with a rock. In the same conversation, Wirt explains that he has a crush on a girl. However, rather than exploring Beatrice’s backstory and answering important questions about her development—why did Beatrice throw a rock at a bluebird? what has she learned from her experience as a bluebird? where is her family? how do they feel about what she has done?—time is dedicated to exploring Wirt’s feelings for a girl and the quirks that make him feel insignificant.

While some of this is valuable information to have in order to understand Wirt’s character, a deeper conversation about Beatrice’s history could have been much more enlightening.

In all honestly, Over the Garden Wall is amazing. The artistry, narrative style, music, and characters are all charming on their own, and combined, they create a truly magical experience. Critiquing certain aspects of the series should not detract from the wonderful production McHale has created here. Nevertheless, I feel that the series may have benefitted from putting greater emphasis on Beatrice.

The lack of attention to her personal narrative positions Beatrice as an unsung heroine rather than a robust actress in a captivating story. She plays such a crucial role in the story—stimulating some of the primary conflicts the boys encounter throughout their journey and also rescuing them from even more—yet in the end, she is an unexplored yet gripping heroine overshadowed by her male counterparts.

[Images from Cartoon Network’s Over the Garden Wall via Hulu. Feature: Episode 2. “Chapter 2: Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee.” Inline: 1) Episode 5. “Chapter 5: Mad Love.” 2) Episode 2. “Chapter 2: Hard Times at the Huskin’ Bee.”]

20 Mar

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In 2013, Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency introduced the concept of the Ms. Male Character, a female version of an existing male character in video games.

Muscle Man and his girlfriend, Starla, Regular Show.
Muscle Man and his girlfriend, Starla, Regular Show.

Ms. Male Characters (such as Ms. Pacman or Amy from Sonic the Hedgehog) almost always present women as marked and men as unmarked—women are the variants of their male counterparts and are most often defined by their relationship to men. These characters typically sport a variety of gendered signifiers such as bows, makeup, long eyelashes, and the color pink, abstract symbols of femininity that are not even inherently related to the female sex.

Gendered signifiers tend to perpetuate limited gender binaries. These gendered signifiers are designed to show difference, establishing “male” as the default and synonymous with “human being.” Arguably, as Sarkeesian suggests, items such as ties and baseball caps may be used to identify male characters, yet these symbols are hardly ever used to differentiate a male character from the rest of the cast.

With Ms. Male Characters, their gendered signifiers are almost always used to mark them as a variant and emphasize their imposed femininity as the primary (if not only) characteristic which sets them apart from the rest of the characters.

As I have been researching for and writing this blog, I have come to realize that the Ms. Male Character is unsettlingly prevalent in mass media, and the concept is, perhaps as expected, easily translatable into television cartoons.

Lava Mole and his girlfriend.
Lava Mole and his girlfriend.

Breadwinners often employs gendered signifiers to differentiate female characters from an overwhelmingly male environment. As we discussed before, Jenny Quackles is identical to many of the other duck characters (the default, male template) except she sports a pink bow, jewelry, long eyelashes, and makeup. Lava Mole’s girlfriend experiences a similar fate; she is defined solely by her relationship with Lava Mole and looks strikingly similar to her male counterpart except for a noticeably pinker hue, jewelry, high heels, long eyelashes, and makeup.

Zoona and Roni, the Pizzawinners.
Zoona and Roni, the Pizzawinners.

Later in the first season, we are introduced to the Pizzawinners, essentially SwaySway and Buhdeuce’s female clones. These female cranes, Zoona and Roni, boast the same basic character design as SwaySway and Buhdeuce. . .save the addition of long eyelashes, makeup, and strikingly pink dresses.

A similar effect is evident in Regular Show with Margaret, Eileen, and Starla. Margaret is nearly an exact replica of Mordecai with a color change, long eyelashes, and the addition of breasts. (She is a bird. Why the heck does she need human cleavage?) Eileen too is marked with long eyelashes and breasts, and Starla is essentially a copy of Muscle Man with pigtails, high heels, and, you guessed it, long eyelashes and makeup. (Her bosom is excusable since she is some kind of humanoid.)

Thankfully, Adventure Time manages to avoid Ms. Male Characters and Mr. Female Characters (if those exist), even throughout its collection of gender-swapped episodes which follow Fionna and Cake.

L to R: Flame Prince, Turtle Prince, Fionna, Marshall Lee, and Prince Gumboil.
L to R: Flame Prince, Turtle Prince, Fionna, Marshall Lee, and Prince Gumball.

Fionna and Cake are copies of Finn and Jake and the heroines of a fanfiction written by the Ice King. The fanfiction also features Prince Gumball, Marshall Lee the Vampire King, Lumpy Space Prince, and the Ice Queen as gender-swapped counterparts of the show’s regular characters.

While Fionna is given more curves, a skirt, and longer hair, she does not possess any of the stereotypical gendered signifiers that tend to differentiate female copies from their male counterparts. Rather, she is an authentic and dynamic representation of women and is identified as a woman through her voice and the gendered pronouns used to refer to her. Similarly, Cake has no gendered signifiers whatsoever—she just happens to be a cat rather than a dog.

Fionna is even titled, “Fionna the Human,” challenging the assumption that men are synonymous with “human beings.”

Each of the characters in the Ice King’s fanfiction successfully avoid overtly gendered stereotypes, and the most significant deviant from this trend is that Lumpy Space Prince is differentiated from Lumpy Space Princess’s completely ungendered, lumpy form through the addition of a modest mustache.

Fionna and Cake prove to viewers and, hopefully, cartoon executives that a diverse audience has the capacity to enjoy shows regardless of the gender of the protagonist, making it a great gateway for equal gender representation in animation.

However, even this exceptionally successful, nonstereotypical, and fun gender-swap introduces its own problematic implications.

With gender-swaps in cartoons, I see a troubling potential for complacency. The potential exists for executives and show developers to view these gender-swaps of regularly male cartoons as “good enough” in the attempt to incorporate more women into this exceptionally male-dominated medium.

But we still need more.

While Fionna and Cake are AMAZING, entertaining, relatable, and, most importantly, authentic, a few episodes of Adventure Time that feature such dynamic female protagonists is simply not enough. Gender-swaps like this should be used as a point of entry into real strides towards equal and realistic gender representation rather than a solution for inequality.

We need women who exist on their own terms, not as copies of some male default.

[Images from Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time and Regular Show and Nickelodeon’s Breadwinners via Hulu. Feature: Adventure Time Episode 1, Season 5. “Bad Little Boy.” Inline: 1) Regular Show Episode 14, Season 6. “Married and Broke.” 2) Breadwinners Episode 17, Season 1. “Raging Mole.” 3) Breadwinners Episode 15, Season 1. “The Pizzawinners.” 4) Adventure Time Episode 9, Season 6. “The Prince Who Wanted Everything.”]

13 Mar

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Children’s cartoons have not been shying away from impactful, real-world subjects, from Steven Universe’s unyielding disruption of rigid gender roles and, most recently, the new Powerpuff Girls revival’s obvious jabs at patriarchal assumptions.

Nevertheless, insightful, honest commentary on mental illness is often kept under wraps in mass media, and even hints of the influence of gender on individual experiences with mental illness are, without a doubt, nonexistent.

But then there’s Adventure Time.

Adventure Time is known for tackling heavy subjects, and while there may be other shows on television that discuss mental illness, perhaps none tackle the subject with quite the degree of authenticity that Adventure Time does.

For a significant portion of the series, a wizard known as the Ice King embraced the role of Finn and Jake’s primary antagonist. Immediately upon his introduction in “Prisoners of Love” (the third episode of the first season), we know something is not quite right with the Ice King, and he has not succeeded in verifying his sanity since.

At first, he seems to be the patriarchal residue of whatever society existed before the Mushroom War. Our first encounter with the Ice King shows him as the captor for several of the princesses of Ooo as he attempts to force one (or perhaps many) of them into marriage, a task which proves to be his ultimate goal in life. Thankfully, Finn and Jake are always nearby to righteously save the Ice King’s damsels, liberating the women and combating the patriarchal concept of women as possessions.

Yet the Ice King is significantly more complex than the mere remnants of a past patriarchy.

Simon, mid-transformation, with a young Marceline.
Simon, mid-transformation, with a young Marceline.

It is common knowledge among loyal viewers of Adventure Time that the Ice King is mentally ill. In “I Remember You,” we learn that the Ice King used to be a man named Simon, a close friend and caretaker of Marceline (the Vampire Queen) before the War. However, through his work as an antiquarian, Simon happened upon a jeweled crown that, upon being placed on his head, began to weaken his sanity. Despite his initial recognition of his deteriorating mental state, when danger was imminent and Simon began to fear leaving Marceline alone for eternity, he succumbed to the will of the crown in an effort to survive the War and live forever to protect Marceline. (As he wrote on a newsclipping during his descent into madness: “And I need to save you, but who’s going to save me?”) The crown caused Simon to have blackouts, experience hallucinations, and hear voices, until it transformed his entire physical being into the Ice King, leaving him with no memory of his past life.

The crown destroyed his mind and his relationships, leading him into a desperate life of misunderstood attempts to find compassion and companionship, and his relationship with Marceline as the Ice King speaks volumes about how both victims of mental illness and their loved ones cope with the effects.

At one point in “I Remember You,” perhaps one of the most powerful episodes of the entire series, the Ice King begins throwing a tantrum while attempting to write a song (to “lure the honeys in”) with Marceline. He begins to cry, “I’m so alone. Won’t anybody tell me what’s wrong with me?” Marceline responds desperately by shouting, “Stop acting crazy!” Defeated and alone, the Ice King says, “I just want to be loved.”

A deteriorating Marceline remembering Simon/the Ice King's sacrifice in an alternate reality.
A deteriorating Marceline remembering Simon/the Ice King’s sacrifice in an alternate reality.

Marceline’s experience with mental illness, however, has garnered less attention among Adventure Time fans. In “Finn the Human,” Finn creates an alternate reality in which the Ice King actually saved humanity from near extinction during the Mushroom War by sacrificing his own life. Marceline lives as a hermit in a cave to protect the Ice King’s body and his crown, exhibiting physical and mental deterioration similar to what Simon experienced in becoming the Ice King. She loses her mind in the cave, often hearing the Ice King inside of her own head saying things such as, “You’re really letting me down right now.”

It is incredible how closely the animated exchange in “I Remember You” and the paralleled deterioration of Marceline in “Finn the Human” mirror the reality of dealing with mental illness: the confusion, the frustration, the torment. . .but what is even more incredible is that Adventure Time accurately represents the differences between how men and women cope with mental illness, a striking observation which is too often ignored.

The manifestation of mental illness in men and women is highly dependent on life experiences, and because of the disparate societal treatment of the two sexes, men and women struggle with mental illness in very different ways.

According to a study published in the APA’s Journal of Abnormal Psychology, men with certain mental disorders are more likely to externalize their emotions, resulting in “aggressive, impulsive, coercive and noncompliant behavior,” while women are more likely to internalize emotional distress, leading to “withdrawal, loneliness and depression.”

The Ice King’s mental illness results in his status as a villain as he aggressively captures women to coerce them into marriage, while Marceline’s disorder results in her withdrawal into a cave and the destruction of her self-esteem as she hears the Ice King say that she is “letting [him] down.”

A defeated Marceline hugs the Ice King, her former guardian who remembers nothing about her.
A defeated Marceline hugs the Ice King, her former guardian who remembers nothing about her.

Not only does Adventure Time place an authentic representation of the experience of mental illness in general at the forefront, but it also differentiates between how men and women cope with mental illness. The Ice King so obviously externalizes his emotional response to his illness with definite aggressive and noncompliant behaviors, yet Marceline deals with her illness internally, hiding herself away from the world.

This difference is remarkably subtle, but, my goodness, what a tragically and beautifully raw discovery.

[Images from Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time via Hulu. Feature: Episode 25, Season 4. “I Remember You.” Inline: 1) Episode 25, Season 4. “I Remember You.” 2) Episode 1, Season 5. “Finn the Human.” 3) Episode 25, Season 4. “I Remember You.”]