September 7, 2011

90s Cartoons Might Be Responsible For More Than You Think

As a Gen Y’er, I am relentlessly accused of more cultural misdeeds and ethical faux-paus than I thought myself capable. We poor souls born on the 80s/90s cusp are purportedly doomed for a life of crippling narcissism, shameless materialism and, what’s more—the burden of entering a world more grounded in its virtual counterparts than reality. What we lack in sound economy and quality of life we make up for in a thriving alternate universe on the interwebz.

For what it’s worth, and for all the endless scoffing and finger-wagging it procures us from older generations, the factors contributing to the overall—er, disagreeableness?—of my generation rely on a number of influences that have been largely out of our control. Among them: the Digital Revolution, the fall of Communism, the rise and subsequent degradation of MTV, reality programming, the general unfortunateness of Paris Hilton as an entity, and so on and so forth. But before our untainted imaginations were perverted by the likes of Y-14 entertainment and beyond, the insidious nature of mass media seeped into our vulnerable child-psyches and laid the ground for a generation of narcissism to come. A generation sporting a level of self-absorption so abysmal, it made Tom Wolfe’s musings on the so-called 70s “Me Decade” appear to be… well, rather gracious.

What is it about 90s children’s programming that has triggered such a tremendous movement in the spirit of reminiscence? Are all of us early twenty-somethings career-uncertain and directionless because we meander the halls of our liberal arts universities in a nostalgic haze? Or is this fondness for the once-was—for the hindsight of yesteryear—simply what the Zeitgeist insists that it is: nothing more than a trendy motion toward the imminent void of hipsterdom?

Right now, a resounding movement in Gen Y retroactivity is the return to 90s children’s programming. Namely, Nickelodeon’s “The 90s Are All That!” television block.

Thinking back to this so-called “Golden Age” of TV cartoons (for us Gen Y’ers, anyway), I recall a number of significant factors. For one, a vast selection of eclectic programming. Kids could choose from an enormous array of TV shows—each with its own unique appeal, its own trademark signifiers. Branching from that, we see a number of effects.

First, channels present programming that is uniquely their own, and therefore a phenomenon of televised “branding” emerges. From said branding and furthered ubiquity of televised media, children begin to identify with televised media in a way that is more distinguishing and self-defining than ever before. This spurs the furthered commoditization of media. Kids identify with one show or channel over the others—a prelude to the ways in which we all plaster our interests over our Facebook profiles as a signal to the social networking universe that these items are the essence of who we are. Our selves come from our interests—not vice versa. Today, one’s partiality for Radiohead and Coen Brothers movies (for example) is akin to once proclaiming you’re a Nickelodeon or a Disney kid, that you love talking sponges but shun histrionic anime displays—whatever.

Next, a newfound maturation in children’s programming that sets it apart from the ‘toons of the past. Before, animated features were limited to whatever G-rated media was permitted by the FCC. Over the generations, as media has pervaded the crevices of our everyday lives and bombarded us with slews of processed information, the boundaries between childhood, tween, teen, and adult programming become increasingly hazy. In the earlier decades and increasingly in the 90s, we saw Disney artists getting away with minor subliminal perversion, just for the hell of it. We see adults cheekily inserting jokes into kids’ shows that only parents will understand. We see cartoon characters—both explicitly and not—grappling with real-world issues that once were deemed unkosher for the kids: gender-bending, social class divides, divorce, etc. As kids grow up with programming that is more ambiguous in intended audience age, they run the risk of approaching questionable stages of maturation that are epidemic in today’s culture: the childlike adult, the sexually advanced teen, the 30-year-old that refuses to move out of his parents’ apartment, the twenty-something approaching his quarterlife crisis, the toddler going on preschool interviews, and so on.

Popular cartoons had protagonists that are average, problem-burdened individuals just like the rest of us (Hey Arnold, Doug, Pepper Ann, As Told By Ginger, etc.), thereby signaling to their young audiences that it’s perfectly fine to be awkward and uncool and to avoid the beaten path—a call-to-arms to future hipsters everywhere. Unlike Charlie Brown—the pathetic sap, the “nice guy” at the butt of many jokes who once earned our collective sympathy—these average Joes are the heroes of their respective cartoon realities. We identified with their humbling mediocrity. Fantasy was usurped by animated realism. Cartoons ditched fairytale formats for something more closely resembling sitcoms in style and scope.

And then, in an aggressive juxtaposition, were the cartoons so outrageously weird that when placed side-by-side with their tamer counterparts—well, let’s just say that whoever conceptualized shows like Ren and Stimpy, Rocko’s Modern Life and Invader Zim had more in mind than simply tickling the fancies of their adolescent viewers. I mean really, watching it all in retrospect, who can deny that the demented Chihuahua and his fat feline friend were really just a couple of stoners cavorting behind a veil of animated insanity?

Am I crazy to justify our current cultural Zeitgeist with a bunch of TV shows I watched as a kid? Maybe. Are you crazy to take any of this seriously? Probably. Certainly silly. In any case, I contend that us 90s kids were exposed to some pretty kickass displays of TV magic—something the upcoming generation of youngsters can’t claim for itself. Though, granted—they have YouTube. Oh, and that show Adventure Time. Have you seen that shit? What a trip. TC mark

image – Ren & Stimpy

Samantha Shokin

She speaks Russian and is deeply fond of cats. She can be reached at sshokin[at]gmail.com.