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


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  • Anonymous

    Adventure Time is like nostalgia without any effort on my own behalf!

  • Soultoastt

    adventure time forever. and invader zim.

  • http://twitter.com/brunodion Bruno Dion

    Stoop kid’s afraid to leave his stoop.

  • Patrick M

    I shouldn’t take any of this seriously and yet a lot of it really does make sense to me. Constant nostalgia and a quarter-life crisis at 21? Yeah. Where’s our optimism for our futures? I know I don’t have any.

  • Ddddddddddddddddddddd

    i wonder what kids watching youtube videos all day will grow up to be like

  • Anonymous
  • http://twitter.com/tonyneu Tony Neu

    hey your first paragraph nailed it; thank you

  • loved this

    Lolololol the entire article adventure time was in the back of my mind. This article hits the nail on the head…though i’m not a fan of the college argumentative essay-ee vibes man.

  • Woyzeck

    This is amazing.

  • Jonny P

    The reason cartoons of the 90s are
    better than most on air today is due to the fact that the creators and talent
    had much more creative freedom. John K. (creator of Ren and Stimpy) experienced
    tension with the executives and was fired after the second season. I’m fairly
    certain that Jhonen Vasquez, creator of Invader Zim (which is actually from
    2001), has no interest in ever doing cartoons again after working with
    Nickelodeon. I would say that most cartoonists have “more in mind than simply
    tickling the fancies of their adolescent viewers”; it’s just a matter of
    how much restriction networks put into place and how much they can get away
    with. For instance, on Regular Show (which usually airs right after Adventure Time),
    there is an episode in which it is implied that a character poops on the floor
    in front of his friends. A lot of cartoons these days are becoming more like
    animated sitcoms (a.k.a. Family Guy), and I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. Also,
    As Told by Ginger is from 2000, and Spongebob (which first aired in ’99)
    becoming synonymous with Nick didn’t happen until 2000. And how could you not
    mention Cartoon Network during the 90s? Specifically their What-a-Cartoon block
    and what came out of it.

    for ranting a bit. I was just very excited about the title and expected more
    from an article talking about 90s cartoons than just a lengthy piece that boils
    down to: kids these days have access to the internet and are able to reminisce with
    greater ease than generations past.

    But your
    piece is very well written and I mean this as constructive criticism. Sorry if I sound like an ass.

    • Sam

      You’re right, Jonny.  As Told By Ginger was an early 2000’s cartoon (I realized that only post-factum) and Cartoon Network was also imperative to 90s cartoon culture (I regrettably did not discuss it more because, quite frankly, I was a Nicktoons kid) .  This issue definitely calls for more exploration; my attempt merely scratched the surface.  Thanks for the feedback!

      • Jonny P

        Deep down I was thinking/hoping that, based on the title and the picture of Ren, the piece was going to discuss things like “how watching a character pluck nerve endings from his mouth can leave permanent damage on the viewer”. Weird psychological things that people may or may not have picked up on as a child watching these cartoons.
        Haha. Yeah. And then I forgot the likes of MTV’s cartoons… If there isn’t a book, which there probably is, someone should write one just about the evolution and lasting effects of 90s cartoons. (I was a Nicktoons kid as well).

  • http://thatninjafangirl.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/sino-nga-ba-ang-gustong-mag-isa/ Sino nga ba ang gustong mag-isa? | A ninja fangirl.
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