January 31, 2005
He is the cutest little mouse, wide-eyed and innocent, wearing a red Russian peasant shirt with his soft blue hat slightly atilt. And for $3.95, he can be yours this week on E-bay.
Fivel was the American sensation in 1986, the hero of An American Tale, a spectacular Disney animated feature cartoon. At the time our kids were four and six, and it seemed like the perfect family outing.
Anticipation was high as movie theater lights dimmed and the music began. Louder and louder, the music pounded as we squinted to make out dark sinister creatures slinking and skulking around what appeared to be an evil ship tossing wildly about in a raging storm. Out of the darkness, small mouse eyes popped open in fear. Drums pounded, lightening crashed and fangs big enough to drool over the entire movie screen snapped down over the horrified eyes.
Mice shrieked in terror. And a scream rose from the chair next to me. “Mommy,” my son cried. “I want to go.” Another larger-than-life cat screeched in the dark, and Justin pulled on my arm. “Now.”
Suffice it to say, my husband stayed to watch the movie with our daughter. Justin and I left the “room of doom” and spent two hours instead at Pier Imports playing with sea shells and beads and furniture.
I learned an important lesson about cartoons that day. There are cartoons. And THERE ARE CARTOONS.
It used to be enough to make a cute little cartoon to entertain children. In the early days of television, while Bugs battled with Elmer Fudd, parents cooked dinner in the next room. Cartoons were for little kids.
Not any longer. Matt Groening was one of the first to break into popular culture with the “crass charm” of “Life in Hell,” featuring a rabbit called Blinky who lived “on the dark side of life.” Seeing the potential for a wider audience, he gave Blinky a family…the Simpsons.
In 1989, Fox commissioned 13 episodes of The Simpsons. Bart was originally the main character, an anagram of “Brat.” However, after two seasons, Homer emerged as the viewers’ favorite.
Three years after Bart and Homer arrived in family living rooms around the country, Michael Medved published Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and Traditional American Values. The Simpsons were a prime example illustrating his message…”that the entertainment business follows its own dark obsessions.” Medved’s alarm fell on deaf ears.
In 1993, trying to teach fifth-graders American history, I overheard two boys trading insults. “Butt-head!” My ears turned red. I was indignant. I launched into a teacher sermon on manners and consideration and language.
The kids in the class started laughing. All of them. “But Mrs. Jimenez,” the offender protested, “it’s on television. It’s a TV show.” I couldn’t believe it. Beavis and Butt-Head were the MTV sensation of the year, and I had no way to convince the kids that they were being rude and crude.
Not to be outdone, in 1997, Comedy Central aired the first episode of a cartoon created by Matt Stone and Trey Parker. Touted as a series for big kids…its stories satirized American culture, challenged deepset convictions and taboos, and quite often topped everything off “with a thick coat of black humor.” It was also a hit with kids…of the little kind.
Cartoons used to be for little kids. And that has made cartoons a perfect tool for big kids. Michael Medved’s message rings more and more true all the time. “Hollywood ignores–and assaults–the values of ordinary American families, pursuing a self-destructive and alienated ideological agenda that is harmful to the nation at large and to the industry’s own interests.”
It is no wonder that cartoons form the center of a new controversy in America. Poor SpongeBob. It’s not his fault. But he doesn’t get to plead innocence just because he’s a cartoon.
In the world of modern marketing where big kids want to reach the hearts of little kids…cartoons provide access. For those who want to reach the heart of the matter, they must take the time to ask the right questions.
Yes, SpongeBob is a cartoon. But what is he saying and who is he saying it to? Big kids? Or little kids?
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