Sitting here in Boston Logan Airport at 5:00 a.m., having been awake for more hours than I care to calculate, anxiously suppressing thoughts on the finals I have recently submitted, I am reminded that I am technically an adult now, who is legally allowed to be alone in an airport to travel home. And while I think about how ridiculous and inept and not-at-all like an adult I feel, I remember the cartoons that raised me.
Childrens’ cartoons, despite their name, hold an extremely important role in media for viewers of all ages. Most likely because of its target demographic, these cartoons are typically undervalued but they shouldn’t be. Though not all works that compose this demographic are like the brilliant and challenging cartoons I want to draw attention to, the same can be said of every genre of every medium in existence. And through a few examples, I think it’s clear how special children’s media can be.
To begin with, children’s shows demonstrably do not stay away from dark subject matter — “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and Italian cartoon “Winx Club” both begin with the genocide of the protagonist’s home people (if I had a nickel…). “Avatar: The Last Airbender”’s cultural capital is now widely undisputed, and I would not hesitate to call it one of the best animations of all time. Its wonderful cast of characters (the only things stopping me from writing a think piece on each and every character are my psets) are all treated with grace and nuance, and its depiction of the harm of colonialism and the trauma of war is so impactful.
Not only that, but desperately trying to figure out the weird airing schedule Nickelodeon was using to try to watch “Legend of Korra,” “Avatar”’s sequel, is a core memory. Korra is a unique protagonist, and her journey from an arrogant, stubborn, short-sighted teenager to a mature, selfless, and compassionate leader is nothing short of breathtaking — and Book 3 remains to this day one of the most tightly plotted, tension-filled seasons of television I have ever seen.
In a slightly different vein, “Steven Universe” is a wonderfully sweet and funny cartoon about family and togetherness, but it’s also incredibly clever — few shows, films or books that I have consumed since come close to the breadth and depth of foreshadowing going on in those lighthearted ten minute episodes that are seemingly filler.
Similarly, “She-Ra: Princesses of Power” begins as a whimsical romp filled with colorful characters who have sparkly powers, but quickly becomes a treatise on responsibility, heroism, colonial exploitation, and healing from abuse. It’s gorgeous and heartfelt, and I only find more things to appreciate about it every time I watch it.
These shows, and many more I don’t have time to delve into, are inextricably tied to memories of childhood, but they hold a power beyond nostalgia. The only things that are truly off-limits in a children’s medium are bad language, sex, and gore, which really means that what is taken away is spectacle — these properties have the opportunity to tell complex, genuine, thought-provoking stories by starting at the very simplest level. They frequently center the joy and hope we want to instill within the next generation, even in the context of dark stories, and the very best even do so without talking down to the audience.
I don’t see how we can ask for much more from our art. And I desperately hope my episodes of “Spongebob” finish downloading before they call my flight.
— Outgoing Columns Exec and incoming TV Exec Millie Mae Healy has too many opinions about children's cartoons (and just art in general) and always welcomes hot takes, dissenting views, or just being told that she’s right at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more in ArtsArts Vanity: The Boston Common AMC Is The Moment