Callum Petch believes that he may be part of the problem and for that he is not sorry.
by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
I am probably ruining cartoons for kids merely by enjoying them to the same degree adults enjoy, say, Star Trek.
This epiphany hit me the other day when I read an article on The AV Club about the official Season 5 renewal for the hit animated kids’ show (and one of my personal favourites on the air today) My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. It was a thought that had been rolling around in my brain for a while, anyway, the side effect of being really friggin’ anxious about everything you ever do because trying to live like a good human being is really hard in this crapsack of a world, as well as a theory I had been working on a bit, but that article made it clear. In fact, I’ll just quote the exact sentence that led me to this realisation.
“The 26-episode order will push the series over the milestone 100-episode mark, a remarkable achievement for a show primarily aimed at teaching young girls self-confidence, the importance of friendship, and the fact that anything that’s special for them will eventually be co-opted and stolen by dudes.”
The Brony fanbase, adult fans of the show (typically depicted as male as that apparently makes for a much more interesting narrative when reporting on them), have become inexorably tied to the show and the discussion surrounding it. If you haven’t even heard of the show it’s based on but you spend some time on the Internet, you’ve still probably heard of the concept of Bronies. It’s inescapable, to an extent that I honestly fear that, once the show is done and wrapped, everyone has moved on to other things and the passage of time sends the show fading into memory, its legacy won’t be “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic was a great show that broke down gender stereotypes thanks to strong writing and characterisation.” Instead, I’m incredibly worried that its legacy will be “My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic was the show that gave the world Bronies.” That’s it or, at the very least, the show will get a passing mention in maybe paragraph 12. Neither outcome is one I particularly desire.
I don’t consider myself a Brony but I do consider myself a very big fan of the show, enough to own several shirts and the second season on DVD, enough to frequent the show’s main fan-site, and enough to have to talk myself out of walking into Build-A-Bear and getting a Rarity plushee every single time I walk past my local store (I also have an affinity for cute things, so that may not be just the fan in me talking). My rejection of the Brony tag comes primarily because I don’t associate myself wholeheartedly as a member of any fandom anymore (and partly because “Brony” is second only to “Avatards” on my list of Embarrassingly Stupid Fandom Portmanteaus) and, therefore, keeps me at a distance. I enjoy the show for what it is; very well written, strongly characterised, funny, gorgeously animated and full of a tonne of heart. I enjoy it for the reasons I imagine its target audience would, not because there’s a two-second reference to Bioshock Infinite in the background of one of the episodes and not because I want to marry Twilight Sparkle (that is not a joke and is still nowhere near the most disturbing thing I have come across from fans of this show on the Internet, trust me).
Lately, though, I’ve been wondering if that, appreciating and loving the show for what it is, is a problem in and of itself. I understand that this is a kids’ show, made to be enjoyed firstly by little girls from ages 5 to 8, and I would never want the show to start pandering to myself, the older male fan. I am a periphery demographic. Yet that periphery demographic is the one driving discussion of the show, it’s the one that has become the focal point of discussion surrounding the show. Hell, I wouldn’t have given it a test-run just over two years ago (I ended up accidentally picking one of the episodes that requires prior character knowledge, which is why I didn’t try again until my growing knowledge of animation led me in the direction of anything with the name Lauren Faust attached to it about six months later) if it weren’t for the periphery demographic making a giant noise about it. And through all of this I wonder, what about the little girls from ages 5 to 8? The ones the show was made for? How do they feel about the show basically being stolen out from under them by grown-ups whose mere existence may have forever tainted the show for future generations?
Probably not too much, in all honesty. The merch keeps selling, the ratings keep climbing (as far as I can tell, most of the adult fandom gather together to watch live streams on the Internet instead, which don’t count) and the kids still care enough that there are more than enough of them to turn up to most of the 900-bazillion fan conventions that have sprung up for the programme to redress the balance somewhat (I may spend a lot of my free time watching VA panels on the Internet, not just ones for this show, don’t judge). Plus, even with the peripheral demographic, the show has yet to forget about its target audience. It doesn’t openly pander to the periphery demo (the few times when it has have been the most cringe worthy things the show has done) and it still has the same style, voice and attitude that it did when it started, just with a slight bit more maturity to represent the growing up of its target audience. The Bronies may dominate the conversation (enough to have two separate feature-length documentaries on their existence made) but the kids still have the show. They still exist which goes some way to lowering my anxieties.
But this is not a feeling that is just linked to My Little Pony. Regular followers of my Twitter may be well aware that I am a big fan of Gravity Falls. For those who don’t follow my Twitter or aren’t aware: I am a big fan of Gravity Falls. A big fan. It is fast, it is hysterical, it is gorgeously animated, superbly voice acted, excellently plotted and full of immense heart. It is one of the best shows on TV and I don’t know a single person in its target audience who watches it. Of course, one could put this down to the fact that I don’t live in America and I don’t hang around children (…probably could have phrased that better) but I see a lack of kid fandom or references to children anywhere in discussion of the show, even though its target audience is children aged 7 to 11; that’s what the TV-Y7 rating is for.
Instead, it’s a collective group of intense adult fans combing the show for clues to its mysteries. The show’s creative staff (creator, writer and voice actor Alex Hirsch, especially) lean on the show’s more grown-up fandom in conversation much more frequently than those in other shows I know do (Hirsch even all but said that it’s down to us if we want Disney to release merch for the show). I’ve seen precisely one kid at a panel for the show (they asked a question that Alex, who teases and trolls like a master, wasn’t allowed to answer, it was cute) and few, if anybody, would refer to the show as “a kids’ cartoon,” even though it kinda is. We’re about to enter the second season so we’ll get an answer then as to if the periphery demographic have managed to infect the product we adore so, but it worries me as to whether the target audience cares at all about Gravity Falls. And if that is the case, then have we adults hijacked the show from them and co-opted it for our own?
Maybe it’s a question of gender roles and gender narratives. My fear of my stealing of Gravity Falls from its target demo is less vocal because the talk surrounding the fandom is non-existent, arguably because the target demo for Gravity Falls is not exclusively little girls and the story “Adults Enjoy Watching Cartoon For Children” is not as sensationalist as “Grown Men Love My Little Pony”. You could argue that it’s the same reason why the very large and very vocal adult Adventure Time periphery don’t get any such “co-opting” claims or fears; ditto Regular Show. They make up a huge percentage of the fandom for Adventure Time, we’re talking near-Sherlock levels of activity on Tumblr… OK, maybe not (practically nothing else on Tumblr gets close to Sherlock levels of devotion), but you get the general idea. From what little I’ve glimpsed on the Internet (I’m still yet to get into Adventure Time, I keep switching off because the first season is just weird and rough as all hell), they’re basically a well-organised fan convention away from being near equal to the size and scale of Bronies.
Except that Adventure Time and Regular Show are barely for kids as it is. They both sport TV-PG ratings and wear them with pride, watch either show (in their American formats, for the love of the Maker, if you’re going to watch either of these shows, do not watch their bowlderised UK edits) for more than three minutes and you’ll get why they’re intended for an older audience than My Little Pony (TV-Y) and Gravity Falls (TV-Y7). It’s hard to steal something from a group of society if it’s not exactly being made primarily for them as it is. And besides, the best cartoons aren’t just enjoyable for kids. They’re enjoyable on multiple levels for all audiences: there’s a great throw-away scene in Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends where the show’s creator Craig McCracken pops up in its universe that caused my 19-year-old self to almost fall out of my chair in gleeful amazement. But the scene also works if you’re young and have no idea who the guy is because the joke is rooted in the situation, not Craig McCracken. (Ditto pretty much the entirety of “Frankie My Dear” which becomes extra hilarious if you believe rumours that Mac is based off of a young Craig and Frankie is based off his wife, Lauren Faust.)
Maybe my anxieties are just rooted in lack of the passage of time. After all, I’m a huge fan of The Powerpuff Girls and I don’t feel like my being so is going to/is ruining it for future generations. If I were a fan at the time it were going out (which I was) but this age, I’d probably feel how I do with My Little Pony and Gravity Falls. And then you have the collective nostalgic waxing by the Internet every time somebody announces a movie remake/adaptation/reboot of some beloved Saturday morning toy commercial (Transformers, G.I. Joe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and, most recently, Power Rangers). Perhaps the distancing effect of time creates the effect that things are now allowed to be freely appreciated by everyone equally, regardless of their age or the work’s intended audience.
But… just what if none of this matters? What if I’m not actually co-opting jack? Yeah, I may be a big fan of cartoons made predominately for kids, but does that mean I’m truly ruining it for the kids? No matter how large the Brony fandom gets, no matter how many conventions they create, no matter how loud they may get on the Internet, no matter how many Rule 34 ship-drawings of Applejack and Rainbow Dash there may be, and no matter how many plushees get sodomised by people that I would like to forget exist, thank you kindly, the little girls aged 5 to 8 will still have the show. They will always have the show. Friendship Is Magic hasn’t changed due to the stuff surrounding it; if anything the show has strengthened its resolve to non-corporate outside influences. The target audience will still have the show. Everything else is just noise.
Maybe the simplest way to resolve this problem is to just stop labelling cartoons as explicitly for kids in daily conversation. I don’t mean “stop making cartoons directly for kids,” not at all. But what I mean is that we should stop having to separate kids’ stuff from adult stuff so much. A random episode of The Amazing World Of Gumball has way more laughs and stronger characterisation than The Big Bang Theory at its best, for example. I have heard that Steven Universe blows most current prime-time dramas out of the water (I need to get around to watching it). The Legend Of Korra and its more famous original series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, are almost never referred to as kids’ cartoons even though they are; that’s the kind of level they operate on. You class something as “for kids” and you immediately class it as “other”, something that requires lowered expectations, a different metric for success and can only be enjoyed by its target audience.
Entertainment can be enjoyed, loved and embraced by all. So what if mainstream society is co-opting something made primarily for a specific demographic? Who said they’re trying to? Maybe they’re just in love with a show and don’t care about its “other-ness”? If we had a generation of children get really into Community, would we be accusing them of co-opting media that’s not for them? No, because that would be dumb. Good media is good media and we shouldn’t be discouraging people from liking good things because “it’s not supposed to be for them”. This is why I never pull any punches when I review films aimed at kids because crap shouldn’t be given a Get Out Of Jail Free card and quality should not need an appended asterisk.
So, yeah, I am probably ruining cartoons for kids merely by enjoying them to the same degree adults enjoy, say, Star Trek. But I don’t care and I’m going to keep on preaching about how Gravity Falls is the best thing to hit TV since Community debuted because I refuse to be made to feel bad for liking something that’s apparently not supposed to be for me. Maybe this makes me selfish, stealing away pleasures designed for people who don’t often get enough pleasures aimed at them. Maybe this makes me progressive, somebody who is sick of barriers dividing what is supposed to be enjoyable to who and who thinks that cross-demographic enjoyment on equal levels is something to be encouraged not shunned. Maybe it’s a bit of both.
All I know is that I don’t care either way. Now, would you pass the remote? Wander Over Yonder is about to start.
Callum Petch has been putting up with your constant whining. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!