Losing a Childhood Tradition

The first weekend of October this year saw a historical moment: the first weekend in what I’ve heard is over fifty years without a Saturday morning cartoon block available to basic television channel viewers.

That’s actually not true. Depending on your local market, there is still a Saturday morning cartoon block…comprising nothing but cartoons bearing the E/I rating. It’s not even the first time we’ve hit this point. When the FCC ruling in 1998 that led to what is currently being called the end of the Saturday morning cartoon block era, most of the major networks had already moved on from offering cartoons on Saturday mornings, the notable exception being CBS’ joint venture with Nick Jr in the mid to late 90’s. Within a year of that shift, though, the WB and Fox organized their own mostly non-educational cartoon lineups in the after school and Saturday morning programming blocks.

A number of us have some sort of relationships with cartoons, from our childhood, from our teens (when we were trying to be too cool for cartoons), and even into our adulthoods. So, many of us over the last couple of weeks have expressed some sort of loss of our own childhood, our happy memories of Saturday morning rituals centering on cartoon viewing. Some of us have been so unable to let go of that aspect of our childhood that recent years (really, the last decade or so) has seen numerous reboots of beloved childhood cartoon and toy franchises, wanting to recapture that period and share it with a new generation.

For me personally, it was for a long time a combination of after-school and Saturday morning cartoons that shaped so much of who I have been and who I have become. In school, clear through grad school. I often did my homework while watching cartoons. (I’m one of those people who can’t work in a dead silent environment. It drives me insane.) I’ve used cartoons to connect with students. (Right up until it became cool to be a Whovian, I got pretty far knowing the difference between Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh, and it was my students who got me into Avatar: The Last Airbender…mostly because they were shocked I wasn’t already watching it.) Some of my earliest Halloween costumes were cartoon cosplays. If I had any sort of artistic skill, I likely would have jumped at the chance to become an animator. I love watching behind-the-scenes videos, just to watch animators work. I’m not going to lie: I think animators are kind of like magicians. (Oddly enough, my love of animation and voice chasing did not actually play directly in to my becoming an audiobook narrator. Sort of. It’s really hard to explain.)

It’s so weird to think that now those avenues for connection, for creative reaction…don’t exist at an easily accessible level for kids any more. It just seems wrong.

Chocolate-Covered Broccoli and Children’s Play

This fall, American children are being treated to something never before seen: Saturday mornings without a single cartoon not bearing the e/i rating. In 1998, the FCC ruled that basic stations had to serve at least three hours of educational content a week, and so stations decided the easiest way to do that was to dedicate a programming block already targeting children to that cause. The e/i rating is given to children’s programming that meets certain criteria, both education and marketing related. (I used to have a really good resource on e/i, but the site appears to have been taken down. Sorry.) They’ve commonly been isolated to PBS, although other stations have woven them into their line-ups.

At first, this doesn’t seem like much of an issue. Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and Disney all offer Saturday morning blocks. But while nearly every home in America has a television, just under half of those homes has some sort of cable service. That means kids in just over half of these homes don’t have access to cartoons that aren’t trying to shove some sort of learning down their throat. I know what  you’re thinking: Isn’t that a good thing? How can we make the cable companies come around and stop making our children stupid? And that’s not a healthy way to think.

We can’t process a lot of information coming at us constantly. This is part of the research-based thinking in how daily class schedules are designed in schools. The brain needs time to process what it’s just been exposed to. This is actually one of the keys to learning. If the brain doesn’t get that time, the material bounces off like a skipped stone on the water. This isn’t just true at school, but everywhere in life. We’re nearly always in situations that expose us to new information, to new skills. Without down time, our brains just can’t handle it and burn out. Kids are the same way; and for just over half the kids in this country, they’re now limited in how they can choose to spend that necessary down time. (I’ll just let you think on the ramifications of that.)

It’s almost like we’ve been led to believe that if we aren’t laying out very obvious teaching moments 24/7, kids can’t possibly learn. But just because a kid isn’t being told by a big fuzzy creature that two and two together equals four (as happened in Magi Nation, a cartoon from a few years ago aimed at tweens), it doesn’t mean the child isn’t gaining something useful from watching a cartoon that has no deliberately educational elements. Children’s play has long been inspired by the characters and worlds they meet through cartoons. They become inspired to draw, to write, to incorporate their favorite cartoons into their imaginative play. And sometimes, the skills inspired by watching cartoons as a child become a career path. That’s not insignificant.

This isn’t to say all cartoons bearing the e/i label are painful mini-lessons. A handful of cartoons, such as the much beloved PBS cartoon Arthur and the perpetually re-launched Winx Club (although it’s only the mid-2000’s series that achieved this distinction), focus more on character building skills that have formed the basis for so many social-emotional curricula…without taking the preschool show tack (where it is needed because this may be the first time those very young children actually hear any of this. Preschool shows really are their own class.) of being very literal about what is going on.

It took well over a decade from the initial ruling to reach this point, but I think we’re going to see a pushback. Whether it comes in the form of relaxing restrictions on what all children can be exposed to or higher quality educational cartoons remains to be seen. It should prove interesting, though.

Token Boys

For all that we girls complain about poor representation in media, we aren’t the only ones suffering. Just as there have been token girls in boys’ media, there have been token boys in girls’ media, too. The token girl is often either an action girl who’s seen as one of the guys  until she does something “girly” or she’s a flat out damsel in distress. The token boy doesn’t get a better shake. At one end of his extremes, he might be the damsel in distress, constantly captured so the girls have something to do, or he’s emasculated because that was the only way the writers could figure out how to make him one of the girls. At the other end of his extremes, he might be an overbearing chauvinist, becoming an obstacle the girls have to overcome to complete their story.

It’s equal but opposite, creating an “eye for an eye” mentality. And that helps precisely no one.

It still perpetuates the idea that activities must be classified as “masculine” or “feminine”, and if you’re doing an activity that doesn’t match your gender, something must be wrong with you…just with guys in the Seat of Wrong. Amazingly, switching the genders doesn’t make it all right, fair, or anything else good. If anything, as some videos and ads have proven, it actually causes more trouble. Girls, who have earned a reputation for being the more vicious gender when “normal” is challenged by an insider, have been pushing against gender expectations for so long that it’s become normal. Guys don’t have it so lucky. When one pushes on gender expectations, he can expect to be not only mocked by both men and women, but flat out physically attacked by other men for daring to be himself when “himself”challenges the male view of “normal”.

To make matters worse, too many of us turn a blind eye to it…instead of fighting for his rights to just be himself the way we would fight for a fellow woman who was undergoing the same treatment.

Does anybody get this right? Well…not perfectly. We’re not living under the right societal values yet to allow that. But I’d argue the first two attempts to bring Winx Club stateside didn’t do too badly. That’s why I watched the second attempt. It was a magical girl cartoon that didn’t make me want to go on a silly string rampage. If a character was doing something, it was born from the character’s background, not her or his gender. The guys were just as likely to become endangered as the girls, and both genders would work together to solve problems and save the day. It was nice. (For those curious, I walked out on the third when it became clear they had removed too many of the girls’ spines in favor of creating a girls vs boys situation…after I had a really good laugh at their soundalike attempt.)

How can we get it right? A good start would be to take a page from George R. R. Martin’s book, and just write characters, regardless of their gender, as human beings. It works for him and other authors and writers celebrated for being able to successfully navigate this issue; theoretically, it should work for the rest of us, too.

“Women Don’t…”

The television and film industry awards season is in full swing, and one question keeps coming up in the days after each award show: Where are the women? 

It’s been this way for a while but ever since Kathryn Bigelow won her landmark Best Director Oscar, it seems to come up more frequently. Or maybe just more people are taking to their blogs and social media to protest and discuss the dearth of women involved with television and film projects. This year, the conversations started right after an infographic demonstrated that last year, movies that passed the Bechdel Test tended to be more successful than those that didn’t.

Not a month before the infographic made its debut, animation executive Paul Dini made waves by claiming that cartoons aren’t made for girls. When pressed for an explanation, he said it was because girls don’t play with the same toys boys do, so animation executives didn’t want girls watching because they couldn’t sell them toys. (As a lifelong animation fan whose Glamour Gals regularly stole Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder and resented that they couldn’t steal Brad Turner’s bike, I was really offended.)

And while rabid animation fans raked Dini over the grill, someone made a comment (I don’t know where this one started. Sorry. If you do, link it in the comments.) about women not writing horror. ScripChix rose to the challenge by offering tongue-in-cheek apologies on Twitter to every single woman they knew who writes horror they could for “miscategorizing” their work, linking to the slighted writer with each apology. Needless to say, the list was impressive.

Lest you think it’s only motion pictures and animation that are having all the fun, an unfortunate SFWA incident last year that demonstrated women’s struggles to be recognized within science fiction inspired Lightspeed Magazine to put out a call for submissions (Deadline: February 14. Get writing!) for a women-only special issue they are putting together to demonstrate that women do, in fact, write science fiction. (Just to be clear, Lightspeed Media has published both men and women authors; and Skyboat Media, who produces Lightspeed’s podcast, has employed women narrators. This is not new territory for either company.)

So, in the past few months, we’ve heard a lot of what women don’t do…only to find that it’s not that women don’t do it. It’s that the gatekeepers don’t necessarily notice it, deliberately or subconsciously. But profits show that women do produce (well); and that women characters are not a turn-off, and are in fact a potential indicator for success when employed correctly. Perhaps industries and genres should focus less on what they think women can’t do, and focus more on getting out of the way and letting women do.

Maybe There’s Hope For the Princess Scene

Last weekend, ABC Family ran a “Princess Weekend”. As expected, there were a number of Disney princess movies, both animated and live-action, present, but there were some interesting interpretations (for a Disney-owned channel) of “princess”. Sunday’s line-up really caught my attention:

  • Bring It On: All or Nothing
  • Another Cinderella Story
  • A Cinderella Story: Once Upon a Song
  • Cinderella
  • The Little Mermaid

I choked on my chai as I scrolled through the list. Not even kidding. At first, because of my current adaptation project, I focused on the humor of the middle three movies. Folklorists generally agree that Disney’s Cinderella is the first time in the story’s 1300-year history that the heroine was a limp dish rag. (Actually, I think they use the words “docile” and “submissive”.) The Cinderella Story series features girls who have about as much interest in rolling over and being walked all over as cats have in not shredding furniture. Even Another Cinderella Story protagonist Mary skips out the instant her chores are completed to work on her dancing in preparation for the audition she hopes will let her move away from her current situation and to support her best friend’s budding fashion career.

It was six brilliant hours of, “We know. We know. We totally totally screwed up the character seventy years ago. But look! We’re learning!” (I admit it. I didn’t sit through all six hours. I had work to do.)

The whole Cinderella situation is funny enough, but then you add on those two end movies. People look at me funny for this, but I actually respect the Bring It On series for what it tries to accomplish. Each movie centers on a girl whose cheerleading squad gets into some sort of problem that only a cheerleading squad could get into, and then she (often by bringing her team together and employing a little teamwork and leadership) saves the day. To the series’ credit, no two girls have had the exact same problem (although the fifth movie gets dangerously close with its mashup of elements from two of the earlier movies).

But in all five movies, each girl defines herself by her cheerleading. She admits she doesn’t know who she is if she isn’t a cheerleader, so she proudly wears her pompoms on her sleeve…so to speak. The only exception is Carson, the fourth movie’s heroine. (She’s at a cheerleader camp. She would fail. But it would be entertaining to watch her try.) She has to hide her squad affiliation from her new crush because the two squads have a literal West Side Story feud going on. But even she does little to hide what she is at her core when she first meets her crush at an amusement park.

Compare that with The Little Mermaid‘s Ariel, who defines herself by her singing, but drops her voice in a heartbeat to snare a guy she’s seen once and knows nothing about. How very Disney of her… (Or would be if that weren’t actually part of the original story, but you can see how the original story appealed to Disney’s sensibilities during a time when the feminism movement hadn’t yet convinced the House of Mouse to consider knocking it off.) I openly hate the story, the movie, and the mermaid herself, so I had a field day with this Sunday afternoon.

Princess culture has become such a polarized concept, but I think there’s room (a growing space, actually) to let girls have their cake and eat it, too. Because at the end of the day, what we really need girls to be is self-reliant, ambitious, and compassionate.