Although most may consider cartoons to be childish, the themes conveyed through comics can be pretty significant. Because children commonly learn by watching tailored television programs, I want to explore the history of representation in cartoons and how cartoons can affect younger audiences’ development. As cartoons adapt their content to reflect the shift of social diversity and inclusivity, adults may be able to recognize how cartoons have changed. Still, it is also important to observe how these changes affect society and vice versa.
Classic Cartoons and Outdated Ideals
Some classic cartoons are the Disney Princesses, and even the older Disney Princesses still have a massive presence in children’s media and, therefore an enormous influence on developing children. Starting with Snow White (1937), the titular princess serves as a housewife’s role to seven working men. While Snow White attends domestic duties, the seven dwarves are out working or making more messes for Snow White to clean. This depiction of a princess is not surprising because of the time period. This film was created when women were still fighting for equality in society. Although the princess isn’t performing very princess-like duties, little girls were being shown to behave like a homemaker. The stereotypical image of a housewife around the 1950s fits right in the expectations that one would have if only looking at the effects of media such as Snow White.
Towards the end of the 20th century, a couple of staple Disney Princesses were Ariel from The Little Mermaid (1989) and Belle from Beauty and the Beast (1991). Ariel’s main plot revolves around her giving up everything she knows and loves for a chance with a prince she doesn’t even know. Ariel’s love story is similar to that of Aurora in Sleeping Beauty (1959) because they are both princesses who devote their entire existence to men they have never even met. Some might think this type of plot is merely romantic and expected of a fairytale, but it shows little girls that they don’t have to have their aspirations or ambitions. However, a new type of princess was introduced with Belle because she did have her individuality and lived for herself. One defining characteristic of Belle is that she reads, and this is an extremely important new quality to show little girls that education is important. Additionally, Belle has no immediate interest in men, and although she later falls in love with the Beast, it is a display of true love based on a relationship that had time to form.
Modern Cartoons in a Progressive Society
Nowadays, some cartoons go above and beyond to show the importance of independence and individuality. Steven Universe (2013) explores themes of relationships like consent and LGBTQIA+. These themes heavily contrast the classic themes of hetero normativity and love at first sight. Steven Universe can teach a younger audience the importance of communication and respect within relationships, which is an important life skill. Elena of Avalor (2016) shows a Latina princess, voiced by a Dominican-American, practice skills such as fencing, inspiring young girls to do more than just sing and dream of princes. While Elena is not the first prominent princess of color, this show is still relevant compared to another progressive work like The Princess and the Frog (2009), which featured an independent, black Disney Princess, Tiana. Moana (2016) depicted a Polynesian princess who, instead of wearing a gown and a tiara, wears traditional clothing and explores her culture. The increase of prominent BIPOC princesses is exciting to see because as different cultures are introduced, the media also break away from the classic, boring depiction of princesses as dainty and driven by true love.
How The Simpsons Reflect the Adaptation of Media to Society’s Demands
Looking at how cartoons have evolved with society can also be insightful. The Simpsons (1989) is a prime example of how media can change to reflect current societal values. Following the controversy of the show’s stereotypical portrayal of Indians with Apu around 2017-2018, the voice actor of Apu, Hank Azaria, resigned from the show as not to continue enforcing racial stereotypes (BBC). Azaria stepped down from the role after nearly 30 years, so it is clear the pressure from a more progressive and continually changing society forced The Simpsons to change course.
Another issue with this show is the lack of female representation. According to research in the article “Gender in Springfield,” there are less than 10 female characters prominent in the show’s universe, including supporting characters. In the top 10 main characters, only two females, Marge and Lisa, are part of the main nuclear family. However, Lisa’s character is often a medium to portray society’s progressive side as she heavily participates in environmental activism and women’s rights.
Why Is The Change of Cartoons Important?
While it’s clear that cartoons have changed to reflect society’s expectations regarding gender, race, and sometimes sexuality, I think that society as a whole has yet to digest the progressive shift effectively. Because of this, although children’s television programs try to reflect the current state of society, parents may not necessarily choose to subject their children to these progressive shows. Children are exposed to the content “affected by the social and cultural institutions surrounding that family,” so the normalization of these new shows may take a while to overcome the cycle of parents keeping their kids away from such ideas (Children and Television). As popular media accepts new ideas from society and society keeps media in check with the portrayal of new norms, it might be interesting to compare the effects new media has on children versus traditional media. Children soak up information from watching television, so the type of content they consume is important in shaping their character and society’s future.
Children and Television: Fifty Years of Research. United States, Taylor & Francis, 2009.
“Gender in Springfield.” Arcgis.com, www.arcgis.com/apps/Cascade/index.html?appid=4bf44be860c44e4489dfdd8583b44b80.
“Simpsons Actor Hank Azaria Says He Will No Longer Voice Apu.” BBC News, BBC, 18 Jan. 2020, www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-51158261.