In my last couple of posts, I blogged about the over-emphasis on messages and morals in deciding the value of a children’s story. I’d like to continue that line of thought today and talk a little about the development of modern cartoons.
Until about 30 years ago, there was no concept that movies or television programs could be recorded and packaged for future generations to buy. Social values were very different, and it wasn’t considered the responsibility of authors or entertainment companies to provide social lessons for their audiences in the same way it is today. Socially relevant content and messages were there, but they were usually less overt or at least less connected to social and political consciousness. Movies and TV programs with questionable “messages” were shocking and largely boycotted. Ones with acceptable messages were held up, the same way they are today. The difference is that today we seem to have a blanket assumption that animation studios are supposed to be a surrogate parents and have a responsibility to provide role models for children.
That began in the 1980s, and most of the reasons for it are related to marketing. For the first time, lots of people had home entertainment systems and access to a catalog of older cartoons that no one anticipated would gain such a wide audience. We also had a dramatic change in laws around marketing during children’s programming. That led to a whole plethora of cartoons that were intended as half-hour toy ads. Most of these cartoons created moral segments or life lessons as a way to offset the intense pressure from parents’ groups who didn’t want toy-ads like this directed at their children.
Thirty years later, we have three generations of Western children who have grown up with cartoons teaching them “lessons.” There are good and bad aspects to that. I’m obviously a huge fan of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, which was the first ever half-hour syndicated cartoon program that was written to run every afternoon. Several of my friends enjoy My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. Both of those programs have episodes that basically run around “teachable moments.”
There’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s an ENORMOUS problem with adults who make statements like “He-Man is better than anything running today because it always had a moral at the end,” or “I refuse to let my daughter watch Disney movies because the princesses are interested in marriage and that makes them bad role models.”
Yes, I have in fact heard both of those things.
On the other side of the issue, the fact that putting life-lessons in these stories was motivated by marketing doesn’t mean that the stories or the lessons they include have no value. There are marketing concerns associated with any film or television production. It’s important to be aware of that and to be discerning, but I think it’s more important to take responsibility for educating our kids instead of foisting off that responsibility onto animation studios and then complaining when the studio doesn’t step up adequately. Exactly whose responsibility is it to guide our children and to make sure they know the difference between real and pretend? I sure don’t think the answer is “animation studios.”
And because I’m feeling snarky, here are some more He-Man morals for your viewing pleasure.