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Cartoons, once a children’s staple, are finding an audience with adults once again

A press image for the Netflix series “Bojack Horseman.” (Image: Netflix/Handout)

BoJack Horseman, the show about an anthropomorphic horse struggling with depression and addiction, has come to end. The animated Netflix series gained a devoted following over its six-year run, earning praise for its empathetic exploration of adult themes.

Since cartoons are often associated with children’s entertainment, it may seem odd for one to explore mental illness and address sociopolitical issues. However, animation has a long history of catering to grown-up audiences.

From its earliest days, animation depicted adult themes and behaviours. By 1918, newspaper cartoonist Winsor McCay, often referred to as the Father of Modern Animation, elevated animation into an art form for discussions of serious topics. His film The Sinking of the Lusitania is recognised by the National Film Registry as the earliest animated documentary. The popularity of this and other animated film shorts created a new industry.

Betty Boop’s Transformation

During the jazz age, animation studios were often staffed by young animators barely out of their teens. This may explain the often juvenile, but hardly innocent, humour in early cartoons. Many of them featured scantily clad women and substance use.

At the same time, Hollywood was drawing public outrage over salacious scandals both on and off screen. This led to the 1934 Hays Code, a set of moral guidelines that governed film productions until 1968. Some of the subjects forbidden by the code included obscenity in things like words, gestures, jokes and songsn; pointed profanity or vulgar expressions; and sex perversion or any inference to it.

Betty Boop before

Hardest hit was New York City’s Fleischer Studios, the adult-themed rough-edged city rival to rural California’s clean Walt Disney Studios. The Hays Code forced Fleischer to sanitise its most famous character, Betty Boop from a flapper sex symbol to a milquetoast schoolmarm.

It also allowed for Disney’s country-bumpkin charm to become the standard. As a result, the Golden Age of Animation was largely dominated by the studio’s fairytales and the lively gag shorts from Warner Bros Studios (Looney Toons and Merrie Melodies).

The Hays Code came just when the animation art form was reaching new peaks of technological sophistication. However, it is only partially responsible for the notion that cartoons are for kids – television is also to blame.

Bugs Bunny on Repeat

In the early 1950s and 1960s, the voracious need for content in television saw old film shorts originally intended for general audiences repurposed for broadcast during children’s programming hours. This practice went on for decades, ensuring pop-culture iconic status for Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny and others.

The television age also brought the demise of the film studio system and slashed budgets for animation departments. The result was much cruder output, with animators re-using sequences as a time-saving technique called “limited animation”, popularised by Hanna-Barbera studios for its Saturday morning output. This cost-cutting impacted not only the movements and gestures of the characters but also the stories, which became little more than ads directed at children. Crudely animated and lacking narrative sophistication, Saturday morning cartoons came to represent the medium.

After the Hays Code was lifted in 1968, cartoons aimed at adults – for example, Bambi Meets Godzilla and Escalation – began to appear in the underground scene but failed to break into the mainstream. The most commercially successful was Fritz the Cat (1972) by animator Ralph Bakshi, grossing US$90 million globally. Based on the Robert Crumb comic of the same name, it satirised the 1960s with themes of sex, drugs and racial tensions, and was the first animated film to receive an X-rating.

Animation Grows Up

The proliferation of 24-hour cable TV channels in the 1980s led to a demand for even more content. The creative possibilities for animation grew as MTV championed independent (and inexpensive) cartoons for its station IDs, while adult-themed cartoons ran in its weekly shorts programme, Liquid Television. Two landmark animated shows soon followed: Matt Groening’s The Simpsons, which premiered on Fox in 1989, and Space Ghost Coast to Coast (Mike Lazzo) on Cartoon Network in 1993.

Meanwhile in cinema, Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), a hybrid live-action and animation film, earned four Oscars including a Special Achievement Award for Canadian animator Richard Williams. Its success boosted the quality of animation and maturity of story lines throughout the 1990s.

By the 2000s, adult cartoon creators were household names: Mike Judge (Beavis and Butthead; King of the Hill); Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy); Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park). Their animations were as crude as the scripts were clever (though often juvenile). Animation was winning back adults, with cult films finding a wider audience through Spike and Mike’s Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation.

In 2001, Cartoon Network dedicated a block of late-night programming aimed at older teenagers and adults called “Adult Swim”. The mature content of its experimental and uncensored films were a hit with viewers. However in 2005, Turner Broadcasting announced that due to differing audience demographics, Adult Swim would split from Cartoon Network for ratings purposes. This departure from a children’s network and the huge success of programmes dealing with racism (Boondocks), sex and drugs (Archer) and nihilism (Rick and Morty) reaffirmed animation’s creative potential for adult audiences.

Shows like BoJack Horseman are returning storylines in mainstream animated cartoons to a tradition of adult themes. In six seasons it has manged to broach topics as diverse as asexuality and inherited trauma, deal with addiction as well as sobriety and come out the other end well-loved as a piece of brilliant TV, not just animation. A testament to the fact that cartoons are for adults.

Julian Lawrence wrote this piece for The Conversation, a website dedicated to the free spread of academic knowledge through insightful analysis and commentary. This article was republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license; you can read the original article here and sign up for their recurring email newsletters here

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About the Author:

Julian Lawrence

Julian Lawrence is a Senior Lecturer in Comics and Graphic Novels, Teesside University
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