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Cartoons Aren't Just for Kids

There’s an idea that cartoons, including animated films and series, are made solely for young audiences. One of the reasons behind this belief is that they’re usually full of color and the content is simple enough to be understood by children. But there’s more to a kid’s cartoon than the bright colors, cute characters, and humor being presented to viewers. Cartoons are loved by children and adults alike because of their relatability and the truth behind each dynamic character and thoughtful storyline. Viewers see similarities between domestic relationships, friendships, and individual characters on the screen and our own. There’s peace in knowing that you’re not alone and for many, cartoons have become a trustworthy reflection that is relatable and emotionally connected to their own experiences.  Anyone out there who believes that kids' shows are only for kids, you’re wrong–and here’s why!


Relating to Domestic Trauma

Domestic issues stemming from conflict within the home typically cause traumatic experiences. Trauma can impact a person for a lifetime after the traumatizing events occur, especially if the trauma is experienced by a child. Adults who have suffered from domestic abuse that was either emotional, mental, or physical in their childhoods, may have first found sanctuary in their favorite characters from cartoons they loved as kids.  Now, rewatching those cartoons in adulthood, helps them to heal from their past trauma, and pushes them forward to move on from the childhood that scarred them. Because of this trauma, adults may have experienced higher stress levels that have made it hard for them to move on.  In an article titled, “The Psychology Of Cartoons & The Benefits of Watching Cartoons For Adults”, journalist Felicia Nazareth claims: “Laughter is the best medicine and cartoons are a great source of laughter. Many studies have shown that cartoons also lower stress-related diseases in adults. Even some of the studies show that watching cartoons are also good for your brain as it releases endorphins due to laughter.”  This goes to show that cartoons do in fact improve our stress levels that help us move on from past trauma. 

   One reason that beloved cartoons serve to facilitate healing is that they often give characters story arcs that address traumatic experiences. For example, the iconic Cartoon Network television series The Powerpuff Girls which first aired in November 1998 and ran through March 2005, centers its main storyline on three superpowered little girls brought to life by Professor Utonium who fight crime in their city of Townsville. While these girls Blossom, Buttercup, and Bubbles, are the series protagonists and form a loving and supportive family unit with Prof. Utonium as their father, it is their main antagonist Mojo Jojo whose traumatic story arch speaks to fans of the show. It isn’t until episode 7 of the first season that it’s revealed that Mojo Jojo, a highly intelligent chimpanzee who has been constantly seeking revenge on the Power Puff girls, was actually neglected and abandoned by Professor Utonium. Understandably, Jojo’s rejection and abandonment led to his hatred towards the new family, and in the episode where this information is revealed, Prof. Utonium does not remember Jojo at all. It quickly becomes apparent that if the professor had only appreciated and not neglected Jojo, the girls would not have to face Mojo Jojo so often in a battle to save the city from his doom.  Who can blame the chimp for the childhood trauma and abandonment issues that led to his villainous era?

  But Mojo Jojo’s story arc does more than humanize a villain for the audience.   A child whose upbringing has lived upon neglect and abandonment could relate to Jojo’s own childhood.  Because of this, viewers may feel like their emotions of anger or depression upon their traumatic experiences are justifiable because of Jojo’s anger and the way he copes with Prof. Utonium's rejection. In a real-life setting, children and adults can feel validation from Jojo’s actions and feelings, which in turn helps begin or continue the healing process for those who have suffered neglect or abandonment in their childhood.  Even if it’s not the healthiest portrayal of coping with trauma, it’s something and Jojo’s actions are justifiable because of his experience.

Another popular cartoon show, Phineas and Ferb, aired on Disney XD in August 2007 and currently has over 280 million viewers. This show’s frame story follows two brothers who build mechanical gadgets to have fun during their summer. But this show also features a story within the story, as the boys’ pet platypus, Perry, leads a double life as a secret agent. Like any spy, Perry of course has an evil nemesis named Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz. Multiple episodes provide flashbacks of Doofenshmirtz’s childhood where it can clearly be seen how unfairly his parents treated him and how they favored their other son. He was bullied by his parents and his peers, abandoned on multiple occasions, and no one in his childhood ever showed signs of love or compassion towards him. 

  It’s true that many of Doofenshmirtz's stories seem like a stretch, therefore it’s no surprise that some say cartoons reflect fantasy more than reality. But Shakespeare himself wrote that acting, and by extension all art has one purpose: “To Hold As 'Twere the Mirror Up to Nature”. The emotional abuse and neglect that led to both Mojo Jojo and Dr. Doofenshmirtz to turn to evil are reflecting to viewers the ways that adults can feel anger towards their trauma despite all the time having to push their emotions down in real life. Therefore while it may be a stretch to say there are supervillains in our world, it is not a stretch to observe that both young kids and adults who watch shows like The Powerpuff Girls or Phineas and Ferb have had similar experiences to these characters in their own lives.  They represent the real hardships of an adult’s upbringing and the potential to create great and powerful things.  Even if the characters use their knowledge and inventions to cause evil, their skills can be used for good, just like how an adult with trauma can use their experiences to become stronger and better for themselves.  Mojo Jojo and Dr. Doofenshmirtz are a representation of evil whose history justifies their ways and makes them relatable to real life.  Their experiences are that of those who have been abandoned or neglected in some way. This provides inspiration for those who have so long struggled to move past their trauma, and although these characters use their trauma to get revenge, it makes it OK for them to feel the way they do, just like it’s OK for those who have been neglected or abandoned to feel angry. 

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A Reflection of Healthy Romantic Love

Love is one of the most complicated feelings on earth and arguably one of the most important things to humans. There are millions of depictions of love in media. Some characters, like a few Disney Princesses we could name, feel strongly about love being the ultimate life goal while others don’t spend their life searching for or waiting for it. The French cartoon, so popular that it has been exported here for U.S. viewers, The Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir, is a series that takes us on an emotional rollercoaster ride of trust, loyalty, and romantic love. But this series transcends the traditional “love triangle” often used within television shows. Many shows feature two romantic love interests who are both after the romantic lead. In contrast, superheroes Ladybug and Cat Noir are normal teenage civilians unknowingly in love with each other in a romantic love square. Teenage Marinette Dupain-Cheng is good friends with Adrien Agreste but they don’t harbor romantic feelings for each other (at least not so far but the new season promises changes). Ladybug is Marinette’s superhero persona, and Cat Noir is Adrien’s superhero persona. Marinette has fallen for Adrian, not knowing that he and Chat Noir are the same person. Likewise, Adrian has fallen for Ladybug, not knowing she and Marinette are the same person. If you think of all of these characters and personas as four corners to a square, all at different times falling in love with each other, you get the love square.

Romance aside, first and foremost these two characters are friends and support each other through anything. On multiple occasions, they prove their love for each other by listening, being there, and helping each other out. They model for young people and old people alike what selfless healthy romantic love should look like. Marinette and Adrian’s unselfish expressions of love involve dramatic irony because only the audience knows how perfectly they are meant for each other. While it can be argued that since this cartoon is written and marketed to a younger audience, they won’t understand romantic subtexts within the episodes or that few kids are superheroes maintaining secret identities in real life. But any fan of a television show will tell you that the elements like superpowers and secret identities serve to show viewers how to navigate the real-life complexities of love and personal issues.  Even if children don’t catch all of the complexities of this series now, they may when they are teens or adults. The complex writing again proves that this cartoon isn’t just for kids and it’s able to show children a glimpse of how powerful love is and what real life can feel like.


Coping with Mental Health Challenges Through Character

Cartoon characters often serve as an aid to connection to our inner self, or childhood, or past experiences, especially when dealing with mental trauma or issues. In an article titled, “Why Squidward was the wake-up call I needed most,” journalist Clarkisha Kent reflects how during her mental health struggles, she found comfort in Squidward’s character from the television series, Spongebob Squarepants, which has aired since 1999. Kent says of Squidward, “He was extremely discontented with and resentful about the mundane turn his life had taken. Getting up to go to work, being miserable at work, coming home, sleeping, and maybe finding a sliver of joy in between from playing his clarinet.” Squidward shows clear signs of depression throughout the entire show that’s made up of 13 seasons. Children may not find his character amusing, but many other millennial viewers like Kent identify with Squidward.  Kent elaborates on how he helped her: “To alleviate the most biting symptoms of our mental health issues, we’re turning to less-than-ideal coping mechanisms, self-medication in various forms and, for myself, self-deprecating humor. Especially when we cannot afford therapy.”  Case in point, Kent feels like she can cope with her mental health through other means, watching a beloved cartoon, that doesn’t ask her to spend so much money.

    Critics who don’t take cartoons seriously might dismiss diagnosing a fictional character with depression or even argue that such a character has little relevance in a kids' show since most children don’t struggle with depression. The CDC confirms that approximately 2.5 million children from ages 3-17 have been diagnosed with depression in the years 2016-2019.  Even though characters like Squidward or even Mojo Jojo who don’t portray the rays of happiness that main characters like Spongebob do may be considered “less likable characters”, they are still critical elements in any tv series or cartoon.  The perkiness reflected by the main characters may somewhat be overstimulating and children may want to reflect on a dimmer character like Squidward whose pessimistic views can be comforting and even relatable to young viewers who could find themselves in "Debbie downer" moods.  It’s important to have a balance between different characters on a show so that kids and all viewers feel free to express both positive and negative emotions. It’s perfectly fine to identify with a character and feel connected to them in some way.

No matter what some may think about cartoons, there’s no question about it that they are just as much relatable to real life as live-action characters are in movies and tv shows.  A real-life person portraying a character in a live-action film may seem more real than a cartoon whose character is pure fiction.  Even so, it could be that we’re not watching the right cartoons that actually portray who we are as real people, making them just as relatable as a character in a film.  There’s more to a cartoon than the fantasy that is appreciated and highlighted throughout a story, and we must learn to understand the depths that creators aim to portray.