Adults Swim, and That’s OK

As anyone who stays up watching Cartoon Network past 9 p.m. knows, cartoons do not die with childhood. Lewd, crude, and rude, adult cartoons are lightning rods for criticism, but they deserve a spot in everyone’s TV repertoire nevertheless. 

South Park’s recent episode, “Band in China,” raised some eyebrows for tearing into Hollywood’s deference to the Chinese government’s censorship rules. The show even dared to satirize China’s numerous human rights violations, which are still being documented today. Unsurprisingly, anything related to South Park has now been blocked in China, yet the Chinese government is only the latest victim of the 22-year-old cartoon series’ criticism. A simple Wikipedia search on the South Park controversies yields a staggering list that will make most people wonder: How is it still on air?

Although it is one of the more extreme examples, South Park is by no means the only adult cartoon facing criticism. Adult cartoons, unlike regular cartoons, feature more mature and suggestive content targeted towards an older audience. As evidenced by shows ranging from  The Boondocks to Archer, adult cartoons often have a “love it or hate it” quality to them that can incite heated arguments about whether they’re worth being kept on air. In the United States, at least, the format’s continuous survival seems to indicate that the answer is yes. In fact, the record for the longest running American scripted television series in history is held by The Simpsons, which is approaching 33 years on air. What is it about these animations that keeps bringing us back?

Perhaps our fear of social deviance draws us to these cartoons. Characters in these shows are often rebels, doing or saying things that we in the physical world would never get away with. People can vicariously live out their vices by watching these alternate universes, where any consequences for poor behavior are erased by waiting for the next episode. Why get hurt instigating a fist fight when you can watch Fry and Dr. Zoidberg from “Futurama” duke it out instead? And why get into heated political arguments with people when you can watch Stan and Haley Smith from “American Dad” bickering over capital punishment? Real life is tiring, and these cartoons can help weary adults forget about everything and have a good laugh watching animated characters do things that just aren’t possible for an average, functioning member of society. 

Beyond that, these cartoons help satisfy our imaginations by transporting us into a fantasy world where anything and everything can happen.

While not technically an adult cartoon, the show “Adventure Time” has managed to transcend its target childhood audience, even drawing in an adult following despite its wacky setting in the Land of Ooo and playful concepts including a Korean-speaking Rainicorn and a princess made of bubblegum. One thing is for sure: If enjoying cartoon worlds with ridiculous characters is a childish thing, this country has a lot more children than many would think. 

Ironically, it’s because of their ability to create a world from scratch that these cartoons always seem to be under attack by angry detractors. Much like with children’s cartoons, these shows have to face the wrath of fully-grown humans with complex opinions built upon decades of life experiences and struggles. The conservative activist group Parents Television Council, for instance, has spent 24 years advocating for the removal of adult cartoons from programming. While the vulgar content is part of their discontent with these animations, these opponents are also unhappy seeing fictional worlds that their personal morals do not align with. The world of “Family Guy,” for instance, featured a controversial gay wedding in “You May Now Kiss the…Uh…Guy Who Receives” as early as 2006. The show also gave exposure to issues trans people face with familial acceptance in “Quagmire’s Dad,” which details Quagmire’s eventual acceptance and reconciliation with his father, Ida, who comes out as a trans woman (although that episode also received criticism for the open transphobia some characters exhibited). The PTC considers “Family Guy” a “red light” program, citing “lewd sexual references or taboo topics” as one of the show’s major issues.

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To be fair, cultural conservatism is not the only reason people cite to take down these cartoons. Some would argue that the excessive brutality in these shows could encourage a culture of violence. Many adult cartoons have histories of cracking jokes that would no longer be acceptable today. The Simpsons recently took out Apu, a character that has helped propagate and maintain problematic stereotypes about South Asians for decades. And while more recent cartoons tend to be more socially conscious, these problematic jokes continue to exist. “Rick and Morty,” a cartoon that started as recently as 2013, has generated a sizeable fanbase who identify with the misogyny of Rick, an issue even Dan Harmon, one of the show’s co-creators, has acknowledged. With all this in mind, another question obviously arises: Do these cartoons confer enough societal benefits to be worth the social harm that they can cause?

I’d argue the answer is yes, with an asterisk.

Without a doubt, these shows have the capability to drive tribalism by upholding racial stereotypes, making fun of sexualities, or glossing over sexism. Ask any average American on the street and they are sure to denounce such qualities becoming normalized. As such, writers for these shows should be holding themselves up to a high standard whenever they decide to air a joke. Whether that means hiring a diverse writing staff, or, in the Simpsons’ case, acknowledging problematic content and fixing it for the future, these shows have a duty to “punch up” for their comedy and ensure they aren’t marginalizing any of their viewers or portraying an unfair image of a group of people. 

Nevertheless, adult cartoons are unique in their ability to portray a world separate  from real life. In this cartoon world, boundaries are pushed, barriers are removed, and common knowledge is challenged. Such a world is much more difficult to generate in live action TV shows, however, because  industry pressures and the historical cultural hegemony of white men make character writing and casting much more contentious. 

Speaking from personal experience, one of the first male Asian American characters I’d ever seen who  wasn’t some type of sidekick scientist, kung fu master, or other “stereotypical” profession was Vince Chung (a typical popular high school jock) from American Dad. Today, I see representation of myself everywhere from box office hits to upcoming superhero movies. “King of the Hill,” with its humorous interactions between Hank and Bobby Hill, was tearing down toxic masculinity before it became mainstream. Recent releases such as “Disenchantment” are already underway normalizing gender fluidity in the episode “The Limits of Immortality.” 

These adult cartoons have served as a playground for adults to discover new things, and are, in many ways, our nation’s beta tester for new social movements. Under the guise of playful animations, these cartoons have a child-like naivety that can help introduce rigid adults to novel ideas. 

Additionally, their politically incorrect jokes, while unpalatable, keep us aware of pervasive problems Americans still experience. In fact, many times these jokes are inserted to make the point that such ideas should be unacceptable. These quips start important conversations between people about what our society’s moral code should be, and they help motivate us to remain vigilant in our quest towards a more just society. 

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, adult cartoons are here to stay. 

Image from fandom.com.

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