Child Empowerment as Commodity and 1980s American Cartoons

The 1980s were a pivotal decade in American children’s television, when Ronald Reagan’s administration removed the rules against directly advertising to children. Things like He-Man, My Little Pony, and Thundercats are all a product of this barrier getting knocked down. There was a clear downside to this—it allowed greedy capitalist companies to have their way with young and impressionable minds—but I also distinctly remember loving the cartoons of the 80s (and 90s) because they felt like they spoke to me and my desires.

Compared to the even older cartoons of decades past that I’d see pop up on TV, there was so much more action. Characters from shows like Silverhawks, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Bionic Six just looked downright amazing in the mind’s eye of a young kid. I think what really stood out to me was the degree to which these shows felt like they understood what kids wanted, in contrast to programs that were concerned about what parents would think. Even with the requisite PSAs (e.g. GI Joe’s “Knowing Is Half the Battle”), what made these toy-centric cartoons feel so good was the irresponsibility. They allowed kids like me to live vicariously through them, with only the flimsiest of morals as pretext. Even today, their opening animations ooze such style and splendor that they represent the pinnacle of cool.

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Of course, the reality is that what kids want isn’t necessarily what’s good for them, and companies were and are all too eager to exploit them for the sake of a bottom line. Children are not ignorant or imperceptive, but they’re also readily willing to eat ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Cartoons of the Reagan era definitely swung in that direction, and those who grew up on them and take their visual conventions and tropes for granted might not be aware how much their biases are influenced by this sustained marketing volley on our senses.

At the same time, shit was rad, and I’m glad I saw Rodimus Prime ask the Matrix of Leadership to “light our darkest hour.” How do you give kids that kind of empowerment without taking advantage of the plasticity of their minds?

I use the 80s as the main focus because of that prominent macho aesthetic, but what I’m also thinking about is the way getting attached to a specific era of animation can shape one’s perspective as to what is normal and interesting. Cartoons do not exist in a vacuum apart from the world at large, and both the creators and kids carry values that are often different in some way than their predecessors.

Ironically, diversity and championing civil rights is far more transgressive move than just letting kids imagine they could shoot lasers, but to those who grew up in the shadow of the 80s and 90s, the former can seem too much like the moralizing that made the previous decades’ cartoons feel boring.

The complaint that Disney doesn’t have “true bad guys” anymore also comes to mind. On some level, it makes sense: Evildoers like Jafar, Scar, Maleficent are iconic and bring a bit of an edge to the family-friendly works they come from. However, while these bad guys often possess a visceral darkness about them, the antagonistic forces of current Disney movies tackle more socially profound topics like generational trauma. The former chill the spine, while the latter bludgeon the gut, often feeling far more painful to those of us who can relate to the characters’ situations. But a certain type of person thinks it automatically worse if the villains aren’t, well, villainous. The lack of a clear-cut light vs. dark conflict can be disappointing to those who just want to see a foe vanquished.

I think all this is to say that sometimes it’s not just nostalgia that makes a period of art and entertainment feel special—there are actual differences influenced by the culture of the time and the people who contributed. But just because a period is special doesn’t mean it’s the be-all, end-all. We can find hot in the way 80s cartoons hit the mark aesthetically and inspired kids with that sense of cops-and-robbers awe, while also acknowledging that not everything was perfect. 

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