When you compare Pendleton Ward’s cult sensation Adventure Time to the kids cartoons of yesteryear, it is a paragon of holiness. Ungendered anthropomorphised video game consoles? A lumpy (yet unashamedly sexy) princess? Two guys that share a room and cuddle? These are the fever dreams of an idealistic gender politics student.
Cartoons are glorious microcosms that offer a cross-section of what a nation is teaching its kids. For example, Postman Pat taught the value of a modest job as a civil servant, promoting ideas of (severely whitewashed) village unity. But that’s a British kids show, and for all its diversity, Britain has nothing on the vast and varying cultural landscape of America. How do you condense that into a single cartoon that will appeal to all?
One of the most successful shows, The Powerpuff Girls, earned a place in my generation’s heart for its 1950s inspired aesthetic, and the quirky denizens of Townsville, a regular American city (with an overwhelmingly villainous populous). Now if we flatten the show out and remove nostalgia, we are given a relief map of cultural anxieties. The freaky Him could be seen as a literal demonisation of the trans person, the Mayor’s secretary Ms Bellum is defined by her body (as we never see her face), the Amoeba Boys could be read as the threat of infection Italian-Americans pose to the nation. While many have enjoyed The Powerpuff Girls and come away from it liberal-minded (myself included), it’s a dangerous game of risk to play. What acts better as a mass education tool than a children’s show? And surely that should be put to good use?
Enter Adventure Time. Part of a wave of liberal TV shows, figure-headed by Cartoon Network, which also includes the notorious My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, these shows pack powerful moral lessons in 11 minute tidbits, while being inclusive, empowering to muted groups, and downright fucking funny.
There are many things that could be said about Adventure Time. It’s anti-body-shaming (Lumpy Space Princess, who is very aware of her own sexuality, says “you can’t handle these lumps”), it’s anti-ageism (old ladies are quirky and adventurous in the magical land of Ooo), and it destabilises gender binaries, allowing the character BMO to fluctuate between gendered pronouns without any remark or judgement being made (something which has gained fame recently on Tumblr following an exhibit in the Science Museum). Now compare this to the ultra-frightening, satanic trans-villain of Him in The Powerpuff Girls.
My favourite thing about this show is what is at its nucleus: the homosocial relationship between Jake the Dog and Finn the Human. Now homosocial relationships are nothing new in fiction. It is what the Western genre is founded on. Yet, if we take Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven as an example of the Western, the plot revolves around (largely unseen) women in order to disprove the possibility of homosexuality, and in the case of Unforgiven, Eastwood’s character is avenging an attacked prostitute. Because the audience must know that these two men who ride bareback and share a tent ARE NOT gay. No way, José. It must be made absolutely, crystal clear. I mean eww. Yet this is not an anxiety within Adventure Time, because it doesn’t need to be an anxiety.
Now while Finn has many female and feminine love interests, and Jake has a girlfriend (even if that is a flying rainbow unicorn that only speaks Korean and holds no particularly feminine traits), their heterosexuality barely plays into the narrative arcs of each episode. In fact, the instances in which they are can be counted on my fingers (even if I am from Norwich, so therefore have more fingers than most.) These two male characters living together, travelling together, and fighting bad guys together, are what is integral. Their adventures are not because of women, or in spite of women, but merely because. The show even embraces potentially homosexual moments with a charming humour, such as when Jake worriedly speculates that he may be a monster in his sleep, Finn’s pupils dilate and he unashamedly confesses he watches Jake sleep. Jake laughs it off, because this post-apocalyptic world is also post-homophobia, post-sexism, and post-everything else bad ever.
It may be idealistic, but this is the form of escapism I want to escape to, and I want the current generation of kids to escape to. If we can facilitate a liberal and accepting fiction that is appealing and funny and imaginative, then people will try to bring that fiction into the reality. I hope to Glob that this show starts a trend, and we have more shows that can so much as shine a light to this one.