One thing that I cannot, for the life of me, understand about cartoon-hating parents is why they insist that cartoons are bad or ineffective educational tools. They're not.
Many of us 90's kids remember watching PBS Kids programs like Cyberchase and the still-popular Arthur. I can't tell you how many things I learned just from watching those two shows alone. Arthur was a wealth of fun and lessons about friendships, responsibility, bullying, trustworthiness, and using one's imagination. (Remember the episode about Francine trying to be more "girly" in order to be more accepted? Tell me that her realization at the end didn't also make you proud of being yourself.) Cyberchase, though lesser known, did a lot of the same while focusing on teaching children how to use mathematics to solve real-world problems.
Okay, so some may say that those shows were different because they were marketed as educational kids' programs. So let's take a look at some of the ones that weren't.
Do the names Hey Arnold, Doug, Batman: The Animated Series, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, She-Ra: Princess of Power, Darkwing Duck, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Teen Titans, Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, and Static Shock ring any bells? I'll bet you two hash browns that you've heard of/watched at least two of these. All of them were marketed as regular cartoons and some, like He-Man and She-Ra, were started for the sole purpose of selling toys. But each show still brought the same great things to the table as the educational cartoons had. And in my opinion, they often taught much deeper lessons than the educational shows did.
So here are a few things that I've learned from these shows over the years.
Hey Arnold's "Pigeon Man" has resonated with a lot of 90's kids. In the episode, Arnold meets Vincent, an old man out of touch with time and other people whose only friends are the city pigeons. At first Arnold is confused and unable to understand why Vincent prefers the company of animals to that of other humans. As the episode goes on, it becomes apparent that Vincent is depressed and (somewhat rightfully) disillusioned by other people. Though Arnold shows him that there are good things happening in the world around them, Vincent is more touched by the kindness in Arnold and the episode ends with him hoping that he meets another person like Arnold. For a lot of people, hope is hard to come by, and for him to feel hopeful after becoming friends with Arnold taught that genuine kindness goes a long way.
Batman: The Animated Series's "Mean Seasons" is a favorite of mine. It follows a minor character, supermodel-turned-supervillain Paige Monroe, AKA Calendar Girl. Minor or not, Calendar Girl was a character that resonates with me to this day. She showed the negative effects of society's ever-changing beauty standards, low self-esteem, and social pressure. "Mean Seasons" starts with her vengeful rampage against those who made her "ugly," from her ex-agent to a top fashion designer. The viewer immediately notices that she wears a white mask that completely conceals her face. And though she changes costume colors and accessories often, the white mask is always in place, as she refuses to allow anyone to ever see her face--reacting violently when one of her henchmen almost sees it.
When she's finally caught and her mask is taken off, everyone is shocked by the fact that she isn't ugly at all--in fact, as Batgirl puts it, "She's beautiful." In spite of this, Calendar Girl is horrified that her face is visible and breaks down in tears when she catches a glimpse of herself. Batman then delivers the most important line of the episode as he comments gravely, "All she can see are the flaws." F*cking. Powerful.
The wacky Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends's very first episode, "House of Bloo's," was about Bloo's best friend and "owner," Mac, being forced to get rid of Bloo because Mac's mother felt that he was too old to have an imaginary friend (yes, even in a world where everyone can see them). Bloo and Mac spend the majority of the episode trying to find a way to stay together before finally deciding on a unique arrangement offered by the owner of Foster's--Mac gets to keep Bloo as long as he comes to visit him at the home every day. It then turns out that the owner, an old woman, never abandoned her childhood imaginary friend, either, showing that friendships can be maintained even in difficult circumstances and that you're never too old to have fun. So if we were able to glean such things from cartoons, why can't kids of today do the same when they've got witty, brilliantly-written shows like Steven Universe or Adventure Time? Because guess what? I got some pretty salient life lessons from both of those, too!
"Lars and the Cool Kids" (a play on Lars and the Real Girl) is a tearjerker that you won't see coming. It begins with Lars, a kinda-sorta-friend of Steven's, trying hard to fit in with the city cool kids. He tries to change his mannerisms and speech to what he thought they would like, but has no success, which makes him jealous and bitter when Steven is readily accepted into their group just by being himself. The cool kids invite Steven to hang out and only allow Lars to come along at Steven's request.
They decide to go to a dangerous area of the city that's been taped off by the police. Despite Steven's warnings, the cool kids dive into a pond of magical moss and end up getting into trouble when it attacks them. Upon learning that the moss was planted by Steven's late mother, an alien gem being, Lars gets angry and his jealousy spills out when he berates Steven, snapping, "I knew that if something went wrong today, it would be because of you! Now I'm never gonna be friends with these guys! All because of your weird mom!" (Here's where I lost it and started bawling. Brace yourselves.)
Though Steven is deeply hurt by Lars insulting his mother, his response is humbling and shows a level of maturity that Lars lacks: "What do you know about my mom? I didn't even get to know my mom! But I do know that she saw beauty in everything! Even in stuff like this! And even in jerks like you!" That said, he doesn't dwell on the matter and proceeds to fix the moss problem by being in tune with nature. Once they work together and get the moss where it needs to be, the group gets to see the moss turn into beautiful floating flowers as they overlook the city, proving that Steven's mother was right to see beauty in everything.
Another Steven Universe episode, "Reformed," deals with self-esteem and confidence. The episode focuses on Amethyst, one of the gems. The only gem "born" on Earth, she understands humans on a different level than her colleagues Garnet and Pearl and is able to relate to humans much better. However, being the only gem created artificially, she struggles with feelings of inadequacy and uncertainty. Throughout the episode, her powers and shape fluctuate frequently as she tries to become what she feels her friends will more readily accept, and each form has disastrous results. She keeps asking what they want her to be and Garnet insists that Amethyst's new form must be decided on her own. At the end, Amethyst finally realizes that trying to be what others want isn't making her better or stronger and decides on a form similar to her old one, with a few modifications. The moral: Changing yourself is a part of how you grow--but only when you're sure that you like the person that you're becoming.
6. Thought I was gonna leave you hanging with that Adventure Time mention? Not a chance!
In "Burning Low," Princess Bubblegum tries to keep Finn from getting closer to Flame Princess because she fears that Flame Princess's powers will go berserk the more she starts to feel strong emotions for Finn. Her specific fear is that Flame Princess will burn a hole into the Earth's crust and then destroy the planet once she reaches the Earth's core. PB then reveals that partially because of these fears, she and Flame Princess's father locked FP up in a lantern when FP was just a toddler, intending to keep her there for the rest of her life. (Harsh, Peebs.) Though some of PB's fears are legitimate (Flame Princess does burn a hole through the Earth's crust), Flame Princess and Finn prove that PB was wrong to make negative assumptions about Flame Princess's emotional stability when they find a way to express their feelings for one another without overwhelming FP.
Not only does Princess Bubblegum's fear become a self-fulfilling prophecy mostly due to her own actions (solitary confinement is what ended up making Flame Princess unable to understand/handle emotions and led to her powers being unstable when she experienced strong emotions). This ep makes it pretty obvious that jumping to conclusions, even when you're a scientist, is never a good idea.
Still unconvinced of the value of cartoons after these examples? Well, hell, I can't help you, but a good cartoon might. Drop me a line and I'll send you a list!