The Changing Faces of Children’s Television

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As a society, we have often see children’s television as not just a form of entertainment, but a kind of education in itself. The lessons that are taught in schools can often seem dull and dry to young people, so adding an exciting storyline often helps. Of course this does not detract from the fact that many cartoons are merely looking to sell something to the younger market, but despite this many children will be looking at their hand-drawn idols with shining eyes and a wish to emulate much of their behaviours.

As the past has shown, this can lead to controversy for cartoons which seek to add that little bit of extra excitement. In the eighties there were concerns from parents about ‘violent’ shows where characters were depicted as ninjas or battling in a war. Possibly more concerning is the fact that these characters were indeed used as props for selling toys, and as a result children were left watching characters who could be considered cardboard cut-outs for all their personal history and personality quirks. To use a few examples, in the original series of Transformers, many of the characters used the same character base with different colours and possibly a new voice. This did not make them any less interesting to a young child, but what does it reflect in terms of what it’s teaching children?

Looking back, each of the characters are essentially interchangeable, despite the occasional talent used at just the right moment, there are no more than three groups of people. Good guys, bad guys and everyone else. This is also seen in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series; while cute and all, there are still no real distinctions between the characters. This is even played upon as the news reporter April O’Neil constantly gets the turtles names wrong throughout the first episode. This seems to indicate that, as long as there are exciting things going on, people can generally just be grouped together. Girls will always wear dresses and squeal a lot, or else wear trousers and be either ugly or just butch enough to get in the way. The bad guys have obscure and generally pointless reasons for their actions and the good guys will use flimsy excuses for not removing the problem immediately.

This is not to say that eighties cartoons were bad by any means. The fan base and multitude of spin-offs show that something was definitely done right. The stories and writing had a way of engaging young people and wrenching them out of bed every Saturday morning. But, for me at least, revisiting your childhood leaves you with a “what was I thinking?” taste in your mouth. So a revamp is just what these cartoons need right?

Actually, it would seem so! Transformers has seen several reincarnations, each of which has garnered its own set of fans and piqued the interest of original ones. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has returned to its original comic book routes and become almost film noir amongst its cartoon brethren. Perhaps the biggest success story is My Little Pony, which went from, “every day is just lovely,” type storylines with extremely giggly little girl ponies, to its current incarnation; Friendship is Magic. This show has garnered a lot of controversy as well as a number of new fans. Perhaps most telling is the fact that instead of just reaching out to young girls the program has gained a wave of grown and young men who also follow the show and even produce art, music and videos dedicated to their favourite characters. These men, who call themselves ‘bronies’, watch the show because they enjoy the characters, the storylines and the numerous catchy songs.

To further emphasise this, putting forth his own reasons for his love of the show is Dustykatt, a 43-year-old motorbike enthusiast and mechanic who also happens to be a well-known bronie that makes his own movies on Youtube. His most popular video among the fandom is ‘The Manliest Brony in the World.’ When asked about how he got into the show, Dustykatt said: “I think anyone my age would know about it as the cartoon goes WAY back into the 80s. I can trace [my first encounter with Friendship is Magic] back to my friend and current roommate who showed me the cartoon one weekend when I was over for an AD&D (Advanced Dungeons and Dragons) session with our friends. I cannot make a comparison [to the eighties cartoons] as I have not seen them.”

I like the amount of creativity the crew puts into SIMPLE flash animation,” said Dustykatt. “The story lines STRENGTHEN the characters, not tear them down. In other words, the writing is fresh and well done. The voice actors put a lot of love and attention into their roles, you can tell this just from watching. It creates a character that you want to root for, or to boo, or to hate depending on that character’s need for the story.

The main point shown is that My Little Pony, along with Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and many others have taken the chance on children and began speaking to them on a more adult level. This isn’t to say that today’s children are more exposed to violence or angst than they were in the last few decades, but that there is now more understanding pervading the public consciousness. This understanding appears to be the knowledge that there is no such thing as ‘bad guys’ and ‘good guys’. There are people who do bad things and people who do good, both of which face their own crises of faith and inability to be consistently one thing or another.

In current Transformers incarnations, good robots talk about how the humans annoy them. In Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the brothers actually fight amongst themselves and in My Little Pony, the characters are so diverse that ANYONE can watch it and be entertained. If I were to have children who get up on a Saturday and watch cartoons that teach this kind of life lesson, I’d be pretty pleased… and would probably take the opportunity for a lie in.

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