The small screen leaves a big impact.
With older brothers, weekday evenings went like this: 6:30 – The Wild Thornberrys into 7pm – Hey Arnold! and 7:30 – Rugrats. When I came home from school, before homework began, Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide was on TV. Who can forget the Saturday morning all-star block of Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Beyblade over on WB Kids? Television had a huge effect on our generation even today, prompting the best ice-breaker question: favorite SpongeBob moment? It was entertaining, sure, but the creators of these shows used their platform for more than just colorful storytelling. The television we watched as kids taught us more about mature themes than we realize.
From Robin and Starfire to Danny Fenton and Sam Manson, child programming is no stranger to cute couples. Halloween is right around the corner, so you’re welcome for the costume ideas. However, there are a few shows that do more than just show the male and female protagonists holding hands. They actually explore the theme of love from mature angles. Adventure Time, for example, was on the surface about a human boy in a fantasy world trying to vanquish monsters and do good deeds. In its relationships, however, the writers expressed the awkwardness of growing up. Finn, 12 years old, has a crush on Princess Bubblegum, who takes an 18-year-old form. Normally, she rolls her eyes at his advances, but from time to time, she gives him a kiss on the cheek. At the beginning of the series, Finn genuinely believes that the two of them are destined to be together, but to Princess Bubblegum, Finn is just a kind boy who needs protection. Her maternal and platonic feelings mixed with Finn’s young idealism create a false expectation of love for Finn. Watching him figure this out for himself is what the story is all about.
Throughout the series, hints are dropped about Princess Bubblegum and Marceline’s close friendship. The writers continuously push them apart and bring them together, creating a strange tension. In the finale, they confess their feelings, kiss, and decide to “hang out with each other forever.” The writers establish Princess Bubblegum and Marceline as individuals, with personal conflicts and backstories, and then they develop a healthy same-sex relationship. It’s mutually beneficial, it’s organic, and it’s beautiful.
Another topic you may not remember is illness and no, not SpongeBob and the suds. Arthur tackled this topic in a season thirteen episode titled “The Great McGrady.” In this episode, Mrs. McGrady the school lunch lady is diagnosed with cancer. Everyone reacts differently to the news. Arthur and D.W. go to Mrs. McGrady with soup and stuffed animals. Francy tries to pretend like nothing changed at all and Francine goes into shock, too afraid to see Mrs. McGrady. Much like in real life, children especially don’t know how to react to serious news like that. In exploring the varied reactions, this episode of Arthur teaches that when it comes to disease, it is okay to not understand and okay to be vulnerable, and that your emotions are valid.
An incredibly important episode of Captain Planet and the Planeteers entitled “A Formula for Hate,” discusses the HIV virus. A rumor spreads that Todd Andrews, voiced by Neil Patrick Harris, has AIDS. The whole town turns against Todd, afraid that they will catch the disease if they interact with him. Captain Planet and Todd’s coach team up to tell everyone that one, Todd is only HIV-positive and does not have AIDS, and two, you cannot catch it by casual contact. It’s sad that a colorful superhero had to teach the lesson, but even worse when you learn that “A Formula for Hate,” is based on the real-life case of Ryan White, a teenage boy from Indiana in 1984, who was ostracized and harassed by his community when news spread of him contracting the virus. In the words of Gaia, the Spirit of Earth, herself: “AIDS is a terrible epidemic plaguing our world, but two things make it even worse: ignorance and fear.”
That’s So Raven was a Disney Channel sitcom about your everyday teenage girl who also sees visions of the future. What made the show unique was its POC leads, but what made it important is that the writers did not shy away from discussions about racist discrimination. In season three episode ten, titled “True Colors,” Raven and her best friend Chelsea apply for the same job at a clothing store. Raven aces the interview and Chelsea fails it, but it is Chelsea who gets the job regardless. Why? Raven sees the employer in a vision stating, “The truth is, I don’t hire black people.” “I always knew about racism,” Raven replies,” but I never knew how much it could hurt.” This episode teaches young audiences about the world they are entering without pulling any punches. The real sad part is that Raven herself didn’t learn that very lesson. Years later on an episode of The View, Raven-Symoné stated that she would not hire someone with a “black-sounding” name. Oh, snap.
In the ninth episode of Static Shock, Virgil, too, encounters racial discrimination. Both Doug and Lizzie McGuire discuss eating disorders. Sesame Street deals with the heavy topics of grief and divorce. The point is that we were right to keep watching these silly shows about a little boy and his stretchy dog or a teenage girl who sees the future because the substance within them cannot be ignored. The question now is where to go from here? Our generation needs to follow, because kids can handle more than we realize if the information is presented in the right way. Thank you, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and Disney Channel for the memories, stories, and for being a positive outside influence.
Scott Kauffman is a third year Writing for Film, TV, & Emerging Media major who hasn’t forgiven M. Night for The Last Airbender. You can reach them firstname.lastname@example.org.