The recent rise and popularity of cartoons and animated shows, such as Rick and Morty and Archer, can be viewed as a representation of an overall shift in the entertainment industry that panders to adult audiences. Is this a fault in film and television, or an evolution?
While it may seem easy to point a finger at shows such as King of the Hill and South Park for initiating this modern trend, corrupting what once was an innocent and sincere medium, there is an argument to be made that this has always been the case. It may be that Hollywood have only realized that there is money to be made off adult audiences.
Allow me to the take you back to the 1930’s, when film was black and white and so were its cartoons. Some of you may be familiar with the cartoon character of Betty Boop, a short-haired brunette dressed in a black mini skirt, whose carefree ways helped launch her to fame due, in large part, to her substantial adult audience. Many have even gone as far as to describe her as the most well-known, if not first, sex symbol of the animated screen.
This was so obvious to American audiences that in 1934, the Hays Code called for Boop’s modification, reworking her to appear more modest and less sexual (i.e. showing less of her underwear and bosom.) For context, this was also only two years after the appearance of Mickey Mouse.
On the topic of Disney, I think we all know about the hidden little sexual innuendos spread throughout their filmography. Going as far back as Bambi in 1942 to Frozen in 2013, the Walt Disney Company is no stranger to sprinkling adult oriented humor in their films, both verbal and visual, and it doesn’t just have to be sexual in nature, just aimed at a mature audience.
This may be, believe it or not, an economic strategy. As much as we’d like to believe that these jokes are just the animators having a bit of fun, there is no denying that they also serve as a tool to keep adult audiences entertained and content. Specifically, it may be aimed at keeping the parents in the theater and making sure they buy the tickets for the sequel.
This strategy is best exemplified in Dreamwork’s animated movie Shrek, a film so loaded with sexual innuendos and inappropriate humor, that many parents who took their children to it were sure to wonder if this was even a children’s movie at all. I know mine did. But that was the genius behind it, it was most assuredly a children’s animated movie, but it was also an adult’s animated movie; replete with jokes such as that Lord Farquaad was “compensating for something” with his large castle. A joke that only an adult would understand.
The success of Shrek can be seen as quite a shock to the entertainment industry, proving that animated cartoons filled with adult humor and themes had a hungry audience, one that could provide an influx into the market if cataloged correctly. They no longer needed to slightly hint at adult themes and humor, carefully hiding it amongst the forests of children’s entertainment, they could now create entertainment specifically aimed at that market.
Thus leads to the existence of and rise of cable networks such as Adult Swim, who, among other things, produce and televise shows such The Boondocks, Bob’s Burgers, and the immensely popular and culturally impactful Rick and Morty.
As things stand now, I don’t believe the conversation should revolve around why cartoons have become more adultlike (when they always have been), but what reverse impact this will have on children’s cartoons now that is has become so mainstream and popular.