Us Millennials are an odd bunch
We are frequently spoken down to by our elders, accused constantly of narcissism, branded as empty-headed social justice warriors, we are regularly chalked up as entitled, pampered, and eternally childish. Now, the research doesn't quite back that up, despite what a barrage of self-affirming think-pieces would have you believe, but we are very different from our parents in a lot of ways, it must be said. And some of our habits, particularly in regards to our media consumption, are considered unusual by our predecessors. There's a lot to talk about in this regard: binge-watching, multi-task watching, download culture… but today we're going to take a look at the millennial predilection for children's cartoons.
Nowadays there are a slew of animated TV shows, ostensibly for children, that are enjoyed extensively by adult (and particularly Millennial) audiences. Notable examples include Adventure Time, Steven Universe, Gravity Falls, SpongeBob Squarepants, and Regular Show. These shows are critically hailed, lauded for their smart humor, and praised for their careful, accessible handling of "difficult" subject matter. They are quality programming, but nevertheless they are still primarily aimed at children, why are adult audiences so drawn to them?
Part of it is likely to do with the proliferation of adult and family cartoons in the 90s and 2000s. While The Flintstones was the first primetime animated sitcom in the 1960s, a little show called The Simpsons is likely what brought the sea-change in cartoon viewership. Debuting in 1989 and still running today, here was a show that you could watch no matter what age you were, and that held up over time. Moreover, it opened up the gates for the likes of Family Guy, King of the Hill, Futurama, South Park, and others to enter the fold. These shows made it acceptable to watch cartoons no matter what age you were, and their intelligent content gradually broke down the stigma of TV animation as being "just for kids".
However, even though western media raised Millennials feel no qualms about watching adult cartoons, why is the distinction blurring between child and adult entertainment? Why are millennials, such as myself, completely self-justified in binge-watching 284 eleven minute episodes of Adventure Time? Well, part of the answer is that good entertainment is just good entertainment. The Muppet films are considered childish in nature, and yet they are also cinematic classics. Pixar movies are for kids, about things kids like, but you'd be hard pressed to find an adult that doesn't enjoy them. Do Not Adjust Your Set in the 1960s was favorite viewing of John Cleese, and was instrumental in pulling Monty Python together. As mentioned above, Adventure Time and its ilk are just well made shows, so why not enjoy them?
But perhaps it's deeper than that. Millennials are in a weird place right now, and likely will be for the rest of their lives. They are infantilized by the generations above them, and yet are also facing the prospect of lives with huge adult problems. Student loan debt is heading for a crisis point, the housing market is practically inaccessible, average wages are lower, the job market is rough, and that's just logistical stuff. Throw in the looming threats of global warming, population boom, population bust, political instability, and it makes for a pretty anxious time to be a human being.
These shows tap strongly in to two things: an acknowledgement of absurdity, and an understanding that it's okay to feel not okay. Adventure Time is literally set after the apocalypse. Steven Universe constantly sees the world under threat of cosmic annihilation. Yet everyone lives their lives, eats pancakes, fights monsters, and cracks silly jokes for one another. These shows are made by Millennials trying to teach the next generation what we wish we had been taught. That in a big scary world it's okay to laugh, and it's okay to not always know what to do. It stands to reason that we would want to take some of our own medicine.
So it's a multi-pronged answer. We grew up watching cartoons, and when we grew up, there were cartoons for grown-ups too. So we, as a generation, were never told to stop watching cartoons. When Millennials started creating kid's content, we made content that we would want to watch, and that, when made well, speaks boldly and simply to our concerns. Because cartoons were never stigmatized for us as being solely for children we never felt like we weren't allowed to watch them, and so we do. We watch and love these shows, because we are the big, scared, smart kids they are made for. And I guess actual kids can watch them too.
Thomas Burns Scully is a PopDust contributor, and also an award-winning actor, playwright, and musician. In his spare time he writes and designs escape rooms. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram