A Dressing Down For... The Audience
Here, you see the beginning of a new feature at the TZ Opinions/Editorial section. Op/Ed will still feature any number of editorials or miscellanous articles, but we now inaugurate a bimonthly column (written by myself and others in the TZ Crew) dedicated either to significant praise or condemnation of some specific topic in regards to animation of past, present, or future. Well…maybe not so much future, as all our tarot cards got lost a few weeks ago.
When it’s praise, it’ll be called A Note of Recognition For…, and when it’s not, it’ll be called A Dressing Down For… – and we’ll start with the latter.
You’ve heard it a million times. You might be sick of it. Or maybe you’re so used to it that to hear the sentiment inspires only rueful – maybe even unresponsive – recognition for you. It’s the age-old misperception that animation is for children. Even as I bring it up, you the reader will undoubtedly conjure up all sorts of examples of things you think are unfairly dismissed from adult consideration, or times when a great film that is indeed kid-friendly makes no dent in mainstream pop culture due to its association with said kids. It’s the pain that all true fans of animation must endure at some point. While people argue back and forth about the artistic legitimacy of action films, thrillers, and comedies, or all agree in regards to dramas and noirs, the entire medium of animation constantly loses the battle of artistic respect – even when it can do any and/or all of the aforementioned genres! Cartoons get no respect.
And guess what? It’s all your fault.
I know what your first impulse will be. Shift the blame. Insist that the industry, and especially its executives, are the ones producing pablum. Claim that you yourself are a true appreciater of the artform, and that if any audience is to be blamed, it should be the peons who don’t take art or animation seriously enough anyway. They’re involved, but that doesn’t get any of you off the hook. I’m casting a wide, wide net here, and far more of you people who buy the tickets and watch the shows are the problem than you think. If anybody’s going to get a free ride, it’s children themselves.
Which brings me to my first reason that the disrespect for animation is your fault. Children are the one audience that cannot be truly held accountable for their actions or desires. That’s because children live in a society where they are the single lowest population subset on the social order’s totem pole. Adults are often just burned and petty post-pubescents, and nobody’s more of a victimizer than a former victim; they know where all the weaknesses are. We live in a society where children are seen to be so malleable, so pliable, that they can be shaped like putty into anything we want them to be. And the point of this is that nobody respects the lowest order. We spend our lives trying to escape childhood, and while adulthood brings a lot of crucial revelations about the workings of the world, the advantages of a youthful mindset get lost far too quickly. So when anything that can be seen as child-friendly gets created, it immediately is assigned a difficult place in the pecking order of art. And you do that, by direct or indirect means, shuffling the work in question into your mind as childish or seeing the kid-friendly elements as the usual hurdles the fan has to get past so as to perceive the work as being legitimate.
Of course, there’s always you in the audience who are parents. You take this problem to the next level. (Admittedly, this next paragraph is unlikely to include the majority of TZ’s readership. But it’s still worth noting.) In your cases, it’s not just a lack of respect for that which is seen as being of the world of children. It’s the need to artificially force respect from children for you. Animation becomes especially toxic to your particular section of the audience, because liking something your children might like is dangerously close to being on an even keel with your children. And God forbid that should occur. This goes hand-in-hand with the antagonistic relationship parents have with their children in modern-day America, as if their children are the enemy and must be subdued and conquered if any victory is to be claimed. Admitting the relevancy and worth of animation to you folks is akin to a member of the Bush administration admitting they love Al-Qaeda’s favorite sitcom.
Not everyone is a parent, and some parents don’t have that exact issue with their children. The fault still lies with many of you, however. This isn’t based on antagonism with current children, but with past children, usually yourselves. This is where the vicious cycle of animation’s unfair treatment gets its main fuel. Because children are often given animation as their main diet of artistic intake, it becomes associated with them. As these children grow up, the need to prove yourselves as adults causes you to reject anything you associate with that time. Any of you who are 30 or older – when was the last time you drank chocolate milk? I’m not arguing for Peter Pan syndrome, but I am saying that there’s a painfully overdone effort in adult society to shed all things reminiscent of childhood. In some cases, it’s justified. In the case of animation, it’s not justified. Even when the children of today reject something, perhaps because it is actually a little too adult-oriented for them (and that does not mean sex and excrement humor, but rather pacing and characterization), adults can’t bridge the gap. Why else do executives keep insisting that they need to dumb down their shows and films? They don’t think they’ll make any money off of you people by aiming their work at you – and they’re right.
But this is a column on Toon Zone, right? An online fan site for animation. Surely I’m just preaching to the choir. Not quite. The last component to this issue that I’ll mention is the one that fans specialize in. Once anything gains a passionate and limited fanbase, which animation sadly has, it becomes esoteric and unattractive to others and gains new members only from the like-minded. To paraphrase Liquid Snake from Metal Gear Solid (yes, I am a geek myself and in no way immune to this problem), we’re showing far too many signs of symmetry. Fan activity, moods, responses, and trends becomes predictable and thus shallower. That which is considered “childish” gets once again jettisoned, as a need to prove a kind of legitimacy to non-fan society (a useless endeavor). Or it gets overconsumed and overconsidered, and the fan fails to sense how what is usually considered “childish” is usually just the fun of the work. Again, the unconscious need to escape anything associated with children harms animation’s chances to be seen as an actual art form; in this case, because even its most ardent fans seem to unconsciously admit that there’s something to make up for when expressing one’s love for it. Acting like there’s something to prove will make people think that something is indeed lacking, and if we’re all so alike in what we say and how we say it, animation comes across even more as a specialty interest that “normal” people have no business attempting to appreciate. We fans could stand to expand our own tastes, proving us less as obscure fetishists of a child’s art form and more as wiser cinema appreciaters who don’t let silly mainstream prejudices get in the way of a work’s real quality.
There’s a real inability to separate excellence and age range with animation. “Childish” is used as an insult by you, the audience, when you really mean “stupid” or “poorly done”. Anything disliked is demeaned as being “just for kids.” Is there any wonder that animation gets no respect when it gets seen as a child’s plaything? The key to the problem is that kids, so naive, are unfairly considered undiscerning consumers. If you know kids, you know that’s bunk. When they consider something bad, they loudly express their dislike. Quality is there to be found in things that are entirely appropriate for children to watch, and yet the animus remains. Of course, there’ll always be a disconnect between generations’ favored works. Kids like things that adults don’t, and vice versa. But an entire artistic medium is not fair game for that call. You the audience keep consciously and unconsciously making it so. Thanks a lot.