With an intended audience of children, the real stories are absorbed by adults

By Leyla Resuli: Arts Columnist

Most of us can recall waking up early and running downstairs to catch the best cartoons before school, or grabbing an after-school snack and vaulting back onto the sofa before the adverts are over.

Many of these beloved children’s shows are animated, including the likes of Spongebob Squarepants, Arthur, and Pokémon. We have fond memories of these shows, and yet for most, they are confined to a very small percentage of our lives, with an overwhelming majority of content created for adults being live-action.

Even so, many adults do still enjoy animated films and shows, although they may not publicly acknowledge it. A study that covered US Citizens aged 18-64 found that over three quarters of the total participants had watched Cartoon Network in the last month. Of course, there is the possibility they were looking after young children who were the primary audience for the channel, but this cannot be the case for everyone in such a large group. About a third of the participants who said they’d watched it were aged 18-29, the group least likely to be raising children at that point in their lives.

Regardless of statistics, one doesn’t need to look far to find anecdotal evidence of adults enjoying animation. Despite this, there certainly seems to be a stigma attached, especially with films and shows that aren’t made specifically for adult audiences, such as Family Guy or Futurama. These shows, with their often crass or politics-based humour, are deemed appropriate for adults viewers; while shows aimed at families, children, or broader audiences in general, are not. Some argue that this content is created specifically and exclusively for children, and that it is therefore strange for adults to be enjoying them, despite many creators explicitly saying this is not the case.

For example, Genndy Tartakovsky, the creator of Samurai Jack, said about the series, ‘the audience for this isn’t kids anymore’. This was after it moved to the channel Adult Swim, where Tartakovsky had the freedom to visually convey darker elements such as gore. However, the first four seasons were on Cartoon Network – a channel marketed towards children – and even then it explored adult themes, albeit more subtly.

This association with children is one that has been attached to animation for many years, as it continues to be perpetuated by the public. But the idea that animation is solely for children is bizarre, and frankly untrue.

MACKAYAN: adults & animation

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Even shows which are created for younger audiences often involve themes, references or jokes that only adults could understand. Spongebob Squarepants, while certainly seen as a children’s show, is genuinely witty and creative in its concepts and humour, and many adults still enjoy it to this day.

In some cases, the content has scenarios that can be understood by all ages, but take on new meaning and layers of understanding when viewing as an adult. Steven Universe is a great example of this. On the surface it appears to be simply about a group of fantastical beings – known as ‘gems’ – with magical powers, but the show delves into experiences that are universal: the difficulties of family relationships, dealing with anxiety, and struggles with identity.

The relationship between two secondary characters, Lapis and Jasper, may appear to be unique to gems. But an adult can recognise it as representing an unhealthy or abusive relationship, and Lapis’s struggle with ending it. This is clearly not an exclusively children’s issue; in fact, it’s more likely to be relevant for adults.

Outside of the shows that are made with adults in mind, however, many simply enjoy those are just aimed at children. For some, the draw of animated content aimed at younger audiences is its lack of exactly that which is found in adult cartoons: dark and adult themes. Much of our lives is saturated with political aggravation, continuous social issues, and the various heartbreaks of adult life. It stands to reason then, if entertainment is escapism, why wouldn’t you want to enjoy the simpler, often happier environments of such animated content? And if these themes are present, they are usually explored in a paired-down way, less of a direct parallel to our real-life struggles.

Beyond mature themes or lack thereof, is the visual enjoyment of animation. It is something to be appreciated in and of itself, before any layers of storytelling, acting, and sound are added. From the fairy-tale style of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, to the captivating stop-motion animation of Kubo and the Two Strings, there is endless variation to the art. Countless hours of work go into creating animation, with highly-skilled and talented artists working behind the scenes. In the making of Toy Story, the first fully computer-generated animated film, it took about three hours to draw just one frame.

It would seem that the simplest and most obvious reason for anyone to enjoy animation is that it is a beautiful, multi-faceted art form, routinely paired with great storytelling. In a world fraught with struggles, surely we shouldn’t be judging another adult on the entertainment they use to escape it. For those who are unsure about an adult’s place when it comes to animation, the truth is that this space has existed all along – it’s just been waiting for you to take it.