Ever wondered why many Western animated TV shows and movies seem so childish and juvenile to an older audience? Most people’s immediate response would be to assume that it’s because animation is “just for kids”, and they would be wrong where it not for the fact that the majority of Western TV producers still operate by that stereotype. This is because of what we would call the “animation age ghetto”, a cultural phenomenon where animation is written primarily for children because animation as a medium is assumed to only be fit for a certain age (and in some cases, a certain gender), and in TV this assumption can not only affect how an animated series is produced, but also how the series handles violence and serious themes, and even the series’ continued existence. In movies, the stigma runs so deep that whenever UK audiences think of animated films, they usually think of either Disney, Dreamworks, or, in rarer cases, the works of Hayao Miyazaki. Those are the only animated films on most people’s maps, and most if not all of them are considered family-friendly. I guess I can’t blame them. Every animated film that wins an Academy Award is aimed at children, and the ones that win are usually Disney films.
Family-friendly is the key word here, because whenever we in the West think of animation they mostly think “family-friendly”. Even The Simpsons is now mostly tame, as if the writers surrendered to the expectations of the animation age ghetto. To anyone who’s even remotely familiar with animation, the idea that animation is just for kids is preposterous. In my case, I’m twenty-one years old and I still love animation, to the point that I will ardently defend it as a medium that is vastly superior to live-action. In fact, it worries me that even after the success of animated shows that aren’t meant for children, such as South Park, Family Guy, and Bob’s Burgers, we in the West still assume animation to be little more than kiddy fare.
What we now call the animation age ghetto began decades ago but was strengthened with the advent of Saturday morning cartoons, which started becoming an obscenely successful format during the late 60’s and early 70’s, and was since a staple of Western television all through the 80’s and and early 90’s. The problem is that the vast majority of those shows may as well have been half-hour toy commercials. Often the best way to determine the success of a cartoon show was many toys were being sold, and that’s because the most successful shows were literally created from toys and designed to sell those toys to young children. It’s a business model that’s so successful that it’s still used very often to this day (Transformers Prime, NinjaGo and Sonic Boom being very egregious and unscrupulous examples of the formula being used in the 2010’s), and it’s because of this that animation is seen by parents as something purely for children.
However, since the 1990’s, various animated shows have shown that it doesn’t have to be this way. Shows such as The Simpsons and Batman: The Animated Series showed that cartoons could be compelling, well-written, and appeal to mass audience regardless of age, gender or even ethnicity. From then on, we saw many more animated TV shows on various networks that not only weren’t mere half-hour commercials, but could also appeal to a variety of demographics, and still remain popular with children who have now grown up. Even before then, we were still seeing animated films that, though marketed as family-friendly films, were written well enough that they can appeal to an audience outside of the typical demographic, such as The Secret of NIMH and The Adventures of Mark Twain.
Today, Adventure Time and Steven Universe set the standard for original, well-written animated TV shows that break the ghetto (with the former being the most popular), but other shows aren’t so fortunate. In fact, those two are the only high-quality shows left on Cartoon Network. The rest of the shows that still air in the UK are either obvious kiddy fare or half-hour commercials. On other channels, the situation is much worse. Nickelodeon, the channel that brought us the groundbreaking Ren & Stimpy, is now a dumping ground for whatever flash in the pan sitcom they could come up with, and Toonami is long dead. Meanwhile, Disney and Dreamworks still dominate the animated film market, and are thus free to proliferate it with the same old stereotypes that they’ve been milking for years. Worse still, it seems that 2D animation is being phased out by the continued profitability of 3D animation, and what we see now don’t even come close to the artistic triumphs of the 20th century.
The perception that animation is purely kiddy fare is something that damages the medium’s ability to grow, because when audiences are closed-minded, the producers respond to that by confirming their biased judgement. Of course, the animation age ghetto isn’t exactly as powerful as it used to be, but the signs are still there, as many of the animated TV series’ intended for older audiences are usually more immature than some children’s cartoons (this is definitely what’s happened to Family Guy). In fact, we live in an age where, with the Internet, anything can find an audience, hopefully making such dated concepts as “target demographic” useless. I think networks will still continue enforcing the perception created by the animation age ghetto because it’s more convenient for them to make less challenging material. However, the rise of more original and sophisticated animation will most likely continue to change the domination perception of animation being just for kids, and although we won’t see the demise of the “half-hour commercials” quite so soon, at the very least we could hope to see something better than people saying “cartoons are just for kids”, as if they’re middle school kids groaning at the sound of their parents mentioning Disney.