Children's entertainment shouldn't be afraid to tackle serious, important issues from time to time -- in fact, you might argue the industry has a responsibility to do so, considering that they spend way more time with kids than their parents do in many cases. Still, there are times when cartoons nobly attempt to teach valuable social lessons only to quickly demonstrate that perhaps Batman isn't the best place to talk about domestic violence and SpongeBob SquarePants isn't really equipped to teach kids about the suicide hotline.
Each and every one of these episodes means well (we assume), but the results range from merely misguided to downright traumatic:
5 Bill Cosby Uses Fat Albert to Teach Kids About Getting Raped in Prison
Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids is a show about Fat Albert and his friends learning valuable lessons about life, with live-action sections hosted by Bill Cosby. However, the show rarely sugarcoats things -- on Fat Albert, little children get shot and killed and Neo-Nazis desecrate synagogues. The point of these intense episodes was to teach the show's young audience the horrific real-life consequences of racism, gang violence, and bigotry (although recent events suggest that these episodes may owe at least a portion of their existence to the fact that Cosby is shit-whistlingly insane).
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Bill Cosby: *rape joke*
Audience: *standing ovation*
The 1984 episode "Busted," in which Fat Albert and the gang unknowingly accept a ride in a stolen car, get arrested, and are sent on a Scared Straight tour of the Philadelphia State Penitentiary, was ostensibly produced with a similar goal in mind of teaching children that prison is fucked-up and they should do everything within their power to avoid going there. As Fat Albert and the gang are shown around the prison, the inmates keep howling and laughing maniacally at them in a way that suggests they are either putting on fantastic performances for the kids' benefit, or are just waiting for one of them to get within raping distance.
One pervy-looking guy says, "Oh, you smell so good ... come closer, let me sniff you ..."
"Mmmm, I love the smell of Jell-O and sweater lint."
... while another guy says, "I want the big one! Give me the big one!" And, just to make extra sure everyone is clear on what's being discussed, a burly inmate says, "When you're out in the yard, or in the showers, you don't have any rights or any protection." (Emphasis ours.) He further explains to the gang that, in prison, you have to do anything that a tougher inmate tells you. He sternly repeats the phrase "no matter what it is" to make sure his point is getting across.
"Doesn't even matter if you have a headache. They don't care."
This would be (theoretically) a good lesson to teach wayward kids in danger of stumbling down the slippery slope into a life of crime, except for two things:
A) Fat Albert and the gang didn't actually do anything wrong. They are all victims of dangerously vague legislation and a historically prejudiced court system. They are just in the wrong place at the wrong time, a cosmic lottery beyond their control that Cosby has just informed them could result in a permanent trip to a maximum-security rape dungeon.
"Hey hey hey! This shit's pretty heavy!"
B) This plays into something we're still guilty of to this day, in which we take the very real and awful problem of sexual assault in prison and turn it into part of the system -- literally declaring it a built-in aspect of the punishment/deterrent of the corrections system. "Don't commit crime, because prison is no picnic" is a great message, but "You might go to prison through no fault of your own, which sucks because an unspoken part of your sentence involves you getting raped with no repercussions for the rapist" is some serious shit to lay on a kid on a Saturday morning.
4 Courage the Cowardly Dog Encounters a Pedophile
Courage the Cowardly Dog is the equivalent of a Stephen King show for children -- creepy, disturbing, and always set in the same damned place.
Also: almost definitely conceived on drugs.
That said, there is one episode in particular that stands out as being more deeply unsettling than the rest: "Freaky Fred." The titular Freaky Fred is a dog barber who has been committed to a mental institution because of his uncontrollable obsession with cutting hair, particularly the hair of small animals. In the episode, Courage predictably gets trapped in a small room with Freaky Fred. Big deal, right? Courage gets trapped somewhere with a terrifying monster in literally every episode.
Well, in this episode, Courage gets locked in the bathroom with Fred, who forces Courage into his lap and shaves him while speaking in rhymes about how "naugghhttyy" Courage makes him feel. That's right -- "Freaky Fred" is arguably the clearest analogy for sexual molestation that has ever appeared in a children's cartoon.
With Mr. Peabody a close a second.
The implications that Fred represents a pedophile aren't hard to spot, as he admits that his first shaving victims were a baby hamster and a tween-faced girl named Barbara, who also made Fred feel "naughty." However, another of Fred's victims was an adult man with a beard, so maybe he's just an indiscriminate rapist. Either way, if the goal of Courage's producers was to deeply terrify children in ways they couldn't even fully understand, this episode is a fucking home run.
From the start, the victim (Courage) is the only one who sees the danger and reacts appropriately -- the grown-ups are either oblivious (Muriel, the old woman) or intentionally helping the "freak" (the old man, Eustace, gleefully traps the dog in the room with him, then leaves). The result is a terrified, small, helpless main character trapped in a room with a grown-up who can't control his impulses.
Or his teeth.
Fred proceeds to slowly remove Courage's clothes (er, fur) ...
Mowing over Courage's junk in the process.
... while the mother-figure listens from the other side of the bathroom door and the father-figure leaves the house. Finally, Courage is able to get to a phone and call the authorities, nervously waiting for them to arrive while Freddy asks a "naked" Courage to come sit on his lap:
"Hey, he's 18 in dog years!"
The guy is arrested and hauled back to the mental hospital in the nick of time. So, here's the question: is the episode intended to teach a lesson to abuse victims (that is, if the grown-ups don't take you seriously, call the police)? If so, will kids even make the connection, with the situation disguised within the whole "wacky crazy barber" metaphor? And if that's not the intention, are they seriously just doing a goofy comedy riff in which the pop culture trend they're riffing on is child molestation? This shit is pretty alarming either way.