5 Horrifying Ways Cartoons Tried to Cover Important Issues
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:
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).
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.
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.
SpongeBob SquarePants Jokes About Suicide
In the episode "Are You Happy Now?" the eternally optimistic and possibly developmentally stunted eponymous protagonist of SpongeBob SquarePants asks his grim-faced co-worker Squidward to describe his happiest memory, but Squidward is unable to answer. A moment of self-reflection reveals that Squidward has never actually experienced anything but sadness and misery, sort of like a Hollywood Video manager or a high school gym teacher. SpongeBob dutifully spends the rest of the episode trying to cheer Squidward up, but nothing seems to work, because Squidward very clearly suffers from depression, which is something you can't cure with the positive attitude of a pants-wearing invertebrate.
"Your species is literally the barest definition of being an animal."
You see, depression is a bit like a virus, in that it infects a host and then reprograms them from the inside out. Like most victims of depression, Squidward can't seem to find a single thing in his life that makes him happy (the presence of a relentlessly irritating co-worker/neighbor who won't stop demolishing Squidward's peace with his hilarious antics doesn't do much to help).
However, before you start admiring SpongeBob SquarePants for treating the subject with respectful dignity, take a look at this scene wherein a defeated Squidward decides nothing can cure his doldrums:
Sing along: Who lives in perpetual mental anguish under the sea?
His eyes bloodshot from crying, Squidward begins pulling a rope into position from an unseen pulley on the ceiling and says: "I can't seem to get happy. Maybe this will help," while sad music plays. Yep -- the depressed squid man is going to hang himself. It's a painful possibility constantly looming over people with Squidward's affliction, and it's remarkable that a show like SpongeBob SquarePants would present such an unflinching look at mental illness to its young viewers.
Haha, nope. He's just hanging a birdcage. The seemingly sensitive narrative built around Squidward's lonely suffering is actually just a setup for an elaborate fake-out joke, forever trivializing the concept of chronic depression in the minds of children everywhere. Although, at this point the majority of SpongeBob viewers are single adults in their 30s, so we suppose the damage has already been done.
Batman Teaches Us to Blame the Victims of Domestic Abuse
The 1990s Batman animated series is as well-regarded as any property starring the character, particularly its stellar first two seasons. But that doesn't mean it's above teaching horrible moral lessons to its audience.
"Remember, kids: when life gets tough, punch your problems until the voices stop."
Let's take the episode "Harley and Ivy." The episode begins with The Joker blaming his quasi-girlfriend/henchman Harley Quinn for almost getting caught by Batman and then throwing her out of their hideout. Suddenly homeless, Harley bunks with fellow supervillainess Poison Ivy, and the two form a genuine friendship. You may recognize this as being more or less the plot of Boys on the Side.
The Joker quickly realizes he misses having someone to push around and tries to get Harley back, first by talking to her like a complete asshole. When that doesn't work, he traces her phone and eventually threatens to kill her new best friend Ivy. We're used to The Joker being a reckless maniac, but his behavior in this episode eerily mirrors that of a jealous, paranoid boyfriend using a cycle of abuse to control his girlfriend. He and Harley's initial fight escalates only once the blazingly insecure Joker asks Harley if she is a better criminal than he is.
"You making fun of me? Do I make you laugh?!"
And Harley plays the role of the abused victim perfectly, pining after the Joker and willingly calling him when she gets the chance, totally excusing his terrifying behavior. This fact is never explored or condemned in the show -- it's just sort of written off as "Harley is a crazy person in love with The Joker." The Joker's cruelty is pretty much accepted -- anyone watching the episode is clearly meant to think, "Well, he's The Joker, what the hell did you expect?" Batman inadvertently presents both a textbook example of an abusive relationship and the societal tendency to blame the victim for her situation.
Hey Arnold! Compares Wearing Glasses to Racial Segregation
In the episode "Rhonda's Glasses," Hey Arnold! tries to tackle the issue of racism by using a character suddenly having to wear glasses as a metaphor for segregation. The episode focuses on Rhonda, one of the cool kids who normally enjoys a privileged seat at the front of the school bus with all of the popular, successful children with bright, fulfilling futures. Meanwhile, all of the geeks and melvins are relegated to pariah thrones in the back of the bus (where they belong). However, one day Rhonda learns that she is nearsighted and has to start wearing glasses, a totem of uncoolness that automatically sends her to the back of the bus.
"This is the worst thing human beings could ever do to each other!"
Soon, she learns firsthand about the other struggles of the geek underclass, prompting her to heroically refuse to move to the back of the bus in protest, after which the bus class system is abolished. So, it's basically a simplified version of the story of Rosa Parks ... if she had been a white person experiencing a temporary case of "discrimination," the main consequence of which was her feeling slightly more awkward than usual.
That's the thing -- having to wear glasses is probably the worst racial analogy that the well-meaning show could have used, because they are something you can literally remove whenever you choose. Some of the geeks banished to the back of the bus aren't even wearing any freaking glasses. Furthermore, the only reason the bus class system is changed is because one of the popular kids finally experiences a tiny shred of injustice (sort of like The Help, when the black housekeepers learn to start standing up for themselves only after a rich white woman is courageously offended by their mistreatment).
"A glasses-wearing white woman ... we're through the looking glass(es)."
Again, it's easy to see what they're going for. But, in the end, it's like if Julianne Hough was denied a mortgage while wearing her blackface Halloween costume, only to promptly get a $500,000 loan approval the moment she took it off. "Now I know what it's like to be discriminated against!" No, you really don't. And it's better if you don't start thinking that you do.
For more inappropriate cartoon moments, check out The 6 Creepiest Things Ever Slipped Into Children's Cartoons and 5 Grossly Inappropriate Jokes Hidden in Children's Cartoons.
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