My wife and I are open-minded about a lot of stuff when it comes to raising our boys. But, one thing we're pretty rigid about is age ratings on movies and TV shows. Now, I know the MPAA has it's head up its rear about nudity and violence—and don't get me started on the fact that pretty much every Disney film kicks off with a parent's death—but if Netflix shows a TY7 rating for, say, the Avengers cartoon, we avoid it. Adult themes such as betrayal, sex and patricide aren't the only reasons we heed the ratings, however. There’s something much more sinister at work in modern day cartoons.
You see, once in college, my girlfriend's roommate got a visit from her little sister. This girl was, like, junior high age. The roommate encouraged her to do her Beavis impersonation and she did. I noticed my friend had a look of near terror on his face. I didn’t understand, the impression was actually pretty good. And besides, this guy ate canned meat. He clearly had a higher tolerance for offensiveness than most. Later, he explained his reaction to me and I, too, felt a sense of dread about the fate of humanity.
He said, in that moment, he realized this girl wasn’t raised on Mickey Mouse or Daffy Duck. She was raised on sarcasm.
While cartoons have historically dealt with relatively adult issues (Bugs in drag, anyone?), they did so in a way that veiled the commentary. In fact, my love of classic Warner Bros. cartoons stems from the way they deftly entertain both kids and adults for different reasons. And for kids of that era and before, these shows illustrated our first clear understanding of good and evil, right and wrong, duck season and rabbit season.
But, programs of the past couple of decades like Beavis and Butthead, The Ren & Stimpy Show and more recently SpongeBob SquarePants and even Adventure Time wear their social commentary on their sleeve in the form of our generation’s chosen language—satire. Cartoons now bulge with unfettered spoofs and ridicule. We took a form of entertainment from our youth and used it to deliver a biting commentary on our present.
Now, so many parents blindly sit their kids in front of the Cartoon Network and similar channels (incorrectly assuming they’re for kids), the children of Generation Y and beyond have, in larger part than previous generations, formed their earliest perspective on the world through the lens of smartassery. Imagine learning midway through your cross-country flight the only training your pilot received was repeated viewings of 1980’s Airplane! Surely, a terrifying thought, right? Of course it is, and don’t call me Shirley.
If the teen developmental stage of reacting negatively to society is truly a common one, if all of us are at some point destined to lampoon culture as we see it, modern teens will be rebutting a parody of the world. And this is no algebraic equation—satire of satire does not equal solemnity, it does not cancel itself out. Satire of satire equals cynicism… or, possibly, the Singularity.
I’m not claiming, as some have recently, young people don’t care. But, nationally, there seems to be a willful acceptance of events that should spark outrage, protest and scandal. Why there isn’t more venomous outrage over things like the murder of Trayvon Martin or the government shutdown? Yes, people are upset, but to younger generations, the worst of humanity offers no surprise. They know people are mean, stupid and kill others with no repercussions. They know people in charge would rather hurt everyone than help some. The TV said so.
Why get upset? Why go protest? We’ll miss American Dad.