For decades, cartoons have been known as the children’s medium. Saturday morning was the time for cartoons, when kids got up before their parents and tuned in to classics like Looney Tunes and The Flintstones. While they were marketed towards children however, even classic cartoons like these held cultural relevance in the adult world. Fred and Wilma Flintstone for example, are the earliest example of a TV husband and wife who slept in the same bed that can be seen today (a program in the 1940s, Mary Kay and Johnny, also did this, but the filmed episodes have all been lost to time). This helped to remove some of the taboo around sex and other kinds of physical intimacy so pervasive in the first half of the 20th century and normalized, for both parents and their children, the notion of sharing a bed with one’s significant other (the most famous sitcom of the era, I Love Lucy, while progressive in certain respects, still showed the famous couple sleeping in separate beds). Now, spouses sleeping in separate beds is a laughable concept unless you’re the president of the United States. This is largely because cartoons, due to their unrealistic aesthetic, can “address material that live action television cannot due to the exigencies of performance and censorship that broadcast content is subject to”, according to University of Otago communications professor Holly Randell-Moon.
This artistic freedom really began to be taken advantage of in the late 90s, fully hitting its stride in 2001 with the debut of Adult Swim, a subset of Cartoon Network which played TV (mainly cartoons) marketed towards adults at late nights. One of the things that makes them so much more free of restrictions in the television medium is of course the fact that their shows are animated. Imagine how much BoJack Horseman’s cost would increase if it were live action; lavish parties, cross-country travel, and a stolen Hollywoo icon. Not to mention the absurdity of highly anthropomorphic animals coexisting alongside humans, stealing our jerbs and whatnot. It’s a premise that a live-action television show would never even attempt and yet it works perfectly in BoJack Horseman; seamlessly woven in throughout the show like BoJack proclaiming he can drink a lot because he weighs 1200 pounds or Princess Carolyn getting kicked out of his car and landing on her feet because, well, cat. (Come to think of it, old ladies with too many cats often call those cats princess so even her name works).
Cartoon shows can get away with far more lewdity than live action shows can as well. In the first episode of Big Mouth (or maybe it was the second or third, I did end up watching several) protagonist Nick sees his best friend’s penis and is haunted for the next day or two by giant penises playing basketball. All penises mentioned are seen in as graphic detail as the show’s simplistic animation will allow, and on no live action television show on today would an scene featuring an adolescent’s genitals be permissible. Sexuality and is a far more easily explored topic in the animated world than it is in live action, at least in the United States. Underneath the endless juvenile jokes was an earnest look at the struggles, the pain, and the awkwardness of our formative years, and I found myself invested in the show.
Cartoons can also explore the world of parody far more readily than live action can. Part of this is that parody is often making caricatures of real things, taken to their illogical extreme to where they don’t look much like they actually were, but you can tell what they’re supposed to be regardless. Take F is For Family for example. Bill Burr plays Frank Murphy, perhaps the most white suburban dad name I will ever hear. The show takes place in the 1970s, or rather what people remember the 1970s being like. Dingy wallpaper, giant TVs, and conservative hairstyles and outfits plaster every corner of the show, and the boxer whose title fight make up the centerpiece of the show’s plot is a staggering drunk Irishman (named Irishman). The whole show is life taken to its comic extreme (just like Murphy’s implacable rage), and yet it feels more believable than a live action “period piece” like That 70’s Show. Actors portraying past events inevitably bring their reputation and recognition with them (we’ve seen Ashton Kutcher in modern day, we know he’s not from the 1970’s), but a cartoon can be timeless, a character purely from its time.
And you know what? Despite all of this supposed advancement in cartoons now starting to be made for adults and achieving new acclaim, we forget that someone already did it 37 years ago. The cartoon film Heavy Metal was a sexy, drug-fueled, science fiction extravaganza featuring John Candy, Eugene Levy, Harold Ramis, and an epic score by legendary composer Elmer Bernstein. While not a shining example of feminism or sobriety, the film delves into adult themes like fascism and man’s inhumanity towards man. It’s dark, funny, and crude all at once, and its influence on this new wave of mature cartoons cannot be overlooked. It’s time mature cartoons get the recognition they deserve because some of them have been hard at work for decades using the unique freedoms of animation to both explore and make light of the live-action world around us.