Animation, and as an extension animated works, have a certain stigma attached to them. Every time a major, groundbreaking piece of animated media is released, there is always critics clamoring to observe that, yes, this animated movie or TV show is not limited to just being enjoyed by kids and yes, even adults should go see it. As Randell and Randell-Moon state in their essay ‘The Man from Isis’, animation “is generally perceived to be less serious than its live action counterpart.” (136) It is as if animation as a concept is inherently suitable for children instead of any self-respecting adult. But why is that the case? Why is there a preconception in the West that animated movies and TV shows cannot be enjoyed by discerning viewers looking for deep plot or rich characterization? This restrictive view on animation is often refered to as the “Animation Age Ghetto”, and only recently has the West begun to move away from this line of thinking.
It is hard to pin down exactly how the Animation Age Ghetto came to be, but a common theory is that it is a by-product of low quality animation being present in 50s and 60s television. Due to the fact that the poor animations could often only be enjoyed by children, the association between television animation and kids began to develop. Eventually, animated works began to be written exclusively for children, and animation marketed towards adults was seen as unprofitable. It is important to note, however, that the ghetto was not as prevalent in other areas in the world like Japan, a monolith of animated entertainment. In Japan, animated programs (often referred to in the West as ‘anime’) were very often produced with mature themes and writing meant for adults. This could often cause problems when companies attempted to import and distribute anime to Western audiences. These companies would often cut and censor shows in an attempt to market them towards children, with often disastrous results including completely unrecognizable plots and confusingly retconned character arcs. Perhaps this difference can be attributed to the work of Osamu Tezuka, creator of Astro Boy and forefather of modern anime, who added mature themes and ideas into his work from the beginning.
Nowadays the Animation Age Ghetto has begun to collapse in the West thanks to breakout animated adult hits such as The Simpsons, Archer, South Park, and BoJack Horseman. All of these shows provided smart, cutting satirical comedy that often went deeper into issues than many of their live-action counterparts, and found great success in doing so. They go beyond what is typically expected of animated works in the West and put great effort into utilizes the strengths of animation to tell complete, adult stories while not often relying on cheap gimmicks or clichés to deliver their message. These shows are completely unwelcoming to children, as their subject matter and comedy often depends on an adult level of understanding and experience to fully realize themselves. It is important to note that while the Animation Age Ghetto is breaking down, there are still some leftover stigma attached to animation that still lingers. Almost all of the big name animated shows in the West are, at least partly, comedies, although many of them mix in other genres as well. This shows that animated works are still being pigeonholed to some degree as lower entertainment, although some shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender as well as the growing popularity of anime in the West have proven that there is a demand for quality non-comedic animated works as well. The Netflix shows BoJack Horseman and F is For Family break this trend to some degree. While both can undeniably be considered comedies, they focus more on dramatic elements that separate them from typical comedy tropes. BoJack Horseman, before being a comedy, is an intense and realistic look at self-destructive behavior, while F is For Family explores the effect returning from war can have on a man and his family. Big Mouth, while focusing on its comedy more so than my other examples, still does a good job of defining and showcasing some of the many problems people face in adolescence.
Overall, animation is a deeply misunderstood medium that still has a lot of stigma to break through before the West is ready to appreciate it fully in the mainstream. It is important for the future of mainstream animation that a level of quality be maintained as low-brow animated comedies such as Family Guy and American Dad can often have negative effects on the public perception of animation. However, change is happening fast thanks to pioneering, quality titles being produced by talented writers, actors and animators. If you couldn’t tell, I am a huge fan and critic of animation myself, and I cannot wait to see the heights Western animation can reach when unnecessary limitations are removed.