Retro cartoons are hilarious – until Chief Crazy Coyote shows up.
by Melissa Rayworth
October 5, 2009
These shows were made in the ’60s and early ’70s, but most don’t reflect the cultural changes of their time. This was programming for children. Even the bell-bottomed kids who drove the Mystery Machine had something of a 1950s outlook in their earliest adventures.
But children who watched these shows in the ’70s at least lived in a country that was grappling with questions of women’s rights and racial and ethnic equality. The ridiculousness of these stereotypes (and their potential harm) was a central part of the national conversation. Today, after decades of these battles, kids don’t hear that kind of discussion as much.
If my son were older or younger, it would be less of a question. At ten, he could dismiss these stereotypes himself. And at four, they’d likely sail over his head. But at six, he is a sponge for information – old enough to understand the words he’s hearing, with a voracious appetite for input of all kinds, but just beginning to think critically. Dosage is another issue. At his age, I mainly saw cartoons once a week on Saturday mornings. Between DVDs and cable, these shows are now available 24/7, offering a steady diet of a worldview that comes from the far side of the The Feminine Mystique and civil rights.
Sometimes there’s a subversive message that challenges the stereotypes. Hot, miniskirted Daphne is forever stumbling over her high heels, and yet she’s also intrepid; she doesn’t run and hide like Shaggy or Scooby. But when Daphne manages to catch the bad guy by herself, it’s always a fortunate accident. Only dorky, boyfriendless Velma can collar a crook deliberately.
We didn’t become an entire generation of intolerants after watching this stuff. It’s not as if I grew up expecting only bespectacled tomboys in orange turtlenecks to solve crimes, though. We didn’t become an entire generation of intolerants after watching this stuff. “How much harm did it do to you?” asked one of my high school friends, now a dad. “I am sure in your normal lives and dinner-time conversations you provide the proper context and perspective to your child.”
My son and I are going to have a conversation, but it won’t be a sermon about tolerance and equality. I think he’s already getting a handle on that (although the other day he referred to Martin Luther King as “Larry King,” so we’ve still got work to do . . .).
The unprecedented flow of media input and imagery coming at our kids from past and present will only grow, as marketers find new ways to infotain us. Retro cartoons with stereotypes are just one of a host of things he’s going to encounter. After our Boomerang summer, I realize it’s not too early to start teaching him tools for consuming entertainment without internalizing its message, whether he’s being subtly advertised at or spoon-fed stereotypes.
I want him to stop and ask himself: What’s the message here? Do I agree with it? He can enjoy the silliness but also have some skepticism in his back pocket.
Stereotypes are part of our history, but so is the progress we’ve made in moving away from them. Rather than bury our mistakes, animated or otherwise, we can let our kids learn from them. I don’t want my six-year-old son – or, eventually, my sixteen-year-old or twenty-six-year-old son – to look at Jar Jar Binks or Skids and Mudflap from the new Transformers movie and think, “Hey, that’s funny,” and then just move on. The lessons he gets from a summer of Huckleberry Hound – not from its content, necessarily, but from the tools I can give him to process it – may help him navigate content streams that haven’t even been invented yet.