If you’ve been following this blog so far, it’s pretty clear to you that I was a huge fan of Nickelodeon in the 1990s (I’ll write about cartoons on other channels too, I promise!). The NickToons off that time were among my absolute favorite cartoons to watch and I watched them religiously. Among all of the others that were on at the time, I particularly watched a lot of CatDog. I’ve written glowing posts about Doug and Rugrats so far, but I never felt the same way about CatDog. I’ve always had strong feelings about CatDog, but they were strongly ambivalent feelings. There were things I liked about CatDog but there were also things that always really bothered me about and I didn’t understand why until very recently.
For those of you that were around in the mid ’90s, how many of you remember “Gangsta’s Paradise”? It was a single in 1995 by a rapper named Coolio and it was a massive hit at the time. Perhaps you are more aware of “Amish Paradise”, the parody of this song by “Weird Al” Yankovic. The parody went on to be a massive hit for Weird Al too. Despite the good reception that “Amish Paradise” received from the public, Coolio himself did not respond kindly to it. He said publicly that Weird Al’s parody “desecrated the song”. Geez, sensitive much? Who could hate on Weird Al? This is his M.O.; he’s just a harmless clown. Why waste energy being mad at something so inconsequential? You know what? In retrospect, I can see why Coolio initially reacted negatively to Weird Al’s remix. I think this contentious interaction between Coolio and Weird Al represents more than just a chance interaction between two musicians.
In the past several years, there has been a greater push for greater diversity of people of varying ethnic groups, sexual affiliations, gender identities, etc in popular media. Hollywood has always been a monolith of white heterosexual patriarchy and have always been (well, for as long as my brief years alive anyway) risk-averse. The voices screaming in your ear for more visibility of women, people of color, and people within the LGBT+ community are getting harder and harder to ignore these days. At the same time, when you’ve raised generations of your audience on the same ol’ mayonnaise sandwiches on Wonder Bread, throwing a little pepper into the mix could be upsetting to their palette. What’s a Hollywood executive to do? Ignore the protesting crowd and going with more of the same (and justify it using The Princess and the Frog’s respectable, but below expectations box office numbers vs. Frozen’s record-breaking commercial success)? Or do you take that chance and risk a backlash from the audience you’ve already cultivated (i. e. the fallout over Michael B. Jordan being cast as the Human Torch)?
Nickelodeon found themselves in a very similar quandary in the early 1990s. This little network that could started building up a steadily growing audience during its formative years in the mid to late 1980s. It cultivated its audience as a television network that was dedicated to kid’s programming all the time. As such, it was important that it spoke the language of kids, related to kids, and celebrated kids simply for being kids, unlike most children’s programming at the time which was mostly interested in patronizing their youthful audiences and making them want to buy toys. As Nickelodeon was growing into a bigger cultural force in the early ’90s, some couldn’t help but notice that the kids the network seemed to speak to, relate to, and celebrate were exclusively white. By then-studio executives’ own admission, they were totally cognizant of the fact that there were only featuring white kids on their programming, since the channel was only available on cable in the ’80s and the incomes that could where financially well-off enough to afford cable television at that time were typically white households. But that’s not such a good excuse anymore for a rapidly growing network (not that it was a good excuse in the first place).