WARNING: This blog post is NSFW.
In my last blog post, I talked extensively about South Park and it’s still on my mind this week. I recently heard news that the show has been renewed all the way to 2019. The longevity and ubiquity of this show is something to behold. Its longevity is only seconded by the other highly ubiquitous cartoon series The Simpsons. As influential as that show has been in its 25+ year run, I think that South Park has had a bigger influence over the landscape of comedy and adult animation. South Park is one of my favorite cartoons, but I think its influence has been mostly negative.
South Park can be very witty, intelligent, and even moving at times, but let’s not forget that this was a show that was founded on the premise of little kids indulging in vulgarity simply for the sake of it. That’s always going to be its legacy and for better or for worse, most adult cartoons simply imitated that while missing the bigger point to what South Park is trying to do. There is so much about adulthood that animation is in a unique place to address, but most of it in the US can’t get beyond immature indulgences in profanity, sex, violence, gore, and bodily functions. Some examples include:
I was particularly frustrated with Drawn Together because it was a show I really wanted to like. I thought the premise of it was brilliant (parodying reality TV and different types of cartoons? I’m in!), I loved the voice talent attached to it (Tara Strong, Cree Summer, Jess Harnell, etc.), I liked the way the characters were designed, and I liked the concepts behind the characters (a Disney princess as a racist Daddy’s girl and Betty Boop as a sex symbol in denial about being way past her prime is hilarious to me). But in execution, Drawn Together just ended up being a showcase for puerile sex jokes, tedious obscene language, overindulgent blood and guts, and really ugly racism, misogyny, Antisemitism, homophobia, ableism, etc. It tried to out-South Park South Park, but without an iota of thoughtfulness to be able to make a point about anything.
I’m so sick of cartoons like this. I’m so sick of cartoons that think they’re adult simply because they use the words “penis” or “vagina” over and over again in their punchlines. I’m so sick of cartoons that are mean-spirited and want to be offensive simply for the sake of being offensive. I’m so sick of cartoons with simplistic Holden Caulfield-esque political views that think they’re rebels for swatting at politically-correct strawmen. Aren’t we supposed to be adults? Can’t we do better?!
Did South Park’s influence bring about a de-evolution in adult animation? I mentioned The Simpsons earlier. Before South Park planted its seeds in our collective consciousness, The Simpsons was the most influential adult cartoon show. While it (especially Bart) was considered controversial in its early years, it was a show that was always very humanistic and caring towards its characters (http://www.buzzfeed.com/moerder/16-simpsons-episodes-that-made-you-teary-eyed#.jt5BKJ8Wz). However, even if South Park never existed, I think an eventual direction towards crassness would have been inevitable. Conveying empathy and intelligence through cartoon characters is hard to do. It’s much easier to make dick and poop jokes or use them as puppets to argue for your right to use homophobic slurs. Long before South Park, the godfather of adult animation in the last 25 years is Ralph Bakshi. He made waves in the animation industry with the release of his first film Fritz the Cat in 1972. It was an X-rated film with no shortage of profanity, drugs, sex, and violence. I didn’t particularly care for Fritz the Cat for the same reason I criticized the other cartoons influenced by South Park. When the novelty of a cuddly cartoon character being no-so-kid-friendly wears off (and it wears off fast), you realize that you would have been better off in life without seeing a bunch of fury animals have an orgy in a bathtub or a horse woman get raped by her rabbit boyfriend and his buddies.
I guess these types of cartoons were always inevitable. Animation has never been far away from its creators’ base instincts. Before Ralph Bakshi came along, there was adult content in the cartoons from Warner Bros., Max Fleischer, and MGM all the time.
Granted, those examples aren’t as overtly crass as Fritz the Cat or anything that came after, but here’s a cartoon from the 1920s that’s downright pornographic (http://io9.com/5919401/one-of-the-earliest-adult-cartoons-was-gonzo-even-by-todays-standards-nsfw).
So if these types of base-level of cartoons have always existed in animation for adults, shouldn’t I just except that this is just how adult cartoons are? Like I said before, base instincts and indulgences aren’t the full extent of the adult experience. If you take a step outside of the US, various countries have used animation to explore more subject matter for adults. Subject matter that dares to be emotional or intellectually stimulating. Waltz With Bashir is a powerful documentary about the Israel’s 1982 war in Lebanon. Persepolis is a film about a woman coming of age during the 1978 Iranian Revolution. Neon Genesis Evangelion explores psychology and depression. Cowboy Bebop is about characters who try as they might, are unable to escape their past. Rocks in My Pockets is about a woman’s exploration of her family’s history of depression and suicide. Perfect Blue is a psychological thriller that blurs the protagonist’s sense of reality and fantasy. Animal Farm is an allegory/critique of the Soviet Union’s leadership. These are just a few examples. I know that not every American cartoon is a derivative of South Park, but generally speaking I wish the American adult animation landscape would abandon the lowest common denominator and explore storytelling for adults that doesn’t simply follow the foundation South Park or even The Simpsons before it has already laid out.