I remember exactly when I met Adventure Time. It wasn’t so much a moment as a bunch of episodes at once, with more and more devoured quickly over the coming months. My first introduction to the cartoon remains fixed in my mind, suspended in perpetual Canberra winter. It was the refuge of my then-boyfriend’s bedroom and the laptop delicately balanced on our knees. It was us, huddled together and giggling at Ricardio’s “fold-y and dramatic” face, at Finn and Jake’s freak out when Princess Bubblegum’s plant died, at a duck eating bread and then quacking appreciatively. (I made him go back in the episode again and again to watch that bit.)
When I first met Adventure Time it felt like the ukulele intro was my personal soundtrack to happiness, and my entire world was watching cartoons with my then-boyfriend. Correction: when I first met Adventure Time my entire world was my then-boyfriend.
The association between my favourite person and my new favourite cartoon proved so strong that when we split up, I suddenly couldn’t bear to watch Adventure Time again. I’m sure you understand. Remember that one Muse album you loved as a teen and listened to religiously with your high school crush? And then, when that relationship ended, how the same album suddenly felt as abrasive and unlistenable as a live recording of The Birthday Party? Well, Adventure Time is to my romantic relationships as Matt Bellamy’s voice is to adolescence. They go hand in hand.
Fast forward to February 2016. I had just found out my latest boyfriend had cheated on me, and it sucked. We’d even been watching Adventure Time together the night before it happened, so the same feelings were stirred up all over again. There I was, many years later, still using my favourite cartoon to connect with someone I loved and being burned by the same association. (Alternate title for this piece: “Boys I Watched Adventure Time With Who Invariably Disappointed Me.”)
“We watched cartoons together… How could you?” spoke the melodramatic refrain in my head, because somehow the emotional betrayal hurt more than the physical infidelity. I quickly realised most of my formative relationships with men – romantic, friendships, or just with family – had developed alongside watching cartoons. So I began plotting the intersections, considering how each had shaped my identity, and writing a book. I lived alone at the time so the absence of my favourite cartoon playing in my flat was as palpable as the absence of texts from my (now ex-)boyfriend.
I couldn’t watch Adventure Time, but I sure as hell could pseudo-intellectualise writing about it.
What I found was that cartoons are important because they show situations, relationships and ideas that resonate in the real world. They open our eyes to ourselves, are friends to us from an early age, and provide entertainment after school and conversation topics on the playground the next day.
The Simpsons was my first animated frame of reference and its presence in the lounge room of my childhood home was like a four-fingered secondary parent. The episodes dedicated to Homer and Lisa taught me how important it was to have a good relationship with my dad.
Homer always sacrifices things he loves for Lisa’s wellbeing. In one episode he spends $200 he’s saved for an air conditioner on a saxophone to encourage her creativity, and empties the same air conditioner fund years later to replace it. In another episode Lisa feels ugly, so Homer, though misguidedly, sells his ticket to ride in a blimp so he can enter her in a beauty pageant and boost her self-esteem. For my ninth birthday my parents got me a B*Witched CD that I played to death that year. Much later on I found out we were actually very broke at the time; Dad had returned his new Living End CD so I could have a birthday present that year.
Thanks to shows like The Simpsons, animated cartoons now occupy a space that’s extended its reach far beyond children’s programming and into wider critical and cultural discussion. Kids who also grew up alongside The Simpsons hold a weird shared past and common language with each another, enduring mainly through Facebook pages of Simpsons memes aimed squarely at a nostalgic late-20s audience.
While writing about cartoons I revisited many that I’d grown up watching, to various results. Fond memories of watching Futurama with my uncle (if The Simpsons is a parent then Futurama was definitely the cool uncle) meant I was eager to revisit the series but, like most mainstream cartoons, Futurama’s treatment of women is problematic. Leela rejects a lot of traditional aspects of femininity and infiltrates a boys’ club to the extent that almost everyone answers to her, but recurring jokes at her expense nearly all rely on her being female.
Of course, the same goes for Family Guy. Lines I devotedly recited with my close guy friends in high school now make me cringe. I wonder, if I don’t find passing references to necrophilia or domestic violence funny now, have I outgrown a favourite cartoon? Have I outgrown those friendships, and even a part of myself?
As a collection, the cartoons I love are riddled with gendered bias. The presence of female characters is dismal and when women do appear they’re either irritating, objects of lust, or homemakers. Adult Swim has a reputation for being a boys’ club. Rick and Morty was called out recently for not having female writers for the first two seasons, and even my favourite female Adventure Time character, Lumpy Space Princess, is voiced by a guy.
However, the experience of revisiting once beloved cartoons wasn’t all bleak. It helped reinforce the amount of close relationships I’m lucky enough to have in my life and the reasons these endure. There was also tremendous healing value in returning to the more loud and brightly coloured parts of my past.
While cartoons first helped me to connect with romantic partners, because of their actions I sometimes found myself unable to endure watching my favourite one. This felt unjust. It felt obscene. Writing about it helped reclaim all of the things that had been stripped away from me by infidelity. The refrain “We watched cartoons together… How could you?” no longer felt melodramatic, it became explicitly self-righteous.
For those cartoons that I’ve since outgrown: rather than feeling like I’ve lost the friendships that formed alongside them or disconnected from a younger version of myself, the process made me understand how I’ve become more discerning. I don’t laugh along when shows make cheap shots at women. I’m wary of men who have Rick & Morty in their Netflix queue or praise the character Rick Sanchez.
Eventually I began to love Adventure Time again.
Emma Michelle is a Canberra-born Melbourne writer. Her work has been published by Kill Your Darlings, Orenda Magazine, and The Conversation (among others). In 2016 her story “Like Siamese” was longlisted for the Birdcatcher Books Short Story Award, and in 2017 she self-published a collection of stories titled Watching Cartoons with Boys.
Photo by Trevor Bashnick on flickr.