Cartoons: Children’s gateway into the world of culture

When I was young I loved cartoons. Like most young children with a TV in their home, I would return from school, drop my “books”, grab a snack, and plop myself in front of the tube. My siblings and I would sit transfixed for hours watching the antics of Tom and Jerry, the ghost-solving mysteries of Scooby Doo, or the Road Runner constantly foiling the coyote’s attempts at catching it. Weekends were especially great because all the best cartoons were on and we could wake up early and sleep late in front of the tube, just watching and absorbing.

As Gramsci so aptly notes, the press (media, news, magazines, etc) are the vessel through which the dominant ideology and culture is passed on to the masses. This form of delivery of culture is the most successful because the masses have a sense of agency in their absorption of it. We watch television for so-called entertainment, read the news to keep up-to-date on current events, and so forth. These forms of watching are by our own choosing.

As children, we do not have this overt sense of agency, yet when our parents ask us: what would you like to watch? Cartoons are the eager answer. Is it because we really want to watch cartoons? Or is it because they are made for children that children watch cartoons? Regardless of the answer to the above questions, one thing remains: children are the most vulnerable and susceptible of beings. They absorb and regurgitate (although this phenomenon is not limited to them). They are one of the most powerful tools for dominant cultural renewal because children grow into adolescents who grow into adults who reproduce what they absorbed as children. And thus the cycle continues. Whether american-made cartoons, Japanese anime, or French comics, cartoons are a major part of our childhood and thus our cultural formation.

One of my favorite cartoons growing up was Dexter’s laboratory. I loved his almost diabolical genius and his irritating sister who would thwart his every invention. So you can imagine my joy and surprise when I came across a forbidden episode of Dexter’s Lab! Watching it again, I notice so many things I took for granted when I was younger. In this episode Dexter creates a rude removal machine so that DeeDee is not rude to him. The first thing I noticed was the idea of sibling rivalry. I got along very well with my siblings when I was younger (I still do), but the episode, indeed the show, perpetuates the idea that siblings are not supposed to get along. After the rude removal, things get worse. There are several mentions of what a mother (a woman) is supposed to do (cook, take care of the house), to what a woman should be called (“tuts”, “sweetheart”). Further, the entire notion that Dexter (boy child) is the genius and DeeDee is the annoying girl (woman) who destroys everything speaks to the fact that men are smart creators, and women are disruptive to that process. While exaggerated, a child watching this internalizes the idea that as a boy, they are smart and as a girl, that they should leave the men to what the men do. Suffice it to say that I was unsurprised yet intrigued at the messages that were (are) portrayed to children through cartoons.

Despite this, I still love cartoons! While I have since grown out of so-called “childhood” cartoons and delved into the realm of adult cartoons (family guy, american dad, Robot chicken, etc), the fact that they are in cartoon form gives them a very different dimension than if the actors were real. Their “innocence” is no longer there, but I am almost ashamed to admit that I am still entertained despite the sexist, racist, agist, religiously inappropriate gags present. Downright ashamed. Yet isn’t this one manifestation of my cultural influences? Of how dominant ideology is reproduced? We learn to “accept” that these jokes are just jokes, yet they have a far deeper meaning than we attribute to them. I will dive into this more later. For now, I will leave you with the Dexter’s Lab episode. Enjoy.

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