Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Do Kids Deserve Less Cartoonishly Evil Villains?

I recently finished watching the first season of The Legend of Korra, the sequel to the fantastic Avatar: The Last Airbender series on Nickelodeon. I like this new series a lot too, and not just because there are more people shooting water, air, fire and earth all over the place like elemental ninjas. The world feels alive, with well-defined characters filled with hopes, fears, and desires that the show doesn't simply insert and drop to fit a given storyline.

I especially like how the show handles its villains. A year ago I wrote about how thoroughly pleased I was with the The Last Airbender's treatment of the series' main antagonist Zuko, who struggled with his morality and eventually became an ally and true friend to Aang and the others. Continuing that tradition, every new villain in Legend of Korra is given a fair amount of depth and backstory explaining the motivation behind their actions. A tragic death of a loved one here, a shitty childhood/father there, and you can essentially get what drove these characters to the dark side.

The three dimensions are, uh, harder to see with the mask on.
It seems like such a simple thing, but looking back, none of the cartoon villains I had growing up had any kind of backstory whatsoever. It pretty much just boiled down to Always Be Cravin' - power, money, or whatever the heroes had that they didn't. Skeletor, Shredder, Cobra Commander, Megatron, Dr. Claw - I can think back and remember each one of their maniacally evil laughs, along with their individual promises to the heroes of the days they will rue, or the eternal reminder that next time, things will be different. But nothing deeper than that.

It reminds me of the whole anti-drug campaign I grew up being bombarded with: Don't do drugs kids, they're for losers. Drugs will rot your brains. Drugs will make you into an instant addict. Going into high school (no, I didn't encounter drugs before then), I blindly believed it all. Then I showed up at my first party with a room full people smoking pot. After five minutes of not seeing anyone's brains turning into fried eggs, I thought: "well, I guess that was total bullshit." Couldn't at least a portion of the anti-drug message allow for the fact that there are some drugs that are worse for you than others, and that some drugs, like marijuana, are actually pretty harmless? Are gray area messages that like too hard to pull off to kids? Something tells me that's not true.

Or we could just boil it down to name calling.
While the drug issue might be a little trickier to pull off (I honestly can't see ads saying: Okay don't do most drugs kids, and if you're going to smoke pot, that's fine, just don't become a full-on stoner, not because it's going to kill you, but c'mon you know stoners are super lame), I don't think there's any harm in portraying more three dimensional villains in children's entertainment. Like the mystical "dope" I'd heard so much about but never actually saw, I've never met anyone like the villains on the shows I watched growing up. You know who I did meet? Bullies with emotional issues. Pricks who thought they were better than everyone else. And some people who always acted really nice but would eventually reveal themselves to be selfish, inconsiderate assholes. There were like, zero episodes of the Care Bears dealing with those kinds of people.

Actually, I've met far more people who just come from a very different ideological place than me, and we have conflicting opinions on how the world should be. These are people I'll probably never be friends with, or maybe we won't ever be able to be in the same room together. But at the very least I can understand on some level where they're coming from, even if I don't agree with them. That's something very few children's programs prepared me for at all. Not even just the silly cartoons, either - I'm including things like Sesame Street and Mr. Roger's Neighborhood here.

And I don't think they get away with this simply because they're made for kids. The stuff I watched growing up for hundreds if not thousands of hours shaped me in a lot of ways. My moral framework probably came just as much from Superman and The Berenstein Bears as it did from my parents or what I learned in school. But as a result I know I came to believe that the world was a lot more black and white than it actually is. I definitely believed - unconsciously if not outright - that people were generally either bad or good, and that they always presented themselves that way (unless, you know, they were dirty evil liars whose dirty evil lies hadn't be exposed yet). And I had a much harder time unraveling this lie, since it was told to me about a thousand times as often, and the truth didn't present itself quite so clearly.

No, of course he wasn't a bad guy. He wasn't wringing his hands together and cackling like bad people do!
Now, I'm not saying I need to see the Smurfs politely agree to disagree with Gargamel on the whole 'turning Smurfs into gold' issue. Or show a Mumm-Ra flashback where he's being sodomized by cat demons. I just think programs like The Legend of Korra show it's possible to have the exciting stakes and the drama of any of the shows I watched growing up with just a little bit of pathos for the villains thrown in for the sake of telling a complete story. Maybe seeing that these villains are flawed and human-like in their misguided ways might condition kids early on to see the world less strictly filled with good guys and bad guys, or combinations of 'us' versus 'them'. Instead, they'll see a world that's just a little more complicated, with lots of people who have varying degrees of hangups and all different kinds of motivations. Wouldn't that make for a better take-home message?

-Matt

PS: I don't have kids, so I'd be curious to know what any parents might think about this issue. Maybe I'm thinking about it too much from an adult perspective. Thoughts?

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