Were talking cartoons, folks, and its no laughing matter. Time was that moms and dads could breathe easy and scuttle off to their chores when Gumby or Yogi Bear waddled onto the screen. Nowadays when your youngsters ask what a dildo is, theres an even chance that they heard the word on a cartoon.
Blame it on The Simpson’s. Seventeen years ago Matt Groening sparked an animated revolution with his sharp satire of suburban sloth. But I doubt Groening conceived the show with four-year-olds in mind. Thats how old my son was when I first caught him watching The Simpson’s at his babysitters. The sitter, an otherwise excellent caregiver, thought the show was fine for her little charges: after all, it was a cartoon. In my six years as a kids TV critic, Ive come across that attitude again and again as I talk to parents, read the ratings, and look at the material passed to me by well-meaning editors and publicists: if its a cartoon, its gotta be family viewing.
Were not a kids channel, says Madeleine Levesque, who heads up program development for Teletoon. We do programs for adults. Its very clear. Yes, there is still a bit of the well its cartoons so its for kids attitude, but thats really not true. It hasn’t been true for years.
Levesque was referring specifically to programs in Teletoon’s Detour bloc that begins every night at 9 p.m. But she also pointed out that kids cartoons are among the most carefully targeted programs on television. That means what might be deemed right for an eight-year-old may not be the ticket for a preschooler, never mind cartoons that are rated PG, 14+ or even 18+. Parents need to pay attention to those little black and white doodlebugs on the corner of the screen.
Not long after The Simpson’s proved there was an appetite for adult animation, the television universe fragmented into a multitude of services hungry for programming that can create enough of a sensation to grab a few headlines and glue a few extra eyeballs to their signals. The good news is that there are some great cartoons out there. But shows like Family Guy and South Park took edge humour to new depths. The spectacle of a topless woman catching hot dogs in her mouth in the hope of winning money for breast implants isn’t satirical, its stupid. Peter Griffinths vending mackerel beneath a sign saying I had sex with these fish constitutes cheap, lets-all-snicker-at-the-dumb-fat-guy humour. It isn’t good enough for me. Why would it be good enough for my kids?
Talk to the psychologists and they’ll tell you that theres no hard evidence that cynical programming creates cynical children, or that coarse content shapes coarse minds. Parental influence trumps TV crudeness every time. Its also important to keep exposure to suspect material within certain limits. But with 80 opportunities to view The Simpson’s and 47 chances to tune in to Family Guy each week on your local cable service, you cant help but feel the odds are against you.
My son is now 13 and a confirmed Simpson’s addict. Its a struggle to hold him to one viewing per day. Hes a good kid. But when I tell him to change the channel and a Bart Simpson smirk creeps across his angelic features, I think of that day at the babysitters long ago, and I cringe.