How cartoons tackle issues of identity

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Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 1.12.07 PMIt’s Saturday morning. You have your footie pajamas, a bowl of your favorite cereal and a free schedule — all of the qualities for a perfect cartoon marathon. Now the question remains: what channel will you be turning to? Perhaps it’s to see Zari, “Sesame Street’s” new female Afgan muppet. 

Zari, the six-year-old who appears in the fifth season of “Baghch-e Simsim,” Afghanistan’s version of “Sesame Street,” will be stepping into children’s living rooms to educate young viewers on female empowerment. Not only will Zari be interacting with children on the program, but also with Afghan professionals, giving viewers a glimpse into the culture and lifestyle of an Afghan woman.

With the unveiling of an Afghan feminist, it appears we are entering a new age of progressive cartoons. Television historian for DePaul’s College of Communication Luke Stadel agrees, saying that cartoons are a reflection of the diversity trend seen in today’s television.

“Cartoons have always been a subversive space,” Stadel said. “The fact that children’s programming is overtly playing to identity politics is reflective of the larger trend, which is towards open acknowledgement of diverse groups. Historically, it was always about black and white, but today we’re seeing that television programs are able to encompass a large range of racial identities. You need to shift away from TV being a mass media, to a niche media to facilitate that.”

This phenomenon of niche media was not always the case. But according to Stadel, it’s proof that educational networks are beginning to realize what needs to be taught to the younger generation.

“What is the function of Sesame Street? That’s the debate,” Stadel said. “Conservatives see this being a problem because PBS is a publicly funded network. Opponents of this development seem to think it’s indoctrinating children. It’s supposed to teach them reading and math. Is this the thing we need to teach children? The creators of the show tend to think so. They court progressive audiences because they no longer need to worry about offending conservatives.”

DePaul freshman Gabrielle Evans believes the development of characters, such as Zari, reflect the social climate of contemporary society and will help strengthen children’s outlook on various cultures and identities.

“It’s a huge step forward for inclusiveness in children’s cartoons,” Evans said. “I think it’s really timely because there’s so much hostility towards Muslims in the U.S. and Europe. It can definitely improve children’s perceptions of Muslims, and hopefully, ease the tensions that exist.”

Although Evans gives credit to “Sesame Street” for implementing progressive ideas, she reminds us not to forget the cartoons that paved the way for characters like Zari to even exist.

“The ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ franchise showcased characters of different fictional races cooperating against a common enemy,” Evans said. “ 90s cartoons, too, pushed the envelope to what was acceptable. Shows like, ‘Rugrats’ and ‘Hey Arnold!’ did a good job showing different characters from different backgrounds respecting each other as individuals, as well as not playing into stereotypes.”

Another show that emerged in the early 1990s — and still remains popular to this day — is “The Simpsons.” The show, which has become television’s longest-running American animated program, has attracted viewers through its satirical humor of a yellow-skinned family living in the fictional town of Springfield. Stadel emphasizes how the show not only won its audience over with comedy, but also through its lighthearted portrayal of politics.

“Cartoons are a space to deal with ideas in an extreme fashion and you write it off, as ‘it’s not reality,’” Stadel said. “‘The Simpsons’ was a key turning point in TV history because that was what FOX did,” Stadel said. “Shows like the ‘The Flintstones,’ and ‘The Jetsons,’ were more neutral in tone. The creators of ‘The Simpsons’ wanted to provoke; gaining an audience and airspace was about being provocative. The best way was to use cartoons.”

Stadel mentioned how cartoons appeal to various age groups, while also going against traditional values, became a trend that is still seen in programming today.

“We think of cartoons as being the Saturday morning for children,” Stadel said. “Cartoons became codified with Cartoon Network as something that could appeal to adults. A lot of the humor and politics — especially on Adult Swim — is subversive and goes against the grain. We’ve become used to the idea that animation is more than just kid stuff,” Stadel said.

While cartoon lovers in the DePaul community reflect on the identities incorporated by the past generation of animated shows, freshman Brock Williams expresses the life lessons he took away from them.

“‘Ed, Edd, n Eddy’, ‘Johnny Bravo’ (and) other Cartoon Network shows always showed if you mess up, fix it yourself,” Williams said. “There’s not always going to be somebody to help you out. ‘Courage the Cowardly Dog’ taught you to be brave and protect the ones you love. ‘SpongeBob SquarePants’ shows each person can be their own individual self, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Whether it’s watching a variety of diverse characters live together in harmony or taking home some food for thought, cartoons enable viewers to build connections with animated individuals whose lives resemble modern society in a unique way.

Williams believes this element is what draws families to continue to watch these cartoons long after their final episode.

“It’s to remember your childhood,” Williams said. “Me and my dad used to watch ‘Courage the Cowardly Dog’ together. We still to this day can remember every single episode and the catch phrase ‘You stupid dog!’ Those quotes were hilarious and iconic to us.”

Zari is on her way to becoming a household name and joining the beloved hearts of cartoon lovers. Stadel added that the animated six-year-old could not have found a more perfect home than “Sesame Street.”

“For a show like ‘Sesame Street,’ it has a brand everyone is familiar with,” Stadel said. “It’s not just this new show. Almost everyone has this memory growing up watching ‘Sesame Street.’ That’s why the creators feel it’s important. They’re making a strong intervention.”