If you watch enough cartoons, you being to notice certain patterns in the storytelling. For one, the heroes are always unfailingly, insufferably nice. The hero, whether person or pup or genie, will never, EVER do anything to hurt anyone else, even the villain, except perhaps in that one episode in season 2 where the whole point is to show how important it is to be nice to everyone, as though that point weren’t blaring through every episode. For another, the villains, far from being scary or threatening, are always incompetent and clueless, and the heroes usually end up saving the villain from the disastrous consequences of being mean and stupid. My kids are into Nick Jr right now, and I’ve yet to see an adventure-style show where this does not apply. When’s the last time you saw Ryder do something mean or make any mistake at all? No matter how many times Mayor Humdinger tries to steal their giant robotic dinosaur (though he can’t figure out the controls and ends up needing to be saved by the PAW Patrol), the good people of Adventure Bay never judge him or refuse to let him hang around. They willingly invite him to all their parties.
It’s just for kids, though, right? We can’t expect nuanced storytelling in shows targeted at five-year-olds. Clearly we don’t, but that’s why it provides such a unique perspective on what we value and what we despise. After all, kids may be the audience, but cartoons are created by adults, and adults, as a rule, believe children to be idiots. That’s why they are afraid to portray any negative quality in a hero, who children will presumably admire and imitate without thought, and why cartoon villains often become caricatures of qualities adults hate and want children to hate too.
According to this metric, what we value most is inclusivity, the basic principle of which is non-judgement and which manifests itself in a universal kindness and acceptance of everyone. There are no lone heroes in cartoons—that would be contradictory—they always come in pairs and more often in packs. The villain is a loner, an outsider who causes trouble for everyone else in pursuit of their own selfish goals. If he’s lucky enough to get a sidekick, it’s inevitably a good-natured goofball played for laughs. They take what belongs to the community and, what is more, are rude and belittling toward others in the group. Rarely, however, are they malicious, intending to cause harm for harm’s sake. Harm and disaster are shown as the consequences of self-aggrandizement and a refusal to play by the rules.
It should not be a surprise in our high-tech society that a defining characteristic of evil should be incompetence. Competence is a high American virtue. But given the nature of our heros, there is no other way to resolve these stories. With a hero that is perfectly nice and peaceful, it isn’t enough not to be mean; it’s also important not to fight with those who are mean. How, then, will evil be defeated and goodness be proven triumphant? Only by the incompetence and stupidity of those who are evil. Evil must defeat itself. Fortunately, on Nick Jr, it always does. There hero’s job is not to oppose evil so much as follow behind it like a patient parent, cleaning up after its messes and picking it up when it falls down.
Teaching our kids to play nice and help others, even those who are mean to us, is a fine lesson to learn, but whenever I’m on the couch, watching a show with kids in my lap, I find myself wishing we trusted our children a little more. The prevalence of such bland niceness strikes me as sign we’ve lost faith in ourselves, that we aren’t confident in teaching our kids anything distinctly moral at all. The world, even in the eyes of a five-year-old, is much more complex, as children are well able to understand. Far from being idiots dangerously vulnerable to messaging, our children tend to resist our teaching our best intentions. Maybe it’s because they see it every day, when they get off the iPad. Mommy and Daddy are not always nice to each other. They are not always nice to their siblings. The group is not always nice and the outsider not always cruel. Niceness often doesn’t solve anything while cruelty and selfishness sometimes get results. Maybe evil will defeat itself in the end, but it often doesn’t before then. Kids are capable of hearing and understanding the truth. We all want to be the hero, which is why we so often end up becoming the villain. The thing we really hate, if you pay attention to cartoons, is ourselves.