Modern cartoons tackle complex, mature themes


Author: Frida Gurewitz

I’m an adult who likes cartoons. From this statement, one might imagine someone eating cereal and milk in front of the television on Saturday mornings like a sweaty, overgrown kid. I can say only one thing is true of this image: I am often snacking while watching cartoons.

The “overgrown kid” image is fading, however, and nowadays it’s not as much of a social stigma for adults to be interested in cartoons. Many modern cartoons deal with more complex emotions and subject matters than just primary colors and making friends.

With shows like “Gravity Falls,” “Adventure Time” and my personal favorite, “Steven Universe,” there is a shift from the sunny simplicity of Scooby Doo and Spongebob to something with the storytelling equivalence of more traditionally “mature” shows. They’re addressing adult subject matter and not talking down to the viewers.

“Adventure Time” initiated this new sort of genre. The show, created by Pendleton Ward for the Cartoon Network, began running in 2010.

It straddles the line between serious and absurd by featuring bright, weird colors and characters like Hot Dog Princess — a literal hot dog with a crown who appeals to children’s goofiness — while at the same time addressing themes of death, abandonment, nuclear war and loneliness. The show has exploded in popularity.

My favorite of this genre, though, is “Steven Universe.” In the simplest terms, it’s about a little boy being raised by a trio of magical alien women known as “The Crystal Gems,” with whom he helps defend the Earth. The show aired in 2013 and has attracted a large viewership.

The characters in the show appeal to many fans; they face insecurities about self-worth, ability and strength. These themes aren’t common for children’s shows.

“Steven Universe” and “Adventure Time” are deeply complex even though they are “just” cartoons. Creators are not treating cartoons as lesser because they’re traditionally considered to be for kids. These shows take advantage of the spectrum of imagination that can occur plausibly within animation to talk about heartbreak, responsibility, friendship and depression. There’s even LGBT representation. Despite the ridiculousness, what keeps bringing me and my friends back to these shows are the undeniable and relatable messages and characters — packaged in a format that’s appropriate for children, and adults who are children at heart.

Frida Gurewitz is a junior English major. She can be reached at

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