There is so much great geek media out there to enjoy: movies, video games, television—the list goes on. It is my solemn belief that these are art forms, and deserve all the discussion we give them, from the critical (like representation) to the mundane (shipping). The range of topics shows how much these art forms resonate with audiences. But to more effectively have these discussions, I think it is important not to dismiss shows with a younger target demographic.
We have cartoons aimed at young children, such as Dora the Explorer or Nick Jr.’s offerings, which tend to have a focus on learning some sort of life or educational skills. On the flip side are “adult” cartoons, such as Family Guy or South Park. These are often denoted by explicit themes and the freedom to swear. (Some anime falls in this age range with sexual and violent themes.) But then, there is everything in the middle area: Adventure Time, Gravity Falls, Steven Universe—shows that feature young protagonists, bright colors, and a lack of “adult” content. Yet do these shows really lack adult themes? After all, this seems to be where most of our genre fictions sits: too old for children, but too immature for adults—but I don’t like this thought.
The adult experience is far more nuanced than the territories of cynicism, sex, violence, or cussing. While these are rightly considered “adult” themes, they aren’t the same as “grown-up” themes. In this way, many things that adults struggle with are similar to what children struggle with: isolation, grief, the need for discovery, etc. either because we never fully understood them as children, or because no amount of experience can prepare you for what the world throws at you. There seems to be a rather large section of people in my generation (early-mid twenties) that very much enjoys cartoons with younger target demographics. To me, this makes a great deal of sense. As young adults, there is a part of us still saying “I need this” very loudly when seeing characters navigate experiences.
The fantastic elements only highlight the mundane struggles we relate to. In Adventure Time, it’s fun to watch the Ice King use his powers, but the character arc that has an impact on us was his struggle of turning into the Ice King: his fear of losing himself, of not being able to stop himself from hurting loved ones. In Steven Universe, the crystal gems fight intergalactic monsters, but doubt their abilities in raising a child, and grieve over the loss of his mother. In Regular Show, Mordecai, who regularly fights unexplainable, magic life-threatening events, is more scared about awkward moments between him, his current girlfriend, and his ex-girlfriend. The underlying point is that despite us enjoying the supernatural, there is something else we are relating to—we’re relating to the serious topics that we encounter in real life. (For example, you don’t see the same fandom reaction from Fairly Oddparents and Spongebob fandoms as in the Steven Universe one.)
These types of shows also resonate with older viewers because they respect their younger audience. During episodes, there typically isn’t a dumbed-down over-explanation of simple concepts (unless that’s the joke) to help viewers keep up. Additionally, creators are putting their faith in the viewers that they will understand why a subject matters enough to necessitate storytelling and break up the action or comedy. In other words, the viewer doesn’t feel like they’re watching a kids’ show. This maintains the grown-up atmosphere. Honestly, this is probably part of the appeal to younger viewers as well.
Considering all of this, it’s not useful to diminish family-friendly as “kiddie”, or to avoid shows aimed at younger viewers. It reduces the amount of interesting, critical discussion and can dissuade people from witnessing experiences that they could really use and enjoy. If you’re an adult, there’s no reason not to watch kids’ shows—they can often be just as good as, if not better than, shows marketed towards adults. Especially given the constraint of avoiding explicit material, there can be a huge focus on content. For this reason, I have to recommend giving these shows a chance!