It seems in recent years as though a dam has broken and the notion of what is “acceptable content” for a kids or YA show thankfully now has an ever-increasing flow of support. While themes of inclusivity and equality have been a staple of the genre since the early days of Children’s Television Workshop, recent examples like Steven Universe have dealt with gender identity and sexuality in ways that would likely have been vetoed by the networks even a decade ago. One show that, in many ways at least, was at the forefront of that charge is Adventure Time. While by no means perfect, it gives us numerous examples of gender equality and represents a fairly wide range of gender, sexual, and romantic identities that fall outside the heteronormative narratives that many of the genre’s examples, even the best ones, have traditionally retold ad nauseum.
While Adventure Time does this in numerous ways and through numerous characters, there is one example that is among the most direct and the most enduringly popular: Fionna and Cake. In looking not only at these characters specifically, but also more broadly at what they show us about the Ice King and toxic masculinity, we can see one of the best examples of these themes being presented in subtle and complex ways that are accessible to the target age group and, ultimately, further that tradition of inclusiveness.
First, a brief recap. Fionna and Cake are genderbent (and in Cake’s case species-bent) versions of the series protagonists Finn and Jake. They are (at least initially) “fictional” characters created by the Ice King (Simon Petrikov). They are, literally, Adventure Time fanfic created by a character within the show’s universe. In addition to being about as meta as it gets, the result is that we are granted a fascinating window into the Ice King’s subconscious and how he views gender and sexuality. We can see his entitlement, his loneliness, his confusion caused by half-understood romantic social constructs, and his inability to understand the nature of basic human relationships. We get, in short, a perfect example of the Ice King’s as a metaphor for toxic masculinity. Before getting into Fionna and Cake specifically, a look at IK/Simon’s masculinity in general is key in understanding what they represent.
Ice King is used to represent the dangers of toxic masculinity from his first appearance. In that episode (“Prisoners of Love”) Ice King has kidnapped several princesses, along with Finn and Jake, and is holding them captive. We learn that his life’s ambition is to capture princesses… and that he has been doing a lot of it. When confronted by Finn and Jake as to how messed up that is, he defends himself by saying that the reason he is kidnapping princesses is because he wants to marry them. In his mind, the fact that he has so-called “honorable intentions” renders his felonious violations acceptable. He does not even consider the agency of these princesses (all of significantly more powerful kingdoms than his own, by the way) and sees them as little more than accessories, a point driven home by his justifying the kidnapping of multiple princesses as wanting to make sure he chooses the “best one” as his wife. When Finn tells him that none of the princesses like him, he tells Finn that if that were true, he would have murdered them by now. So he is kidnapping and “collecting” women until he decides which one he likes the best, and then he will presumably either keep her imprisoned indefinitely or execute her. That’s about as toxic as toxic masculinity gets.
As we see more of the Ice King, his character begins to deepen and we see his primary motivation is loneliness. It is crucial at this point to mention a vital factor in any discussion of IK: his mental illness. The effects of the magic curse that turned Simon Petrikov into the Ice King are often interpreted as representing those of an older man living with mental illness: most prominently Alzheimer’s/dementia and narcissistic personality disorder, but possibly also bipolar disorder, as he is shown to experience periods of extreme depression and what appear to be manic episodes.
As the episodes progress, he goes from being a serious villain to an annoyance and is even sometimes presented as likeable. But he remains driven by loneliness and narcissism, kidnapping and brainwashing princesses while believing he is owed the love and adoration of others. These others include Finn and Jake, whom he considers his friends, and whom he will ultimately fantasize about in the form of Fionna and Cake.
When Finn and Jake foil Ice King’s various plots, they show a desire to help others, even the Ice King himself. When they eventually learn about his past (more on that in a bit) they begin to feel sorry for him and will occasionally go out of their way to try and help him. Thus Finn and Jake represent people who are close to the Ice King, who care about him, who won’t tolerate his bullshit, and who are really cool. As he’s unable to process the reality of his “friendship” with Finn and Jake, he fantasizes about them in a form where he can engage in heterosexual romance fantasy about them, at least about Fionna. It is also crucial to note that Finn is thirteen years old in the first few seasons and while Fionna visually resembles someone older, it is not entirely clear how old Fionna is actually meant to be (she’s presented as being a peer to Prince Gumball who is presumably “nineteen” like PB), and therefore she’s no less inappropriate as a target of IK’s romantic affections. They are, on the surface, pure juvenile fantasy, and the type of fanfic written by people who grow up to post on fedora enthusiast forums. But when we actually look at Fionna and Cake themselves, a different picture often emerges.
Being based on Finn and Jake, Fionna and Cake are skilled adventurers. The types of activities they engage in are identical to those of their male counterparts and they are not presented as being less capable due to their gender. Most of the Fionna and Cake episodes feature well-thought-out plot lines and solid character development. There are even moments where Fionna explicitly seems to reject the idea that she’s “supposed to” have a boyfriend (or a girlfriend for that matter), showing a degree of independence not common to women in that type of fanfic. However, these episodes often end in Fionna professing love for the Ice King (these moments are made even more super meta due to the fourth wall breakage). What makes this interesting, however, is the fact that while his fantasies are juvenile and sexually/romantically unhealthy, the type of character he conceives of for those fantasies is one with strength, intelligence, and agency. He feels entitled to the love of this sort of person; it’s certainly still toxic in every way, but he isn’t looking to debase them and he seems to want a genuine connection to a person like Simon Petrikov’s former partner, Betty Grof.
Ice King’s masculinity is unquestionably toxic; while he is occasionally shown to want to be coming from a place of respect and equality, he is incapable of the type of empathy necessary to actually do so. It is crucial to remember, however, that while Ice King’s masculinity is toxic, Simon Petrikov’s is not. Before becoming the Ice King, Simon Petrikov was an erudite scholar and an egalitarian. He was an excellent father figure for a young orphaned Marceline and a caring lover to his assistant and girlfriend Betty. Simon Petrikov’s Jekyll, unlike Ice King’s crown cursed Mr. Hyde, is capable of engaging in truly equal relationships and of viewing women as partners: as people rather than objects. This aspect to Simon’s personality is buried somewhere in the Ice King and this dichotomy, also common to many real life spreaders of toxic masculinity, informs his creation of Fionna. While Ice King is incapable of understanding it, what he really wants is for someone he loves to save him from his own toxicity. While Simon bears some responsibility for wearing the crown in the first place, certainly, his toxicity is largely brought about due to the way that magic has affected him with “sadness and madness” that accompanies wizardry in the Land of Ooo. Before connecting that back to Fionna and Cake, let’s take a look at Simon’s relationship with his oldest friend and all around uber badass Marceline the Vampire Queen.
From the time Petrikov found her in the ruins of the world (after the apocalypse in AT’s distant past), to the present day where the Ice King is no longer able to remember his former life, Marceline has stood by him. He was her father figure and most beloved friend and has remained so even as she saw him slowly succumb to the effects of the crown that turned him into the Ice King. Marceline can’t hate him because she knows he’s not evil, he’s sick. While she won’t tolerate his behavior and can’t bear to spend time around him, she still loves him and wants to help him. Even though Marceline is used in other cases to demonstrate how strong women can still be in abusive relationships, that does not seem to be the dynamic with IK. He doesn’t respect, or even really understand, her boundaries, and he tries to get Marceline to help him score with PB (awkward on so many levels), but the relationship is one that is complex and emotionally evocative.
Crucially, Marceline’s reactions to the Ice King’s actions is twofold. In some cases she sees how Simon is confused and she tries to reach out to someone who behaves in toxic ways; in other cases she sees how the Ice King doesn’t care about anything other than self-gratification and she directly opposes him. That sends an incredibly nuanced message about responding to toxic masculinity which, I think, is one that kids of all genders need to hear. It tells us that sometimes these men are sick and need our help, but sometimes they’re just dangerous jerks who need to be prevented from hurting people.
All of this also informs Fionna and Cake and tells us quite a bit about Ice King’s toxicity. Through the window into Simon Petrikov’s past and his relationships with some incredible women, we can see that part of what motivates Ice King is the same emotional neediness that drives the “manic pixie dream girl” trope. Ice King wants a magically perfect woman, his “princess,” to come along and save him from himself. But we also see a more crucial point and one that is perhaps the most subtle in these episodes: the anger and hatred directed at these women is externalized anger that these men often feel at themselves. They have been fed a hypermasculine narrative that has locked their thinking into a form of entitlement and prevents them from developing healthy romantic and sexual relationships. This feeds into the cycle of self-loathing and abuse that, in the Land of Ooo and the real world alike, often leads to tragedy. By imagining Fionna and Cake as people who continually foil a genderbent version of himself and presenting that version as a villain, we can see Ice King’s subconscious desire to destroy the aspect of himself which drives him to his toxic behavior; ironically identifying those aspects with his female doppelganger. That aspect to his psyche likely derives from those first few moments when the Ice King persona was emerging but when Simon Petrikov was still focused on protecting the women he loved from the dangerous nature of that persona.
Now, that all sounds incredibly complex for a kids’ show, but most of it focuses on impressing upon viewers the distinction between Simon and Ice King and associating the two personas with a healthy and an unhealthy view of masculinity, of sexual and romantic entitlement in particular, that strikes a chord and makes an impression. As Ice King is shown to be at best an incompetent, selfish, mentally ill old man and at worst a violent (would-be) serial rapist, Simon is shown to be a capable and confident man who has deeply and mutually fulfilling relationships with women, not all of them romantic. These two contrasting visions of masculinity are presented as being on opposing ends of a moral spectrum but in a way that does not erase the complexity of the factors that sometimes drive the more toxic shades, mental illness chief among them.
By presenting a lot of these issues through Ice King’s fanfiction, we get these messages from genderbent versions of male characters we know incredibly well (all characters in Ice King’s fanfic appear to be genderbent versions of “real” people). We are shown that the gender of the character doesn’t really matter because the person inside is essentially unchanged. In this, we also get a possible solution to the problem of toxic masculinity, a de-emphasis of gender as a defining characteristic. We see Fionna acting very much the same way Finn does and Simon treating Marceline in a gender neutral, platonic, and deeply connected fashion. We see Ice King focusing intensely on fulfilling stereotypical gender roles to the point where he often seems to not really know exactly what he actually wants from the women he kidnaps, and remains lonely and miserable as a result. By holding a mirror up to this complex yet relatable aspect to Adventure Time’s thematic content, the Fionna and Cake stories make all these points accessible in a way that doesn’t overwhelm young viewers by expecting them to understand it all at once; they acknowledge the complexity and the learning curve involved and begin to form a semi-subconscious understanding.
There are plenty of other ways Adventure Time explores these themes: Bubbeline and the bait-y way it has often been handled, the complex gender identity and sexuality of Huntress Wizard, and BMO as a representation of an agenderflux person, to name a few. But something about the way Fionna and Cake are used to give us deeper insight into the nature of Ice King’s toxic masculinity really establishes Adventure Time as a stand out example of its genre. It is an animated show aimed at younger audiences that can address these themes in genuine and relatable ways without sacrificing the pure fun of the cartoon fantasy genre in the process. While it has its ups and downs these days (the recent Stakes miniseries being a major up), that message, and similarly inclusive ones like it, is one of the reasons it remains such a widely beloved show to this day and one people flock to regardless of either age or gender.