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The State of Modern Animation: The Homogenization of Animated Media

Many people, over the past few years, have been expressing the belief that  “animation isn’t good anymore.” Whether it’s because the cartoons coming out recently don’t resonate with them as much as the ones they watched growing up, or because of a true perceived decline in quality, the general consensus among a large group of cartoon-watchers is that animation has gone downhill within recent years. 

Whether it be a children’s cartoon or an adult cartoon, they are all incredibly similar, quoting things from previous years and acting like no one’s ever heard of it. This is most seen in adult cartoons, like “South Park.” Although older “South Park” episodes are quite funny, recent ones just seem to be repetitive and predictable. Modern animations are more targeted to older or much younger audiences. Humor in cartoons is either about something really old or something that younger audiences would find funny. Although there are funny parts to every show, it is not common, especially in this age. The humor is bland and almost routine. I hear the jokes they make all the time, especially on social media, like Facebook or Instagram. The jokes are most common amongst older generations and do not appeal to the mid-teens or young adults.

I have noticed that a lot of cartoons that have been released in the past five-ish years have very similar plots to one another, as well as visual styles. This isn’t new of course – there are common tropes among every era of animation, from the 80s, with cartoons made to promote toys and give children PSAs about washing their hands like “G.I. Joe” and “Jem and the Holograms” (one of my personal favorites), to the 2000s, with totally-radical bizarre CGI fever dream shows such as “Butt-Ugly Martians” and “Fanboy & Chum Chum.” People have been arguing for even longer that cartoons seem to lack distinct identities, all indistinguishable in a sea of unwavering line-widths, round shapes, and the fabled “bean mouth.” 

“But why is this an issue? They’re just cartoons for children!” I hear you shouting at your screen. 

Don’t children deserve high quality content like adults do? Of course, any cartoon airing on TV is better than a horrific AI generated Spiderman and Elsa Kinder Egg YouTube video, but I think the belief that kids don’t need good programming is untrue. Sure, kids will sit down and watch just about anything with bright flashing colors and silly immature humor, but there is a reason why people hardly remember the ‘bad’ content they watched as kids (except for the TRULY awful content that’s just too bizarre to forget) and remember high quality shows and films that can be enjoyed by everyone. The standards have been placed too low. I stopped watching children’s cartoons and moved on to things I most definitely shouldn’t have been watching when I was about 11 years old, because even when I was that young, kids’ shows just didn’t interest me anymore.

I think you’d be hard pressed to find somebody who doesn’t agree that the early 2010s were like a renaissance for animation. So many creative ideas and styles were exhibited in cartoons at the time. It was an era like no other. Of course, good things don’t last forever. Towards the late 2010s, a trend began to form. More and more shows began to follow the exact same formulaic plot of a girl around 12 being thrust into an unfamiliar world and having to use magic and the help from her sidekick who’s from the place she was sent to in order to fight off some sort of evil tyrant who wants to take over the world, give or take a few plot elements. I’m sure upon reading this you’ve thought of several cartoons that fit into this general description. The first one that came to mind might even be a different one from what another reader may have thought of. 

Sure, it sounds like a very harmless device for a children’s TV show. It’s something that can be easily enjoyed by lots of people because of its familiarity and simplicity, but the problem lies not with the fact that it has been done to death (though that is still bothersome,) but rather the fact that these cartoons are often the shows prided with being ‘progressive’.

I think progressivism in cartoons and other children’s media is an incredible thing that has become a trend in the past decade. Kids and teens need to see themselves in their media, and we can’t keep acting like certain people in the world don’t exist. However, many shows that attempt this feel incredibly pandering to me. Groups of people feel diluted in order to appeal to broader audiences. I don’t feel that this is an issue with the creators of these shows, but rather the companies that own them. They have to fit into a certain standard in order to be broadcasted internationally. One of Disney’s biggest markets is China, which has a very strict set of rules for how things are allowed to be portrayed in films and TV. Creators cannot go “too far” with things out of fears that it will be banned in other countries and the company will lose a significant portion of its revenue it would otherwise be making from that program. 

The thing that really upsets me about this is because a lot of people don’t see this. Many people are so starved for any ounce of decent representation in cartoons that aren’t supposed to make fun of them, that they uplift companies who are, still, giving watered-down “advertiser friendly) versions of people in their programs. 

On the less serious side of things, I have noticed a huge uptick in anime references in western cartoons. Whether this is good or bad is up to you, but I feel like I know the reason why this is. The majority of the people who are currently writing and creating cartoons are part of the “millennial” generation, which if you have been on the Internet in recent years at all, are very serious about the things they grew up with as children and will shove them down your throat at every chance they get. A lot of Millennials grew up with anime such as “Sailor Moon” and “Dragon Ball,” which are typically the most frequently referenced in children’s shows from what I have personally observed. The 90s and 2000s were a time where audiences outside of Japan and its surrounding countries were truly first seeing animated shows and films from the region, so it’s no surprise that many people who grew up then would have fond memories of those shows. I also feel like this is the reason why a lot of children’s cartoons are watched more by 24 year old adults with mugs that have cat puns on them than actual children. 

But why are there no shows for teens and young adults? The mid to late 2000s saw an attempt at PG-13 animated movies, all of which were financial failures despite gaining large cult followings. Films like “9” and “Mary & Max” come to mind. When was the last time you saw a cartoon aimed at people in the 15-25 age range? Most shows (aside from who they’re actually watched by) seem to be aiming for either 10 year old children or dads who want to laugh at some tasteless reference based humor after a long day at work. Everything seems to either be a fantasy series full of crying and singing or a “Family Guy” rip-off with surprisingly lame jokes. There is a huge gap in the market, despite that age range being a huge amount of who is currently consuming animation. 

I believe that in the near future we will see another rise of creative shows. Perhaps a market for teenagers and college student aged people will become actualized, and we will finally see real diversity in cartoons that isn’t watered down or poking fun at people. But at the current moment, I’m fine with re-watching shows that ended over a decade before I was born.

credits: Vacant Frank, Aubrey Wagstaff

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The State of Modern Animation: The Homogenization of Animated Media