When I tell people my age that I still watch Cartoon Network, the typical reaction is a polite, sympathetic smile swiftly followed by a “That’s nice. It was nice talking to you, but I have a surgery I need to get to. Let’s never speak again.” Five or six years ago that would have been a completely reasonable reaction to a college student indulging in shows made for children. Back then, hardly any of these popular shows tried to be anything more than the serialized version of jangling keys in front of a baby’s face: loud, high-energy and lacking substance. There were exceptions to this disenchanting norm, but overall these were shows with two primary goals: to keep kids distracted for a few hours and to sell merchandise.
Kids shows these days, however, are an incredible improvement from the days of obnoxious, meaningless television. Steven Universe, a show released in 2013 about three alien women raising a half-human, half-alien boy, is teaching kids about sexuality and gender identity when they are reaching their most impressionable points. And it’s doing so with more charm and creativity than any show our generation watched when we were kids. One of the show’s major plot devices — called fusion — is used as metaphor for long term relationships, first time flings and abusive relationships all while under the guise of child-friendly magical realism. The three alien women — who are all lesbians, by the way, which speaks volumes or LGBT representation on TV — are some of the most complex characters seen in any show, for children or otherwise, and have been used to euphemistically discuss topics such as grief, abandonment, codependency and consent. The scope of sensitive topics being explored in Steven Universe is light-years beyond what older shows like Spongebob Squarepants touched on.
Steven Universe is not the only gem running on Cartoon Network right now; Adventure Time is gearing up for its eighth season, and since its inception, it has progressed significantly in its discussion of extremely complicated themes. We are seeing a renaissance right now in smart, funny and groundbreaking animated shows. The kids who grow up on shows like Steven Universe will benefit hugely from the diversity these cartoons provide.They will be able to navigate the issues our generation has struggled with for years — such as sexuality, healthy relationships, gender identity and nonconformity. So, maybe when nobody’s around to cast judgement, take a chance and check out a few episodes. At the very least, you’ll get something more intelligent, heartfelt and honest than the election.
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