In the '60s and '70s irritating kid sidekicks were the name of the 'toon game, however, today, when the name of the game is "empowerment," kids are leading their own cartoon adventures. Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman explains why.
If there is a signifier to cartoon action shows of the 1960s and '70s, it is that of the young sidekick. These ubiquitous youngsters appeared in almost every series featuring superheroes, ostensibly giving the viewing audience a figure (or figures) with whom to identify. Their true purpose, in retrospect, appeared to be as preteen plot devices: getting into peril, serving as bait, inadvertently stumbling on to important clues or villain's lairs with equal aplomb, and laughing heartily at the conclusion of an episode seemed requisite for the job. The reward was adventure, in some cases a cool costume, and the inestimable prestige of teaming up with superheroes...even if the runts in question did endanger said heroes' lives in most episodes. Most classic animation fans today admit to hating these sidekicks, who were often saddled with a tertiary animal sidekick as well; one is reminded of scientists turning microscopes on parasites only to find smaller parasites feeding on them.
Some of the most remembered (and despised) sidekicks of the bunch were Jan and Jace, who spent their adolescence doing Space Ghost little good. Marvin and Wendy were two spunky tykes known for befouling the Super Friends adventures long before Wonder Twins Zan and Jayna were turning themselves into puddles and critters respectively for the same luckless team. (If the darker, more recent incarnations of Batman were present for these cartoons, all these sidekicks might have perished in their first episodes.) No one knows from what egg Birdboy hatched, but fans of the old Birdman and the Galaxy Trio show likely would have cooked up a fluffy quiche rather than let that particular sidekick take wing. Before Saddam Hussein besmirched the Middle East, the hapless twins Chuck and Nancy were giving the unfortunate Shazzan! many sleepless Arabian nights. If prehistoric puerility was your cup of lava, you may have wondered why Dino Boy didnt cause Ugh to hurl himself off the evolutionary tree. My personal bugbears were Tom and Tubb from the Moby Dick half of the team-up with Mighty Mightor, but any kid that showed up in pretty much any action-adventure series could typically be found going over a waterfall, falling off a precipice, facing an avalanche of rocks and needing some sort of last-second rescue.
I am convinced that audiences deplored these sidekicks just as much as I did. Reviews of these cartoons both in print and on the Web describe them as lame, worthless, and generally a waste of even limited animation. It may be no coincidence that three contemporary shows featuring kids as the heroes are among todays most nostalgic treasures: Speed Racer, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids and Jonny Quest. These cartoons were the exception to the rule, but they made no lasting difference. After the superheroes and action-adventure shows began to disappear courtesy of regulations prohibiting violence and peril, kids were most often seen as comic sidekicks rather than adventurous ones. Until recently. There has been a significant change in the number of young heroes and heroines in the animated universe. There are several reasons for this phenomenon, all of them linked to changes in American entertainment and society.
Perhaps the most salient change is the recent dogma that self-esteem and empowerment are at least as vital as reading, riting and rithmetic as far as a childs education is concerned. Research conducted in the early 1990s suggested that high self-concept correlated strongly with high scholastic achievement. Young schoolgirls were the initial beneficiary of these studies; researchers such as Carol Gilligan and David and Myra Sadler posited that inequities in gender role socialization and an emphasis on appearance (rather than performance) left most girls greatly in need of empowerment. Before long, psychologists demonstrated that the benefits of healthy self-esteem generalized to both sexes. While the construct of self-esteem alone didnt explain everything related to academic performance or social adjustment it appeared to hold enough credence to get educators attentions. Entire curriculums were built around empowerment, and soon every school-age child in America was getting regular pats on the back (in some cases for less than admirable scholastic achievements). As we have seen in my previous column, The Kids Are All Right, educational and psychological research tends to find its way to the studios and networks in the form of consultants who put theory into practice. Let us examine for a moment how childrens empowerment manifests itself in popular animated cartoons.
There is no doubt that the heroes of Dexters Laboratory are Dexter and Dede. Dexter is phenomenally brilliant and inventive, but had this series been made anywhere from 1967-1987 Dexter would likely have been the peppy young assistant of an adult Doctor Science or such and Dede would have been a gaping tagalong. Adults figure significantly in The Wild Thornberrys, but we realize as reinforced by the feature film whose show this truly is. Although the Rugrats adventures are milder than Elizas, it is interesting how many of the storylines have been concerned with honor, doing the right thing, or correcting a perceived injustice. Of late, Disney has offered teens, preteens and animation-loving adults the adventures of Kim Possible. This lively, funny series about a high-school cheerleader-cum-superspy features a capable and appealing young heroine for which any kid can cheer. Speaking of empowered young girls, evil has had no rest since The Powerpuff Girls brought preschool power to Townsville.
Mo Willems, who cut his teeth on Sesame Street, has recently produced a series for Cartoon Network called Codename: Kids Next Door. These arent just any kids; theyre an anarchic bunch of low-tech operatives out to upset the adult order. Twenty years ago Virgil Hawkins would have been a sidekick instead of a headliner; in 2003, hes an electrifying hero on his own as he deals Static Shock to evil gangbangers. Lets not forget the miniature masacritas of ¡Mucha Lucha!, either. Whether these kids are facing off in the ring or upholding the masked wrestlers code of honor, Its all buena! Earlier times might have seen the wee grapplers (and the superkids of Teamo Supremo) playing kiddie corps to a Roger Ramjet-style hero. In short (so to speak), kids and teens in todays animated cartoons are more heroic, command more power and are less dependent on adults than ever. Many of the characters listed above do acknowledge, respect and love the adult figures on their respective series, but are in no way in need of rescue by them or see them as the sole sources of approval and self-esteem. Virgil Hawkins' father, in fact, has not the slightest clue that his own son is the flashiest hero in the hood. Todays animated kids do not shine in the reflected glory of adult heroes; they are heroes in their own right.
Other Media Influences
The psychological community is not the only factor in this surge of empowerment. Japanese manga and anime have been riding the trend for a long time and as more anime infiltrates and influences American viewership, themes of kid power are reinforced. Although I personally find both Dragonball Z and Yu-Gi-Oh! virtually indecipherable, most of the heroes appear to be no older than thirteen or fourteen. Much the same can be said for the still-popular Sailor Scouts, and enough has been said about Pokémon. More artistic anime (such as the films of Miyazaki) also feature clever, resourceful children whose courage and inner resources are equal to those of any adult. Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro and Kikis Delivery Service are among the films that show children to be more complex and imaginative than the Superfriends could ever give them credit for.
The message that kids can be heroes was also reinforced by the live-action cinematic community. Not only were such films popular, they were profitable, since teens and preteens make up much of what passes for the film audience in America. Home Alone, The Karate Kid and Spy Kids are probably among those most visible in this regard, and live-action TV has followed suit with shows such as Malcolm in the Middle and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Disney Channel in particular is producing what amounts to soap operas for the middle and high school set. In the Sixties, kids on TV were just that kids, and their twee adventures largely took place inside the family-based sitcom. In the Seventies and early Eighties, the same sitcom squirts were not only preternaturally hip to the grownup world, they were given adult, one-line zingers that rang false to everyone but the scriptwriters. Now the kids are truly having their day, and there is no doubt that children both older and younger truly enjoy live-action programs in which they are smart, in control and the center of the action.
The concepts of self-esteem and empowerment may have been the engine that powered animated children out of the shadows and into their own, but influences from anime, movies and live-action TV also played their part. I might also mention the burgeoning market in books starring, and aimed at, age 6-15; although I am attempting to limit this discussion to influences from the visual media, print media is also a factor in the cultural shift toward the empowerment of children. In truth, kids are never again going to be content with secondary roles in entertainment aimed at them. The day of the kiddie corps and the lame sidekick is probably over. This may be one of the best benefits gained by having the psychological community give their input to animated shows. While I still question why parents entrust this job to psychologists (or dont have the time, or trust themselves enough), it is heartening to see that kids are getting the message from someplace. In an increasingly difficult and contentious world it may behoove us in the future to have more superkids and fewer sidekicks.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.