Cartoons Aren't Real! Ren and Stimpy In Review
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A Modern (and Gross) Fairy Tale
Over the past seventy years or so, psychologists (primarily of the psychoanalytic school) reinterpreted many of the world's most popular fairy tales, finding in them a common thread: they were believed to be abstract representations of fears, needs and anxieties common to both children and adults. It was through these symbolic tales that powerlessness could be confronted, anxieties (including sexual ones) safely expressed and dealt with, and wishes fulfilled. Chief among the proponents of this theory were Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and more recently, Bruno Bettleheim (who saw these tales as a way to negotiate growth through developmental stages). In this way, for example, George Liquor can be viewed as a grinning, evil gingerbread witch to Ren and Stimpy's Hansel and Gretel, or perhaps the devouring Oedipal figure (Liquor "owned" the pair in at least two episodes) of psychoanalytic lore.

The world of the early 1990s was an anxious and uncertain place. The aforementioned AIDS epidemic spread across the globe like some malignant viral stealth fighter; by the time of Kricfalusi's ouster in 1992 the disease had claimed 200,000 American lives. Frightening new viruses such as Ebola were sifting out of the rainforests. The fall of Communism brought instability and conflict to a suddenly fragmented Eastern Europe; genocide in that area and Africa permeated the headlines. America led an international force into the explosive Middle East where suspicions of chemical, biological and nuclear "weapons of mass destruction" ran rampant. The term "New World Order" was bandied about in the media and the White House but few could define what this actually meant or what it held for the future. While we waited to see what came next, terrorist activity increased around the globe. If American society was ever prepared to accept revisionist fairy tales, this final decade of the millennium -- portentous for this fact alone -- was the ideal time.

An unlikely friendship between two strange and unique characters helped make John Kricfalusi's Ren and Stimpy popular viewing for many folks. © Viacom International, Inc. All rights reserved.

Kricfalusi's Ren and Stimpy shorts thus struck several resonant chords among both children and adults. On a surface level, they were funny, subversive cartoons with an offbeat retro look, but a deeper examination revealed them to be an encapsulation of some of our darkest fears, ones in which the soul and body are powerless against a world out of balance. Perhaps the most striking example of this was the episode Black Hole, which finds the duo stranded on a bizarre, hostile planet; they begin to mutate into progressively hideous versions of themselves before imploding at the end of the cartoon. John Kricfalusi became a folk teller for the 1990s, however unwitting or subconscious the process might have been. Kricfalusi's genius was twofold: not only did he tap into the collective unconscious of a nation and retrieve its angst, he then circumvented the prevailing studio system and prosocial miasma that hung over television animation in order to mirror these fears back to us. Nickelodeon, which was probably expecting something more in the spirit of The Angry Beavers or CatDog, was little prepared for cartoons that carried such elemental, archetypal force; their response was to censor and protect. Yet, there was no other way to tell these stories; fairy tales, which have been with us since the 1500s, are cruel, frightening and capricious by their very nature. In the history of American animation, only Kricfalusi and Walt Disney fully recognized this fact. The Ren and Stimpy Show was a landmark in animation history, but few contemporary critics seem to have noted how deeply its roots were buried in history -- and in ourselves.

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.


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