Growing up, I never saw animation as anything but a medium to tell any story the mind can conjure up. However, there’s this idiotic notion that once you’re past the age of 12, animation supposedly becomes a thing of childhood never to be seen again until you have your own children. With every decade bringing in a new wave of awe-inspired animators and creators, the audience for animated storytelling has grown significantly past being just children’s content. Western animation is being created through the minds of minorities and people who grew up watching the original ‘She-Ra’ or ‘Voltron‘ cartoon and not seeing themselves be represented despite loving the show. Animation is reaching a level of honesty and truth that has never been seen before.
We are getting the wonder of animated world-building and quirky characters but we’re also getting relevant conversations in the mix now too. Back in January 2019, I came across a clip from the Series Finale of the hit Cartoon Network show, ‘Steven Universe‘. Despite not having caught up to the show by that point, this clip was circulating my Twitter timeline every few seconds. Naturally, I watched it and the impression it left on me has honestly changed my life. Three years later and now I’m the most passionate about animation I have ever been. ‘Steven Universe’ has genuinely changed my life and I couldn’t be any more grateful for it. Whenever I think about where my life is now, it really goes back to that one clip.
In this scene, Steven is quite literally torn apart. Having to live up to his mother then realize his purpose was to essentially fix her other-wordly mistakes. The entire universe was out to get him because of his mother’s reputation, this eventually leads to an identity crisis where he has to literally convince himself that he is his own person. After having his gem half split from his human half, Steven finally accepts the fact that Rose is gone and that he is his own person. He fuses with his gem-self and becomes the Steven we know him as. Considering the show is looked at as a symbol of self-love and acceptance, this scene is arguably the most important scene of the entire franchise. Seeing an animated show achieve this level of depth really blew me away. I had never seen an animated show discuss self-love like this, essentially making it a priority. Nowadays however, animation has embraced these discussions. Shows like ‘Infinity Train’, ‘Adventure Time’ and ‘She-Ra and the Princesses of Power’ all feature diverse character whether it’s in race, size, gender and even sexual orientation. Even mature topics like death, abuse, divorce and manipulation are openly discussed, it’s never sugarcoated. These shows will speak to an entire generation like none other.
After watching that clip from ‘Steven Universe’, I decided to go down the rabbit hole to try and convince myself to watch the show. The moment I watched the ‘Its Over Isn’t It’ musical number from ‘Mr. Greg’, I was convinced. An emotional ballad about not coming to terms with the fact that a loved one is gone is transformed upon the realization that Pearl is singing about Rose and how she chose Greg over her. The fact that this song was allowed to air on Cartoon Network was genuinely mind-boggling to me. At that point, the pinnacle of LGBTQ+ rep was the ‘Korrasami’ scene in ‘The Legend of Korra’. The confirmation that Pearl loved Rose romantically blew me away, I never thought I would see a scene like this, at least not for a long time. It is genuinely sad that seeing the bare minimum done in ‘Voltron: Legendary Defender’ evoked an emotional response from me. Especially considering the groundbreaking representation in ‘Steven Universe’ and ‘She-Ra and the Princesses of Power’. Gay weddings! Bisexual and non-binary characters! A main character lesbian relationship with their kiss defeating the villain’s tyranny! Believe it or not, even Disney Channel now has a bisexual lead with ‘The Owl House’. The question is how far it’s willing to go to establish Luz and Amity’s relationship. Even then, it is so incredibly exciting to see queer characters get the spotlight.
Mental health isn’t really a popular discussion in western animation because even after going through what could be described as trauma, the main characters shrugs off with a joke. The obvious truth is that trauma doesn’t have an age limit, anyone can experience it. Seeing characters dealing with and processing trauma is necessary. In ‘The Legend of Korra‘ we got to see Korra’s recovery process from fighting with Zaheer. Despite the physical toll it took on her, the show made an effort to show the mental side of it as well. Korra is never the same again after it, she grew mentally and she came out of it stronger than ever. It’s an event that scarred her for months on end. Seeing her process and recover from this trauma was necessary for her character. The entire existence of ‘Infinity Train’ is literally to help their passengers process their trauma or emotional struggles. It couldn’t be any more explicit than ‘Infinity Train’. ‘Steven Universe’ enters the scene once again with the episode ‘Mindful Education’ which I always rewatch whenever I get a depressive episode. The fact that ‘Here Comes a Thought’ exists for anyone to listen to makes me feel incredibly happy. ‘Steven Universe Future’ is arguably the best attempt at tackling trauma in western animation. The gradual decline into Steven’s breakdown is heartbreakingly honest and realistic and it’s genuinely wonderful that the solution for once, wasn’t a big battle but rather a hug of reassurance.
Diversity is also reaching new heights in animation. It’s important that children can see characters who look like them on their screens. It’s what representation is all about, feeling valid. One of the better aspects of ‘Voltron: Legendary Defender’ is the diverse cast it gave us. It was refreshingly realistic to not see an all-white team saving the world for once. ‘She-Ra and the Princesses of Power’ is also another example of a diverse cast with characters of different sexualities, genders and sizes. Disney Channel’s ‘The Owl House’ and ‘Amphibia‘ also feature a person of colour as a lead. Even the juggernaut franchise of ‘Miraculous Ladybug’ features a half-Asian, half-Parisian lead. It’s necessary to see minorities being the lead instead of being the best friend or a side-character. People of colour have stories to tell and it’s about time we’re seeing more of them leading animated series.
For the nineteen years, I’ve been on this planet, I can safely say that animation has always been a source of creativity and imagination. It’s what got me into drawing and I’ve made a lot of friends because of it. I’ve found people I couldn’t imagine my life without because we shared the same interests. I have found an incredibly loving community that is supportive and accepting with open arms. I owe so much to this medium and I know for a fact that it’s never going to stop inspiring me. Animation doesn’t have an age range and it should never have one. You don’t need to be ten years old to be watching Cartoon Network because if that show speaks to you then it’s clearly doing something right.
The world is changing, acceptance of minorities is still in progress, but it’s still progressing nonetheless. Animation is a part of that progress. These shows celebrate self-love, sexuality, race, culture and acceptance. They are a part of the conversation because they are speaking to whoever’s watching. These characters are their idols. Children, teens and adults watching these shows will create loving and safe communities to share experiences with and form friendships. This new generation of animation is allowing relevant and necessary conversations to happen. It is depicting our world’s diversity. This is why animation is for anyone because despite it looking bright and whimsical, the characters share our struggles and our journeys. The fact that it’s animated just opens up the story to endless creativity and imagination and if you think that is something that shouldn’t be enjoyed by anyone, then maybe it’s time to do some soul searching.