I don’t know about you, but I really love it when a writer is able to tackle a serious and/or dark and potentially disturbing theme in a kid’s show or movie. It really takes skill and talent to be able to show kids a theme or moral that they would otherwise be completely sheltered from. That is, it takes talent when it’s done correctly.
Handling dark themes around kids is a tricky thing to do. Usually, a writer will fail by either overestimating what children can take, and making it too dark and disturbing for them; or underestimating what they can take, and sucking the darkness and the dignity out of the subject. Quite often the latter tends to be the more common. How many cartoons do you remember as a kid that did an anti drug message, that oversimplified everything and amounted to “just say no!”
Children’s media is plagued with writers who assume that kids are automatically dumb as bricks, and thus any effort put into their writing will be wasted. And so we get terrible kid’s media that oversimplifies everything to the point where, when the time comes to do a “very serious message”, the kids are not going to listen.
On the other hand, children’s media that does respect their audience’s intelligence can sometimes go a little far in terms of the content they’re showing. And while such content can often turn into something high quality and enjoyable for the older audiences (and the braver kids), it might just anger the parents. And that can lead to angering the network/studio that’s producing it, which can tragically lead to premature cancellation.
Alas, we shall never see the likes of Zim again.
So, what is the best way to feature dark themes in children’s shows?
Courage the Cowardly Dog: The Mask
Courage the Cowardly Dog was a remarkably dark kid’s show about a cowardly dog who protects his family from supernatural forces, both through its use of horror elements, and its use of adult themes. In spite of this, it managed to avoid a lot of the censors, and avoid an all too early cancellation. This has a lot to do with the fact that the show had a lot of heart to it, and when it wanted to be goofy, it did so in quite a lighthearted way.
This episode, however, is not quite so goofy.
The episode shows a mysterious masked figure named “Kitty” arriving at Courage’s family farm. She instantly despises Courage, simply because he is a dog, and she assumes all dogs are automatically evil. Courage’s owner Muriel, however, allows her to stay the night at the farm with them. After taking a lot of abuse from Kitty, Courage tries to find out why she has such prejudice against dogs. As it turns out, Kitty is a cat, but, more specifically, a cat who lost her best friend Bunny because her boyfriend Mad Dog didn’t approve of their friendship, and threatened Kitty’s life. Courage realises the best way to get Kitty to leave is to reunite her with Bunny, and goes to find Mad Dog.
In case that description didn’t give it away, this is an episode of a children’s cartoon that is looking into an abusive relationship. And no, it does not treat this situation lightly.
Aside from the fact that they’re both talking animals, Mad Dog and Bunny’s relationship does not come across as whimsical or fantastical. The scene we get of them interacting shows that Mad Dog is clearly a flat out domestic abuser. He acts as though he’s someone she is dependent on, and like he is more than worthy of her (“I take you from a two bit joint and make you a class act, and you want to make me second rate?”), then threatens to “bury the two of them” should Kitty ever return. Once Bunny starts crying, he starts to act like a caring boyfriend again, saying she’s still his girl.
This scene alone shows domestic abuse better than some cartoons I’ve seen that were aimed towards adults. Fitting with the title, the fact that they’re both talking animals does mask the fact that this is a very dark moment. If these two were human, I’m not convinced this scene would be shown to children.
So, obviously, this episode does not shy away from the adult themes it’s portraying. So, what’s stopping it from going into the “too far” category?
Like I said before, Courage the Cowardly Dog as a show had a lot of heart. A lot of this came from the lead protagonist, Courage. Despite being scared of his own shadow, Courage proves on many occasions that he’d do anything to save Muriel, and he seems fairly eager to save Bunny. Even in spite of the horrors they watch, Courage gives the kiddies someone to always route for and relate to.
As well as this, the episode does have its share of lighthearted moments. A subplot with Eustace and Muriel ends with them surprisingly making up in a rather heartwarming way. And, we see that Courage is able to save Bunny, and proves to Kitty that “not all dogs are bad.”
And they can go back to being, *ahem* “best friends” forever.
The Don’t #1
Captain Planet: If it’s doomsday, this must be Belfast
Let’s be honest, I had a lot of choice when it came to Captain Planet. This show has halfheartedly tried to teach children about all sorts of adult topics, from AIDS to nazism to the inevitable drug episode. But the episode I’ve chosen was one considered insulting enough to have originally be banned in the UK.
If it’s doomsday this must be belfast was an episode condemning nuclear weapons, and war in general. Rather than do what Courage did, and show a realistic subtext in a fantastical situation of talking animals, this episode shows an oversimplified fantastic story, in a real life situation. This episode focuses on The Troubles in Ireland, the Pakistani-Israeli conflict, and Apartheid era South Africa. All while each event was still taking place.
Let me make one thing clear now: if you are creating a serious story set in a war that is currently happening, do NOT try to wing it. Do your research and treat the topic with respect. This applies to any story, regardless of audience age.
The episode shows villain Verminous Skrumm has planted some nukes beneath the ground in these high conflict areas, and given detonators to one person on each side of each conflict. He wants to prove to Gaia that humans are inherently bad. So Gaia sends the planeteers to each location, to find and stop the people from detonating the bombs.
Okay, so for starters this premise, set in real life locations, expects us to believe that people would just trust a giant rat man who says he has some nuclear weapons, rather than turn him in to the authorities.
Secondly, in spite of the fact that Captain Planet was a show willing to look at controversial subjects, it was never really willing to treat them with any kind of intelligence. Captain Planet was sadly plagued with the “all kids are stupid” mindset; a mindset all too many kids’ shows follow. Unlike brainless pandering comedies like Teen Titans Go! however, this show was trying to be educational. And that’s a problem. Especially in this episode.
Yes, teaching kids that war, prejudice, and the power of nuclear weapons is certainly a good thing. But this episode treats the Troubles in Ireland like the equivalent to a fight between two cliques in a high school movie. Two cliques who are just too goshdarn silly to realise beating each other up over names is totally a bad thing.
And let’s not get started on the atrocious excuses for accents.
So, if that’s what happens when a kid’s show takes a dark theme and makes it too watered down and kid-friendly, then what happens when a kid’s show takes a serious theme and goes a little too far?
The Don’t #2
Spongebob Squarepants: Are You Happy Now
Are you Happy Now is quite possibly one of the most infamous episodes of Spongebob Squarepants. The fact that I had to use the phrase “quite” is more or less evidence as to why this show should have ended about five seasons ago.
As is the fact that this is not the only episode to gain controversy due to treatment of suicide.
For those of you who don’t know, this episode has become quite controversial for its references to suicide. The episode revolves around Spongebob realising Squidward doesn’t have a happiest memory, and tries to help him find one. After three failed attempts, Squidward gives up, and figures he’s incapable of creating happy memories, and so falls into a deep depression. A depression that’s not entirely unrealistic. Two weeks later, Squidward has not left his house. As Spongebob worriedly goes to see what’s up, he finds the house is a mess, and Squidward is isolated in his room.
And during these segments, we get two fake out jokes that makes it look like Squidward is about to kill himself. And no, they aren’t jokes that involve Spongebob seeing Squidward do something that suggest suicide, misinterpret it, and frantically try to save him. These jokes are solely directed at the audience.
Now, Squidward has always been a grumpy, miserable character. And yes, the show has done dark jokes before, including references to suicide. So why is this episode different? Well, this time, Squidward’s misery isn’t over the top anger at Spongebob. Squidward’s actions legitimately make it seem like he’s feeling empty and depressed. As a result, the notion that Squidward is about to kill himself is plausible. Squidward saying “Too bad that didn’t kill me” in the episode Band Geeks is clearly him snarkily expressing his frustration with his band’s incompetence. Here, looking like he’s going to kill himself over depression and not being able to feel happy isn’t exactly a joke.
So if this episode treats depression in a realistic manner, then why isn’t it on the same level as The Mask? After all, surely showing kids potential suicide attempts isn’t that much different from showing them domestic violence, right?
Well, here’s the problem: Spongebob Squarepants is primarily a comedy. Courage the Cowardly Dog had its funny moments, but I would never call it a straight up comedy. Seeing the protagonist of a wacky comedy that’s never taken anything too seriously suddenly worried that his friend might have died due to depression feels VERY out of place.
And that brings us to the suicide jokes again. There’s only two, and they don’t last very long, but it’s what everyone remembers about the episode. And for good reason. They have no bearing on the plot. There is no character on screen to react to them. And they consist primarily of “look Squidward’s going to hang himself! NAH he was just hanging up a cage for a pet clam, LOL”. These jokes are just too dark for a kid’s show. As I’ve said, when Squidward’s mentioned suicide because he’s clearly sick of Spongebob and co’s stupidity, it’s always clear he’s just exaggerating due to pure annoyance. Here, there’s no exaggeration. It’s not funny. It’s not appropriate.
Comparisons and conclusions
The Mask is a very risky cartoon for kids, but the way it handles it’s conflict and balances it with Courage’s sweet heroism and Eustace and Muriel’s subplot makes it a meaningful and acceptable episode for kids.
If It’s Doomsday This Must Be Belfast is an episode so dumbed down you can’t help but question why it’s even bothering. Treating a serious subject with little to no respect is not good enough when it comes to educating children.
Are You Happy Now just does portray depression in a fairly realistic manner, and yet it still wants to be treated like a comedy. A comedy for kids with jokes consisting of “haha, Squidward didn’t kill himself after all!”
Kids are smart enough to deal with dark and complex issues provided they are shown in a manner that explains the situation as best as it can to a young audience. If you’re just going to sugar coat a dark issue for kids then you’re better off not tackling it at all, but at the same time, a dark theme coming out of nowhere in a series that’s been nothing but wacky and lighthearted is going to feel wrong and out of place, especially if you’re really showing it to them and not hiding it behind bright colours.
Most of all, take this advice: kids’ shows should still have heart and charm to them. Shows like Courage, or Adventure Time, or the original Powerpuff Girls, were able to show dark themes and messages because, no matter how dark things got, they were still the shows kids knew and loved, and they didn’t sacrifice any charm to show the deep stuff. So long as your writing still has a lot of heart to it, then don’t be afraid to delve into darkest territory.