Why is Adult Animation in America All So Same-y?

During the presentation for the 2019 Academy Awards’ “Best Animated Feature” category, the presenters jumped through some strange hoops to justify giving such importance to “kids’” films, despite the film that won — Into the Spider-Verse — being one of the most creative, deep, and visually stunning films of the year. It was emblematic of the awkward place animation continues to occupy in America, one divided between its history as children’s media and more modern shows for adults that are typically either sitcoms or raunchy Grown-Up Cartoons. To understand how we got here, we have to go back 50 years.


The Birth of the Saturday Morning Cartoon

Animation is an old medium, dating back as far as the late 1800s. By comparison, children’s animation is a much younger industry, starting in television around the 1960s when Hanna-Barbera moved some of their poorly-performing toons meant for all audiences to a kid-friendly airtime — Saturday mornings — and the shows suddenly did gangbusters. Thus, Saturday morning cartoons were born. This both brought television animation into an era of prosperity that continues to this day and also consequently pigeonholed animation as a children’s medium. 

As stifling as this was for cartoons, it’s a sound business model; animation, especially 2D animation, is an incredibly expensive medium, and it’s at its most profitable when geared towards younger audiences. Many famous children’s cartoons of the 1980s and 90s were essentially extended toy commercials designed to get kids to beg their parents for action figures or playsets.

This is where the idea of animation being strictly a children’s medium began — a profitable demographic became the only demographic. Kids watch cartoons, cartoons are for kids, plain and simple. 

And then The Simpsons came along. 

The Simpsons

Comedy, Sex & Violence

The Simpsons forever changed animation and pop culture — it was the first massively successful adult animated series and paved the way for many others to follow. And follow they did, as the decades that followed saw a slew of successful and not-so-successful attempts to duplicate that Simpsons magic. But rather than expanding the metaphorical well of animation, this wave of adult cartoons simply dug deeper into the ground broken by The Simpsons. As a result, most adult cartoons that followed were comedies. Even boundary-breaking shows like Mission Hill and Bojack Horseman are built around sitcom premises and explore drama and melodrama through comedy.

There are, of course, a few exceptions. In the 90s, the concept of the hyper-violent, bloody, and/or raunchy adult cartoon gained a little steam — prominent examples include Aeon Flux and Spawn, later followed by more recent titles like Black Dynamite and Castlevania. To some extent, every show in this category liberally piles on the violence and sexual content in such a way that feels like an insecure flex: “Hey look! Blood and boobs! See, this cartoon is for adults.”

This phenomenon, whereby violence and (frequently violent) sexual content are mistaken for complex or mature stories is perhaps best illustrated by this comic from @beanytuesday.

Comic by @beanytuesday

The commentary is directed at comic books, but the analysis applies to animation just as well. When you’ve graduated from kids’ cartoons and comics, the logic goes, it’s time for the violent, sexy stuff for adults. This is both the result and the cause of a cycle of misconception that has pigeonholed adult animation. 

Because the most marketable adult cartoons are comedy-driven, violent, and/or raunchy, most of the demand is for these types of shows, and because there is a demand for them, more of them are made. Shows pitched with these elements are safer bets for networks and production companies. Thus, the circle continues.

This cycle is a major source of adult animation’s stagnation, and the adult animation industry’s predominantly male creative force doesn’t help either. Obviously there are more subtleties and other factors at play, but the point stands that the limited scope of adult animation has perpetuated a demand for almost exclusively what falls into that scope. Luckily, there are a handful of adult cartoons that escape these norms.

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The Outliers

So what do older animation fans crave from an adult animated series? Simply put, viewers want adult animation to have the same diversity as live-action adult TV shows: all genres, all tones, and all visual styles. We all love funny talking animals and sight gags, sure, but the medium would vastly improve with a bit of variety. 

One oft-cited example of a show that breaks the mold in some is The Venture Bros. It’s a refreshing divergence from the norm of adult cartoons, and it is easily one of the greatest shows on television, animated or otherwise. That said, the show’s premise is built on satire of classic cartoons like Jonny Quest, and though you couldn’t call it a full-on comedy, humor is a major element. Of course, this is a bit nitpicky, and Venture Bros. is still immensely original and unique, but the point still stands that comedy can be something of a safety net for adult cartoons. 

Other examples include two recent streaming service originals, Seis Manos and Undone. The former uses gore and darkness to secure the adult content tone of the series, when its supernatural martial arts narrative, action, drama, and setting do this well enough on their own — but, to be fair it’s one of the tamest cases of this. As for Undone, it too is a rare outlier, an animated drama that deserves praise for being a mold-breaking adult cartoon. But its hyper-realistic animation style, though beautiful, echoes that familiar, insecure flex — it’s so realistic, using the actor’s real faces, that it raises the question of why it’s animated in the first place. Why rotoscope when Legion pulls the same mind-bending visuals in live-action and CGI?

This “insecure flex” is also present in kids’ cartoons that returned from cancellation with new, adult-oriented revivals. Samurai Jack’s fifth season had the freedom of airing on Adult Swim, and consequently featured blood, nudity, and a rather out-of-place penis-headed character. While these elements are much less egregious than other adult cartoons, and the blood actually plays a part in Jack’s character arc, their inclusion felt a bit like in-your-face proof that the new season was indeed “for” adults. The same could be said of Young Justice, which increased the darkness of its content to an almost comical level, feeling like the Teen Titans Go! episode parodying the show but without the self-awareness. 

Batman: The Animated Series — which many argue was an adult animation but falls under kids animation for a number of reasons — pulled something similar when it came back for Batman and Harley Quinn, throwing in an uncomfortable amount of sexual content (remember Harley’s two butt cracks?) Again, it’s not quite on the level of other adult cartoons, but it says something that cartoons revamped for adults feel the need to add these staples of perceived maturity to fit their new audience. 

None of this is to say that any of these titles are bad, per se. Each of these series are unique in their own way, and the ones that break conventions are worthy of praise for pushing the medium of adult animation. I merely mean to point out that, even when an adult cartoon does comedy well or when it does something different, there are still a few “norms” they are bound to. There is some freedom from this in adult-oriented web series like RWBY and Cannon Busters, but major networks have yet to embrace such divergence from the norm.

What About Anime?

Throughout this piece, I have made it a point to specify that these issues among adult cartoons are present in America’s animation industry, the reason being that Japan’s animation industry is largely clear of them. There is no conception that animation in Japan is strictly for children. Rather, anime caters to a wide series of demographics — there’s Pokemon and similar series for kids, shonen anime for teens and young adults, and older demographic shows like Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood which explore adult themes without leaning heavily on comedy, violence, or explicit content. 

America’s animation industry can learn a lot from anime; it should obviously avoid exploiting, overworking, and underpaying animators and artists, but if anime’s current boom in America says anything, it’s that adults are hungry for animation of all genres with diverse visual styles. Additionally, anime of all demographics make significant merch sales not limited to children’s toys. Anime isn’t without its own stagnation, of course — but clearly diverse animation for all demographics can be a successful endeavor. 

The Future of Adult Animation

So, how can America’s adult animation industry push its boundaries? The answer is, simply put, to take risks. Like how children’s animation has continued to push for more diversity of representation and complex themes, adult animation has to do the same. 

Perhaps it is too early to tell if the risks of kids cartoons’ current renaissance will pay off, but it’s more likely production companies, studios, and networks just don’t want to take the risk when adult comedy cartoons and/or violent action-heavy series are far safer bets. But, when those risks are taken, we get magnificent shows like The Venture Bros., shows that greatly transcend the usual and bring in viewers who have grown tired of Family Guy, viewers who will eventually become majorly supportive super-fans. 

The demand is there: adult animation fans and TV junkies want to see the drama of Breaking Bad or the storytelling and world building of genre powerhouses like Stranger Things and Game of Thrones in animated series form — and frankly, the medium needs a change.