A child’s perspective on life is, in its own way, beautiful because it is a vision devoid of things like learning and, by extension, understanding. Children do not see the world the way we see it, mainly because many of the rules we operate by are not known to them. A little boy named Johnny, for example, might not understand why — even though we are different in millions of ways — the deciding factor in whether we wear shorts or skirts growing up is the contents of his underpants. Little Denny may not comprehend why Daddy has no shirt at the beach but Mommy has that thing covering up her chest. Little Nadia may not get the logic behind her room being pink but baby Ali’s being yellow.
(If you understand any of those rules, by the way, please explain).
Because kids don’t know these rules, the stories they view are often an addition to their learning (or indoctrination, depending on what you think parenting is). Because they are sometimes meant to act as instruction, these cartoons often enforce the beliefs most common in society. But, once in a while, a show comes along that does the opposite: instead of teaching children to follow these rules, some shows demonstrate just how arbitrary these rules often are. And, while it understandably may confuse children, the amazing thing is that it might even confuse the adults who like to pretend that the rules of their lives aren’t arbitrarily defined.
So, to throw your life into a sort of existential crisis, here are 10 cartoons that can really teach us a lot about the nuances of gender.
1. Mulan (1998)
The definitive example. There simply cannot be a list about the role of gender in cartoons without including this Disney classic. While its ethnocentric view regarding the nuances of Chinese family life leaves much to be desired, this modern retelling of the classic poem is still an excellent showcase of just how little gender matters on the battlefield. So long as a soldier is competent, does it matter what’s under the armor? At one point in the film, the male characters even dress up as concubines to invade a palace, furthering toying with the malleability of gender. And, of course, there was the also the classic “Be a Man,” which is easily the most inspirational workout music since “Gonna Fly Now.”
2. Adventure Time (2010- )
One of those modern shows that children can enjoy for the pretty colors while adults get the more serious concepts, Adventure Time has a completely gender-neutral character in Beemo, a living video game. The show also has a female counterpart to Finn, the protagonist, named Fionna, who is just as brave and, in some cases, a lot more competent. Then there’s also Princess Bubblegum and her beloved counterpart, Prince Gumball, all of which possibly illustrates the masculinity in our females and the femininity in our males.
3. The Powerpuff Girls (1998-2005)
This beloved animation classic did a lot of things: It demonstrated how even the best of our superheroes can still be made of sugar, spice and everything nice. It showed how boys are just icky and, until these damn hormones kick in, the same gender is so much more fun to hang out with. It showed how, even after being completely competent, our heroes did not get accepted into the league of superheroes because they are “little girls.” It showed how their dad, a single dad, both earned the income and did the cooking (respect, single parents!). And, outside the show, it demonstrated that, when done correctly, girls enjoy action just as much as boys.
4. Cybersix (1999-2000)
A short lived show (and quite a terrible one at that), this action series based on a series of Argentine comics was still quite interesting in how the lead character is a genetically engineered female superhero that lives out a daytime life as a male high school teacher. It’s a compelling commentary on how many people can’t necessarily look past gender — which kept her identity safe — while also demonstrating how we all tend to wear masks to hide how we really feel, how we don’t accept the skin we’re comfortable in. Was she a woman that became a man when in disguise, or was he a man that became a woman when in costume?
5. Arthur (1996- )
One of the best things about this beloved PBS show is the enduring rivalry between titular protagonist Arthur Read and his good friend Francine Frensky, who both try to constantly outdo each other in their neighborhood sports. Of course, that’s a fairly generous description and, in reality, Frensky owns Arthur every single time, be it softball or soccer. While the children in the show are young enough that physical differences are yet to become apparent — and the sports playing field is therefore a bit more even — it does raise the question that did all of our sporting teams need to be separated by gender? Table tennis, for example, could have had gender-neutral teams, no?
6. SheZow (2012- )
Perhaps the boldest of the list in its gender-based premise, SheZow stars a young man who finds his aunt’s long lost ring, meant to give the wearer superpowers. Only thing is that the ring was meant for a woman, so the hero himself gets his gender swapped every time he puts it on and the result is “she-larious” (official descriptions words, not mine). Perhaps comedy was not the right genre to discuss this but, nonetheless, it does show how children can see superheroes without defining them by gender.
7. SpongeBob Squarepants (1999- )
The show that, more than any other, demonstrates how “tough” is a state of mind, not being. Our resident nice guys Patrick and SpongeBob, accompanied by equally soft but grouchy Squidward, get repeatedly beaten in all matters of physical skill whenever they face Sandy Cheeks, the leanest, meanest Texan squirrel you will ever meet. Donning a spacesuit, she’s like a fish out of water in the sea but this bodybuilder-cum-rodeo-champion destroys anyone that messes with her or Texas. Patrick often gets the worst of it, but his stupidity invites a good karate chop.
8. Shrek (2001)
This Mike Myers-Eddie Murphy comedy has a knack for turning traditional fairy tales on their head, starting with how, after finding true love, the princess does not become beautiful but instead becomes an ogre that is more than accepting of who she is. She’s not afraid to burp (“better out the attic than the basement”) and is comfortable with being the baddest, raddest ogre princess of all time. In future installments, she also organizes all the fairy princesses (Snow White, Cinderella, etc.) and convinces them that, instead of waiting for their men, they should all go out and fight the battles on their own. And they own that.
9. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2012- )
The original series and the 2003 sequel both had one serious problem: their only prominent female, the one and only April O’Neil, was kind of unimportant. The latest series, easily the most consistently hilarious incarnation of the turtles ever, corrects that by making her a teenager just like the turtles and, just like them, she is also rash and has a tendency to jump into the thick of it. Other than making Splinter look like the most irresponsible guardian of teenagers in history, April is proof that despite being a girl, she is just as crucial a member of the team as any of the others. Now, nobody ask why a teenaged girl can go undercover as a member of the fire department. It just works. Plus, she’s also training to be a kunoichi (female practitioner of ninjutsu) — of which there’s actually one more on the show. That other kunoichi, the deadly Karai, pretty much owns the turtles every time she faces them.
10. The Looney Tunes Show (2011- )
This modern incarnation of the classic cartoon series is excellent in every way. It's a consistently witty and intelligent show that explores the many nuances of bromances, romances, and annoying people in general. But what is also shows really well is how the characteristics needed to maintain relationships with flawed and erratic people — mainly, love and patience — are not assigned just to the women (cough *Marge Simpson* cough). Instead, whereas Bugs has to be very patient with Lola, the patient one in the other couple is Tina, not Daffy. And, on a more visual level, it also shows the irony in how Bugs and Daffy are completely undressed — as is common for rabbits and ducks — but Tina and Lola are dressed like women. Does that show the aforementioned double-standard regarding skin show in men and women?
So, if you’re not already pondering gender trouble as we speak, why not share some other shows in the comments below?