Tuesday, July 5, 2011

In a pop-culture based on recycling, will our children have icons for their own?

My wife is currently excited because my 3.75 year old daughter has just discovered She-Ra: Princess of Power (otherwise known in our house as He-Man's incestuously-inclined sister).  We happened to play an episode on Netflix Instant and said daughter was relatively entertained.  It's never been a major sticking point, but pretty much from the time Allison was old enough to periodically watch television, it's been a constant debate of 'when will she be ready for (insert show or movie that my wife and/or I enjoyed as a kid)?'  Should we show her Star Wars when the Blu Rays come out in September, or should we wait and take her to see The Phantom Menace in 3D next February?  Or should we just wait a couple years until we know she can 'handle' them and merely allow her to like them or dislike them on their own merits?  We've mellowed out considerably in that regard, basically realizing that she can watch Star Wars or Harry Potter or The Muppets when she damn-well wants to.  I know we're not the only parents who do this.  For those who were raised in the 1980s and came of age in the 1990s, there seems to be an unwillingness to let go of our childhood entertainments.  Combined with a need to expose our children to the same things that we loved as soon as possible, this begs a question.  In an era when the biggest movie of the summer is a live-action variation on a 1980s cartoon and most of the major films are based on comic books that stretch back to the 1940s, in a time when studio executives are trying to 'bring back the Looney Tunes' and 'revive The Muppets', in a place where everything from the 1980s and 1990s seems to be being groomed for a remake or reboot (Teen Wolf? Another Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie?  One more Thundercats cartoon?), will our children actually have entertainment icons of their very own?      

Of course, I could tell you what I was into at the various stages of my childhood.  I was a hardcore He-Man/She-Ra fan at the age of six, eventually grew into worshiping Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, before becoming a pure Batman fan (the Burton/Schumacher movies, Batman: the Animated Series, the 1960s Batman show, comics, etc).  Other than the comic book superheroes that I adored, most of the entertainment I consumed was made for me, originated in my lifetime, and technically original in the sense that it wasn't a rehash of something that was successful a decade or three prior.  He-Man was created in 1986 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was created as a comic book in 1984 and then adapted into a cartoon in 1987.  Indiana Jones was created whole in 1981, and Back to the Future was an original screenplay written from scratch in 1985.  Yes, some of these properties had homages to the genre fare of old, but by-and-large, the stuff I consumed was created at the time I first consumed it.  I took ownership of it knowing that it was created originally for my generation.  But then I wasn't growing up in a generation of adults unwilling to let go of their childhood playthings.

Other than a few offhand references to the 1950s Adventures of Superman show, I couldn't tell you what movies, television shows, and books my dad was into as a kid.  Yes, I know he grew up loving baseball, but I couldn't tell you his favorite movie or his favorite book as a kid.  I know only about his music tastes from paying attention to the various mixed tapes he listened to as I was growing up (lots of Elton John), but I don't know what he liked when he was a kid or even a college student.  Same with my mother.  I know she likes the band 3 Dog Night, but other than that, I have no idea what entertained my mother in her initial 1/3 of life.  Aside from exposing me to Star Wars and Indiana Jones right as the films were being released, my parents made no effort to steer me towards the entertainment they grew up with.  I got to discover my own entertainment options.  I listened to Michael Jackson because he was popular when I was growing up, not because he was popular in the 1970s.  I listened to Bon Jovi because they released "Slippery When Wet" in 1986.  I watched He-Man: Masters of the Universe because it premiered right as I was old enough to really get into action cartoons.  To my parents' credit, I was allowed to discover MacGyverThe Simpsons, and Family Feud more-or-less on my own.

My dad did not spend his evenings debating with my mother when I would be 'ready' to watch The Adventures of Superman.  Of course, my dad didn't have DVD and Netflix Instant.  Our generation is arguably the first generation of parents who have access to nearly any show, book, CD, or movie ever released either instantly or within 48 hours.  As a result, we CAN expose our kids to the 1980s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon or The Joshua Tree pretty much on a dime.  But to what extent should we be doing that?  By force-feeding our children the stories and myths that were ours, are we denying them the opportunity to discover their own icons?  And with an entertainment industry (especially in television and movies) obsessed with recycling the past, will our children even have their own entertainment franchises?  If we bring our children up in an entertainment culture where the biggest movies are live-action versions of OUR favorite cartoons and all of the cartoons and youth-targeted genre fare are reimaginings of yesterday's cartoons and properties, will today's kids be forced to merely appropriate our culture as their own?

Who will be the heroes and villains that my daughter and son grow up with?  Will they get icons of their own, or will they be stuck merely watching/reading reboots and re-imaginings of the same stuff you and I loved?  Dora the Explorer is eleven years old.  Harry Potter, arguably the last original generational literary icon, debuted in 1997.  The kids of today, at least in the realm of heroic fiction, are not being given their own heroes and villains on screens large and small.  They are instead being served a mishmash of 1980s nostalgia (Transformers, Tron, Thundercats, etc) and continual rehashes of the same various comic book superheroes (Spider-Man, Batman, X-Men, etc) that I grew up and my parents grew up with.  When was the last original American action cartoon that struck a chord?  Gargoyles was fifteen years ago, and has there been anything else of its caliber to spring from an original mind since then (UPDATE - Avatar: The Last Airbender certainly applies)?  Once my daughter and my son outgrow the Nick Jr. entertainment empire, will there be anything left for them to embrace other the remakes and rehashes of the characters I once loved?  And considering how important it is for a child to be able to claim stories for themselves, is that really an entertainment strategy that we should be encouraging?

Scott Mendelson

16 comments:

The New Thomas Jefferson said...

This was a fascinating article and it's something I think about all the time.

That said, I disagree with the idea that the cause of this shift to "recycled" material is that the entertainment industry is obsessed with it. If you look at the time period of the properties you grew up with, I would point out that they benefited from being released in a time when their very environment was new.

The Star Wars toy line invented from scratch the pattern of a self-contained pre-existing mythology being represented in an extensive array of toys. Before Star Wars, toy lines featured larger dolls of just a few characters. Notice that Star Wars' toy line was created as an outgrowth of the original film. All of the major toy properties of the 1980s that followed its 3 3/4 inch formula reversed this. They had a toy line and then built a mythology around it. There is nothing before Star Wars, Transformers, He-Man, G.I. Joe, and Ninja Turtles that enjoyed success in quite this same way.

Personally, I think Barbie was the first girl's toy to successfully adapt this formula. In the late 80s and early 90s, she fused with Disney to gain an internal mythology the same as boys toys had enjoyed.

My point is that I don't think there has been a revolution since then that would be followed with the creation of lots of new properties. There is a canon of properties now. Long-existing canons are always added to slowly.

For further illustration, look at the children’s cartoons, films and toy lines of the early-mid-1970s and compare them with their counterparts from only ten years later. There is a radical difference in content, complexity, and presentation. Now compare those 1980s toys, films, and cartoons with those of today. Action figures look the same as they did 25 years ago. Between the 1970s and 80s they changed from being a few fragile, plush Mego dolls into the solid, prolific plastic 3 3/4 inch figures we've known ever since. There has been no reinvention of children's pop culture which would prompt new icons. We're simply continuing to develop the original ones.

Cartoons, though they have evolved to incorporate more mature and literary writing, have not changed that drastically since the 1980s as they did before that.

It's 2011 and we still think of Jaws as the original modern Blockbuster. If the inception of our modern era is now nearly four decades old, rather than still new, why would we see a wave of new titles? Why must we throw out everything that came before? Couldn't these old toy properties be developed into something artistically respectable?

Take Transformers (ignoring the Bay Films). Since the original cartoon (which is fine for its time, but now just a little silly), we've had Beast Wars, Transformers Animated, and now Transformer: Prime, all of which feature mature, good cartoon writing.

Even My Little Pony is enjoying this trend. I never thought I would give the time of day to anything related to that pink, puffy, empty horse parade, but the newest cartoon is quite well written, for what it is. (You should suggest it to your daughter, btw).

Anyway, my point is that we have not failed to see the expected stream of new properties. There just hasn't been a reinvention of the very structure of children's pop culture since the mid-late 1970s, and as such, there's no stream of revolutionaries and innovators to define what the new era is. Without a major shake-up, I think people are quite content to see already-existing properties grow and mature.

I know I'm getting to the age where I hope to have kids in a few years and I can't wait to share my old favorites with them.

As an aside, I should mention that I didn’t even go into the shift in social views. Baby Boomers are not nearly as accepting of people who worship their childhood icons as X-ers and Millenials have proven to be. This could be a whole different discussion of why that is.

Malik said...

Scott,

I'd posit that Avatar: The Last Airbender could qualify as an "original American action cartoon that struck a chord" -- do you agree?

Malik said...

Btw, very interesting post as usual, Scott.

Sorry for the double comment -- I forgot to click that I'd like to receive notifications of followup comments.

Scott Mendelson said...

That's actually a refreshingly current example. Thanks, Malik.

Anonymous said...

Assuming we are talking about pop cultural icons in general and not just primarily cartoon based I think you are leaving out a large source of icons for today's children... video games.

Nicholas M. Hatten said...

Does Twilight count?

sosgemini said...

Does Twilight count?

Malik said...

An interesting note on this subject a friend of mine pointed out:

"Interestingly I got bored and looked at the top 10 films of 2010.

1. Toy Story 3
2. Alice in Wonderland
3. Iron Man 2
4. Twillight: Eclipse
5. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
6. Inception
7. Despicable Me
8. Shrek Forever After
9. How to Train Your Dragon
10. Tangled

If we swap the original media for the 2010 film our list looks like this...

1. Toy Story (film) 1995
2. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (book) 1865
3. Tales of Suspense #39 (comicbook) 1963
4. Twillight (book) 2005
5. Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone (book) 1997
6. Inception (film) 2010
7. Despicable Me (film) 2010
8. Shrek (film) 2001
9. How to Train Your Dragon (book) 2003
10. Rapunzel (Grimms Tales lol) 1812 ^^

Two from the 19th century, two from the 60s, two from the 90s and everything else 2001-2010.

I'm just saying..."

Peter Collinson said...

The constant recycling is indeed a valid concern but there's one pop cultural development you're wrong to ignore ... the young adult genre fiction boom. My nieces and nephews bookshelves are literally drowning in icons of their own. So there's definitely a kind of remake fever now that we never had to absorb. You could argue that that's because we had easier access to our parents icons. (read: re-runs) Our culture was just as much a mix of ours and theirs, it's just that theirs was the original theirs not pale imitations.

Malik said...

Good point, Peter. Both The Hunger Games and Percy Jackson and the New Olympians have or are spawning iterations in other forms of media, and I'm sure that The Maze Runner and Incarceron will do the same eventually.

Even beyond Young Adult fiction, I'd say that there is no shortage of written material available, as shown by the True Blood series (although the promise of The Dresden Files was squandered in it's TV version), not to mention how Game of Thrones performed.

Malik said...

Good point, Peter. Both The Hunger Games and Percy Jackson and the New Olympians have or are spawning iterations in other forms of media, and I'm sure that The Maze Runner and Incarceron will do the same eventually.

Even beyond Young Adult fiction, I'd say that there is no shortage of written material available, as shown by the True Blood series (although the promise of The Dresden Files was squandered in it's TV version), not to mention how Game of Thrones performed.

sosgemini said...

Does Twilight count?

Malik said...

Btw, very interesting post as usual, Scott.

Sorry for the double comment -- I forgot to click that I'd like to receive notifications of followup comments.

Peter Collinson said...

The constant recycling is indeed a valid concern but there's one pop cultural development you're wrong to ignore ... the young adult genre fiction boom. My nieces and nephews bookshelves are literally drowning in icons of their own. So there's definitely a kind of remake fever now that we never had to absorb. You could argue that that's because we had easier access to our parents icons. (read: re-runs) Our culture was just as much a mix of ours and theirs, it's just that theirs was the original theirs not pale imitations.

Carl said...

Well, let's be fair here, while the 80's had their share of original icons for kids, icons like Superman and Batman were from another era that survived into our generation through various re-imaginings and re-boots as well.

Bland said...

Great post. If it makes money, companies will keep trotting it out. And it will never be as good as it was in our head. Or children need to have something to call their own, but since the number of companies available to create new material has dwindled to almost none, there will be no innovation to be seen for a long time.

Also, He-Man debuted around 1980 or 81, not 1986.

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