Saturday, March 12, 2016
Five Mentally-Scarring 1980s Saturday Morning Cartoons – Staturday Morning Weirdness
Would You Like a Nuclear Nightmare With Your Cocoa Puffs?
According to advertisers sponsoring the block of television programming in question, there was nothing more pure and American than a little kid scampering out of bed at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning, padding to the kitchen in bare feet, pouring a big bowl of sugared cereal and milk, and plopping in front of the TV for six solid hours of noisy toy ads disguised as cartoons. Yet within this idyllic scene was a tacit agreement between the child-based industries (I call them “Kidnustries”) and parents that they could sleep off their hangovers resulting from a debauched Friday night of heavy drinking and wife-swapping; they’d watch your kids for you. It’s something that would have been unthinkable a few generations ago, because there wasn’t any television, Saturday morning or otherwise—also no refrigeration, from where could be procured fresh milk; no proliferation of Baby Boomer children that could handle the Friday evening babysitting duties; no kitchen floor linoleum that would be comfortable to walk upon in bare feet. Saturday morning cartoons were purely a mid-twentieth century invention, and they reflected the attitudes and fears of that time. And you know what? A lot of those attitudes and fears were pretty fucked up. Since television was essentially my third parent, let’s have a little therapy session and discover which of our anxieties can be attributed to Saturday morning programming, shall we? We shall! Read on!
1. Pac-Man: The Animated Series
When it’s a symbolic yellow sprite erasing dots while being chased by multicolored shower curtains in order to clear a video game level, that’s one thing. But slap some eyeballs and appendages on that sprite, give it a voice and a personality, and you’ve got an endorsement for non-stop gluttony and physical harassment. Pac-Man was about the titular man himself (in brown boots, gloves, and a crushed fedora), his wife Pepper (aka Ms. Pac-Man, in go-go boots and a Donna Reed wig) their dog Chomp-Chomp and cat Sour Puss (and their baby Super-Pac introduced in the second season), denizens of the spherical Pac-Land which is inhabited by other round “people” with voracious appetites for Power Pellets. There was a contrivance wherin a wizard sent the game’s Ghost Monsters: Inky, Pinky, Blinky, Clyde, and Sue to mercilessly fuck with Pac-Land in order to get their Power Pellets, but reality is that the ghosts would descend upon a Pac person (no, not 2Pac) and sort of…molest them for a moment, leaving them severely weakened and traumatized. Sue, the only female ghost, had very sultry eye makeup and was very flirty in her attempts to lure Pac folks to what looked like feelings of nausea and distress. Indeed, the whole thing was sort of sexualized, as the Pac-Man family ate requisite Power Pellets and then bit the posteriors of these ghosts, which removed their ectoplasmic coverings and forced them to run away as a pair of floating eyes. It was like some never-ending, masochistic trade-off between yellow sphere people and ghosts, where the Pac-Men would suffer abuse until a turnabout that had them consuming their tormentors. Something about this cartoon really unsettled me as a kid, and it wasn’t just Sour Puss’ wheezing chuckle. Pac-Man: The Animated Series was nothing less than an endorsement of abuse and rape, in terms a seven year-old could grasp.
2. The Smurfs
Ah, the glorious worker’s paradise of the Smurfs, where Karl Marx’s slogan “from each according to his ability; to each according to his need” was exemplified in a perfect one-to-one ratio, with each Smurf being only capable of one function apiece. The Smurfs’ Communist leanings have long been revealed and discussed elsewhere, but I found this cartoon unsettling for two reasons. One: the Smurfs’ antagonists, the forest wizard Gargamel and his asshole cat Azrael chased the little blue Smurfs to eat them. Yes, Gargamel also intended to use them in an alchemical formula that would turn matter into gold, but he frequently waxed on about Smurf Stew and other Smurf-based recipes that implied he had caught and prepared Smurfs for consumption in the past. There’s something about capturing and eating something that can have a conversation with you that is just gross as hell, the veritable height of xenophobia. The second reason the Smurfs freaked me out is that in a mushroom village filled with dozens of male Smurfs, each one assigned a public service based on their talent or skill, there was only one female: Smurfette, who’s job was to be a girl. So she was essentially the willing concubine for a patriarchal labor camp, a set of blue tits in a baby doll dress whose function was to relieve the workers of their sexual burdens. Never mind the fact that Gargamel actually created Smurfette from magic-infused clay, in order to infiltrate the Smurfs and lead Gargamel to their capture, she also created a lot of jealousy within the Smurfs that was the subject for several episodes’ worth of chaos. Karl Marx would be spinning in his grave, were it not for the corruption and failure of many actual Communist countries being somewhat more embarrassing to his legacy.
3. Hulk Hogan’s Rock’ N Wrestling
In 1983, pop star Cyndi Lauper featured “Captain” Lou Albano as her belligerent father in the music video for hit song “Girls Just Want To Have Fun.” Shortly after that, Lauper was seen hanging around Albano ringside at his job as manager in the World Wrestling Federation, and the Rock N’ Wrestling Connection was born. Cyndi would appear during numerous WWF matches and even Wrestlemania over the next couple of years, but this cartoon, Hulk Hogan’s Rock N’ Wrestling, was the oddest and most offensive by-product of this dubious marketing gimmick. For one thing, the cartoon did not feature Cyndi Lauper or any other rockers, only animated representations of WWF wrestlers. But more to the point, professional wrestling is a designated entertainment where trained acrobats adopt the affectations of racist caricatures as a backdrop against which stunt-driven play fights are performed. Take away the wrestling matches, and all you’ve got is a bunch of racist caricatures interacting with each other. You’ve got a Tito Santana who sounds like Freddie Prinze doing his worst Chico impersonation, an Iron Sheik who looks like something out of a New York Post editorial cartoon, and a Nikolai Volkoff who…well he’s about as poor a representation of a Russian as his real-life WWF counterpart here in the waning years of the Cold War. And, for some reason, a Junkyard Dog that sounded curiously like radio personality Wolfman Jack. Never mind that the “good guys” were led by Nordic übermensch Hulk Hogan and the more ethnic squad were helmed by shifty Scotsman “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, what we had here was a Saturday morning primer for budding racists, who can now be seen campaigning for Donald Trump.
4. Thundarr the Barbarian
“The year, 1994. From out of space, comes a runaway planet, hurtling between the Earth and the moon, unleashing cosmic destruction. Man's civilization is cast in ruin.” So began each episode of Thundarr the Barbarian, which ran for three years beginning in 1980. That means that this world-destroying cataclysm was a mere fourteen years away, or roughly when most of its viewers would be just old enough to legally drink alcohol. If that isn’t enough to encourage the nihilism of a generation, the barbaric future as depicted two-thousand years into the future contained relics from our time: the protagonists might battle a techno-wizard at a half-destroyed Golden Gate Bridge, or fight the minions of a science-wizard near the mostly-sumberged remnants of the Statue of Liberty. Thundarr, the titular character, seemed to know nothing of our accumulated history and culture, and had to be informed by his companion, the sorceress Ariel, who learned about our time while trapped in a library (where, amazingly, the books must have been intact and readable…maybe it was a library in a refrigerator.) Hopped-up kids could take heart knowing that their every creation and achievement would ultimately become so much dust to be traipsed upon by some future civilization of narcissistic wizards and misogynist tribesmen. At least we could find comfort in finding that many of our twentieth-century automobiles survived largely intact into the year 2394. That’s American-made reliability, folks.
5. Dungeons & Dragons
It is amazing to think about now, but in the 1980s America was gripped in a “Satantic Panic,” a literal belief that the Dark Prince of Hell had inserted himself into our daycare centers and popular culture in order to infect our children with evil. At the center of this controversy was the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, a favored form of entertainment by nerds and goth types, whose largest supplication to demonic forces was likely habitual masturbation. This cartoon was about a bunch of kids who, after taking a creepy-looking roller coaster, find themselves in a vast, magical land of orcs, trolls, and trollish orcs. They were normally pitted against Venger, a one-horned, bat-winged humanoid manifestation of evil that might as well have been Satan himself. But more horrifying was the five-headed dragon Tiamat, whose name and multiple heads were taken from the shape-changing Mesopotamian goddess Tiamat, who represented the primordial forces of chaos and the all-powerful ocean. She not only birthed all of the lesser gods that would control the ancient world’s day-to-day activity, but created eleven monsters to get revenge on some other god, including a scorpion/man hybrid and what we would later come to know as a Minotaur. She would be the equivalent of God’s mother in terms of most Western religions, and the fact that a bunch of lost teenagers were tasked with fighting against one of her pagan manifestations is about as pure a blasphemy as could ever have snuck onto Saturday morning television. Well played, TSR Games. Well played.