Will Western Animation Ever Break Free From its Arrested Development?

I, like many other people, grew up watching cartoons. From Blues Clues to Phineas and Ferb, cartoons were there for me no matter how old I was. Cartoons taught me my ABCs and gave me childhood adventures from the comfort of my living room. 

However, once high school hit, I could not help but notice the large gap between what is considered a “children’s cartoon” and an “adult cartoon” and the night and day difference of maturity and storytelling between the two here in the West.

It seemed like the older I got, the less variety there was with the kinds of stories being told. Most adult animation was either a sitcom with dark humor and profane language or an action show with graphic violence and sexual content. Content that would overall be highly inappropriate with children. 

Tuca & Bertie revived by Adult Swim following Netflix's contentious  cancellation - The Verge
Above: The Simpsons meet Family Guy, two of television’s longest running animated adult comedies

Despite being a current 21-year-old college student, I can’t help but prefer children’s animation to those produced for adults. Even though I have long grown out of its targeted age demographic, I can’t help but connect with the stories and characters of children’s programming more, as often times I feel like adult animation lacks (ironically) maturity with their storytelling and craft. 

However, when you look at animation from other parts of the world, this large divide between children and adult programming is not as prominent. In Japanese anime, programming isn’t split between just children and adults. Anime is seen as something that everyone, regardless of their age, can enjoy. That is why in recent years, anime has quickly grown in popularity here in the West, especially with young adults. 

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Japanese anime has grown increasingly popular among Western audiences

My first exposure to mature storytelling within western animation was with the 2005 Nickelodeon series Avatar the Last Airbender. Inspired by Japanese anime, the show, despite being targeted towards children, tackled a lot of mature themes such as female empowerment, genocide, imperialism, and philosophical questions regarding destiny and free will. The show was ambitious, even by today’s standards. But despite having come out over 15 years ago, Avatar paved the way for more diverse and mature stories to be told in children’s animation.

Within the past decade, we have seen more ambitious forms of storytelling within animated programming. From Adventure Time exploring themes of existentialism to Steven Universe prominently featuring same-sex relationships alongside themes of love, it seems that animated programming has started to grow up alongside its audiences.

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Above: Nickelodeon’s Avatar the Last Airbender

After experiencing all of these wonderful experiences of storytelling within animation, you can only imagine the disappointment I felt when I realized that there was hardly any animated programming like this for adults here in the West. 

I’m not saying that all adult animation is immature and oriented around sex, drugs, and violence. In recent years, there has been an effort by the industry to create more adult animation with sophisticated themes incorporated within them.

The series Love Death and Robots, despite being an anthology series, gives its audiences a sampling of the capabilities of the animation medium when not constrained to its usual family-friendly fare. Each short is free to explore any theme or genre, providing a Twilight Zone of animated shorts. 

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Above: Screencaps of different episodes from Love Death and Robots. Each short varies from art style and genres.

Other shows like Genndy Tarakovsky’s Samurai Jack and Primal show that not all adult programming has to be full of crude humor, and can actually be forms of art (with its fair share of bloody violence and action). Adult animation can even be experimental as seen with Pendelton Ward’s The Midnight Gospel, a crazy visual podcast come to life.

Even adult animated sitcoms like Bojack Horseman and Tuca and Bertie show that you can have an animated comedy that is more than toilet humor and can handle pressing topics such as substance abuse and depression. 

In recent years, there has been a growing interest to create more “Young-Adult” oriented programming in order to bridge this gap. Streaming services like Netflix has already made efforts by producing series such as Voltron: Legendary Defender and Kipo: the Age of the Wonderbeast. Even newer streaming services like HBO Max have released shows like Infinity Train and Close Enough.

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Above: Cartoon Network/HBO Max’s Infinity Train

It seems to me animation in the west is finally able to grow up with its audiences and I am excited to see what the future will bring. 

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9 Replies to “Will Western Animation Ever Break Free From its Arrested Development?”

  1. I think with Western animated TV, the strongest narrative content are shows that appeal to both adults and children because there’s something that both groups can get out of it. I feel that if media is able to appeal to both demographics, then animation can gain more respect as a creative field. I think it’s easy to fall into the cynicism that animation is just crass or effortless kid’s stuff, but if we just expose ourselves to great and relatable works, then we can bypass this idea. There’s great adult and children’s animated content, but of course, there’s been content that’s not that great or that is very similar to other shows. Crude jokes are apparent in media for both demographics, but I think that just depends on who’s writing the material and why they are included.

  2. I’m very happy you referenced my favorite animation guy, Genndy Tartakovsky. I love his work with a passion. LDR though? So good. Opinions aside, I agree with you. I like that animation is becoming more widespread and with it comes a larger audience and a greater percentage of adults. I mean, there are plenty of adults who watch shows made for kids, but that’s beside the point. Either way, I am ALSO excited to see more ‘adult’ animation (Love, Death & Robots is one of my favorite animated series). Great article!

  3. Wow! Let me tell that I was the exact same way when it came to viewing western animated works geared towards children vs. western animated works geared towards adults. I used to be more interested in ‘children’ shows than adult-themed shows when I was younger and I still am as a 20 year old college student. With that said, I agree that western animation is starting to close the gap between ‘youth-oriented’ animated content and ‘adult-oriented’ animated content. On a side note, I’m glad you mentioned the series, Love, Death, and Robots! Similar to William, that show is also one of my favorite animated series.

  4. You bring up a great point. I remember being seen as weird in high school for still enjoying children’s animated shows and anime because of this gap in American animation. The problem was that the stories in adult animated shows just weren’t as fun to watch as the storylines in animated shows geared toward kids. Essentially in people’s eyes, unless the animated show was South Park, Family Guy, American Dad, or any of the other sitcom/dark humor shows it was for children. I’m definitely glad to see new shows like Kipo: the Age of Wonderbeast and other shows geared toward young adults being made. I actually haven’t seen the Love, Death, and Robots so I might check it out now.

  5. Yes, I totally agree that western animation lacks that “young adult” category for animated shows, which is very disappointing. The fact that Japanese animation is more popular among young adults in Western countries makes sense because the stories they tell are adult and mature, and don’t have the “immature and gross fart-humor” many western adult cartoons have. I absolutely love shows like Avatar, Steven Universe, and Infinity Train because they bridge the gap of cute kids cartoon style meets mature adult themes. I hope that shows like these along with the rise of animated entertainment due to the pandemic will widen the range of target audiences for animated storytelling.

  6. I am so ready to see more western adult animation. As a screenwriter who likes to use darker themes in my writing, I would love to create an adult animated show with more complex storytelling. I always felt as if it would never get made though because, in a western society people usually associate animation with children’s media. I have tried so hard to get many of my friends to watch Avatar the Last Airbender, but they refuse to watch it just because its animated and for children. I hope that somewhere in the future we can continue to make adult animation that not just a sitcom/dark humor, but also with elaborate storytelling.

  7. I agree that Western animation is very bland in the way that it approaches adult animation. Nearly every animated show intended for mature audiences is a satirical comedy. Sometimes I just want to see an action-packed, adult-oriented animated show and the current slate of adult animation makes it evident that networks forget, or ignore, that animation is a medium, not a genre. You can tell any kind of story in animated form, not just comedy. I long for the day I can watch an animated drama/mystery intended for adult viewers.

  8. I attribute a lot of the holdup for the animation to fully be expressed as a medium to older producers and execs being scared to try new things. In recent years though, it feels as if though artists and showrunners are finally getting more of a say, and I’m really excited to see where that goes. Companies like Netflix also feel like they’re taking on fresher ideas and allowing various artists to be more creative, which I think has led them to become a popular, competitive company to work at.

  9. This is such a great point Camille! This has always bothered me as well, though with a newer generation of creatives entering the industry and the market for animation booming, partially due to availability with streaming I think, we’re starting to see content branch out more which is great. In the past it seemed so limited, and I think companies are realizing that young adults are their own market.

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