We have all grown up with cartoons. At some point, we all fell in love with at least one cartoon and wanted nothing more than to be a part of its world. Many of us still go back and rewatch some of our favorite cartoons from back in the day, and I am one of them.
That is why I wanted to write this article. Watching some of our favorite childhood shows and cartoons as an adult is different; it’s easier to not only laugh at some adult humor that the animators put in but also notice some very hard-hitting lessons that come to light.
Childhood Shows With Lessons
It happens quite often that showrunners put themes, metaphors, and lessons in their cartoons that children do not understand consciously, but adults do. However, children subconsciously pick up these lessons without any knowledge.
For instance, an episode that shows what an abusive relationship looks like (I will discuss that) subconsciously plants the idea of this is evil in a child’s mind. A child might notice something similar happening in his own house or at the neighbors, and he will understand it as being a “bad” thing.
Many childhood shows that tackle these adult themes (No, I am not going to be talking about BoJack Horseman; it’s not a childhood cartoon), and I am going to list some of them here.
S1 Ep11: Charmander. The Stray Pokémon
Pokémon in its first season was something else; there are episodes that criticize school systems, episodes that talk about animal abuse, sexism, failures due to laziness, etc. To call it one of the best childhood shows out there would not be an overstatement.
However, this episode is a standout, as it tackles abusive relationships, while also commenting on how difficult it is for someone in such a relationship to leave the abuser behind. The episode does all this through the perspective of a Charmander.
The Charmander is abandoned on a rock and waits patiently for its trainer. Its trainer, however, does not want Charmander since he believes that it is weak. Consequently, the Charmander shows its true strength and the abusive trainer suddenly wants it back.
The episode also does a great job of showing how hard it becomes to help someone who is in such a situation through the perspective of Ash and the gang.
Overall, the episode serves as one of the best of not only the Original Series but the entire franchise.
Here is a video that analyses the episode in great detail.
Courage the Cowardly Dog
S4 Ep7: The Mask
RIP Thea White, The voice of Muriel.
One of the childhood shows that gave us all nightmares might also have been responsible for introducing many to the concept of how Love is not bound by Gender.
Again, in a great episode that thrives more on psychological terror than the many monsters, it is famous for, the show tackles multiple sensitive topics. Love, Abusive Relationships, Prejudices, and how Anger and Hate spreads; all in one a very entertaining episode to watch.
The mask that the episode is named after in a sense represents the mask that all of us have that hides the real us from the world. The show explores the concept of people hiding behind the mask and how it just causes hurt and nothing more.
The episode also features some very dark and twisted metaphors and images, which I am not going to discuss. It also shows in its ending how Love triumphs all and how prejudices are often unfounded and are a result of one’s upbringing and/or surroundings.
It is a great watch; don’t worry it also delivers on plenty of scares and comedy.
Here is a great article that does a deep dive on this episode.
S2 Ep 17: Dipper and Mabel vs The Future:
Gravity Falls presented a very refreshing take on a kid’s show that even adults can enjoy. It had a lot of adult-centered content, and this episode features themes that every adult can relate to.
The episode is split into two halves, Dipper and Mabel. Dipper’s half serves as the adventure and action part whereas Mabel’s is the emotional core of the episode.
Mabel spends the entire episode wrestling with the reality that they are growing up. Soon everything will change; she fears that Dipper (her brother) will become distant to her, and she will lose her friends.
The episode really goes hard on this message with Mabel’s fears of her brother becoming realized; which kicks off the final three episodes of Gravity Falls.
In these three episodes, the siblings accept that they will grow up and that things will change; but the truth is that they will always have each other. Some people will go but some who care will always stick around because the more the things change; the more they stay the same.
Gravity Falls is very highly recommended; it is an example of something that is so well made that it deserves at least one viewing.
S1 Ep12: Predatory:
One really wouldn’t think of deep themes and messages when it comes to Transformers, but this is where we were wrong.
Transformers Prime had an excellent version of Arcee, one who deviated from her previous incarnations and one which the show really fleshed out and developed.
The entire first half of season-1 and bits of season 2 deals with Arcee’s trauma from losing her partner, and the problems she faces when trying to deal with her new partner Jack.
This episode in particular dives into her character, as old wounds are opened and histories are revealed. The entire show was excellent in displaying how people/transformers are affected by their past and how one should try their best to live in the present.
What happened in the past cannot be changed; it can only be accepted, and it is hard to do so. It is very hard to come to terms with reality sometimes, but what is most important are the people who are there for you in the present.
Please don’t confuse Transformers Prime with the Transformers Movies. Please!!
Avatar The Last Air Bender
A little heads up! Talking about the entire series here.
Avatar is definitely Nickelodeon’s best work; one of the most well-told stories with stylish animation, amazing visuals, and a beautiful soundtrack; rounded by one of the best cast of characters that also hides some incredibly dark themes.
One of these being Child Abuse.
The show displays this by drawing a contrast between two characters; siblings Zuko and Azula. In the show, both are victims but we see Zuko recover over time due to his loving uncle Iroh, whereas Azula’s past and her pain turns her into a monster.
The show does an excellent job showing how people can recover with love and patience, while displaying the horrors of Child Abuse and how it affects children.
The final battle between Zuko and Azula is not considered a triumph of good over evil but rather a tragedy of a family torn apart with nothing left to salvage.
Here is a video that does an excellent job explaining this, a much better job than I can do.
These are just some of the examples of childhood shows with dark/adult themes. A lot of these shows had multiple episodes that dealt with these dark topics, which I haven’t mentioned. I guess it is justifiable to say that cartoons are not just for children.
I personally like animators who go out of their way to put messages like these in their shows because it is hard to write scripts and get past the censors.
And yes, this was not a conventional topic but, in my opinion, a very important one. Safe Travels, Friend.