I find myself a frequent and addicted viewer of Adventure Time. I watch it because it is entertaining and adorable, but also because its messages are so compelling. The teaching of progressive thinking in kids’ shows isn’t a new phenomenon, as Sesame Street has been doing this since the 1970s. But Adventure Time targets a more adolescent audience, and frequently makes no bones about its offbeat way of addressing social issues. With this considered, it is amazing – even life-affirming – that the show is so popular with viewers young and old. Even subversive rap personality Tyler, the Creator openly declared his love for ATin the Pitchfork-approved 2011 hit “Yonkers.”
Why is AT’s popularity so hopeful? Consider the pop culture formula, devised by pop culture experts Jack Nachbar and Kevin Lause:
“The popularity of a given cultural element (object, person or event) is directly proportional to the degree to which that element is reflective of audience beliefs and values. The greater the popularity of the cultural element – in an era and/or over time – the more reflective of the zeitgeist this element is likely to be.” (1992)
Nachbar and Lause also contend that producers of pop culture consider this formula:
“The producers of popular culture are promoters…They create a product which reflects us and will draw us to the mirror, but they also come chasing after us to instill values and beliefs likely to ensure their success.” (1992)
Therefore, it is promising not only that AT enforces these progressive ways of thinking with its rhetoric, but that we live in a social climate where AT is a marketable show. The dynamic and circular nature of this relationship is what restores my faith in humanity every time I watch it.
So, now that I’ve introduced/bludgeoned you to/with some pop cultural theory, I’ll explain how and why AT is so progressive. First of all, it is set in a post-apocalyptic world where the two main protagonists–Jake the Dog and Finn the Human–are the only known dog and human left on the planet (as implied by their names). This is already a thought-provoking premise for a cartoon.
Adventure Time’s remaining menagerie of characters includes (but is not limited to): a strange and adorable kingdom of mutant candy people and their super-smart ruler, Princess Bubblegum; Lady Rainicorn, a taffy-like rainbow unicorn who speaks only Korean; Lumpy Space Princess (LSP), a valley girl-esque purple blob from an alternate universe who repeatedly proves how unnecessary it is for women to be fixated on guys and appearance; Marceline, an angsty-but-good-hearted and musically talented zombie goddess of the Nightosphere (AT’s version of hell); B-Mo, a cute-as-a-button gender-neutral game console; the Ice King, the show’s main antagonist – and ruler of the Ice Kingdom – who is evil only because he really just wants to be loved. There are many more, of course, but this entry has to end eventually.
If you’re not yet convinced of how progressive this show is, especially in terms of gender roles and society, consider this: Princess Bubblegum, the show’s main female character and rule of the Candy Kingdom, is an amazing example for young girls watching the show. She’s a capable and intelligent political leader, a beast at math and science, and a skilled fighter–all characteristics, both on television and in real-life, that are traditionally viewed as male. In fact, the show frequently puts emphasis on the fact that intelligence, bravery, ingenuity, and creativity are far more attractive characteristics–in anyone of any gender–than pure power or appearance. If you’re looking for a particular example of this, watch Episode 6, Season 4, where Lumpy Space Princess attempts to write a book about how attractive she is because of “her lumps,” but ends up discovering that attractiveness is a characteristic held by beings whose “lumps are on the inside.”
Creator Pendleton Ward even made a gender bender episode in Season 3, where the genders of all of the characters on the show were entirely reversed, begging viewers of all ages to ask themselves about whether their expectations for the characters change based on their perceptions of gender roles on TV. In that same episode, Fionna, the female version of Finn, says, “I don’t need to feel like I’m waiting to be noticed. I know who I am, and I know what I’ll want, if and when it ever comes along.” Really, a great statement for anyone to live by.
It makes me happy to know that impressionable young people (and, okay, impressionable older people) are watching this show, and learning from its value system. I completely agree with Nachbar and Lause’s theory of pop culture, and consequently believe that what young people watch can have an incredible impression on their worldviews and perspectives. It affirms my faith in humanity to know that there is a show that says, “Hey, kids (and everyone else): you can be anyone you want to be, and live up to your full potential, regardless of your gender or station in life.”
Nachbar, J. & Lause, K. (1992). Popular Culture: An Introductory Text. Madison: The Popular Press.
Photo credit: JD Hancock