I, a 30-year-old person without a television, discovered Adventure Time purely by crazy coincidence. Several webcomic artists I enjoy had started working on the show, and I checked it out. I was immediately hooked, and it was only several months later that I was informed that it was meant to be a kids’ show. I had assumed it was part of Adult Swim, like 12 oz. Mouse and Aqua Teen Hunger Force. (Are those still on? I’ve been away from the US and actual television for a long time.)
For a long time, I rejected the idea that this show was really intended for kids. Clearly the show was designed for quirky adults who grew up on Homestar Runner (particularly those who enjoy various sorts of recreational chemistry), and all this talk of it being “for kids” was just a ruse to get Cartoon Network to play it during the daytime.
But over time, I have grown to accept it as a show both for adults and for kids (as long as they’re not too young – some of that stuff is pretty heavy, really), and I have even decided that children should be watching it.
Why? Because it teaches young people all the best lessons that kids aren’t taught often enough.
The overwhelming majority of media (particularly in the US) teaches viewers (especially those impressionable young ones) some pretty messed-up things about life, the world, and how to treat people. Boys are the default, and girls have a very specific role they are required to fill. I don’t think I need to get into the details here: we all know how it works. Ask any average child what things are “for boys” or “for girls” and they’ll have a simple, clear-cut, color-coded answer ready for you.
And it’s not only about gender. Adults do one thing while kids do another. Anything different from normal is scary or dangerous (or worse, something broken that needs to be protected or fixed). Good people (especially heroes) always do the right thing. Fluffy pink things are good, and black and pointy things are evil. In fact, good and evil are a big part of it: there’s a constant reinforcement of the ideas of “us” and “them” in every type of media, as much for children as for adults.
But Adventure Time is different. Yes, the two title characters are male, and there are a lot of princesses around. But the cast is huge and diverse. In fact, it’s almost what I would call “completely” diverse. With very few exceptions, each and every character in the Adventure Time universe is unique. And there are so many of them which are each so different that it very quickly becomes normal for everyone to be different. Yeah, the adventuring teenage boy and the pink-clad princess exist (though neither completely fill any normal stereotype), but so do all the other people.
The main cast alone includes, in addition to the adventuring human boy Finn and his magic dog/brother/friend Jake, there is a pink-clad bubblegum princess (who is totally badass and in control and a scientific genius), a vampire queen (who is a thousand years old but still acts like an emo teenager and plays bass guitar), a lumpy space princess (who is selfish and awkward and annoying but still cared for by the other characters), and an ice king (who kidnaps princesses trying to force them to love him, and is always stopped by the heroes, yet is not really considered a “bad” guy, just misguided). Then there’s the people made of candy (with severe anxiety problems), including the black-magic-performing friend-of-Death Peppermint Butler, the slow-witted but well-meaning Cinnamon Bun, and Lemongrabs, the severely neurotic schizoid earl. And the evil penguin Gunther, and the Flame Princess with serious anger management problems, and the grandmotherly tiny elephant who bakes apple pies and is totally in love with a pig, and the big-boned and speech impaired Susan Strong, and a whole culture of bears that need to party all the time, and an entire race of socially awkward Mudscamps who want desperately to be cool but never quite manage it. And that’s not even getting into the gender-swapped alternative “fanfic” universe of Fiona and Cake.
So why does this matter? Well the key isn’t so much in the fact that all these odd characters exist. Plenty of children’s shows are full of odd characters. What’s the difference here?
The difference is in how they are presented, and how they are treated by the protagonists of the show. No matter how strange or confusing a new character is, they are not rejected or ostracized simply because they are different. Nor is any special attention paid to the fact that they are different. After all, everyone in this world is different somehow, so why be surprised when you meet someone new?
Finn and Jake can encounter just about anything, no matter how bizarre or unexpected, and they always meet it with a shrug and a “nice to meet you.” Dialogue often includes lines like, “Oh, you’re a (insert thing here)? Huh. Okay, cool.” “Really? Okay, what-evs. That’s weird, but what-evs.” “Oh, you do that thing. Right on.” And that’s it. Move on to the next thing. Yup, this character is different from all the others – it’s acknowledged and then that’s it.
In fact, with the exception of the Lich (the embodiment of death and destruction), there are hardly ever any truly “bad” or “evil” characters in the entirety of the series. There are plenty of characters who do bad things, but unlike most shows, that’s not necessarily because they are bad people. On Adventure Time we almost always get to see their point of view on things. Even as the heroes are trapped in a giant spider’s web and about to become dinner, the spiders aren’t painted as evil. They’re just hungry animals, doing what hungry animals do. The solution isn’t to destroy them as the “enemy”, but simply to talk their way out of the web so they don’t get eaten.
The Ice King is the most common “antagonist” of the show, so let’s take a look at him. The first time he appears, it seems pretty clear-cut: he’s got magic powers, he’s stealing a princess and trying to force her to marry him, and therefore he’s a bad guy and must be stopped. QED. Right?
Wrong. As the series progresses, we learn more and more about the Ice King’s story and see more and more of his perspective. He’s not evil, he’s just socially inept. He truly doesn’t understand that what he’s doing is wrong or that he’s hurting people. Eventually we find out that the magic crown that gives him his powers has also warped his brain. We learn that he has been in love, rescued innocent children, and done great things for the world. We see how lonely and sad he is, completely unable to understand why no one wants him, ever seeking desperately after love. And even more importantly, the heroes see it, too, and they treat him with compassion. They can’t save him, they can’t fix him, but they can at least respect him even as they stop him from doing harm to other people.
And at the same time, even the “good guy” characters, even the heroes, screw up massively from time to time. They make a mistake, or they act selfishly, or they hurt someone else. No one is perfect.
Again, why does this matter? Because of what it teaches kids about people. In a world and a culture where from every other direction, they’re hearing about the categories people should fit into, the “good” and “bad” sides of a conflict, the “right” and “wrong” sides of an argument, this one television program teaches them compassion. It teaches them to see things from the other side’s point of view. It teaches them that everyone is different, and that everyone messes up sometimes, and that is totally okay and nothing to make a big deal out of.
I’m actually reminded of Sesame Street, and how it was originally targeted specifically towards inner-city kids. It used a kid-friendly format to teach kids not only about the ABCs and 123s, but also that the guy living in the trash can is a person with their own thoughts and ideas and feelings, that the two men living together in an apartment are perfectly nice guys, and that although the world is full of unusual things (and sometimes it’s dirty and ugly and messy), that doesn’t mean you have to be afraid all the time.
In Sesame Street, that message is long gone. The show is no longer what it once was. It’s still educational, but now it teaches kids that everything in the world is bright and shiny and happy and pumped full of Ritalin and smiles.
Although it’s intended for a somewhat older age group, I feel like Adventure Time is carrying on the spirit of the original Sesame Street. In a world where people are becoming more aware of (and are talking more and more about) things like psychological, neurological, and gender/sexuality issues, this show teaches kids that it’s all perfectly fine. In fact, it’s kind of cool. How boring would the world be if everyone was the same?
From Adventure Time, kids can learn that just because someone is socially awkward, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be friends with them. That things like gender don’t actually mean all that much about what kind of person someone can be. That if someone seems a little slow or has trouble with something, that doesn’t mean you should look down on them, but it also doesn’t mean you should treat them like a charity case – just help them when they need it and otherwise respect their ability to do stuff in their own way. It teaches them that there is not really any such thing as the “good guys” and “bad guys,” that it’s all a matter of perspective, and that it’s not really all that hard to consider someone else’s perspective once you’ve decided you want to. That every single person, no matter what, has got some kind of crazy awesome thing inside them somewhere. And that everyone, absolutely everyone, makes mistakes and screws up sometimes, and that’s okay too – and that’s never, ever a reason not to try.
Imagine a world where all children have grown up learning these lessons.
Though it may look to some parents like some kind of crazy drug-inspired trip through insanity, I think all parents should encourage their kids to watch Adventure Time. Hell, watch it with them. See what it’s all about. Because kids are definitely not the only ones who need to learn these lessons.