When I was a kid, I used to watch cartoons. Lots and lots of cartoons.
You too? Small world.
As in many of life’s domains, when it came to cartoon watching, there were choices to be made and rules to be followed.
Just as you can’t be a fan of both the Red Sox and the Yankees… or of both Coke and Pepsi… or of both boxers and briefs… so too did animation aficionados of my generation have a central conundrum to sort out:
Mickey Mouse. Or Bugs Bunny.
The classic Walt Disney and Warner Brothers’ cartoons were created in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. By the time I had grown into full cartoon craziness, those classic animated shorts had been repackaged into TV anthology series.
I laid it all out in an earlier post on this blog:
There was the Wonderful World of Disney, home to Mickey Mouse and other examples of anthropomorphic sweetness and light.
And then there was the Bugs Bunny / Roadrunner Hour, featuring Warners’ misanthropic nastiness and bite.
Today, of course, they’re just two sides of the same lunchbox – part of a multi-billion-dollar, multi-media, multi-logo industry.
But back then, they were two conflicting halves of an unbridgeable psychosocial divide.
Well… something like that…
As a kid, my loyalties resolutely fell on one side of that divide: That of Bugs Bunny and his co-conspirators Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, et al.
While the typical Disney cartoon plot would see Mickey and his pals getting themselves into and out of sugary situations, the Warner Brothers’ cartoons displayed a darker, nastier, more risqué, and more broadly comical edge.
Warner Brothers’ cartoons were full of crazy slapstick, hilarious wordplay, winking double-entendres, and comedic violence.
In fact, the typical Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck or Elmer Fudd cartoon would consist of two characters attempting to murder, consume, or – at the very least – completely humiliate each other.
When I was a kid, there was much handwringing over the violent content of Bugs Bunny cartoons, which at the time were two-to-four decades old, and originally created for a more mature audience.
Elmer Fudd would fire his rifle straight at Daffy Duck’s face, causing Daffy’s bill to spin around to the back of his head. Wile E. Coyote would accidentally blow himself up trying to catch Road Runner. Yosemite Sam, dressed as Lawrence of Arabia, would beat an uncooperative camel into unconsciousness.
You don’t see that level of violence anymore in kids’ cartoons. On the other hand, contemporary kids do have much more ready access to media images that are far more explicit and violent than anything dreamed up by animators half a century ago.
Yet despite all of the handwringing, there is no compelling evidence that my childhood exposure to the Wascally Wabbit did any lasting damage to my psyche or negatively affected my social development, or that of fellow members of my generation.
Just the opposite, I’d argue. At worst, Bugs Bunny was a benign time-waster. At best, it contributed to my cultural education in the same way as did the books I read, the films I watched, and the music I listened to growing up.
Which brings me to one of Bugs’ 21st Century spiritual descendants – SpongeBob Squarepants.
On the off chance you are unfamiliar with the ubiquitous cartoon character, SpongeBob is a cheerful sponge with … yes … square pants. As his theme song recounts, he “lives in a pineapple under the sea” in the underwater community of Bikini Bottom.
The cartoon, aside from being wildly popular on TV screens and lunchboxes of kids around the world, has all of the fast pace, wild slapstick and inspired lunacy of the old Warner Brothers cartoons without nearly as much of the violence.
But SpongeBob, too, has recently been the object of some grownup handwringing. An article in the latest issue of the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics says the cartoon has a negative impact on the concentration levels of young children, as measured right after watching it.
Researchers compared children’s cognitive abilities after watching SpongeBob to those same abilities after watching a notably slower-paced cartoon, “Caillou”. Those who watched SpongeBob scored lower on measurements of focus and concentration.
The measurements came immediately after the viewing. The study did not test for long-term effects.
As a Bugs Bunny veteran and a parent who has happily watched SpongeBob with his children since they were very young, I have one skeptical question about these findings:
Are kids distracted because the cartoon is harmful? Or are kids distracted because the cartoon is just plain interesting?