Something I’ve been noticing a lot with media the last few years is that what’s not explicitly stated about a character can often be more tantalizing than what is. I usually find myself filling in a minor character’s backstory or imagining the similarities between myself and them from just a few brief moments of screen time, for example. I’m not sure if that’s just me inserting what I want to see in the things I watch or if this phenomena applies to all viewers to some degree. In a way, I now perceive characters to be like moving ink blots. There’s enough tantalizing clues for the observer to form a personalized conception, but it often says more about the beholder than the character themselves. Put another way, since we all write what we know, maybe it stands to reason that we also read what we know and derive certain subjective meaning from a character. Maybe a lot of what we see is projection; after all, art always means something different to everyone.
With this idea in mind, I would like to briefly discuss several characters who really struck a chord with me for one reason or another, though they don’t seem to get a lot of recognition from the wider viewing public. Some of the people on this list only have a few minutes of screen time, but they managed to resonate nonetheless. I’ve wanted to write blog posts about several of them for months but didn’t have enough to say to warrant a standalone entry. These will be presented in no particular order, and to prevent me from repeating myself, nobody can be included if I’ve written a blog post on them before.
Even the media that was not explicitly psychedelic in the ’60s had many of the same introspective social critiques and abstract design elements as those that were. It’s like everyone in any creative field worth their salt was doing acid on the down low, or else the general mindset was so pervasive that it rubbed off on those who hadn’t. Now, many artistic mediums were reaching unprecedented highs in the late ’60s, but unfortunately animation was not one of them. Compare any classic ’30s-’40s Warner Bros short with those of this decade and you’ll see exactly what I mean; the decline in quality is stunning. For better or worse, most of the original creations from the Warner studio during this period, like Cool Cat and Merlin the Magic Mouse, have been relegated to obscurity. (To drive the point home, I’d even go as far to say that my favorite part of the latter era Loony Tunes is the weird, trippy abstract title sequences.)
There is one flawed but fascinating standalone entry from the “W7 era” which I’ve come to appreciate, however, and it’s Norman Normal. This is hardly an existentialist masterpiece on the level of Duck Amuck but it does have a few interesting things to say. Norman is meant to be an everyman archetype we can project ourselves on to and the plot of the cartoon deals with social and work related pressures to be someone he’s not. Most of the runtime is devoted to Norman’s internal monologue doubting his own sense of self, his bearings regarding what’s right and wrong, as well as how to navigate the confusing mixed messages of society. This psychological turmoil is expressed visually through a series of winding corridors with various unmarked doors which he goes in and out of throughout the cartoon.
There are several sequences which descend into the surreal in order to point out how absurd these real life circumstances often are. The best example is when Norman’s boss pressures him into becoming a person he’s not in order to get a client drunk and have him sign a contract which he’d never agree to sober. Norman refuses out of a sense of basic decency, and the boss won’t take his “no” for an answer. Suddenly the boss turns into a teenage (and eventually even a childhood) version of himself, while his arguments suitably become more and more juvenile. This narrative device illustrates how peer pressure guides our actions all our lives, from kids daring each other to do stupid things, to impressing the “cool” kids, to appeasing the boss in order to keep one’s job.
In another scene, Norman asks his father for advice even while his own inner voice grapples with the revelation that his dad has let him down many times over the years. (Like most people, Norman has daddy issues.) These reservations prove to be well-founded, as Norman’s dad merely offers unhelpful anecdotes about his own youth and gives the bad advice to “don’t make waves, fit in.” Often times, our own parents are just as flawed as anyone else and we have to answer life’s biggest problems on our own. It reminds me of when I told my parents how depressed I was in college and their only advice was “just join a frat.” Or how my mom was concerned by my disdain towards the government and literally told me one day I shouldn’t question authority so much.
Eventually, we see Norman hanging out at a work-related party. His coworker, Leo, runs around with a lampshade on his head, quite literally demanding “approval!” It’s a pointed criticism of the way we all seek to be liked in social settings–every action is an attempt to endear ourselves to the majority. Notice how Norm is happy to offer Leo approval until the bartender starts unfairly giving him a hard time for not ordering another drink. (More peer pressure, more conformity even against one’s true self.) Then suddenly Norm takes his frustrations out on Leo even though he did nothing wrong. It may not be a shining moment for our self-proclaimed “hero” but it’s true to how many of us vent our anger at others onto those who’ve done us no harm. Imagine the stressed out executive coming home in a bad mood to the wife, for example.
The problem with Norman Normal is that, while it inventively calls attention to these shortcomings with the modern lifestyle, it doesn’t offer an answer or even a satisfying resolution to Norman’s immediate problem. The short just ends abruptly without getting a clear picture of who our protagonist is and whether or not he’s made peace with the flawed world around him. In some sense, you could argue that’s true to life, but I suspect the unsatisfying ending is one reason this short doesn’t get a lot of attention today. It’s almost like a microcosm of the Flower Power counterculture in general: those involved were on the right track but never followed through to offer a better path forward than the one society is currently following. Nevertheless, I see quite a lot of myself in Norman, from his insecurities to his inability to fit into the shallow, materialistic world around him.
So, I’m an anomaly among most ’90s kids in that I hardly ever saw The Simpsons during its heyday. My parents were ridiculously strict and puritanical about social issues and adult humor, so I was banned from watching it. After years of hearing everyone in the world drone on and on about what a masterpiece the first 9 seasons were, I finally sat done and binged them…in early 2017. I enjoyed the series okay, but I guess after getting acclimated to the new world of widespread adult cartoons, it didn’t blow me away either. I never really understood the appeal of Homer or Bart in particular, regardless of their status as the two fan favorites.
Surprisingly, I found Lisa Simpson to be the most endearing member of the cast, despite warnings from friends and reviewers alike that she could get kinda preachy at times. I noticed quickly that all the emotional high points of the series centered around her development in some way, starting with “Bart vs Thanksgiving” and “Lisa’s Substitute.” I don’t know how anyone could watch either episode and not get at least a little emotionally affected. Then there’s moments like these, which demonstrate that she’s operating on a whole other level than the rest of the cast. Sometimes Lisa can be overzealous, like the vegetarian episode, but more often than not she’s a great role model who sees through the bullshit in society. It’s frustrating watching shows with a character like that constantly getting talked down to by their parents and peers, but I guess that’s true to life. By the time of the Snowden leaks in 2013 I was a fervent critic of the way things are in this country and I’ve even lost friends over not being “patriotic” enough. So I can certainly relate to Lisa’s disposition.
The coup de grace of gut-punch Lisa episodes is “Summer of 4 ft 2,” the finale of Season 7. The idea of Lisa reinventing herself and get acceptance from “cool” kids in an environment where no one knows her “geeky” reputation was very relatable to me. I remember always feeling that way every summer/holiday as a kid when I got to reunite with my friend Mars, or my “cool” older cousins. I was as far from popular in secondary school as it gets and I couldn’t help but fear in the back of my mind that my “cool” friends like those wouldn’t want to hang out with me if they knew my reputation. So, yeah, that episode really hit home for one of my biggest adolescent anxieties. And I tell ya, when Bart exposed Lisa for being a nerd and her friends seemed to abandon her…I have never felt so much empathy for a fictional character’s pain as I did watching that scene. (Even though Bart makes it up to Lisa later on, I was still anguished by the fact that he could do such a thing in the first place.)
I rewatched Hey Arnold! again a few years ago, and the one character who stood out to me the most was Sid. As a kid, I always thought Sid seemed like a general stand in whenever the writers needed a supporting character to do something that wouldn’t fit Gerald’s personality, and/or required Arnold to be the voice of reason. But with an adult perspective I now believe there was some real unexplored territory with him. Consider the way Sid was so willing to become Arnold’s slave, so insecure about his room to Lorenzo, sold himself out to Big Gino as an enforcer, etc. Whether intentional character design or the result of Sid picking up all the plot lines that wouldn’t work for the other members of the supporting cast, there’s a fascinating pattern going on here.
Sid is full of insecurity, and consistently longs to belong to something or someone bigger than himself. This actually makes him a far more believable portrait of a young boy than Arnold, who’s far too perfect and obnoxious in his moralizing. Whenever anyone talks about the depth in this show, they always focus on the Christmas special or Helga and her dysfunctional family. (To be fair, those are some real highlights as well.) All the same, after I finished the series again, it was Sid whom I wanted to know more about going forward. I hope he eventually developed his own innate sense of self worth and an inner source of confidence going forward. He reminded me a lot of myself in my senior year of High School and freshman year of college, when I was at my most insecure and constantly sucking up to people so they’d like me. (Luckily I grew out of that phase after smoking some weed, doing self-reflection and coming into my own.)
Ty Lee (and Rolph)
I’ve just finished introducing my boyfriend Saturn to Avatar: The Last Airbender. This gif posted below is from a really adorable, understated character moment I’d forgotten about until our recent binge.
So, I like Ty Lee because she’s really naive and happy go lucky: flirting with a member of the enemy, telling someone “I really admire your confidence!” after they just orchestrated a hostile takeover of the government, etc. Anyway, so this lowkey, blink-and-you-miss-it moment was cute because her two best friends have reached an impasse and she’s scared for both of them. It’s one of only two scenes in the whole series where we see Ty Lee lose that trademarked sunny disposition. There’s this quick cutaway to her cowering in the corner like a kid whose parents are fighting and she is unsure how to react. It’s the moment I perceived Ty Lee to be more of a fleshed out person as opposed to a goofy tertiary antagonist, and that in turn made me think about how she was too pure of heart to get mixed up in this crazy war and royal family melodrama.
Perhaps this is an over the top comparison, and I doubt the creators intended such dark implications, but Ty Lee in this moment reminded me of Rolph from The Sound of Music. Both were misled adolescents caught up in a war which they had no way to fully understand. If left to their own devices they would have been kindhearted people flirting with the opposite sex and never hurting a soul. Where Ty Lee got out before it was too late, unfortunately Rolph did not. I always imagined where he must have wound up as the result of Hitler’s insane machinations. Was he perhaps stranded on the Eastern front, freezing to death, abandoned to die by his own beloved Fuhrer and cursing the day he declined to escape with Liesl?
I fucking loved Jackie Chan Adventures when I was a little kid–it was one of the only cartoons I ever went out of my way to watch that wasn’t aired on Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network, in fact. I loved the mythology of the demon sorcerers, Shendu’s talismans and the shadowkhan. I loved Tohru’s redemption arc and Valmont’s shifting disposition from that of a shadowy kingpin, to a hapless puppet of a greater threat, to uneasy ally depending on the episode. I loved how even the minor henchmen on Valmont’s payroll had their own personalities and humorous dialogue. (Perhaps the best example being the St Patrick’s Day special.) But most of all, I loved Jackie’s precocious and willful niece, Jade.
I certainly appreciated cartoon-Jackie’s hapless straight man personality and his amazing feats of physical strength. But without Jade, who idolizes him along with the audience, the show never would have had the emotional center it needed to stand the test of time. She allowed the series to revel in the adventuresome relic-hunting of Indiana Jones, while replacing the overdone womanizing-hero trope with a hitherto unseen (at least in this particular genre,) wholesome, father-daughter dynamic.* Of course I knew Jackie would make it out okay during the fight scenes, but I always felt concerned whenever Jade was in danger. Even now as an adult, I don’t know how anyone could watch Jade get kidnapped in “The Tiger and the Pussycat” or helplessly cowering in fear during “Queen of the Shadowkhan” without feeling protective towards her–cartoon character or no. And yet, while Jade’s small stature left her vulnerable to capture or the threat of harm in many instances, she never lost her intelligence. As an example, one of my favorite episodes of the series, “The Eighth Door,” involves Jade escaping from a hostile realm full of demons essentially by herself due to quick thinking. (The final scene in the same episode, where the amusement park employee lets her in early, is just too adorable.)
It may sound fake, but as a 9 year old kid watching the show, I never wanted to be Jackie like most viewers. I wanted to be the cool, spunky girl who played around with his magical artifacts and cracked one-liners. I wanted to clone myself, astral project, turn into a monkey, make things levitate with my stomach and set my uncle up with a cool femme fatale jewel thief. This may have been another early sign that I was transgender, since I frequently identified with the female characters over the males in the media I consumed. Or it may just be the fact that Jade got to have fun with this mystical stuff while Jackie, Uncle and Tohru (as adults) had to be cautious and responsible about them. I feel it was a little of both, as well as the fact that Jade got to be the witty, rebellious “red oni” half to her and Jackie’s odd couple pairing.
*Again, technically Jade and Jackie were a niece and uncle to each other, but the “daddy’s girl” idolization on her end and fatherly protectiveness on his end still apply. It’s the same dynamic in practice if not reality.