By Loryn Stone
It’s fair to say that people have a tendency to remember things a little wonky when looking at the past with Childhood Goggles strapped to their peepers. Hell, with the nostalgia plane still soaring high in Internetville, and people bitching about how everything “back then” was so much better/everything now is trash, sometimes it’s easy to remember things as better than they were.
But it got me thinking about those old cartoons of yesteryear. Not just from the 1990s when I was a little kid, or even the 1980s when I was a toddler, but even some shows older than my stupid collective memories. I examined certain tropes, roles, and stereotypes in cartoons that were super popular in the old stuff. But now I’m a parent. All my kids watch a new collection of dumb-dumb baby shows. And whoops, surprise- nothing changes. All of my favorite tropes are right there in place, ready to give me a great big nostalgic hug.
1. Cartoon Twins Run Rampant
Twins, be it identical or fraternal, are truly an amazing phenomenon of nature. The fact that biology has the capacity to split and clone itself or allow two eggs to drop so siblings can gestate together is nothing short of remarkable. With assisted fertility options, there’s no doubting the statistics that multiples are on the rise. And while I’m a huge believer and proponent of representation for all in the media…I have to ask…what’s with all the twins?
Right out of the cartoon gate, The Wonder Twins pretty much spanked it early on. Twins and Superheroes? Competition be fucked- these two from the Super Friends show (which ran from 1973-1986) were probably the leaders in the twin-trend, long before the Luke/Leia twin storyline was shoehorned into the second Star Wars movie. But not to be outdone, He-Man and She-Ra stepped up to the challenge, showing what magical transforming brother and sister twins can do with the right swords.
But then the 1980s/1990s happened, and with it…you got it. Not only orphans and real-boy stories, but twins too. Scooter and Skeeter from Muppet Babies popped up. Shortly after, Phil and Lil DeVille from Rugrats, and the extremely short-lived show The Cramp Twins.
Even the Thomas and Friends universe has them- there are THREE sets of twin trains!
Contemporary cartoon watchers can enjoy shows like Sofia the First, where Sofia’s stepsiblings James and Amber are “the royal twins”. And lastly, there’s a show on Nickelodeon called Shimmer and Shine, which is about two twin sisters who serve as Genies in Training to one unlucky girl.
So, what’s going on with all these sets of twins? They’re often victims of a “trope within a trope” storyline, where sibling rivalry is discussed, or the twins switch places and pretend to be each other for an episode. Otherwise, they behave like odd-couples with opposite personalities, but that’s something that can be accomplished without the characters partaking in manufactured twin-hijinks.
2. Every Fucking Duck in the Room
Have you ever sat down and really tried to count all the ducks hiding out there in the land of cartoons? After Disney nailed it with their short-tempered, anger ridden Donald Duck and Warner Bros. took lunacy to a new level with Daffy Duck, an explosion of ducks and duck related shows quacked into existence with a furious vengeance.
Count Duckula (one of my favorites) was an intriguing blend of duck and vampire, though he wouldn’t bite beast or man because he’s a vegetarian. And while my brain is having trouble pinpointing the episode premises, the art direction and opening/closing sequences were just killer good. After that, we had Duck Tales, a slow-paced show that was just a little too boring for my taste as a kid, but who could forget that song?
Riding the duck train, we had Darkwing Duck (arguably one of the most underrated superhero shows in existence), Plucky Duck from Tiny Toon Adventures (one of my favorite shows at the time).
Lest we forget titular mess from the mid-90s Klasky-Csupo hardboiled-dick “adult cartoon” Duckman. Which actually featured another set of twins, Charles and Mambo. Between Rugrats and Duckman, maybe twins were less a 90s thing and more of a Klasky-Csupo thing.
But these ducks aren’t ready to quit- between the recent Nickelodeon show Breadwinners, featuring two ducks that don’t even look like ducks, and Disney’s recently premiered Duck Tales reboot (woo-woos and all), there doesn’t seem to be any signs of the duck trope slowing down.
3. The Emotionally Damaged Dad
We all know about the most prevalent Dad-trope- the oafish moron. You can see him in characters like Fred Flintstone, Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin, and so on. But what about the emotionally twitchy dads? While not a complete mess, George Jetson was a great start to the emotionally riddled dad. More involved with his family than Fred Flintstone (hey, it was the future after all), torment was often written all over George’s face.
Fast-forwarding to the 1980s, cartoon viewers got to laugh at the emotional stress and torture of Dave Seville from Alvin and the Chipmunks. And sadly, the winner of the troubled-dad award will forever go to pet-daddy Jon Arbuckle from Garfield and Friends.
But once Rugrats hit the scene in the early 90s, my 6-year-old eyes were pretty surprised by the train wreck personalities of the dads. Chaz Finster and Stu Pickles were barely functioning people, and negligent parents to the point where it’s amazing that the final episode of the series didn’t end with social services being called. Add a dash of Jake Morgendorffer from Daria and we have a blend of neurotic dads that only medication can cure.
And while The Man in the Yellow Hat may have been a monkey thieving poacher in the original Curious George books, the 2006 feature film introduced us to Ted- a nervous, neurotic monkey-daddy who doesn’t know how to stop lying, stand up to people, or talk to women.
All of these characters were just a ramp-up to the emotionally broken dad of the future, which goes to Jerry from Rick and Morty. Jerry is so thoroughly fucked that “Don’t be a Jerry” is a piece of advice which has wormed into our modern lexicon.
4. The Faceless Adult / Absent Parent
History shows that it was probably Tom and Jerry that first introduced the idea of the Pair of Legs as a character. You know what that is- when adult legs jumped on tables to scream, or stand defiantly to scold the cat, or beat him with a broom. If the adults in the Peanuts cartoons weren’t “wah-wah” nonsense voices, there’s a good chance they would have been a set of legs too. When the need for a full character isn’t there, we only get glimpsed and pieces of them. It makes sense from an animal or kids’ perspective.
From there, the idea of faceless characters popped up constantly. Remember our favorite faceless villain Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget? Or how about Nannie in Muppet Babies? I remember as a kid, I was so stressed out by not seeing their faces that I used to have dreams about Nannie’s face. In fact, I have a Mandela Effect memory of seeing her face once and she had red hair.
(If anyone out there has this memory, please contact me so we can cry together.)
Segueing into the 90s, we had the legs of “Mom and Dad” in Ren and Stimpy, who were pretty major as far as minor characters go.
And do you remember Timmy Turner’s parents in the pilot episode of Fairly Odd Parents? They were just a set of legs too until it was clear that for that show, it was an ineffective trope- having his parent act more like the parents from Dexter’s Lab was a more efficient imitation for its needs. It seemed we’d segued away from the “Dr. Claw” trope when parents in cartoons started becoming core, silly characters in and of themselves.
But then my kids started watching PJ Masks recently, an English/French co-production that looks like the writers stopped developing the universe after ten minutes of brainstorming. And there are no adults. None. I saw one in the background once and I think it was just a post-production mistake.
5. The Anime Five (aka “The Science Team”)
I watched a lot of anime in the 90s and early 2000s, boarding obsession, I suppose. I’d seen a lot of tropey and reused premises over the course of my viewing, but never really gave it much thought. But one day, in 2004, I bought a book for my college freshman speech class called Anime Explosion by Patrick Drazen and within the first few pages of the book, this paragraph appeared and change my view of cartoon teams forever:
“[Among them was] Go Lions (Five Lions, 1981), renamed Voltron, which mixed two anime genres together to create an intriguing new hybrid. It started with the formula for the “science team” first established in the Gatchaman series and revived (with occasional minor variations) in dozens of other Japanese series. The team always consisted of: hero, woman, child, big beefy guy, lone wolf. The latter might seem odd, since loners aren’t usually part of a team, but such teams usually include a wild card to spice things up, since he’s capable of anything from criminal behavior to borderline psychosis.” –Anime Explosion, 2004
That simple paragraph made me stop in my tracks and reevaluate every single cartoon/anime team I’d ever been exposed to.
Not only does it apply to groups of five (Like Sailor Moon, Power Ranger teams), but the liberties of the wild card apply it to American groups, like the Ninja Turtles. And proof that this formula not only works, but is alive and at work. Because yes, shows like Sailor Moon, Voltron, Power Rangers, and Ninja Turtles have all either been rebooted or are simply continuing.
6. We still fuck up Video Game cartoons
After playing Mario Run on the iPhone, my four-year-old son started thinking Mario was pretty neat. Yesterday (and this is a true story) he told me he wanted to watch a cartoon with Mario in it. Embarrassed and ashamed, I turned on Netflix and fired up the 1980s “Super Mario Bros. Super Show”. I wish I had a picture of the poor kid’s face. He was horrified…then he was angry. I couldn’t blame him- because I remember when that trash was actually NEW on TV. I hated it back then too. But I watched it. I watched it because that’s all we had. I liked the aesthetic, sound effects and background music, but where was the adventure? The familiar elements that made the Mario games so loveable? Watching my own son crushed by this poor excuse of a show made the hate rise from the depths of the past, and I was four-years-old and confused all over again. My son has since switched his allegiance over to Link.
The same thing happened to other shows in the 1980s, which I wrote an entire article about. We had the upsetting “Well excuuuuuuse me Princess” version of Link in the Legend of Zelda show, (no, I will not ruin my kids childhood and show it to them) and the horrific mess of unrecognizable puke that was Captain N: The Game Master. Move forward a few years to the 90s, and there were two Sonic the Hedgehog shows airing simultaneously, both produced by DIC, one sucking just a little more than the other (Spoiler: Adventures of Sonic sucked more.) And lest we forget the twitchy, early CG Donkey Kong Country cartoon that was embarrassingly unwatchable.
So, what happened? I’ve heard people anecdotally say that games were new, those cartoon writers were washed up sitcom writers from the 50s, and so on. But we’re living in a today world! Surely, with people who grew up with video games now producing media, we should be able to finally get it right in the western market, right?
All right, let’s roll with that and give the future more credit.
Oh wait…never mind.
You can find Loryn and her set of emotionally damaged twin ducks on Twitter.
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