Hidden Messages: 80's Cartoons

What were they really teaching us?
October 19, 2007
80's Cartoons. I think most of the people here are familiar with them, and most of us grew up with every Saturday morning spent with a bowl full of Cocoa Pebbles and a seemingly endless barrage of action and adventure.

80's action cartoons came in a wide spectrum of subgenres from high fantasy (Dungeons and Dragons) to Action (G.I Joe) to Sci-fi (Silverhawks) to combinations of themes (He-Man, Bravestar), they all had similar elements such as the finale chuckle, Public Service messages where the heroes would teach us today's valuable lesson (most spoke to us directly, but G.I Joe took it further and presented actual scenarios where a member of the team showed up to teach an important life lesson and probably inspired a few kids to try and launch over downed power lines in the hopes of meeting Roadblock), and a clear cut message of good against evil. Rarely were there any shades of grey in an 80's cartoon cast. Good guys were good and bad guys were bad, end of story. Skeletor never posed any "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin" moral complications, he was simply rotten to the core. Some may have been evil for good reason (Spiral Zone's Overlord wanted to create a world without war), but even then, they were dastardly sorts (he did, after all, also want legions of people regarding him as their new messiah.)

But there were other messages within some of them, things unique to their particular story.

Transformers: Sure, on the surface it's good robots VS bad robots, but think about it a second. Look at what the majority of the first Autobots turned into VS what the Decepticons did. The Autobots were innocsious vehicles like 18-wheelers, Volkswagon Beetles, police cars, ambulances and other vehicles that are either basic commercial vehicles, or service vehicles.

Now look at the Decepticons. Fighter Jets, tanks, guns, a...um...tapedeck...*ahem*. The point is that most of them were implements of war. And it shows in their personalities. While the Autobots were just kicking around with Spike Witwicky, learning about human life and values, and trying to get back to Cybertron, the Decepticons were busy trying to blow stuff up and subjugate humanity. The message was subtle, but at the same time clear; war is bad.

Bravestar: First, I want to congratulate them on giving the world possibly one of the first Native American super heroes. He may not have been THE first, but he was one of them and he was no second stringer like Apache Cheif. By using ancient Native American rites he gained the abilities of animals (symbolized by super imposing an animal made of fireworks on his face) to defeat Tex Hex and his band of crooks.

What's the message here? Well this one is obvious; Racial equality. Marshall Bravestar wasn't just the toughest guy on New Texas, he was possibly the most level headed. It's sad but it's true, there was still a bit of stereotyping in TV during the 80's and Bravestar countered it by making a visible minority the central character. With super powers!

Spiral Zone: The plot here is pretty nifty. A mad scientist and his gang of rotten crooks have covered a spiraled portion of Earth in mind warping mist that turns anyone who enters the zone into a mindless zombie with disgusting red fungus on their faces. So, in retaliation, Earth's best and brightest join forces to free Earth from the influence of the Spiral Zone and free humanity.

The message? Well let's take a look at the theme song; Earth's most powerful soldiers are Earths last chance to fight the spiral zone! Now let's look at the cast; Another Native American in command, an African American, A German, A Russian, and a Japanese man. The point is clear and pretty deep for the waning days of the Cold War; all races are equal and we can all work together to fight a common foe. Sure, in this case, the common foe was mind altering mist and a mad scientist, but think of what we could all do if we followed the example of the Zone Riders!
G.I. Joe: Possibly the STRANGEST collection of commandos (one time including The Refrigerator AND Sgt. Slaughter) versus the weirdest collection of terrorists ever assembled. A force dedicated to freedom versus a force dedicated to world domination...and who do little else but try to blow up shopping malls and raid Aztec temples.

Now don't get me wrong, I like G.I Joe, but let's take a look a little deeper at the good guys; predominantly American. And the bad guys? Nearly all of them have foreign accents! Jingoistic flag waving at its finest; America's good and everyone else should be viewed as a threat. Thank God nobody's taken that to heart...um...

Dungeons and Dragons: Six teenagers go on an amusement park ride and are magically teleported to the world created by Gary Gygax and are granted magical weapons to liberate the land from the evil wizard; Optimus...Venger!

Over a decade before J.K Rowling squeezed out Harry Potter, this was the avenue of preaching that childhood is a time of excitement and wonder. The kids encountered dragons, Elves, Dwarves, Wizards, giants, and other mythological and high fantasy monsters years before the world heard of Hogwarts. Heck, the even palled around with a baby Unicorn (voiced by Frank "Megatron" Welker). You can keep your Quidditch, I'll stick with D&D.

Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors: Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you your heroes; Two kids with magic powers, a wizard, an Orco ripoff, and Han Solo. Not enough? Here are your villains; Mutant vegetables. Jayce and his lightning league use modular, customizable vehicles and fly around space, battling Sawboss and his evil Monster Minds (mutant vegetable/car abominations). I'm beginning to think some cartoon designers just threw darts at a wall full of nouns and adjectives.

The message here initially baffled me. At first glance, it's Technology VS Plants, but the magic kids can talk to plants and their dad was a botanist trying to create super vegetables to end hunger. But if you dig a bit deeper, you see that dear old Dad was tinkering with radiation and genetics when things went to crap. The message? It's not nice to fool with Mother Nature...or else she sends mutant space broccoli after you. Mutant space broccoli that can drive.

The Real Ghostbusters: A team of parapsychologists use advanced technology to battle supernatural foes. This one was one of my favourites and it still is. The series was very well written and featured great animation, and there was definitely a feeling of dramatic tension . Twice (that I recall) the heroes were ready to sacrafice their own lives to save Mankind (episodes Knock Knock and Ragnarok and Roll). My only complaints are Slimer's spinoff and the anti-climactic defeat of a Elder God in the episode Collect Call of Cthulhu.

At first this seems that the message is that mankind can conquer any foe, and that may be true, but look at how it's done. In 9 out of 10 episodes, all four ghostbusters are actively working as a unit to fight the monster du jour and when they're separated, they use skill, diplomacy, and ingenuity to fight powerful supernatural forces. The message is teamwork and brains over raw power.

That's all for now, hope you liked my insights.
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