How Today’s Most Daring, Weird Cartoons Transform the Minstrel Aesthetic

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Photo: Vulture and Courtesy of Disney

Drawing a line between weird and not-weird cartoons might seem like a fuzzy endeavor, as far as animation is concerned. All cartoons are inherently weird and unnatural, especially ones that need to catch and retain the attention of a PG-aged audience. And yet, certain cartoons do seem to broadcast themselves as odder than others. Shows from the ’90s, like Rugrats, Hey Arnold, Arthur, Doug, Kim Possible, and As Told by Ginger, were filled with practical life lessons from human and anthropomorphic characters modeled after real life and its physics. Then there’re those other cartoons from that same decade: Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, Courage the Cowardly Dog, Rocko’s Modern Life; Ed, Edd n Eddy; Cow and Chicken, Angela Anaconda, Invader Zim, and even SpongeBob Squarepants were, well, weird. Today, Cartoon Network embraces the weirdos as part of its brand, and there’s a certain seamlessness between its regular daytime programming and the after-dark switch to Adult Swim, allowing kids and adolescents to age gracefully from oddballs like Mordecai and Rigby to the even more bizarre Morty and Rick. Nickelodeon is no slouch, either. Newly acquired shows like Welcome to the Wayne and Pinky Malinky joined their programming block this fall to compete with CN fan favorites Adventure Time, The Amazing World of Gumball, Uncle Grandpa, and Steven Universe.

These cartoons often employ more mature, or simply darker, humor that multiple age groups can latch onto. Full of adult situations and inside jokes, Rocko’s Modern Life is as funny to me now as in its heyday (I eagerly await the 2018 release of Rocko’s Modern Life: Static Cling), and Adventure Time and Steven Universe have an abundance of teen and adult fans. They also take more risks visually, bypassing the cute or attractive for something closer to the realm of gross and uncomfortable. Weird cartoons aren’t afraid to make bodies ugly, even, or perhaps especially, in the case of main characters. Their eyes bulge, too large or small and oddly shaped to pass for cute (Rocko of Rocko’s Modern Life, Zim and Gir of Invader Zim, Weasel of I Am Weasel). Nothing fits their face, whether it’s a nose (Brendon Small of Home Movies, Daggett and Norbert of Angry Beavers), or especially a mouth (Ickis, Oblina, Krumm of Aaahh!!! Real Monsters). And their eyes and lips, no matter their normal size, are likely to stretch far past the spatial limits of the face when they express delight, fear, or anger. Their limbs are spindly and cumbersome (Finn the Human of Adventure Time) or short (Lazlo from Camp Lazlo, Courage from Courage the Cowardly Dog) and squat (Cow of Cow and Chicken, Vendetta and Charlotte of Making Fiends), under- or oversized like the rest of their frame. They have awkward, angular hair (Ed and Eddy of Ed, Edd n Eddy, Mandy of The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy) and always look a bit … unkempt.

These characters not only buck the beauty standard, they give etiquette the middle finger. They gargle, drool, fart, spit, puke, binge, burp, shake, seizure, gape, gawk, and literally bounce off the walls. They are rude, crude, and crass. They find themselves in extreme situations that get them flattened, blown up, and decapitated. They’re violent toward others. Unlike shows such as Hey Arnold or The Fairly OddParents, which at least attempt to balance youthful do-nothingness with accepted necessities in life like chores, school, and a healthy respect for labor, the lessons offered by these programs can be few and far between. By the end of the 22-minute mark, it’s sometimes unclear if anything was learned by anyone involved, including us. They are wild and unruly in a way humans, bound by social norms, can only dream of.

But there’s yet another, much simpler way to name what unites these productions: weird cartoons embrace a hybrid ethnic heritage that includes features from the minstrel stage. The minstrel tradition allowed for stereotypes about black people to act as a way for performers to push outside the limits of propriety and bodily control. These wildly popular shows provided a blueprint for early animation in both aesthetic and content, gifting cartoons their odd bodies, wacky judgment, and over-the-top physical comedy. Those traits remain in cartoons today, and they’re most apparent in weird cartoons. However, something has changed. Unlike their minstrel predecessors, today’s cartoons celebrate oddities rather than ridicule them. They relish the not-normal, transforming minstrel aesthetics into an ethical embrace of kids and adults who fall outside the normative standard — people of color, people of all sizes, and people with disabilities. Such a transformation owes itself to the melting pot that American animation became by the end of the 20th century. From surrealism to the sitcom to anime, diversity in every sense of the word allowed cartoons to flip the script on minstrelsy.

First, it’s important to understand how deeply embedded the minstrel tradition is in American animation. In a study entitled Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation, University of Toronto professor Nicholas Sammond illustrates how American animation not only developed out of minstrel tradition — cartoons keep the aesthetic principles of minstrel shows alive and could not exist without them. While film and media historians are clear on the relationship between the two widely popular staples of American culture, as Sammond says, “that observation too often has added up to little more than a mere nod or at best a shaking finger — yes, the American cartoon’s debt to the minstrel is undeniable and wrong, now could we please move on?” Meanwhile, the most enduring features of American cartoons reenact the minstrel’s body in all its buffoonery and excitement. “Cartoons didn’t borrow from minstrelsy, they joined” it, as Sammond puts it. A familial resemblance is easy to see in early animation figures from the 1920s, such as Bosko, the Talk-Ink Kid and Betty Boop’s companions Bimbo and Koko, with their blacked-out bodies, Jump Jim Crow attire (gloves, hats, patent shoes), and vaudeville antics. The similarities become less overt over time. Mickey Mouse and friends, Bugs Bunny, and others would keep the gloves, but by the height of their popularity, became more like “vestigial minstrels,” as Sammond calls them. As time went on, audiences read them as cartoons above minstrels. Still, they embodied the conventions of blackface minstrelsy. For Vice this past spring, Sarah Hagi put forth the provocative argument that Bugs Bunny is “no doubt … a black man.” Not only was Bugs Bunny black, he and Mickey and Tweety are, according to Sammond, “actual minstrels.”

Minstrel characters relied upon “a mythos of the black body as resistant to labor,” says Sammond. “The minstrel’s body — fluid, voracious, and libidinal — represented a freedom from the constraints of Protestant middle-class morality” for performers and audiences alike, with that freedom represented by a culturally prevalent notion of an “uncivilized” black race. In cartoons, the fantasy of unruly, unschooled bodies was intensified by characters without physical limitations, whose unruliness could mean hyperactive motions, beyond-extreme emoting, and dismemberment. Like their actor counterparts, these new characters, says Sammond, “behaved as tricksters, indifferent or even hostile to the social norms of polite society.”

Bugs embraced the components of minstrel performance that audiences eventually came to take for granted as synonymous with cartoons. He is a trickster, antagonizing his scene partners for personal gain or the sheer hell of it, and resistant to anything that might resemble work. A study on minstrel musical arrangements in Looney Tunes shorts by musicologist Joanna R. Smolko directed me to the 1952 Southern Fried Rabbit. In the short, Bugs attempts to cross the visibly marked Mason-Dixon line only to be stopped short by Yosemite Sam in full Confederate uniform — Sam is following orders to keep Yankees from crossing. Bugs — a Yankee — again tries to cross, this time disguised as an enslaved black person. “Well, it’s one of our boys!” Sam exclaims before Bugs enters the frame, “blacked up” with brown coloring, sloped shoulders, and tattered clothes, playing “My Old Kentucky Home” on a banjo and singing along. Safely across, Bugs straightens up and changes the tune to “Yankee Doodle.” As Sam rushes over, knife raised, Bugs reverts back to his disguise: “Please, don’t beat me, Massa,” he cries, handing Sam a whip.

The short is fascinating for many reasons, not least because of the effort put into Bugs’s costume. Bugs doesn’t need the disguise to be a minstrel — his gloves, tricksterism, language (“I’se coming, I’se coming”), and wily antics make him one. In dressing as a caricature of an enslaved black person, he is really blacking up twice. Southern Fried Rabbit demonstrates how the minstrel features embedded in animation eventually became normalized as conventional cartoon behavior. To audiences, these “vestigial minstrels” no longer signaled black caricatures — they were “just” cartoons. By the ’50s, in order for a cartoon like Bugs to become black (again), he has to do some more exaggerated play-acting. Bugs’s blackface within Southern Fried Rabbit is a sly wink to the minstrel aesthetic that forged his character in the first place.

Television changed (almost) everything. The development of “the sitcom model” inspired a structural and visual shift between the minstrel two-act antics of Bugs & Co. and the Honeymooners-esque Flintstones or The Jetsons. Much like live sitcoms, these shows were cartoonish reenactments of ultimately normative ideals. The characters were more human, their situations a mirror to real-life concerns with work, child-rearing, relationships, and money.

As for the cartoons that have kept the weird tradition alive, elements of minstrelsy remained in the out-of-bounds behavior that defines them. But as Sammond says, in terms of aesthetic, “there’s a new thing happening” that, when combined with that minstrel tradition, reconfigures its more problematic elements. That new thing is, ironically enough, global diversity. “You have this entire generation of folks as early as the ’60s beginning to recognize and be intrigued by a kind of reverse flow,” Sammond says. He points to the ’60s Speed Racer and early evidence of American audiences’ fascination with anime and manga, from wildly popular dubs (Pokémon, Sailor Moon, Inuyasha), to cross-cultural collabs (Thundercats, Hi Hi Puffy AmiYumi), and Western shows imitative of Japanese styles (Martin Mystery, Totally Spies, Avatar: The Last Airbender).

Another import — surrealism — had also taken root in the aesthetics of American cartoonists, a slightly different take on unruly, non-normative shapes and “over-the-top grotesque bodies.” Harvey Kurtzman founded Mad in 1952; Art Spiegelman, while best known for Maus, worked on Wacky Packages in the ’60s and Garbage Pail Kids in the ’80s; and the generation of cartoonists who followed. “When I look at Ren & Stimpy, a lot of what I see is Wacky Packs,” Sammond says. Premiering in the summer of ’91, Ren & Stimpy was — along with Rugrats and Doug — a Nickelodeon original, crucial to the channel’s entry into original programming. Shows like Rocko, Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, KaBlam!, The Angry Beavers, CatDog, and Oh Yeah! Cartoons, followed within the decade. The ’90s proved that animators and audiences were far from done with the weird, the wacky, and the grotesque.

Lineups for children’s television today include The Amazing World of Gumball, We Bare Bears, Harvey Beaks, SpongeBob Squarepants, and Gravity Falls (in syndication), shows that thrive off the weird, the wacky, and the grotesque hallmarks that define both surrealism and minstrelsy. The themes, however, have changed. In The Amazing World of Gumball, main characters Gumball and Darwin Watterson are generous interpretations of a cat and goldfish, respectively, prone to hyperbolic expressions and dramatics to match the random high jinks they find themselves in from episode to episode. In the current season’s episode “The Nuisance,” the Wattersons, including parents Nicole and Richard and sister Anais, are notified that they will be kicked out of town at the request of other citizens, frustrated with the family’s frequent crimes which include “public nudity,” “wasting 911 resources,” “parking violations,” and “vandalism.” Hoping to stay in their town of Elmore, the Wattersons endeavor to become the perfect residents. They succeed, but are changed in the process, transformed into thinly lined, realistic human figures in the image of the idealized white nuclear family. Realizing their sacrifice, the Wattersons revert back to deviants and reclaim their original selves. “If you truly love something, make it as ugly as possible to everyone else,” says Gumball. (A similar episode occurs in season six of SpongeBob Squarepants, where SpongeBob physically transforms to a smoother, less quirky version of himself after watching a video on “How to be Normal.”)

While visually more muted compared to some of its contemporaries, We Bare Bears — premised on three bear (and bare) brothers acclimating to human society — also explores the boundaries of normal and not normal. Creator Daniel Chong previously worked for Disney Animation Studios and Nickelodeon and interned at Cartoon Network before starting the webcomic that was then developed into the acclaimed Cartoon Network series. “[I]t’s a story about people just trying to fit in and I think it’s something that we all can relate to, just trying to find a place in the world,” said Chong in an interview shortly after the show’s premiere in 2015. Analogous shows such as Uncle Grandpa, Chowder, Regular Show, Harvey Beaks, Rocko, Rick and Morty, and SpongeBob exhibit that same impulse toward oddity, and even deviance, that uses it as a way to interrogate norms associated with school, work, family, relationships, and bodies.

These weird cartoons display unabashed attachment to what separates them from so-called normal life, which in turn rearranges audiences’ attachments to normalcy as an outdated, rigid, and unattainable ideal for most. Little wonder then why children’s shows like Adventure Time and Steven Universe — created by Adventure Time alum Rebecca Sugar — have become cult favorites among adult communities of color, queer people of color in particular. Reading Adventure Time as a legacy of Judith Butler’s groundbreaking critical text, Gender Trouble, writer Zoe Daniels points out the ways in which feminized and masculinized traits are freely distributed among characters of all genders, “[proof] that kids’ TV is capable of challenging some of the adult world’s most strongly held constructions.” For Vulture, J.P. Brammer called Steven Universe “the queerest show on television,” highlighting season-four episode “Last One Out of Beach City” in which a tall, thick, pink-haired, darker-skinned rocker chick gives Pearl her number. As Brammer notes, the moment is an unsurprising milestone for a show that makes gender fluidity and love between femmes part of its norms. Even Rick and Morty, a show that in many ways makes itself attractive to white dudebro audiences, undermines the traditional family structure and its wacky grotesque ultimately chastises heteropatriarchal urges instead of reveling in them (in “Rick Potion #9” a plan to trick a girl classmate into falling in love with him literally leads to the irreversible destruction of the world and the deaths of the title characters).

These shows, with their borderline grotesque protagonists who are committed to doing as little of anything that might be deemed “productive,” offer a sense of freedom, not unlike what was sought after and found on the minstrel stage, and later through its vestiges in animated shorts. However, unlike their predecessors (live-action and animated), whose fantasies about unruly, unproductive bodies were moored to racist mythology about an untamable black race, today’s cartoons are textured by a diverse cultural and formal reservoir that imagines new definitions, new possibilities for difference across color, shape, and sound. Minstrelsy’s residual influence is the impulse toward the unruly, but the influx of global influences changes the nature of the impulse. For these shows it is matter of fact that some bodies will be tall, some will be short, some will be chubby, some will be thick, round, lumpy — and everything in between. They will be quirky, anxious, depressed, and hyperactive. And while it would be impossible for these weird cartoons to exist without an American minstrel tradition, today’s most artistically daring shows remake that legacy in a way that might be considered reparative of what once was.

How Today’s Weird Cartoons Transform the Minstrel Aesthetic