Feedback we got on Part 1 of Best Cartoons for Girls
AnimationAnomaly.com picked up on the Best Cartoons for Girls project. Thanks for the shoutout! Here’s what they had to say:
” … a lot of the time, we look at a show as being appropriate for girls or otherwise aimed at them, but neglect to take everything into account. With that in mind, it’s healthy to remember that a show that’s good for girls can have a male lead. I’d argue that a well-balanced show is better than a one-sided one …”
I absolutely agree — you’ll see that in our ratings guide for best cartoons for girls, it doesn’t anywhere say that the lead character has to be a girl. However, keep in mind that while it’s cool for a girl to like a high quality guys show, guys who like girls shows are often given a hard time — just ask the bronies. There are pros and cons to both, and in the Best Cartoons For Girls arc, we’re going to hit on specialized shows as well as broader ones. The most defining quality of all of them will be their greatness of content, not their focus or target audience.
The best cartoons for girls that we’re talking about today are cartoons that didn’t make the best of the best just because they present a pessimistic view of the future available to girls in it. You could argue in most of these cases that this is in fact, realistic, and that’s a great thing in it’s own right, but when I was putting this together, I wanted the best of the best cartoons to err on the side of being inspirational to lady viewers. These are all still awesome cartoons.
Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy
Let’s start with perhaps the most pessimistic of all the female leads available in any cartoon ever made with The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy. This show ran for six years on the Cartoon Network, starting in 2001, and can still sometimes be seen in their Cartoon Planet programming block that runs on Friday nights. It was made out of Cartoon Network Studios. It orginally aired in part of a show called “Grim and Evil”, which was a show that included Billy and Mandy stories as well as shorts from another show that would also eventually get it’s own series, ‘Evil Con Carne’. Of the two, Billy & Mandy was clearly the runaway success. Creator Maxwell Atoms had worked on I am Weasel and Cow and Chicken prior to successfully launching his own shows, and went on to work on Chowder after Billy & Mandy was done. He currently serves as executive producer on Disney Channe;’s Fish Hooks.
In The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, the stars are two fourth grade-ish aged kids thrown together by sheer force of both being complete social outcasts. Mandy because she’s so smart and clinically unemotional that she’s a borderline sociopath, and Billy because he’s really not smart, and does really dumb and wierd things all the time. In the first episode of Billy and Mandy (airing in the Grim and Evil block in 2001), Billy’s hampster dies, and when the Grim reaper shows up to claim him, Mandy invokes the trope everyone know – she challenges him to a game for the life of the hampster, with the added caveat that if he loses, he has to stay and wait on them hand and foot forever. Of course he loses, and that’s how a two little kids, one a sociopath and one a moron, got all the supernatural powers of death and the afterlife at their command.
This show was an absolute breath of fresh air when it aired. I’ve said before that I love surrealism and love dark humr, and this show is amazing at both of these things. It also didn’t hurt that it was airing on the heels of the powerpuff girls and shared some of the design styles of that show, Mandy’s design lampooning the PPG designs adroitly. (I’d guess that the PPG crew appreciated that as a complimnt, as they found ways to shoutout Mandy in their show that followed PPG – Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends.) If we were toake away the best cartoons for girls thing we’re doing, I would still highly recommend this show – especially their Christmas special and 2007 TV movie “Big Bogey Adventure”.
But this is about great cartoons for girls, so let’s talk about Mandy, and why she’s an awesome cartoon character for girls to see. I called her a sociopath, and understand that that terminology is only accurate in the sense that everyone’s behaviour on this show is extremely exaggerated for comedic effect. What she is is smarter than everyone else around her, and unlike almost every female character on television, unburdened by interest in the twee emotionalism that is sometimes shoved down the throat of little girls everywhere. Mandy wears a pink dress with a big happy flower on it – and a massive scowl, as many little girls who are just not into pink or being seen as cute often do. Don’t get me wrong, I love pink, and I love cute, but like many ladies, it’s not the only thing I’m ever going to enjoy.
When I was a late teenager and in my early twenties, I was very very shy, and rarely spoke up in group scenarios, whether it was professional or social. When I did, it was only because I really truly believed in what I was speaking up for, and there were many times when my assertions were met with “That’s sooooo cute!” responses – I wasn’t the first or the last girl to go through something like that, but Mandy is the character that embodies the way that this kind of treatment makes girls feel. She’s smart, she knows what she’s doing … and all people ever register is her exterior cuteness. Billy’s equally dumb friend Irwin is convinced that she’s secretly in love with him because he’s in love with her. He parents have so little an understanding of who she is that they’re afrraid of her! The only genuine conncetion with another person that she has the whole show is the Grim Reaper – because as an immortal who’s been everywhere and seen everything, he’s the only (ahem) living thing in the entire world that doesn’t think she’s supposed to be something other than who she is. He also is unburdened by an obligation to feel affection for her, which probably doesn’t hurt.
What makes The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy a great cartoon for girls? Well, Mandy is far and away the smartest character on the show, and she’s the total opposite of an ooey-gooey cuties pie.
Why didn’t The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy make the final cut? The reason Mandy and her show didn’t make it to the best of the best cartoons for girls category is that the show itself is bleak, and so is her future. She occasionally has glimpses into the future where she’s become grossly obese, stupid, and married to Irwin, who she currently hate. She becomes forced into an identity she doesn’t want by societal pressures. It’s bleak. In all fairness, there’s also episodes where she’s shown ruling the world as a dictator when she grows up — with the absence of all human connection. There’s no hope for Mandy’s future, no matter how smart, capable, or truly awesome she is.
This section is going to be a bit long – Daria is one of my favorite cartoons.
Daria ran for 5 seasons from 1997-2001 on MTV. Daria was created by Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis Lynn for MTV, and got her own show after appearing multiple times as a realistic and sensible foil for the titular characters on Beavis and Butthead (which I was not allowed to watch when it originally aired.) Eichler was a story editor for Beavis & Butthead, and before that he had written for The Maxx, Rugrats, Clarissa Explains It All, Married With Children, and MST3K. Since his work on Daria, he’s gone on to write and produce this little teeny show (I don’t know if you’ve heard of it) called the Colbert Report. Lynn had been producing Beavis and Butthead, and after Daria continued to produce tv aimed at the High School/College set in work for MTV, CMT, and G4TV – serving as Executive Producer on 8 different shows in one particularly busy year. She also voiced Andrea (aka ‘the goth chick’) in some Daria episodes.
The show was produced by MTV Animation. Designs and storyboards were made here, but the actual animation on the series wa contracted out to Plus One Animation and Rough Draft Korea, both animation companit’s located in South Korea.
Mike Judge, who created Beavis & Butthead agreed to release Daria’s character to her own show, but had no involvement in her show itself, and B&B never appeared on it. It’s just as well, the two shows were completely different, and served two different purposes – Beavis & Butthead was more of an animated MST3K that promoted music videos instead of campy movies, and Daria was an animated sitcom for the “alternative” lifestyle. A 1998 New York Times article about Daria‘s popularity points out the fact that Daria rated the lowest with males 18-24, which was Beavis & butthead’s core audience. This makes a lot of sense – in B&B, Daria’s character is really there to be made fun of.
In the same article, Neena Beeber, one of the shows writers states that one of the secrets to the appeal of the show is that modern teenagers (modern to 1998, anyway) didn’t want to be thought of as teenagers – they wanted to be thought of as young, young adults. Adjusting a writing style with that view in mind strips the sugar-coating and condescension out of a story, and allows it to deal with real issues, that really affect teenagers. (More on that later!)
Daria was a show that truly took advantage of the medium. It foreshadowed the Adult Swim network early programming that would come into its own in the early 2000s in that it allowed grown up humor to be explored in the animated format. Daria premeiered at a 10:30pm time slot, and Adult Swim made an industry out of late-night programming. A real-life sitcom about a character like Daria would likely have failed, but as with the Simpsons before it, ugly, imperfect, human characters become palatable when they don’t have an actually human face associated with it. Both shows would have failed had they been live-action. By the end of Season 1, Daria was one of the top rated shows on MTV!
Here’s a list of quotes that endorse Daria:
“A good spokesperson for MTV, intelligent but subversive.” MTV Network Manager Van Toffler
“The show is biting the dust without ever getting the credit it deserved: for social satire, witty writing, and most of all, for a truly original main character.” Emily Nussbaum (Slate.com)
TV Guide placed Daria in their “Top 50 Cartoon Characters of All Time.” ALL TIME! That’s some big names she beat out!
So, it’s a damn good show – this is established.You can’t do any kind of googling about Daria without running into film & tv critics effusing about how this show captured what high school was really, actually, truly like. Everyone seems to love it. But WHY is it such a great cartoon for girls?
Well, lets start with how strongly Daria breaks the mold for the pressures that affect almost every middle and high school girl feels, and often breaks them down into realistic circumstances. One of the simplest examples of this is the Season 3 Episode “Through a Lens Darkly”, which show Daria bowing to the pressure to try contacts, not being able to because of sensitive eyes, refusing to wear glasses again, and then feeling like she betrayed her principles by putting herself through something like that for the sake of appearance. Let’s continue with how dark real life situations are not avoided, such as in the Season 2 episode “I Don’t”, when Daria‘s younger sister is hit on by two adults – one of them being a priest performing a wedding. There’s an episode where the a modeling agency recruits high school students, there’s an episode where the school becomes over-run with soda machines when the Principle sacrifices student health for the advertising money it brings the school, there’s an episode where the school alters student artwork and then tries to suspend the students it belonged to when they try to change it, a more standard high school episode where Daria realizes that she and her best friend’s boyfriend would be a better match than they are, and an episode where an artist gets frustrated when she realized she could make millions knocking off other artwork when she wants to work on original stuff.
In Daria, you see life through a teenagers eyes – really. All adults are idiots, all the kids are selfish or mean. It’s realistic, and it’s comforting, and it doesn’t talk down to the teenage audience it’s aiming for. Watch it if you’re young and you’ve never heard of it. Watch it if you’re old and want to nostalgia trip on the real side of high school life.
Teens now watching Daria should keep in mind that there are some differences due to how many things have changed in the 10-15 years since this show was on the area – characters have beepers, used cellphones, and no one is really depicted as using the internet in the way that we take for granted now (and by that I mean Reddit.)
If you’ve never seen Daria, check out the pilot, “Sealed With A Kick.” It’s only 5 minutes long, and it’s a rough animatic (that means it’s one step up from a storyboard instead of a finished animation) but it gives a great impression of what the show is actually like.
Also, my brother was in a band in the 90s that did reasonably well – and one of his songs was used in the “I Don’t” episode.
What makes Daria a great cartoon for girls? What doesn’t make this show a great cartoon for girls!
The reason Daria didn’t make the best of the best? And I really, really wanted it to be in the best of the best – is that it’s just too cynical. Not just in the sense that life sucks all over for the characters in the show, but in the sense that you never get the impression that life or society is going to treat Daria better – ever. But like Lisa Simpson, Daria’s future seems to look like it’s going to suck. Also, while most of the show remains fresh, the fashions and some topics are now kind of outdated. I would love to see how this show would handle hipster culture and facebook.
So, how do we analyze the implications of a cartoon that might be the single most influential animated entity in the entire history of animation. We’ll we’re going to skip most of it, and this is why. Firstly, we really want to go into this show in-depth in the future, ans secondly, you would have to be living under a rock in almost all of the countries this podcast is downloaded in to not have seen The Simpsons or be familiar with the principle of the show, so you don’t really need me to explain the basics to you. Additionally, the show and the roles the characters have played have changed over the 25 years the show has been around. The short story is that Lisa Simpson, the little girl of the family is smarter, more talented and more informed than almost everyone around her, but the flip side of the coin, is that for Lisa, there is no escape. She may never be able to go to college, and she, like Mandy, will either end up marrying someone she has nothing to share with out of sheer desperation for some sort of familiar company, or die alone.
Or, she could get a full ride scholarship to a college where she finds the people she’s meant to be friends with, who knows! I find her prospects to be cynical, despite the fact that her existance as a character and a show to be be revolutionary.
What makes The Simpsons a great cartoon for girls? Like Mandy, Lisa is smarter and more talented than everyone around her, and in early episodes especially, the ways in which a gifted child doesn’t really fit in to the school system are illustrated with great compassion.
Why didn’t The Simpsons make the final cut? Lisa has no future, and the show is realistically bleak. This is part of why the show was such a raging success, but for these purposes, it keeps the Simpsons off the best of the best list.
The Last Unicorn
This is a movie based on a 1968 novel by Peter S. Beagle that has a cult following in it’s own right. Part of the reason for the fandom of the book is the same reason why it’s on this list. In an era fairytale adaptations where the happy ending is pretty firmly attached to the marriage of the lady protagonist to a handsome prince who is practically a stranger, the unicorn protagonist makes a choice between being human, mortal, and sharing the love of the prince, or being a unicorn, imortal, and unable to feel feelings. She doesn’t choose the prince, but sadly and realisticslly, she is no longer the same as the rest of the unicorns, because she has experienced love and regret. The Last Unicorn is a Rankin Bass movie, but was also produced by ITC Entertainment, an amazing english company run by an amazing enlgish man, Lord Lew Grade,who is kind of a fascinating character into himself, as he basically changed the face of Tevelvision in the UK. For now, we’ll jest say that Lord grade was the only person in America or Enlgand who was willing to greenlight a little variety-style show that you might have heard of called “The Muppet Show.”
Here’s the context of the making of the movie.
The Last Unicorn, released in 1982, was the last theatrical animated feature that Rankin-Bass ever made and I’m going to skip a lot of their contextual history in this podcast for the sake of not sidetracking. This is hard, because their’s a lot to talk about there! Maybe it’ll be for a podcast of another day … Rankin Bass was of course an American company, but all of their animation, both the 2D cel animation and the stop-motion best known in their beloved holiday specials, were contracted out to Japanese companies. If you didn’t know this already, this probably makes sense if you look at the heavily Asian-influenced artistic style of not just the Last Unicorn, but Thundercats, which was also Rankin Bass.
It was not a huge success. Variety, in a review that didn’t even look 100 words long, referred to the Unicorn’s appearance as ‘vapid’ and opened their review with the phrase ‘a rare example of an animated kids’ pic in which the script and vocal performances outshine the visuals.’ While I do think it’s true that the animation doesn’t hold up to the modern eye, and it is definitely true that the performances of the voice cast (including Rene Aubejonois, who voiced the crazy chef in the Little Mermaid and played Odo on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) are particularly excellent, I don’t agree with the harshness of that statement. There are many beautifully animated parts of the movie.
It’s also fair to say that the late 70s and early 80s were not a great time for animated movies. The market was changing, and even Disney was thinking about phasing out of animation entirely. Animated movies hit a big trend of adaptations from fantasy novels that weren’t really stories accessible to young children (such as Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 Lord of the Rings), were adapted in a really dark way (Disney’s 1985 The Black Cauldron) or just had an emotional impact that is tricky to adapt into the market at all … like The Last Unicorn. The industry was flailing about a bit, kind of had been ever since the social change of the 1960s hit – and why wouldn’t it? The little boys and girls who loved Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty had grown up and were watching Fritz the Cat.
Here’s the plot overview. With a sense of waking up from a dream, a unicorn realizes that she hasn’t seen another unicorn in a long time. (Unicorns are immortal, beautiful, can’t really have feelings, and yes, they do have this thing for ‘pure’ women in this world.) She begins a hunt for others of her kind, which she learns have all been imprisoned by a creature called the Red Bull. While searching, she is captured by a witch who sees her for what she is, and exhibits her as a unicorn in a circus — the irony being that she has to put an fake horn on the Unicorn in order for the general populace to recognize her for who she is. Someone who does recognize her before she escapes is Schmendrick, an incompetant apprentice of the witch’s who ends up traveling with the Unicorn until the end of the book What is made clear int he book, but not so much in the movie is that Schmendrick is also immortal, having been cursed by his former master to not age until he finds a way to unlock the magic powers he clearly has. So now we have two immortal travelers questing together – the unicorn, unable to feel, searching for the rest of her kind, and a human with great power he is completely unable to access searching for a way to unlock the abilities that he has been told reside within him.
The next enccounter in the book is with a band of robbers. Schmendrick is briefly imprisoned, and conjures an illusion of Robin Hood and his merry men, which the ignoble group is transfixed by. Molly, the bandit’s equivalent of Maid Marian, is the next to join the Unicorn’s traveling party. She is middle aged, and worn out from basically a youth misspent on a guy who wasn’t her equal (the bandit leader) and is reminded painfully of her younger ideals when she sees the unicorn.
From here, the next significant encounter occurs when the Red Bull finds the traveling party. In an attempt to save her, Schmendrick’s unleashes some magic he can’t really control, and turns the unicorn human. It saves her from the Red Bull’s attention, but both the unicorn and Molly are initially horrified — it’s a fate worse than death to go from the glory and superior life of a unicorn the impurity of being a human. Unable to turn her back, the trio press on to the castle of the King who is controlling the Red Bull, and take up residence there – Molly working the kitchen, Schmendrick as a jester, and the unicorn taking the human name Amalthea. The king of course has a son who falls in love with Amalthea.
The next section of the story takes place here in the castle. The unicorn has never been capable of love before, so she doesn’t respond initially, but she’s slowly losing her memory of being a unicorn as the identity of being a human takes her over. We learn why the old King, with no ability to feel and completely isolated from most human interaction, has used the Red Bull to collect and imprison unicorns in a failed attempt to bring some sort of joy and value into his life. The prince has been valiant and brave all his life, and has a crisis of identity when he realises that none of this makes Amalthea any more interested in marrying him than say, staring at the wall in her room.
Eventually the trio find their way to the Red Bull via an underground passage. They are at this point joined by the Prince, and some of the most crucial and emotional exchanges of the story take place as Amalthea confesses her true identity and quest to the Prince. When, knowing her true self and ambitions, he loves her anyway, she is emotionally overcome, and wants to abandon her quest and truly forget her Unicorn identity so that she can settle down with him. Get your hankies out ladies, because he doesn’t want her to give up her goals, even if it means losing her! The Unicorn has so been changed by her experience as a mortal that she begs Schmendrick not to reverse the spell as hard as she resisted it when he first turned her. She gets turned back into a unicorn anyway of course, and the Prince throws himself between her and the Red Bull to protect her, and Schmendrick manifests his own destiny when he can turns Amalthea back into an immortal unicorn, regaining his own mortality in the process.
The Red Bull is defeated and the unicorns are free. Schmendrick is mortal, the Prince has realized that true heroism comes from the heart, not from inheiritance, and Molly has an implied romantic future with Schmendrick, who (now that he is in control of his abilities) is the most powerful magician that ever existed. The unicorn is still alone — even though her kind have returned to the world, she will never be the same as any of them again, as she has experienced both love and regret, and mourns the loss of what other unicorns would never understand.
What we basically have here, is an allegory for growing up – and the any stage of life that can take place at. The story itself shares many introduction to life elements with a similarly metaphorical book, ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ — except the focus in the the Last Unicorn is on interpersonal relationships and ethics, whereas ‘The Phantom Tollbooth’ is about the consequences of your actions and making the leap between what you are taught in school and real life application of intelligence.
So why is The Last Unicorn so great for girls? It’s not just the Unicorn’s fate of not marrying the prince and living happily ever after (notice I said ‘fate’, not ‘choice’.) Although, Amalthea’s situation of it just not working out with the Prince and that being sad is kind of cool is nice to see. What I love the most about the book is Molly’s storyline – the fact that she’s lived (and presumably been sleeping with) unmarried with a guy who frankly sucks, and that doesn’t make her less valuable, or have any less potential. Rather than the fairytale beggar girls who ascends to queendom by marrying the right guy when she’s still a teenager, Molly is a character who chooses to leave a bad situation, and gets a fresh start without any kind of sense that she’s damaged goods from her experience. And rather than getting a happy ending, with marriage and children, Molly’s story concludes with a sense of a future with whatever oportunity she wanted to make for herself being an option.
Actually, the only people who settle down to have babies at the end of the book are the inhabitants of a village affected by a subplot that meant they had been refusing to have kids for years in fear of the bad King killing them all.
Why didn’t The Last Unicorn make the final cut? The reason why The Last Unicorn didn’t make the best of the best cut is in part the same reason why it’s on the list at all. It deal with the real life emotions … that really are tremendously sad. You could argue that the emotional impact is part of the success of the show, but it’s really the epitome of bittersweet. Also, the animation doesn’t hold up thaaaaaaaaaat well. It also loses quite a bit in the adaptation, where some kind of important aspects of the story don’t really come across as they should. So even though this podcast is about the best Cartoons for girls, I really can’t talk about it withought recommending the graphic novel adaptation of the story. Illustrated by Renae DeLiz (an incredibly talented, self-taught artist who would go on to found Womanthology.) The book reads as a supplement to the movie because of how closely the book illustration resebles the movie designs, but the content itself stays incredibly book accurate. The graphic novel collection was on the NY Times bestseller list for over two months, and I think it should have been on for longer – it is freaking incredibly beautiful. DeLiz is currently working on a book-accurate adaptation of Peter Pan which promises to be equally astounding.
Did you agree with these choices? Disagree? Have suggestions for other shows that are great for girls? Email firstname.lastname@example.org and let us know!
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