Like most little boys growing up in America after World War II, I was absolutely fascinated by an American version of animated films, namely cartoons. I recently started thinking a lot about cartoons after reading Masters of Animation by John Halas (Salem House, 1987). Reading this book gave me a foundation for developing my own ideas related to how cartoons fit into people’s technological fields of experience.
Cartoons, at first, usually preceded full-length feature movies, but later, as television came into its own as a medium, whole programs appeared that were filled with cartoons. What made them so great for kids is that there was so much action, so much movement. And the characters were simply drawn and two-dimensional, both literally and figuratively. No complex nuanced character development to think about a lot and no complexities to focus on in the story line. Just a lot of fast action, a lot of quick breath-taking movement in ways that could never have taken place in real life. And, of course, a lot of sadistic violence. Stuff happens to cartoon characters that would not be permitted to be shown with real people. Terrible things happen that would traumatize real people for life or leave them permanently disabled. But cartoon characters are able to bounce back both psychologically and physically from terrible treatment as if nothing had happened.
The short cartoon, with its fast action and violence, became a highly addictive kick for children. As kids grew up in environments where technology did more and more for them, and where increased crowding in cities and suburbs left less and less real-life space in which to move around, cartoons provided a different kind of space and environment where characters could show all kinds of unusual powers and resilience. Children could feel like they were having a magical life narrative making magical life imprints, even though, in reality they were merely living as spectators.
As cartoons evolved into full-length feature animation forms, the violence diminished, because there was a limit to the violence that people could tolerate. With the development of a full-bodied plot, there was also a diminishing of ongoing action, because time had to be spent developing interesting characters. Nevertheless, these being primarily children’s movies, children’s stories formed the base of these full-length feature cartoons, and the magical use of movement, space and things continued to be present. Flying people in Peter Pan, a flying elephant in Dumbo, a puppet that came to life in Pinocchio, an underwater kingdom in The Little Mermaid, dancing implements in Beauty and the Beast, a magic carpet in Aladdin. These long cartoons continued to expand possibilities of life narrative in the minds of people who had increasingly rejected new possibilities of life narrative in their daily lives. And as both short and long cartoons increasingly became available, first on VHS and then on DVD, children could acquire the possibility of watching and living vicariously through their favorite imaginary life narratives over and over again, and, in this way, merging in their minds with their favorite characters.
One form of cartoon presentation has not been fully discussed yet. Many half hour children shows on television are hybrids of short cartoons and full-length feature cartoons with some of the actions of short forms combined with some of the more significant character development of full-length features. Two good examples of this kind of show were the Flintstones and the Jetsons. There have also been more adult cartoon shows like the Simpsons and South Park which are more sophisticated than children’s shows both in content and language, but which still maintain some of the magical aura of animation. Finally we have to mention the more complex imagery of computer-generated animated films like Toy Story and Shrek, which, with their three-dimensional effects, really draw people into the narrative.
To the extent that people are now living in front of a screen for more interactive reasons, they have found a way to more directly jump into the screen reality which they are experiencing. This, of course, is what the computer experience is built for. And to the extent that it is necessary, some computer users use a simplified graphic image of themselves that they have developed to participate in some computer functions. This image, called an avatar, has some things in common with cartoon characters. Now cartoon characters are not usually based on real people and are not in any way susceptible to real-time manipulation by a spectator. And, of course, manipulation within a screen reality is the whole reason for the existence of an avatar. But both an avatar and a cartoon character are simplified figures that dwell in some kind of screen reality with all the possibilities and limitations that that entails.
And yet we have already indicated that many children live through their favorite cartoon characters, by ongoing viewing of cartoon programs and repeated viewing of DVD’s. They do this to identify with the magical possibilities of movement and narrative that these characters have. What happens when adults start identifying with their own screen reality presentations of self? It is one thing to use an avatar as a vehicle for representing oneself within various processes in screen reality. The avatar is a tool of the person using it. But as has been indicated throughout this column, people tend to become merged in their minds with things that they use frequently. So often, the avatar becomes such a salient defined discrete image in a person’s mind that it begins to take over the mind. And sometimes, even without the presence of an actual avatar, a person becomes like an avatar after immersing himself for a long time in his screen reality. The person becomes increasingly shallow and two-dimensional and demonstrates a lack of both emotional and intellectual depth and texture.
Does this description remind you of someone who has been in the news a lot these days? How about Donald Trump: the man who communicates most of what he has to say in short succinct surprising shallow tweets? During the course of the American presidential campaign, Trump gradually became his own avatar: a man who spoke in shallow sound bites and constantly shocked the world with what he had to say. A man who had an air of unreality about him and who seemed to lack a core self.
The difference between a cartoon character and an avatar is that a cartoon character does not usually represent and is not directly manipulated by a real human like an avatar is. But Trump’s life narrative has the magical surreal absurd flavor of a cartoon character. It could be turned into an animated cartoon series, even if he didn’t actually exist.
And it’s a cartoon series that so many Americans, those who supported Trump, could so easily enter. To the extent that they merge into a collective identity with him, they too become cartoon characters, characters who belong on a screen rather than in the real world.
One of my earlier articles was titled “Life Has Become A Cartoon”. Boy, is that true now more than ever before. This is why it is so important that we find a way of protecting people against the sensory distortion that emanates from our screen realities and other manifestations of modern technological society.
(c) 2017 Laurence Mesirow