I recall my childhood Saturday mornings with great fondness: waking up at 7:00 a.m. and watching cartoons well into the afternoon. My favorites were G.I. Joe, Transformers, Thundercats, and Danger Mouse. But above them all was The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The four wildly immature, yet skillfully trained, ninjas were my obsession. I had a trunk full of toys, posters, t-shirts, and costumes. So naturally when I saw that there had been a resurgence in “Turtle love” I was excited! My nephew has already taken to calling himself Raphael for months, and a new cartoon has been airing since 2003. But there was something strange about these new Turtles that it took me some time to put my finger on. This morning as my two year old daughter caught a few minutes of one of the shows it hit me. The new turtles are far darker than the old!

Some will quickly point out that cartoons have often displayed some graphic and “dark” imagery. In this particular episode we see a dry-boned Shredder reconstituting his muscles, sinews, tissue, and skin. It was a rather graphic image, I thought, for a simple children’s cartoon. The old Ninja turtles had a disembodied brain, but he was goofy looking, humorous, lovable. But this new Shredder was gruesome to look at. This is, I observed, a common trend in today’s children’s cartoons.

This observation on my part has raised a question in my mind: when am I observing a serious trend and when am I simply nostalgic. It is common for us to look back on the past with unrealistic idealism. Israel did this in the Wilderness when they spoke of Egypt as a place with plenty of food and shelter, ignoring the obvious fact that they were slaves. We always tend to think our past was better than it really was, that our shows were more wholesome, that our movies more pure, that our characters more honest. But “dark” is often subjective. So maybe Shredder is darker in comparison to my old Shred-head, but that doesn’t necessarily make him immoral, impure, or unwholesome for kids today. We each need to be careful about making the standard our own subjective memories.


  1. Okay, so obviously I have to comment on this, right?

    I’m pretty well willing to bet that animated TMNT, as conceived today, are going to be darker and more willing to edge ever more slightly toward a quote-unquote realism. Animation in America is finally entering a period of growth that I don’t think has been seen since the early half of the 20th century, when a number of Loony Toons and Merry Melodies episodes were actually geared toward mature audiences rather than children.

    With the growing popularity of Japanese imports (e.g. Naruto), kids are going to become more accustomed to animation that panders less to a target audience of five-year-olds. In Naruto, characters perish in battle, evil sometimes wins, and there are consequences to actions. With the popularity of such shows growing, we’re bound to see some reflection of that in animated fare.

    I tend to view this as a good thing. As a child, I was constantly annoyed how unrealistic the depictions of these action heroes were. In G.I. Joe, you have an elite military force engaged in firefight with faceless terrorists. And yet, nobody ever shoots anybody else. Ever. These were expert marksmen and they couldn’t hit anything. You have COBRA’s red lasers flying past the Joes and G.I. Joe’s blue lasers hitting walls and the sides of nearby trucks. As an elementary schooler, this was seriously disappointing and as soon as I was introduced to something like Robotech (in which bullets caused wounds, characters died, and the heroes ended up killing nearly everybody on earth as a stopgap measure to prevent the exinction of all humanity), G.I. Joe was immediately forsaken.

    Children may be young and may be immature, but they aren’t idiots and they can tell when they’re being patronized. I say, bring on the darker stuff and let’s be engaged parents and help our children understand how to reconcile that.

    Incidentally, it was always interesting to me that the source material for these cartoons was always far darker than what the television producers would allow to be shown. For instance, TMNT the cartoon was an adaptation of the independent comic by Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman and in that comic, the turtles were actually ninjas and would actually kill. It was, originally, a dark comic (and published in black and white). I had the first few issues and was terrified when I saw the bright, happy quote-unquote adaptation on television. Similarly, in Transformers and G.I. Joe, both of which began their lives as Marvel Comics publications, it was not unheard of for characters to softshoe off this mortal coil. Particularly in G.I. Joe, plenty of characters would be killed by opposing elite forces (though, to be fair, most of these were workaday members of the opposing outfits—not unlike Star Trek‘s redshirts.

    To go tangential for a moment:

    I liked that you brought up the subjectiveness of nostalgia. I was talking to someone about this Saturday night. A friend asked if I was upset that there were all these movies like Transformers and G.I. Joe pissing all over my memories. My response was that no, I didn’t mind, for a couple reasons.

    1) Whatever love I have for the Transformers is both unrelated to and undiminished by whatever dreck Michale Bay produces. I realize that the entire market for something like Bay’s Transformers is a public desperate to relive some glimpse of their lives when they still had hope for the future, back before they became the people they are today. I think that a lot (not all, of course) of what drives people to need adaptations and re-adaptations of their old favourites is this need to relive their experiences of their lives before they became so screwed up. It’s the classic If I could go back and relive my teen years knowing everything I know now concept.

    2) If I honestly consider the originals, I’ll realize that the new stuff isn’t much worse—if even worse at all. Look, I loved this stuff as a kid. I saw pretty much every episode of G.I. Joe and Transformers. And yet, when revisiting this stuff as an adult, I can apprehend that they’re unspeakably childish. Not unlike their blockbuster descendants. Nostalgia can be seriously depressing when one confronts it honestly. And that’s why I choose not to. I don’t re-watch Transformers. I don’t long for a Transformers movie that would meet my deluded expectations (expectations grown large from a subjective blurring of reality engorged by twenty-five years of maturation).

    So yeah, I’m glad you brought in the element of nostalgia—because it’s important for us to occasionally recognized how ceaselessly we lie to ourselves and colour our past in the cloak of history.

  2. Great thoughts Dane. My only push back would be to say that I think it is necessary for parents to know what is too graphic for their kids. There are some things in these cartoons that parents will want to observe before deciding if little Johnny should watch it. Which brings up an intersting question in my mind: We talk frequently on this site about how some things may be acceptable for certain Christians but not for others, and that it is a matter of conscience. I wonder, however, if the same principle can be universally applied to children, or if there is a more objective standard because of their age. Thoughts?

  3. I’m not sure there is an objective standard. So much of it seems to be a compound of the child’s personality and the values instilled in them by their parents and environment. Here’s a couple For Instances.

    Just today, I was looking at some Facebook chit-chat by some high school girls (I know, totally how most adult men should spend their free minutes…) and one was discussing George MacDonald’s faerie tale stories The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie. Her evaluation after describing how much she liked them: “I think that they are kind of violent for children.” Now these aren’t violent books and if I were in second grade, I wouldn’t have blinked at their portrayal of violence (after all, I was well-addicted to Tintin by that point). And yet, she was of delicate enough sensibilities that MacDonald’s violence made her uncomfortable.

    A number of years back, I was watching 2001’s The Musketeer with a bunch of high school students. After the movie, one particular girl was visibly disturbed and was complaining about how gory the movie was. Now if you’ve seen the film (which is an action I’d not recommend), you’ll know that there is no gore in the thing. None. There is sword-fighting and those kinds of 1940s deaths (a la Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood). And yet, the movie’s small degree of violence really got to her. I, on the other hand, was fine with Aliens when I was her age.

    Kids each have their thresholds, so I think it’s doubly important for parents to do as you recommend. They should know their children and know what their children are watching—and insofar as they can, control their children’s consumption in such a way as would be fruitful in their development as fully fledged members of both Christian and secular society.

  4. This is my first comment. Whoo!

    Going back to what the Dane is saying about the facebook discussion. Why were those stories violent? Was it for us to enjoy the gore? Was it to illustrate the evil of the Goblin? Or was it there because it was important to the plot? I believe that we should keep in mind why the sin is there.

    Now, on the Turtles, I watched this new series, and enjoyed it. But I look at it is not designed for character development, or for story, or even to make you laugh. The action is what has kept it going for the last 5 years. This is what kids enjoy for TV.

  5. @ Scott, yeah that’s a great point. I thought of that reacently too when thinking of Skellator from He-man. He wasn’t exactly rosey and sweet.

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