BrazyDay
BrazyDay
Jun 22 · 25 min read

In light of Chris Savino and John Kricfalusi, it’s time to take another look at the culture surrounding children’s TV cartoons.

[Content note: this article contains references and links to disturbing material, including sexual abuse and extreme violence.]

When I was young, I loved to use the internet to track the creators of my favorite art. I wanted to know who they were and what else they made. I spent long hours looking up illustrators, character designers, background artists. I would guess which voice actors voiced which characters in TV cartoons, and try to confirm it online without looking at the actors’ real faces. (After all, didn’t it ruin the fun to see the real person behind the cartoon person?)

Even then, though, the internet was for porn.

Rule 34 of the internet: “if it exists, there’s porn of it.” It’s unclear exactly when or where this idea originated — sometime in the ’00s — but in the end it was less of an observation than it was an edict. The internet took it as a challenge, an idea that must be made reality. Many it treated as something of a college-frat-boy joke, something with which to shock and entertain their friends.

Other members of the internet had a more specific interest in it. And so they went to work.

Rule 34 meant Strawberry Shortcake porn. It meant Arthur porn. Thomas the Tank Engine porn. Caillou porn. Dora the Explorer porn. Avatar: The Last Airbender, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Phineas and Ferb, Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Animal Crossing porn. Ben 10 porn. SpongeBob SquarePants porn. Doug porn. Kim Possible porn. Ducktales porn. Powerpuff Girls porn. Even Bob the Builder porn. And so on and so forth.

At times it took on an almost automatic, mechanical quality — simply going down the checklist. A certain sector of the internet felt a pressing need to “corrupt” as many things as they could, however they could, as much as they could. As the Twitter user gravislizard wrote in a viral tweet thread last year:

Still others participated because it was an excuse to finally indulge the worst inclinations they possessed. But among both groups, a favorite target was children’s media. For as much as they loved the idea of corrupting things, there was no greater thrill than the thought that they were “corrupting childhoods”; that their world would collide with the world of children.

During this early era, the one upside was that these underground online groups were comfortably separate from the mainstream. The subculture of kids’ cartoon “corrupters” was a world away from the community of legitimate children’s animators on the internet. Rule 34 existed, and kids could find it if they tried, but it wasn’t the fundamental force underlying the spirit of the online cartoon community.

Eventually the Rule 34 project slowed, partly because the novelty wore out and partly because the mantle was passed onto people who didn’t require any such label. People who had spent long enough on the internet to naturally embody the darkest version of the ideal set forth in the Rule — and like it, too.

What’s the worst that could happen?

When My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic first started airing in 2010, it quickly gained a following of adult male fans who called themselves “bronies.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But as Gianna DeCarlo described in her Baltimore City Paper post “The problem with bronies: a look at the corruption of ‘My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic’ ”:

…the problem with bronies has nothing to [do with] grown men liking a children’s cartoon and everything to do with their usurping of a safe space for young girls and distorting it into a hypersexual and toxic environment for these younger fans.

The adult fanbase of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has become legendary for the vast ocean of pornography they’ve created of the TV show’s cast of small cartoon animals. For years, it’s been easy for kids to find disturbing sexual imagery of these characters just by looking up their names on Google Images, even with SafeSearch enabled. Search anything My Little Pony related and you’ll quickly come across extreme fetish art. According to Ule Lopez of Geek Reply: “there is a dedicated section to child pornography in sites like Derpibooru and FiMFiction. This category is known as ‘Foalcon.’ ”

A screenshot of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic depicting several of the child characters (“foals”) in the cartoon.

Another famous example of brony excesses is, as Nicky Vaught of Technician described, “Molestia … [the] parody character of the show’s character, Celestia. The site, Ask Princess Molestia, operated in blog format, [and] often dealt in pornographic fan art — of cartoon ponies — and even more often in rape and molestation jokes.” He went on to quote a member of the My Little Pony fan community who petitioned for the deletion of Ask Princess Molestia as saying, “I recently babysat a child who … upon seeing my massive My Little Pony collection, ran to my Friendship is Magic shelf and started naming them … Once she got to Celestia, she told me she rapes people.”

Children who grew up in the 2010s are natives to the internet. Even by 2011, studies showed that one-fourth of children under age 6 used the internet and 59% of those aged 6-to-9 logged on daily. It’s second nature for this generation of kids to keep up with their favorite children’s programs online, or even to follow the social media accounts of those shows’ creators. But the safe space that a show like My Little Pony offers children on television is missing on the internet, where official art rubs shoulders with “Molestia,” and an official YouTube video is likely to lead straight to the site’s darkest reaches.

According to some experts, the potential dangers of children being exposed to porn include depression, social anxiety and self-harm. Discovering porn at a young age — when children often have poor impulse control and difficulty parsing their emotions — can also lead to porn addictions. On top of that, in a 2013 study by Middlesex University, 276 submitted papers showed that “children and young people who view pornography tend to hold less progressive gender role attitudes.” Many of the more positive studies are, at most, merely inconclusive. The whole situation has led feminist writer Judith Shulevitz to state in The New York Times: “It’s O.K., Liberal Parents, You Can Freak Out About Porn.”

Eventually, brony antics expanded beyond just internet porn and overflowed into the physical world. My Little Pony conventions attended by its young fans were also frequented by inhabitants of the internet’s sewer, buying and selling things like erotic bodypillows of the show’s cast. There was a notable child stalking scare at one such convention. Elsewhere, the brony ToonKriticY2K made news for allegedly grooming a fourteen-year-old girl over the internet and soliciting explicit photos from her. These are the inherent dangers of making a children’s space “hypersexual and toxic,” as DeCarlo put it.

Kids’ TV animators have had many reactions to the proliferation of porn of their work over the years. Bemusement, amusement, winks and nudges. However, one reaction that’s been difficult to find has been condemnation. Whatever their opinion of it, they often shy away from such public pronouncements. Some may feel powerless to change the situation. Others could be taking a more pragmatic view. Why appear prudish or anger part of the fanbase when, most likely, it will have little-to-no effect on the speed of the porn creation?

In fact, if anything has changed since the early years of Rule 34, it’s been in the opposite direction. While groups like the bronies were making the connection between porn and kids’ TV animation almost mainstream, the link was growing inside the industry as well. Today, online porn, whether created by fans or by the staff themselves, hasn’t just become a normal part of the children’s TV community. It’s become acceptable.

Going mainstream

More than at any time in history, creators are available to interact with fans online. And fans are more aware of them than ever. On sites like Fandom, they create lists of storyboarders and which episodes they’ve worked on. They maintain vast databases of the ins and outs of their favorite properties. And they keep up with creators’ social media accounts. Alex Hirsch of Gravity Falls has joked about the huge number of young children who contact him on Twitter — kids who see animators as “halfway between artists or Santa Claus.”

So what might a young cartoon fan of today discover when they venture online to engage with their favorite show?

Suppose a child liked the way that Batman looked in DC’s Justice League Action and wanted to find out who designed him. A quick name search on Google of the show’s lead character designer, a man who got his start at John Kricfalusi’s studio Spümcø, brings up a wall of his porn artwork. Meanwhile, the creator of Cartoon Network’s Mighty Magiswords currently follows porn artists and erotic models on his professional Twitter account that he uses to interact with fans. Because Twitter has spent years training its algorithm to close the gap between people you follow and the accounts they follow — whether through “Like” histories or random recommendations—this is enough to send such content into a kid’s feed.

Inside fan communities, it’s not just bronies who pump sexualized fan art into the mainstream anymore. Children’s cartoons like The Loud House — Nickelodeon’s hit show by Chris Savino — already have thriving groups of adult artists creating fetish art ranging from inflation to lolicon of the 6-year-old Lana Loud, all of which is accessible with an innocent Google search of her name. (Inflation, as cartoonist Ryan North explained for the adult website Oh Joy Sex Toy, is a sexual fetish involving people who swell like balloons.) On YouTube, viral videos like “Lynn X Lincoln💕” and “The Loud House Characters as Anime,” each weighing in at 2.2 million views, reimagine the show’s cast of children in disturbing ways. The former shows a post-coital scene between 11- and 13-year-old siblings as the sister wonders whether she could become pregnant.

Mabel Pines from Gravity Falls.

Today, creators of sexual or outright pornographic fan works based on children’s TV often mingle with the official production staff. Consider Mike Inel: his hit video “What if ‘The Amazing World Of Gumball’ was an anime” boasts 33 million views and an endorsement from showrunner Ben Bocquelet himself. What Bocquelet may not have known is that Inel (aka manyakis) also openly has a career making hardcore porn based on Gumball, Gravity Falls — particularly 12-year-old protagonist Mabel Pines — and many other children’s TV properties.

While Inel remains firmly in the fan community, other creators of unsettling porn are making the leap directly into children’s TV animation. In fact, artists who cut their teeth participating in the darker side of the internet now make up a sizable portion of the talent pool that networks draw from. Paul Robertson is famous for his contributions to Gravity Falls: the iconic sprites for .GIFfany and Rumble McSkirmish were his work. But Robertson is also a guro artist responsible for, among other things, an image of a monstrous General Custer slaughtering and raping dozens of Native American women (NSFW). This is not a secret — he’s been photographed with it publicly.

The ascension of such artists into the mainstream animation industry is ongoing. Some of them got their start all the way back in the Rule 34 era.

A good example is ZONE-SAMA, one of the premier Rule 34 artists who has maintained popularity into the present day. ZONE rose to prominence by making extreme porn animations of children’s TV shows in the 2000s and 2010s, often with shockingly accurate recreations of each cartoon’s art style. Targets included Foster’s Home, My Life as a Teenage Robot — one of which features the gang rape of protagonist Jenny—Teen Titans and beyond. Since around 2016, one of ZONE’s recurring subjects has been Peridot, a child-like character from Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe. Around that time, ZONE was also hired to animate for Cartoon Network’s OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes.

ZONE-SAMA’s porn adaptations — like the one above, based on My Life as a Teenage Robot — are often visually indistinguishable from the real thing. The artist’s official work for Cartoon Network’s OK K.O! is a similarly impressive copy of the house style.

And ZONE is part of a trend.

A surprising amount of the new blood in the animation industry got its start on Newgrounds, a content hosting and social media website where users can post their own games, music, drawings and videos. Since 1995, its community has been notable for its freewheeling anti-censorship spirit, shock-jockery, and, once again, porn. ZONE is one of its most iconic contributors. For the site that gave the internet post-9/11 Flash games, the “Barney Bunch” and interactive Rule 34 games starring 10-year-old Gwen Tennyson, the transition into mainstream animation is quite a leap.

Studio Yotta, a rising star in the animation industry, was founded by Newgrounders earlier this decade. It frequently employs freelancers from a hiring pool of Newgrounds alumni. Yotta has overcome its humble origins and managed to find work on things like ThunderCats Roar, OK K.O.! and even the opening animation to Disney’s new Amphibia. The company embodies the clan pride common to Newgrounders, a desire to stick together against the world, to maintain the common roots that tie them all together. When Yotta was hired to work on the OK K.O.! shorts, they brought ZONE along for the ride. Similarly, animators like the popular porn artist and ex-Newgrounder Ryan Miller contributed to Amphibia’s intro.

While many of the artists in Yotta’s orbit are simply struggling animators trying to get by, the Newgrounds diaspora is messy. Its tight-knit culture makes it hard to cut off the darker sectors of the community. A number of Yotta-connected artists (including the animator Chris O’Neill) still associate with Shadman, the most infamous porn artist from Newgrounds and perhaps the internet itself. Labeled by Gizmodo as “one of the alt-right’s favorite artists,” Shadman is the Rule 34 artist’s Rule 34 artist, a man who has complained of the legal troubles he faced for creating degrading porn based on the 12-year-old actress Dafne Keen from Logan. For years his work has put young girls from cartoons like The Loud House and Ben 10 in nightmarish and often inventively violent — even fatal — sexual situations.

The founders of Studio Yotta continue to follow Shadman on Twitter. Another Newgrounds alumnus with ties to Cartoon Network, Arin Hanson of Mighty Magiswords, has openly collaborated with him in the past. This is simply normal communal behavior for Newgrounds ex-pats, regularly done without a second thought. But it’s concerning when fringe online figures like Shadman and ZONE — also a Hanson collaborator — get so near to the mainstream children’s cartoons they pornographize for a living. It represents a sea change in what kids can expect to find in children’s animation communities, and, in some cases, maybe even in the shows themselves.

“I say bring it on”

The most high-profile figure to hop from the online Rule 34 scene into children’s TV, though, isn’t ZONE or anyone else from Newgrounds. Surprisingly, it’s the creator of one of Cartoon Network’s largest hits this decade: Rebecca Sugar, showrunner for Steven Universe.

Steven Universe over the years.

Sugar got her start in cartoon fan communities during the 2000s, posting fan art to social networks like LiveJournal. Way back in 2007, her technical skill caught the eye of Cartoon Brew’s Amid Amidi — who also reported on the “disturbing” nature of much of Sugar’s work at the time. Specifically, Sugar created Rule 34 art. Among other things, she drew comics that portray the awkward, vulnerable sexual encounters of preteen characters from the Cartoon Network show Ed, Edd n Eddy. The work, which is still floating around the internet, fixates on the inexperience and uncertainty of its subjects, on the uncomfortable blurred lines of sex at a young age.

But Amidi’s prediction that Sugar had “a bright future” came true. Just two years later, in 2009, she was hired to Adventure Time as a storyboarder, and she quickly made the jump to showrunner status with Steven Universe. For an artist from the online underground scene, it was a rare honor.

Critics have hailed Steven Universe as a new standard in storytelling, emotional complexity and representation in kids’ TV. It made history as the first children’s cartoon to portray a same-sex wedding. Sugar was able to do this by very smartly creating characters who would allow her to bypass the old-fashioned censors of LGBTQ+ content at Cartoon Network. While the alien race in the show — the Gems — identify as female, they are technically genderless holograms projected by living rocks. This distinction allows the show to explore many different aspects of gender and sexual orientation usually rendered off-limits by the old guard of children’s TV.

However, at the same time, the appearance of many Gems as very young — though they are technically hundreds or thousands of years old — is used to explore sexual situations involving child-like characters.

Gems in Steven Universe can fuse, a dance-like activity that allows two or more of them to form a single, larger being. The show uses fusion as a metaphor for many things — friendship, romance, companionship. But it’s also used at times as a rather blatant metaphor for sex. Take fusion scenes like the one in “Sexy Fuse,” a YouTube upload with 4.3 million views. It’s thinly-veiled enough that many of the kids in the comments openly (via abundant emoji and confused typing) express discomfort with it. This makes fusion somewhat alarming when it’s mixed with Steven Universe’s younger-looking and -acting characters.

Peridot, despite being an alien, looks and acts just like a child. Her unique mannerisms have been hailed by fans as an all-time-great example of neuroatypical representation in children’s cartoons.

One scene from the episode “Log Date 7 15 2” is a good example. The character Garnet invites the younger and less worldly Peridot, a Gem who has never fused before and is uneasy about the idea, to fuse with her and learn what all the fuss is about. The child-like Gem tumbles backwards, blushing and flustered at the come-on. Uncertain at first, Peridot works up her courage and decides to go through with it. Garnet puts on music and Peridot straps paint cans to her feet to keep up with her taller partner. But Peridot’s inexperience and awkwardness quickly leave her overwhelmed, and she calls off the fusion before it’s finished.

In another episode, the half-Gem protagonist Steven goes to the beach with his romantic interest — a 12-year-old human girl named Connie who’s two years his junior. While flirting, they accidentally fuse into the more mature-looking Stevonnie. Steven’s Gem mentor Pearl declares this “inappropriate,” but Stevonnie states that it “feels amazing.” Later, though, the two halves of Stevonnie have a moment of uncertainty. “Are you okay? We can stop, if you…” says one side.

One of the most disquieting plotlines related to fusion comes when Pearl, under false pretenses, tricks Garnet into fusing with her multiple times. Pearl says that she “couldn’t help” herself, and continues, “When we fuse, I can feel what it’s like to be you… confident and secure and complete.” Her actions lead Garnet to split into two halves — each one a smaller Gem with a preteen appearance — who struggle to deal with the fallout of pseudo-sexual betrayal. Child-like characters are placed once again into a vulnerable position in a landscape of blurred lines and uncertain boundaries. In the end, Pearl is accepted back into the fold with no lasting repercussions.

These aren’t the usual adult jokes buried in subtext for the grown-ups in the room. They aren’t even jokes — they’re explorations of troubling themes, executed in often-troubling ways. Despite the merits of Steven Universe, and despite its progressive handling of gender and sexual orientation, the show’s missteps into disturbing territory can’t simply be brushed aside.

But Steven Universe was a hit with the internet. Like My Little Pony, Cartoon Network’s show has drawn an online fanbase of adults outside its core demographic. And this fan community, like the bronies, has become notorious for filling the internet with porn in every configuration, especially of young-looking characters like Peridot. To call this environment hypersexual is almost an understatement. Google Images is a minefield, and any attempt to engage with Steven Universe on social media quickly runs into an endless river of erotica.

The comparison between the two fanbases wasn’t lost on certain spectators, including Ian Jones-Quartey, co-showrunner of Steven Universe and romantic partner of Rebecca Sugar. In 2015, he shared a fan comic on the subject and remarked that it was “exactly” how the situation looked to the show’s team:

At the time, the Steven Universe fandom was attempting to drive bronies from the show’s online communities. Jones-Quartey highlighted the comic’s message that the two fandoms had more things in common with each other than not.

His remark was already a step beyond the general silence that the My Little Pony staff has maintained about the porn culture around their show. But Jones-Quartey went further a minute later. In a since-deleted follow-up tweet, he seemingly supported the fans’ work: “not that i have anything against risqué fanart btw. I love it all, even the gross stuff. it’s fun!”

Jones-Quartey’s comment was in line with his past statements on the subject. The director — himself a veteran of Newgrounds, and now in charge of OK K.O.! on Cartoon Network — has encouraged fans on Twitter to push the envelope with their fan art. In a three-tweet thread from 2014, he remarked that the Steven Universe writer’s room “is waaaay sicker than stuff I see on tumblr.” He drew a comparison between himself and what he termed the “gross nerds” in the community, writing, “My complaint with most weird fanart I see is usually ‘This isn’t going far enough.’ ”

When a fan noted that the director’s words could soon be “ringing through the abyss and awakening some heretofore unimaginable fanart monster,” he received this reply from Jones-Quartey: “I say bring it on.”

Ian Jones-Quartey’s tweet thread from August 2014.

The words and actions of high-ranking figures in the children’s animation industry help to set the tone for what’s acceptable there. Jones-Quartey clearly means no harm to anyone with his statements — but the problem is that kids’ TV shows like Steven Universe and OK K.O.! are for kids. If these were adult animated series being surrounded by cultures of extreme porn art, it would mean something entirely different. But that simply isn’t the case. Shows like Steven Universe have to take into account, both in their content and their surrounding culture, that they exist primarily for children.

Just as with My Little Pony, there are kids watching Steven Universe and kids looking to engage with it online. There are kids joining social media for the purpose of interacting with the creators of these cartoons or participating in the fan cultures around them. Showrunners like Jones-Quartey and Sugar create work responsible, in some ways, for drawing children into online communities. That’s the reality of making a mainstream cartoon today. The question is, are kids being drawn to safe spaces? Or is the fan community around kids’ cartoons like Steven Universe a “hypersexual and toxic environment,” where kids and adults mingle and boundaries disappear?

What kind of culture should industry figures encourage around the kids’ cartoons they work on? And where is the line drawn when artists with backgrounds like ZONE’s — an animator who has worked on Jones-Quartey’s own series — cross over into mainstream children’s entertainment?

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic fan art by Yoh Yoshinari, a senior member of Studio Trigger.

The Steven Universe brand has similarly attracted its share of questionable collaborators. Japan’s Studio Trigger — an animation company that’s gained notoriety in the United States for raunchy sex comedies starring underage girls — lent Steven Universe a senior animator for one key sequence. (OK K.O.! has continued the love affair.) Studio Trigger’s mascots, dubbed the “Trigger Girls,” include a prepubescent child in a very small bikini. Trigger often hires erotic artists to illustrate these characters: here’s one such image (NSFW) available one click away from its main page as of this writing. The great irony is that Trigger’s senior staff includes at least one brony, Yoh Yoshinari.

This is to say nothing of the controversial fan artist “Purple Kecleon,” hired by Boom! Studios as a cover illustrator for the official Steven Universe comic series. Kecleon’s infamous porn fan works have typically featured Pokémon and other small animals, such as My Little Pony characters (“foals” included), rendered with infant characteristics. Even before Kecleon was hired, the artist had posted publicly — on one of several Tumblr accounts they acknowledged as their own — about their overriding interest in porn that depicts “innocence being broken.”

The public flirtation of children’s media with artists like these doesn’t just risk exposing kids to porn — it normalizes the entire idea of hypersexuality being present in children’s spaces, often in its most extreme forms. The trends I’ve described above are larger than any person or group of people in the children’s animation industry. It’s a systemic problem that will only grow if it’s left unaddressed.

Just business

The spread of porn based on children’s shows, and the upcycling of porn artists from this scene into mainstream children’s animation, isn’t some kind of grand conspiracy. It’s mostly the byproduct of what was simplest from a business perspective.

The tamer fan-made bodypillows for sale at “TrotCon 2018,” photographed by the Columbus Navigator.

Something few people might realize today, given the proliferation of fan works based on corporate properties, is that fan work is still copyright infringement. Many of these artists are selling what is essentially our version of Chinese bootleg merchandise. Those Zelda and Marvel bookmarks, posters, blankets and charms you see everywhere at fan conventions and online? All technically illegal. But major copyright holders have largely let it happen for decades. They do the same with most fan-made internet porn, very little of which could legally be defended as a parody and therefore as protected speech. Why?

As with anything involving the behavior of big corporations, the first question we have to ask is: how does it benefit them? For one, they want to avoid the reputational damage they’d face for cracking down on fan art communities. But that can’t be the only factor. Otherwise, why would companies like Nintendo be so swift and merciless when it comes to fan-created games, even as they continue to face backlash for it? Why destroy history-preserving ROM sites in an act that Vice correctly called “offensive” and “tragic”? They’re clearly willing to take a stand when they feel it’s in their interests.

To explain the other side of the equation, here’s Jonathan Bailey, an expert on plagiarism and the founder of Plagiarism Today:

From a copyright holder viewpoint, fan fiction and art is usually not very harmful. Fans create works that are openly recognized to be non-canon to the story and are not replacements for the original.

In fact, some feel these fan communities actually serve a valuable service to copyright holders by providing a thriving site for fans to visit, keeping them entertained and engaged between official releases. In short, since fan creations don’t take away sales of the original work, they are often seen as free promotion and a way to grow the brand without cost or effort.

Fan works are free advertisements. They increase brand engagement and recognition. No amount of money could buy the number of fan-produced artworks that accompany most Marvel movie launches, for example. And the creation and consumption of this fan work allows fans to constantly fill their lives with their favorite properties — to build close, intimate relationships with them that no corporation could create by itself.

While fan-made porn of kids’ cartoons might once have seemed like an image problem for companies like Cartoon Network, they’ve decided that they can let it slide. And it makes sense. Cartoon Network will never compete in the porn arena, and the company feels it has nothing to lose by letting its brands spread there. The Nickelodeon cartoon The Modifyers is perhaps the best example. Originally a failed pilot that came and went without much notice in the ‘00s, it surged in popularity in 2013 after ZONE created an extreme pornographic animation based on it. Today, nearly all of the comments on its YouTube upload reference ZONE’s work. Maybe Nickelodeon finds it distasteful, but the company has seen only gains.

The same logic applies with the brony scene. Hasbro has a captive audience of famously-obsessive fans, many of whom fall into what mobile game companies would call “whale” status — a statistical minority with outsize spending habits. While many internet-savvy people now perceive an unbreakable link between My Little Pony and horrifying porn, the damage has seemingly been outweighed by Hasbro’s profits. A porn repository like Derpibooru could have been issued a cease-and-desist order at any time in the last seven years, but Hasbro remained silent.

Wakfu will be spared future ZONE adaptations simply because Ankama defended its own legal rights.

The French media company Ankama made the move that Hasbro and Nickelodeon didn’t — which brings us back to ZONE, one last time. After the artist created a porn animation based on the children’s cartoon series Wakfu, an Ankama property, the company sent ZONE a DMCA takedown notice. The work was deleted, and ZONE has stated that no further adaptations will be forthcoming. “[I]t’s their right to defend their IPs in whatever way they see fit,” ZONE tweeted. “Not everyone likes porn of their work.”

In a very real way, the “hypersexual and toxic” culture that has sprung up around children’s TV cartoons is of companies’ own making. They actively allow it to happen simply by doing nothing — creating a lawless vacuum where anything goes and porn coexists with harmless fan creations. The fact that artists rise from this culture into the mainstream animation industry is just a long-term consequence of these business practices: it goes without saying that some fans of kids’ TV will want to work in kids’ TV, and those fans will be formed by whatever culture exists around the work. The boost companies get from hiring an artist already popular online just adds to the incentive. But none of it had to happen.

There’s an old adage that the internet is too mercurial, too vast and too slippery to alter or contain. While it’s true to an extent, the idea dates to the ’90s, and the internet of today is a different animal. It’s no longer a chaotic, unknowable swirl: most of what interests people is contained on a handful of sites. The “kings of the internet” are no longer shock-jocks on personal pages, hidden behind three layers of pseudonymity. Even voices as loud and dangerous as the ones on InfoWars can be silenced through a few platform bans. Discussing the death of the meme generator YTMND, Bijan Stephen noted in The Verge:

…the internet itself has changed. As more people came online, and the web became less a place for nerds and social misfits, and as the internet became more centralized because of platforms like Facebook and Twitter, … sites like YTMND became less and less important.

Certainly, there are still dark corners that hark back to the early days of the internet. But they aren’t corners where you can reliably build an audience or start a business. For the most part, the internet is now a mundane place, where 30–40 year old professional porn artists manage their Patreons, maintain engagement with their audiences and upload new content at regular intervals. Many of the old anti-establishment types rely on the exposure that only sites like Twitter can give them. Rebels like Shadman have been domesticated. They try to maintain a “naughty” aura around their work, but in essence they’ve become no more than businesspeople.

And, in return, corporations benefit from the traffic these businesspeople generate. But it would take very little to stop them from making porn based on children’s television, and even less to stop hiring the Purple Kecleons of the world onto children’s media.

Changing with the times

The original reason that the internet was created was so that adults — mainly researchers and academics — could freely share information. Its early interfaces were so abstruse that most laypeople couldn’t even use it. Over time, computers and the internet were streamlined for commercial use, and they became a commodity for the general public. Even kids could navigate the online world. Today, it has simplified to the point where toddlers can use it. And companies, for their part, are trying to maximize that use.

Computers and the internet have evolved far beyond the arcane contraptions of the past, to the point where even very young children can use them with ease. Photo credit: The New York Times, Heathkit, Huffington Post.

After all, who has more potential free time to browse the internet than a child?

The internet is no longer just a place for adults. Kids not only use the internet now — they in some ways dominate it. “Children under 13 have emerged as one of the most lucrative demographics for [YouTube] creators,” wrote Wired earlier this month. Videos for toddlers and other preteen viewers rack up more advertising money than almost any others, even as the site’s disturbing, even dystopian nature comes into clearer view. YouTube tries to dodge the bullet by gesturing toward YouTube Kids, its unpopular and ineffective Band-Aid fix that most kids don’t actually use. Hence the opening sentence of the Wired article linked above: “YouTube has a child exploitation problem.”

The attempt to place responsibility for kids’ online safety solely on the shoulders of parents doesn’t make sense anymore, and is often simply a deflection tactic to defend callous corporate practices. Per Shulevitz: “I develop anger-management issues whenever I read an advice column telling me to keep a close watch on my child’s online activity, as if an adult could plausibly hover over a teenager long enough to ensure that he never clicks on 4chan.”

All of which makes creators in the children’s animation industry seem out-of-touch when they shrug off fan-made porn. “People can do whatever they want with these characters,” Alex Hirsch said about the cast of Gravity Falls in 2015. “It’s not like I get upset about it! I’m just amused; I don’t care. Keep being weird — be weirder!” Here he echoes Jones-Quartey’s remarks in defense of Steven Universe’s porn artists. But their comments are uncannily similar to a key part of the argument that Chris O’Neill, as mentioned previously, has used to defend Shadman:

drawing anything is permissible, anything in the whole wide world! that is his choice, you do not have to look at his art. its not like you are being forced. i 100% believe people can joke about anything :)

With statements like these, what creators like Hirsch, Jones-Quartey and O‘Neill are showing more than anything is their age. They remember the underground internet of 15 or even 20 years ago, a free-for-all where no one had to consider whether toddlers were in the audience. Using the internet was treated like riding a bull; if you got hurt, you were old enough to know what you were signing up for. You couldn’t expect it to change — if you didn’t like porn of children’s cartoons, you went elsewhere online. But that’s simply an outdated way of viewing it. A better comparison today might be someone pinning porn to the walls outside a McDonald’s ball pit and yelling “don’t look!” at the kids who walk by.

A screencapture from an immensely popular “secretgoombaman12345” fetish video in which a My Little Pony character painfully inflates like a balloon, bursts and dies.

The question of porn based on children’s animation is now much bigger than what consenting adults do in their private lives. Is it really harmless fun when kids stumble across lolicon artwork of their favorite cartoon characters — characters they see themselves in? Is the internet really better off when tens of millions of kids watch fetish animations by “secretgoombaman12345” that show Steven Universe, My Little Pony and Gravity Falls characters inflating like blimps and bursting?

And how is it wrong for companies like Hasbro and Cartoon Network — even as they continue to allow most fan artists to provide them with free advertising — to enforce their copyright when it comes to extreme or disturbing porn based on their children’s properties? Would the world truly be a worse place if Derpibooru didn’t have a “Foalcon” section?

This is a systemic problem. It can be solved, but only if the children’s animation industry collectively realizes the responsibility it has to its young fans. This is much bigger than individual people, bigger than whichever unfortunate scapegoats a corporation might “cancel” to save its reputation and preserve the status quo. When Cartoon Network as a whole plays footsie with Shadman, when Hasbro turns a blind eye to brony toxicity, these actions have consequences. These companies — not at the showrunner level, but at the highest corporate and legal echelons — have allowed the problems in their communities to grow to this size. And only these companies can decide whether they want kids’ TV to be a safe space for kids again.

BrazyDay

Written by

BrazyDay

BrazyDay writes about the intersection of corporations, public life and the internet.

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