Drawing on Vulnerability

Escapism from reality through cartoons might be the best way to face truths

Netflix’s “The Midnight Gospel”

What is it that draws adults into the land of animation when it’s so affiliated with children? Adult cartoons fall into two categories: profoundly explicit and insecurely grasping for laughs, or uniquely touching while equally grasping for laughs. “Do you like adult cartoons?” seems a question with an air of hesitation or embarrassment. Asking a friend “Do you want to watch Will Arnett be a drunk, depressed and burnt-out actor from the 90s? Oh, and he’s a horse” is uncomfortable.

The element of comfort is a key player — a separation from our reality and the cartoon world. Take The Office, for instance. I know I am not alone in having difficulty watching Michael Scott behave the way he does throughout the series. I am far more comfortable witnessing BoJack Horseman ruin his relationships in his namesake’s show. By creating an entirely false environment that the audience is predisposed to assume has different cultural norms than our own reality, we are more at ease witnessing uncomfortable interactions and behaviors.

This separation from reality similarly lays the groundwork for a hyper-chasm of vulnerable situations. One cannot deny that television shows maintain heightened environments for emotionally charged interactions, but reality still bars plot lines from being constantly intense. Take, for example, the nature of The Midnight Gospel, in which the first episode two strangers discuss a near-death experience due to benzos and alcohol. Underlying the episode is a truly insightful conversation regarding humans’ relationships with drugs, all while the principal characters are battling zombies. Perhaps on a deeper level, the zombies symbolize the ever-present opportunity to give in to addictions. But on the surface, it provides an amusing activity to witness. The conversation between the principal characters would not have been as impactful had they been sitting in a room, casually sipping coffee. The visual escapism paired with harsh truths provides a comfortable environment to discuss uncomfortable topics.

From Netflix’s “BoJack Horseman”

Discomfort is rooted in vulnerability. Sure, we can endure vulnerability through live-action television, however, the characters are bound by their own narratives. I cannot relate to Don Draper’s unstable relationships with women in Mad Men. I cannot relate to being a forty-year-old man in the 60s working on Madison Avenue and all the other baggage associated with his character. While I too cannot relate to an animated alcoholic horse, the suspension of disbelief affords a more universal connection to cartoon characters.

Animation within itself demands the audience to be vulnerable and enter a world of possibilities. When we are so captivated by an unfamiliar environment, we disregard our own expectations of what “should” happen. The plot is entirely at the mercy of the creators, defying the limitations of reality. Within a fictional world, when plots touch upon something that is a universal truth, the power of that experience carries more weight. The creators, scriptwriters, and animators developed a world by their own hand and chose to force characters into certain situations.

This is perhaps why I so highly revere adult cartoons — the opportunities are endless. From limitless options in an entirely fabricated world, we produce stories that deeply tap into the human experience from nothingness. This is true for all television — an untold plot pulled from thin air- but the lack of social normalities or reality used as a crutch is absent in the animated world. The audience’s coercion into imagination equally subjects them to vulnerability. By pressing play, they are simultaneously signing an agreement to a playground of emotional exposure at the hand of the showrunners.

This is the same element that draws children and adults to animation. A departure from the cut and dry predictable nature of reality. There is no shame in this form of escapism, yet adults often feel apprehensive to disclose their adoration of adult cartoons. Why is it more acceptable for a middle-aged man to admit his habit of playing Call of Duty but not confess his secretive passion for binge-watching Rick and Morty? Perhaps it is the full suspension of disbelief or lack of control — but it is most certainly rooted in the desire to be vulnerable.

Jenny Holzer made the bold statement “it is in your self-interest to find a way to be very tender”. The people I know who love adult cartoons are often very emotionally stable and content with themselves, and I believe it is partially sourced from their willingness to be exposed to vulnerabilities. It’s easy to watch a tough scene and shove it to the back of your mind, but it’s another to let the emotions sit with you, to reflect upon discomfort, and to let it shape the way you interact with the world. It’s harder to escape the memory of watching an emotionally-charged animated scene when your imagination took part in breathing life into the storyline.

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change,” claimed Brené Brown. Therefore art touches us, music moves us, and stories change us, because vulnerability is articulated. Television in a broad sense, but adult cartoons specifically, provide a safe space unlike any other for the audience to take part in vulnerability. Learning to thrive in uncomfortable moments, suspend your beliefs, and experience new, unique stories — that’s why we love animation.

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