Comforting cartoons

The adventures of these dynamic duos are worth watching at any age. Graphic by Piper Bailey


Many students appreciate the bliss of turning on a favorite childhood cartoon after a long day. The warm glow of the TV can fill the room with nostalgia. Suddenly, it does not seem like it was so long ago that students were sitting on the couch in the mid-2000s, eating an after-school snack and watching Nickelodeon

Fictional characters have the potential to become more than entertainment as students return to them over the years. They become potent figures that students can identify with at many different stages in life. Often, the most beloved childhood cartoons are the ones with multiple layers that become richer as students return to them.

Junior political science major Kate Rashevich is an avid fan of SpongeBob SquarePants”. One of her earliest memories is watching an episode on her grandma’s couch, and over the years she has continued to share the show with her family. Rashevich believes part of “SpongeBob’s” staying power comes from the depth and variety of the relationships between characters in it. 

“Patrick is [Spongebob’s] best friend,” Rashevich said. “That’s the kind of healthy relationship you want in your life. You want someone who’s going to be stupid with you, who’s going to cry with you, who’s pretty much going to love you despite everything else.” 

SpongeBob and Patrick’s relationship feels so genuine because they face real problems in each episode. The circumstances of their arguments and adventures may be fanciful, but the core reasons behind them are things students face every day. The pair navigate experiences such as jealousy over new friendships and failure to communicate their expectations for each other. People at any stage of life deal with these social struggles and can project their own experiences onto the characters. 

“SpongeBob” also portrays rockier relationships. For what is ostensibly a children’s show, it does not shy away from showing the ugly side of characters. Squidward is driven by envy and a lack of satisfaction in his own life, while Mr. Krabs embraces blind greed. Despite this, SpongeBob never stops believing in their inherent good. He almost always bases his decisions from a place of care for his friends, even if the way he shows it can be misguided. This optimism is reassuring in an adult world that can be gleefully pessimistic and full of media about antiheroes

“Looking back on cartoons from when I was a kid has taught me so many new lessons as an adult,” Rashevich said. “Sometimes I need that little reminder that I have good people around me. There’s a lot of different people, but all of those people around me make me who I am and they’re there to support me.” 

That reminder is just as valuable today as it was 10 years ago. Rashevich continues to make new memories watching “SpongeBob” and other cartoons with her family, even as she cherishes the old ones. The show’s consistent themes have become part of the language that they share. 

Other shows gain staying power because their characters grow with the viewer, as opposed to SpongeBob’s lovable but relatively unchanging personality. Viewers are able to see their own changing selves reflecting back to them. 

This was the case with sophomore biology major Kate Jameson’s experience watching “Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu”, a Lego cartoon set in a mythical land where a team of ninjas must learn to master the elemental arts in order to stop an ancient evil overlord. Jameson related to the oddball ninja, Zane, when they first watched the show. 

“Having someone you can relate to and see yourself in in shows and media can be really important, especially if it’s traits that maybe you don’t like about yourself or that you’re still figuring out how to understand,” Jameson said. “Seeing someone else with those traits just existing gives you permission to be yourself.” 

There is a strong pressure to conform to dominant societal expectations in one’s teenage years, when people are still figuring out how to define themselves. American culture tends to pigeonhole people and place them into specific categories, which can stifle self-exploration. Cartoons that portray characters with a wide variety of traits play a vital role in validating viewers’ own experiences. If a viewer can appreciate their identity in that character, they may be able to start accepting it in their own self. 

Jameson rewatched “Ninjago” in its entirety during the COVID-19 quarantine and discovered that their relationship with the show had changed. They related to a different character rather than Zane, which served as an opportunity for them to reflect on how they’ve grown. The same story resonated in new ways given Jameson’s increased experience in the world. This quality is a hallmark of any lasting piece of art, from albums to classical literature. 

Margaret Smith, a sophomore middle/secondary English education and English double major, also appreciates characters who grow with the viewer. One of her favorite shows is “Adventure Time”, where a 12-year-old boy named Finn goes on surreal adventures with his companion Jake the Dog. Throughout the course of the show, Finn faces danger and heartbreak while going through his teenage years. 

“[Finn] really resonated with me and the weird feelings I was experiencing as a 13 year old,” Smith said. “[The characters] grow in such a natural, authentic way.” 

The fun, whimsical nature of many cartoons allows them to explore topics that can be hard to broach. Cartoons can shade the main conflicts of their show with subplots that touch on crucial questions about the human condition. 

In this way, shows like “Adventure Time” not only hold up to a second viewing, but encourage it. Viewers would miss out on a significant part of the show’s meaning if they only watched it as a teenager. Adult viewers can appreciate how the show guided them as teenagers while picking up on overarching philosophical themes. 

Another benefit of rewatching cartoons is that they can be shared with friends, as Jameson found with “Gravity Falls”. The show is about the magical adventures of two twins who spend the summer with their great-uncle and find that the town of Gravity Falls is not all that it seems. 

“I would stream Gravity Falls [with my partner] through Discord,” Jameson said. “It was cool watching them experience it for the first time. I got to see the joy that it inspired in someone else.” 

Sharing a beloved show with a loved one is equivalent to sharing part of one’s self and one’s childhood. This can lead to new understandings of each other and even fresh perspectives on the show itself as the first-time viewer shares their own theories. Even a show whose every line a viewer knows by heart can become fresh again when seen through someone else’s eyes. 


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