So lately I’ve been researching animation scriptwriting, as well as brushing up on comic scripting, and in my reading I came across an interesting tidbit. The author, Christy Marx, stated that in her time as a writer for several cartoons and comics, including Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Conan the Barbarian, she was limited in the visual content and dialogue she was able to put into her scripts because of certain verboten words and constraints on anything deemed as imitable behavior. There seems to be a major change in children’s media today in comparison to what I was exposed to as a child, especially in standards for what is acceptable as far as violence and language. So it left me to wonder, is the world really that desensitized by the media now?
In the late 80s into the 90s (I know I am dating myself), it was only permissible to show more passive violence in children’s cartoons. As Marx pointed out in the book Writing for Comics, Animation and Games, and as I’ve observed myself, with the exception of pure comedies such as Looney Tunes, where it is acceptable for characters like Daffy Duck to be sliced, diced, crushed, or blown up because it was obvious fantasy violence, certain things cannot be depicted that children may attempt at home.
For example, the direct use of fire on characters of action shows was prohibited to prevent kids from trying to ignite themselves like the Human Torch, and the Ninja Turtles were not allowed to directly use their weapons against enemies, but could only use their ninja tools on objects to indirectly attack their opponents, such as slicing a rope to cause an object to fall on them. Marx also indicates that there was once an “everyone makes it out alive” rule, stating that kids’ shows had to clearly show that both the heroes and villains made it out alive, whatever circumstances they were in.
However, most action shows aimed at children nowadays seem to favor darker tones than what was permissible before and creators are able to push more boundaries, regardless of their audience. For example, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles I see now on television have greatly distanced themselves from the more satirical, campy cartoon I saw as a kid, even though it still maintains the same spirit of the original heroes in a half-shell. Just in the last season finale, they even went as far as showing the Shredder visibly stab Splinter through the back, without blood of course, but clearly dealing a fatal blow with his blades. Other shows, such Ben 10 (which I greatly miss) and Avatar, also showed characters being blown up, crushed, shot, burned, etc., but apparently it is acceptable to do so as long as blood and gore are not present.
There is also a distinguishable difference in the approach to material between DC and Marvel. Most of Marvel’s properties adopt the more family-friendly approach in both the animated and live-action features, while DC seems to prefer the more gritty and violent stories, even in their regularly released animated movies. Only the TV series for these two seem to offer a reversal, as DC’s fantasy shows like Supergirl and The Flash and the highly successful Teen Titans Go! keep a lighter tone while Marvel’s Daredevil and Jessica Jones take their universe to a whole new shade of black.
But staying on the cartoons, apparently more violence coupled with adult-themed stories and language are favored for all ages now. Even the taboo words I mentioned earlier, words such as “idiot”, “kill”, “moron”, “die”, are more acceptable in shows for younger viewers. Despite the ratings, it seems like the rules for “age-appropriate television” have been thrown out. The only distinguishing line comes down to the use of blood and/or profanity now. Personally, I don’t mind the change since I grew up watching pretty much everything I could get on the basic seven or so channels I had available to me as a kid, and I can honestly say that anything you see in a cartoon, no matter how violent, usually pales in comparison to what the news shows us on a daily basis. Maybe today’s kids are far more desensitized to violence, which is why more violence is acceptable. And for people who do need more age-appropriate programming for the kids, PBS still seems to be the safest bet.