In Depth

The dark side of cartoons

Next time when your child nags, cries or fights for staying glued to a cartoon show, pause and ponder: How’s that moving picture influencing your child’s behaviour? Because not everything they show in the name of animation is healthy for your child’s mind and manners.  

A couple of weeks back, I was seated in a public bus, mulling over the great possibilities of turning out as the long lost daughter of a millionaire which would allow me to freely divulge in shopping sprees, when the bus stopped to let in passengers and a scene out of the corner of my eye grabbed my attention.

A grandmother with her grandson were chatting animatedly with a shopkeeper when suddenly, the grandson jumped high enough to grab the dupatta she had wrapped around her head and shouted ‘Khusath Budhiya’ which translates into ‘you old hag’. The grandmother shrieked and caught ahold of the dupatta, evidently embarrassed the grandson would do such a thing in front of the shopkeeper.

The interesting thing was, as the bus rolled out of sight and I caught a lasting glimpse, that both of the adults merely exclaimed their surprise at his antic and laughed heartily, with a slight twinge of fondness and pride.

A reaction I would’ve least expected.

I ruled it out later, however, as a possible consequence of the environment and the people the child was associated to, which led him to be so confidently rude.

A few days later, however, a cousin of mine visited the house with her seven-year-old daughter in tow, the latter’s eyes glued at the screen of the tablet, which showed moving images of Chota Bheem and his gang of friends out to rid the village of evil dacoits. He popped a laddoo in his mouth and beat the villains in quick succession, earning praise from the elders and from the King himself.

“Ever since she’s learnt how to access YouTube,” my cousin groaned, “it’s been a nightmare. All she wants during breakfast, lunch and dinner are laddoos!”

The daughter’s ears perked up upon hearing the name of the desi sweet and she looked at me in expectation.

It was at that moment that it became absolutely clear. A hypothesis, which I would divulge into for the next few days, formed inside my head.

Objective: To prove that cartoons, a common medium of entertainment among children, had successfully imparted their questionable ideals into naïve, innocent and acceptable minds that lacked critical thinking.

Method: Sifting through YouTube certified cartoon channels, TV and cartoon analysis websites to pinpoint the exact moment where their message twisted or subtly deformed.

What struck me as appalling was how easily my hypothesis proved to be correct, and how difficult it was to actually disprove it. There seemed to be a number of examples that showcased questionable behaviour under the guise of it merely being a cartoon.

Exhibit A: The Adventures of Motu Patlu

 

Plot: Motu Patlu, as the name has been so cleverly put, revolves around the misadventures of two best friends, Motu and Patlu, in name and in literal meaning, in Furifuri Nagar. The duo finds themselves entangled within obstacles, usually of their own making, sometimes accompanied by their friends who help them out of it.

Sometimes the episodes include the local mafia boss, John and his two henchmen, who wishes to exude dominance over the Nagar but fails miserably due to the duo’s ‘knack for luck’.

Points of concern: Two unemployed men with lots of free time indulging in stupid plot scenarios that provide no moral output or lesson for the child gleefully watching them.

Motu seems to be able to defeat the goons only when he eats Samosas, creating a dangerous tendency in the child of indulging in junk food, misunderstanding it for providing strength and sharpness.

John and his henchmen use physical force and tactics to assert themselves. His henchmen blindly follow orders, without reflecting on the situation or the context. Although seemingly casual and justified, this behaviour can later be perpetuated into bullying others for asserting dominance and control, both of which can be harmful for the child’s development.

As Emily Ashby reviews in Common Sense Media, “Motu Patlu isn’t a series that will impress upon kids much that’s positive. Most of the characters use violence on some level to vent anger or to get their way, and pranks and jokes at the expense of one or more of them are common. More than the obvious physicality of their interactions, there’s a pervasive theme of revenge that exists among the characters. When one person is wronged, he looks for a way to even the score rather than use gentler tactics like communication to reach a solution. It makes for some funny moments, but it also sends questionable messages about conflict resolution and interpersonal skills.”

There has been a stable trend among cartoons to ‘defy’ or even deny the logic of the real world, aiming to attract the mind of a child due to the similarity, since during the growing years, teaching logic and rationality to a child does little help at all.

Cartoons are able to enter the child’s mind where the adult cannot, because of its relatable, bright and exciting content, often referred to as ‘cartoon logic’. Cartoon logic, at times, even melts the critical eye of the adult, because it comes across as innocent, ‘cute’ and less suspicious. Here are some instances.

The cartoon characters are portrayed to be soft, charismatic, funny, cute and kind-traits which automatically mute the alarm bells ringing in one’s head. As interestingly pointed out by Josh Clark in an essay titled, “Why Babies and Other Things are Cute, Explained”, a Nazi psychologist, Konrad Lorenz studied the characteristics which made something ‘cute’: having a large, rounded head; large eyes; rounded, protruding cheeks; rounded body shape and soft, elastic body surfaces.

These characteristics were mapped by an evolutionary biologist in Mickey Mouse, a popular Disney character, who goes ‘from a hard-nosed, flinty-eyed adult mouse who’s something of a jerk into a soft, big-eyed cute mascot beloved by all’. Josh further notes that every other animator ‘who has ever created a sympathetic character has drawn its eyes big and low on its face’.

 

Exhibit B: Chhota Bheem

Plot: The cartoon series revolves around the adventures of an exceptionally strong and fit child, Chhota Bheem and his friends in the village of Dholakpur. Most of the time, Bheem is involved in protecting the King and his family from evil forces that reign supreme within and otherwise. There are also episodes where he resolves fights between his friends and escapes traps laid by his enemies.

Points of concern: Surprisingly, netizens had nothing but praise for the show-mainly because it imparts traditional Indian values depleting rapidly like respecting one’s elders, being a good child, being kind to strangers, etc. It has struck a chord with the adults especially, as Bheem is the epitome of a good kid and does his best to clear out misunderstandings, all the while protecting his village.

In their eyes, he is a ‘mature’ character, who has a lot to impart to children without their intervention.

However, in a study titled, “A Study on Impact of ‘Chota Bheem’ On Children’s Social Behavior”, the researcher observed a group of six children during the airing of 25 episodes and interviewed parents and the teachers on the learned behaviour which could be attributed to the show. The researcher revealed in his observations that the most liked character was Bheem and the most disliked character emerged to be Kaalia. When asked about the cause behind the choice, the children stated that Bheem had ‘a funny look’. He was strong, mischievous and naughty; he had cute eyes and a ‘smart look’. The reasons for not liking Kaalia were because he had a ‘fatty look’ and an ‘aggressive nature’.

“In his case, the top common reason for not liking him was because of ‘fat’, having bald hair followed by his dressing style,” the researcher noted.

Now, wait a minute there. Here’s a point of concern. Not liking someone because they’re fat and aggressive? Although Kaalia impeccably pulls off the typical bully role which could be merged in a contemporary middle school setting, its worrisome to notice the subtle undertones of body-shaming within children.

Guaranteed, a bully is a bully nonetheless. But is it justified to make fun of his body because he’s mean and rude? Doesn’t that defeat the actual purpose of discrediting bullying? Bheem, in many instances, along with his friends, laughs at Kaalia’s antics. Why? Well, because it’s Kaalia, and everybody hates Kaalia. Since everybody hates him, it’s okay to dislike him.

Is that really what children should be taught?

The study further notes that the influence of Chota Bheem over the children led them to have certain preferences towards products that had his face plastered in them. This led parents to complain that the child had become addicted towards the products-mostly fruit drinks, bags and accessories. What was more troubling was how the child, in his desire to buy the product, would list the names of his friends who brought it, thus tying in another topic into the loop namely, peer pressure.

The participant parents also observed that there was a drastic change in behavioural traits in children.

“From the words of kid’s parents, it is clear that these kids have learnt different forms of violence from this cartoon show,” the study concluded. “Too much fight with the evil powers and wild animals brings the kids to the world of violence and they start applying these on their friends and family members. A school teacher when asked about kids behaviors regarding violence and physical actions, commented that some students are always picking up fights in the class, one of the reasons behind this aggressive behaviour could be that they are too much influenced by cartoons like Chota Bheem or other programmes which parents without any concern let them watch in  excess.”

And as always, the ever-present pop-laddoo-in-mouth-and-beat-bad-guys-scene which repeats over and over.

“Kids said that they prefer to have laddoo everyday to be as powerful and strong as Bheem. So, in a way the eating habits of many kids are also affected by this cartoon series. Bheem’s eating habits are definitely not a path for kids to imbibe.”

Exhibit C: Bandbudh aur Budbak

Plot: The story revolves around two ten-year-old boys, Badrinath and Budhadeb, who are ‘dim-witted’ and have no interest in academics at all. They enjoy creating trouble, playing tricks and fooling teachers. They manage to escape every problem they plunge into through pure luck or once again, ‘an irrational argument’.

Points of concern: The summary itself is deeply disturbing. How often the concept of irrationality is used to promote ‘fun’, entertainment and hilarity is starkly described in this series. What is even more shocking is the blatant stereotyping of the character’s dialect and personalities based on the region, they hail from. Runa Mukherjee Parikh aptly describes the horror in her article in The Quint, “The second and more problematic part of the show is the stereotyping; the class teacher Dubey Sir is a gruff Bihari, the principal, Rathi Sir is a Haryanvi and one of the female teachers is a Bengali and they all have one thing in common – they speak a horrible version of Hindi with an over-the-top regional accent influenced by Bollywood sidekicks. Even the school guard is a ‘typical’ Marathi.”

“I cannot begin to explain all the wrong signals it sends to me as a parent. A child will pick up on how to behave in school – which here means skipping classes, getting punished and slighting teachers. He will understand it is okay to deliberately not take an interest in academia. He will then learn about the various communities of the vibrant country he’s been born into, this way – Biharis are rough, pan chewing, obese people who speak in pathetic Hindi, Bengalis wear white sarees with red borders everywhere they go and say ‘oori baba’ as a habit and the Haryanvis, even after becoming principals of schools, talk as if they have brought their cattle to graze on a field.”

In most of the shows, the two of them often pick on their classmate who has a ‘lisp’, which makes it all the more questionable. To top it off, the classmate with the lisp is seen as a bully and as someone who hates their guts (so seeking revenge isn’t a bad thing after all, right? Yay!).

There are instances where they solely pick on him because they’re ‘bored’ or have nothing else to do. The airing minutes focus on their one punch-lines and lame comebacks which apparently leave the teachers enraged, increasing the coolness factor for the child watching them.

Ultimately, instead of passing a message that can motivate less intelligent children to work hard and not lose hope, they seduce them to resign within the given brain faculties, and to ‘not work too hard’, since making fun of people and disrupting the environment can ultimately lead one to live a better life altogether.

Counterattack: But the school education system is a prison for children and it doesn’t really teach them anything except to be mass-produced machines for a capitalist society. The cartoons are just teaching them how to have fun in such a stressful environment.

Reply: Granted, a school is not the best system to enroll oneself in and hope it makes one a better human being. However, it also doesn’t justify honing traits that ultimately lead to prejudice and discrimination towards other races or communities. Having fun is okay, but not at the expense of hurting people or making them a spectacle of ridicule and racism. The system is broken, but that isn’t an excuse to break basic human traits anyone should possess.

If we’re aiming at leaving a legacy for the future generations to come, it should consist of tolerance, hope and kindness. Much like the characters in cartoons, the children of tomorrow will grow up to either be Chhota Bheems, Motus, Patlus, Badrinaths and Budhadebs.

The children should not be kept at the mercy of technology, but rather at the threshold of understanding actions and consequences. The need of the hour is to truly educate the young the moment they come back from school because we all know we can’t control the rest of the world, but we can control how our child sees it.

 

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