what a cartoon has to do with cartoon dads

By Samantha Graf

Here ya go, little man, I'm a better kind of dad
We’ve all seen him, somewhere between 25 and 35, into comic books, might still be skateboarding and curates his kid’s clothes with an eye towards his own deification. And you’re thinking why is this guy living at a coffee shop? And why isn’t his kid in school? And why is he affecting the spiritual cool of Bono serenading third world refugees? So, let’s start with who these supposed men are and why they seem to behave like cartoon characters. They are the generation that grew up watching the cartoons of the 90’s -- Ren and Stimpy, Rocko’s Modern Life, Sailor Moon -- and now they’re all grown up, procreating and in need of their own culture, or to be more accurate, a new cartoon for their new lives.

With Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, a new and updated version of these early 90’s cartoons has come to life. It’s a show that panders to and exploits these new daddy’s dreams of the cool life. But how did this happen? Who did this? Adventure Time is the product of 32 year old Pendleton Ward who is quick to point out his own “cool” inadequacies: ”I was an idiot…I was fat and I ate a lot of pizza and I played Diablo.” And if that isn’t enough: “As a small chubby nerd, it was my entire life, video games, comics and cartoons. That was all that I knew. So yeah, they were super important to me because that was my childhood. I lived in that world.”’ So why would a group of self-proclaimed uber cool fathers fall in love with a nerd’s fever dream of a show? And to top it off how did that show somehow come to be the Cartoon Network’s most popular and mainstream cartoon?

Seems like a nice man
Hidden under the seemingly off the grid counter culture magic of Adventure Time is a formula of deception. It panders to the perpetually unimpressed hipster, rubs his slightly distended belly and tells him, “it’s okay, dude, you can be a cool daddy, just stay young, be free and for God’s sake don’t work—at anything.” Ward’s seemingly subversive cartoon is actually a celebration of the hipster’s belief that he is by his very nature a rebel and a star. In fact, one of the great hipster beliefs and one that Ward supports is that since you already are perfect there’s no need to change, grow or do anything close to work.

Ward’s main character Jake exemplifies everything the hipster dad wants to be and hopes to get away with—not working, not thinking, not conforming (societal norms are ridiculous and bourgeois) and being super creative and talented without actually, you know, working at it. That Jake is a 28-year old dog living with his 12-year old human brother Finn makes the relationship even chummier. Adventure Time understands that father and son is not cool (too capital p Patriarchal) and so it reimagines the relationship as a couple of bros enjoying inter-species downtime while kicking back some home-brewed artisanal beer. It makes you yearn for Father Knows Best.

It makes you yearn for a Dad without a tattoo and a band
In one of the first episodes, “Business Time,” Jake forces his lazy lifestyle onto Finn, turning an innocent and good person into just another lazy slob. Jake is always eating, playing video games, sleeping or giving out bad advice and does nothing that could be remotely called productive—he makes those dads in the caf├ęs seem like mad, worker bees by comparison. Although he is the older and presumably the more responsible brother he often loses Finn, gives him bad advice or leaves Finn to fight monsters alone. Despite this egregious behavior, it never results in negative consequences. Why? The adults watching his show are too cool to change, too hip to adjust their pre-adolescent lifestyle to something as deflating as parenthood. But since they did have a child by mistake or vanity, they need to be reassured that a combination of cool and sloth is an acceptable form of parenting, something that Ward is all too happy to supply.

Ha, ha, ha, isn't bad behavior funny?
Just as Adventure Time reaches out to this demographic of PBR drinking, Vans wearing adults by making there laid back lifestyle acceptable; it also massages their sense of superiority by lacing the show with innumerable double entendres. Of course, double entendres appeal to every boy hipster’s belief that double meanings are the epitome of intelligence. For every Adventure Time pun, the hipster dad can play both the inside man (he understood the joke) and the teacher (this is what it really means, little man), two roles daddy hipsters love to play. Yes, these guys are measuring themselves by their ability to recognize puns that five year olds can’t.

Throughout the series, Jake often refers to a book by J.T Doggzone called Mind Games, which is essentially a book about how to pick up women. It takes a special kind of narcissism to feel superior to a child for not getting a reference to a book about seducing women and then to think that seducing women is even a possibility for a pot bellied thirty-five year old in skater shorts and a five-year old mini-him in tow. It’s the kind of perpetually self-indulgent childlike behavior Adventure Time promotes: the desire to be desired, the desire to be thought perfect and the desire to lord it over everyone not in the know. It’s sad that Ward’s childhood fantasy of cool should give solace to those who wouldn’t pay attention to him when he was a fat, zit ridden adolescent. But then isn’t that the definition of Stockholm syndrome?

Found on Google under "self-righteous hipster boy"
But who am I to judge when I’ve seen every episode of the show since it’s debut in 2010. I guess it takes a self-righteous hipster girl to judge a self-righteous hipster boy. And in a world where everything is consumed and absorbed into the mainstream as soon as it’s conceived, it’s hard for anything to be real anymore, let alone subversive. So what does this mean for Adventure Time? Because of its obvious references to hipster culture Adventure Time walks a fine line between blatant mockery and slavish obedience to a corrupt idea of cool. It might be possible that Ward is in fact getting revenge on his childhood bullies by creating a show that secretly mocks their entire lifestyle. Still, “panders” is the word that seems most appropriate.

©Samantha Graf and the CCA Arts Review

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