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WHO WE ARE: How Bugs, Spongebob, and Batman prepare our kids for the real world

Date
Diana Prince

Diana Prince

Well, that’s a relief. It seems the answer to the question “What’s the matter with kids today?” is “Nothing much”. And the answer to “Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way?” is “They are” -- at least in their cultural tastes.

Based on recent media reportage, you could be forgiven for assuming half of Australians under the age of 13 are obese slugs permanently attached to their games machines while the other half are hyperactive anorexics who need to be drugged to stay focussed on any subject for more than 15 seconds.

Tweety may look innocent, but he (or she) is an evil little bastard. 

A survey just reported by Roy Morgan Research suggests otherwise. Morgan asked 3,447 children aged between 6 and 13 to name their favourite superheroes, cartoon characters and computer games. Boys most admired Batman, Spider Man, Superman, Spongebob Squarepants, Bugs Bunny and Ben 10. Girls most admired Wonder Woman, Batman, Superman, Spongebob Squarepants, Bugs Bunny, and Tweety. In games, boys and girls agreed on SuperMario, Wii and Call of Duty.

Is Tweety male or female?

Is Tweety male or female? Photo: AFP

John La Rosa, Morgan’s Industry Director for Agencies, interpreted these findings in somewhat cynical terms: “As marketers we have a tendency to think of kids as fickle and that there is always some new great thing taking up their attention. In truth we are finding that the old favourites continue to endure. In fact, the only relative newcomer to the Favourites list is Ben 10, who first hit screens in 2007. This is good news for marketers, who can be reassured that investing in the right brand association can mean longevity, not just a fad.”

He seems to be saying that the advertising industry can comfortably continue to use old imagery to manipulate young consumers. But I’m not sure this is correct. The choices of Generation Next suggest they’re no suckers.

The name least familiar to adults, Ben 10, is a series of cartoons, games and toys about a boy who discovers a gadget (the Omnitrix) which lets him change into alien characters with various evil-defeating powers. It’s a bit like Transformers, but more sophisticated, with a satirical edge about celebrity worship. The same benign scepticism and enthusiastic idealism empowers Spongebob Squarepants.

SpongeBob SquarePants

SpongeBob SquarePants

After that, two crucial insights emerge from the under 13 preference lists:

1. The age-old battle between Disney and Warner Bros has been won. Note who is missing from the list: Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Instead, the kids go for Bugs Bunny and Tweety. It’s the triumph of verbal smartness over physical cuteness.

Disney created one-dimensional stereotypes. Warner created complex individuals. When Leon Schlesinger set up a cartoon studio for Warner Bros in the 1930s, he promised: “Disney can make the chicken salad. I wanna make chicken shit.”

The top writer for Warner Bros, Chuck Jones, offered this analysis of his characters: “Elmer Fudd never knows what’s going on; Bugs always knows what’s going on and is in control of events; Daffy is bright enough to understand how to be in control, but he never quite makes it. Both Bugs and Daffy are talkers, but Daffy talks too much. Bugs stands back from a situation, analyses it and makes his move. Daffy becomes emotionally involved, loses his distance and blows it.”

Tweety may look innocent, but he (or she) is an evil little bastard. His (or her) most famous statement , “I tawt I taw a putty tat”, disguises his (or her) real nature. My favourite Tweety line came as an aside when Sylvester the cat was claiming to have no interest in eating birds: “Oooh, what a hypotwit.” This is not the vocabulary of a dumb animal. In his (or her) treatment of Sylvester, Tweety provides a perfect role model for kids dealing with attempted ambush by marketers.

2. Girl power transcends the decades. Wonder Woman was created in the early 1940s by a psychologist named William Marston (also the inventor of the lie detector test).

He was disturbed by the passive image of women portrayed in the popular culture of the time, and wrote: “Not even girls want to be girls as long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength and power. Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weakness. The obvious remedy is to create a feminine character with all the strength of Superman plus all the allure of a good and beautiful woman.”

And 70 years later, WW still tops the list of girls’ heroes.

Kids who grow up appreciating Ben 10, Spongebob Squarepants, Wonder Woman and Bugs Bunny are ready for every sales trick the marketers can throw at them. Why can’t they be like we were? Relax, they’re even better.

Go to Comments to discuss what our heroes reveal about us.

You have just read the Who We Are column, by David Dale. It appears in printed form every Sunday in The Sun-Herald, and also as a blog on this website, where it welcomes your comments. David Dale teaches communications at UTS, Sydney. He is the author of The Little Book of Australia -- A snapshot of who we are (Allen and Unwin). For daily updates on Australian attitudes, bookmark The Tribal Mind.

4 comments so far

  • I liked Bugs Bunny, but my favourite was always poor Sylvester, eternally hopeful, innocently devious, so gauche that his kitten wore a paper bag over his head when with his father. My female heroes were mainly out of books, Alice, Dorothy, Maria Merryweather, Tabitha Silver - all strong, independent, free-thinking kids who could cope with anything from a grumpy caterpillar to an iconic and ageless lion and were never thrown by the impossibly weird situations they found themselves in but reacted with grace, courage and logic.

    Commenter
    Rangdalion
    Date and time
    December 02, 2012, 9:52AM
    • Ben 10 fan here. The creators have a clever popular culture eye, shoehorning in Dr Who,
      Terminator and Scientology into nice little subversive twists. The first series with little 10yo Ben
      is a bit childish, but watchable. The older, 15yo Ben 10 of the second series has more subversive story lines and characters, some good jokes that work at the adult level and it gets progressively darker, the characters even growing up a bit. Unfortunately the creator of that died recently and Ben 10 has been rebooted with a whole new look and although the characters
      are much the same, we are back to the cartoony look and storylines, with lots of products. There's some good animated drama out there now - marvel's animated stuff especially. Much more accessible than anime and storylines that make much "adult" TV cringeworthy....

      Commenter
      Virag0
      Location
      Penrith, NSW
      Date and time
      December 02, 2012, 2:25PM
      • Still watching Tom and Jerry. What a duo. Its a mix of Warner and Disney and has them rolling in the aisles in Asia. Im surprised mr bean didnt rate.

        Commenter
        peter
        Location
        vietnam
        Date and time
        December 02, 2012, 11:13PM
        • I obviously haven't been paying Ben 10 enough attention, because I thought it was fairly crap and all about the toys.

          And the reason that Wonder Woman is still top is that there are very few other female action heroes out there with any sort of profile. We could do with more lead female characters, and more male sidekicks. Buffy? She rocks, but she's ~15 years old now and isn't suitable, IMO, for children. Black Widow? She certainly wasn't a lead in "The Avengers", although she was excellent. Batgirl? Supergirl? What's with the "girl", and they're more sidekick/spinoffs, IMO. Lara Croft? Again, some years old now. Harley Quinn? She'd be nothing without the Joker.

          C'mon people, prove me wrong here, I need to know more prominent female action heroes! My daughter went dressed as Bellatrix Lestrange for Halloween, which cracked me up, but I don't particularly want that psycho as a role model. (Hey, I suggested Hermione - repeatedly - but she can be very, very stubborn.)

          Back to WB/Disney: I have a soft spot for Foghorn Leghorn. Couldn't stand him as a kid, now he cracks me up. And do kids see any Mickey Mouse cartoons any more? Isn't he just a corporate shill now?

          Commenter
          tqd
          Date and time
          December 03, 2012, 9:34AM

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