Cartoon men help shape our images of ourselves as real, live men, Justin Cascio writes.
Our earliest lessons are buried deepest. I can still sing jingles for products that are no longer for sale, because I ingested them repeatedly, sandwiched between Saturday morning cartoons, while downing bowlfuls of Count Chocula breakfast cereal in front of the TV. Smurfs, with their female-as-oddity approach to the sexes. Bugs Bunny: my first trickster, first adult role model, first drag queen, all rolled into one. When the cartoons ended, I watched wrestling. On weekday afternoons, there was a more limited run of juvenile fantasy. I liked Thundercats, blithely assumed there was one for everybody, overlooking that no one would identify with the wingman, or the nerdy friend, or the comic relief, unless they had to. We’re all supposed to want to be the alpha cat.
Whether this means anything to you depends on whether you’re close enough to me in age, were raised with a TV, in the U.S., and watched cartoons at all. Which images from after school and Saturday mornings beckoned to you, suggesting a life after sitting on your parents’ shag rug, much too close to the console’s vision-killing rays?
As a kid, I liked chocolate best, and cherry if chocolate wasn’t an option. Count Chocula is chocolate-flavored cereal with chocolate chalk-flavored marshmallows. I would soak the marshmallows in the milk, eat around them until the end, so they were soft and easy to take. It didn’t matter that I was eating the same thing, in the end. What sick pictures of life after launch did I ingest with my dose of vitamins and minerals, artificial colors and flavors?
In the day, I found male action figures, whether they were live-action, molded plastic, or animated, creepy looking. Batman and Robin wore tights and giant grampy-pants over them. What was up with that? He-Man was the worst. He wore a skirt and a pageboy haircut, and he played it straight: I wasn’t supposed to think he looked ridiculous, but I did. I thought, This is my fantasy masculine ideal? Give me a break. Give this guy a mullet, sprayed up like David Lee Roth’s. Put Batman and Robin into the wrestling ring with the other campy tights-wearers. I didn’t even know about camp, yet.
Pee-Wee Herman almost missed me. I was a little old for his playhouse, and in a rare reversal of the usual order, assumed my younger sister’s castoff Pee-Wee T-shirt and wore it all through high school. When we were younger, my friend and I would forcibly “marry” my little sister to her little brother. Her idea: I went along. Then came Pee-Wee. How could I ever see these heteronormative games the same way again, after Pee-Wee and Miss Yvonne?
I was still a few years away from putting posters of Boy George and The Cure’s Robert Smith on my walls. I was many more from realizing how these images were all connected, and where I would follow those men into the world.