By Domi Watkins
As a child who grew up in the ‘90s, Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, and Nickelodeon were almost always on my television screen 24/7. Some of my greatest memories were spent lounging on the couch on a Saturday morning with a bowl of cereal in my hand as I watched marathons of all my favorite shows. But a lot has changed over the years for television programming, including themes presented to younger audiences now that weren’t present back in the day.
We all remember the three perfect little girls: Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup from The Powerpuff Girls. Its debut on November 18, 1998 showcased the creative mind of Craig McCracken to the world and helped bring prominence to Cartoon Network’s with its original programming. Every episode was jam-packed with explosive scenes of the pintsized superheroines taking down the forces of evil like Mojo Jojo, Fuzzy Lumpkins and the Ganggreen Gang. In addition to saving the world before bedtime, The Powerpuff Girls dealt with normal issues that young children face, such as sibling rivalries, going to school or dependence on a security blanket. The Powerpuff Girls were truly sugar, spice and everything nice.
Fun fact: My brother nicknamed me Bubbles because she was my favorite Powerpuff girl growing up!
Rugrats reminds viewers of the joy in using imaginative power and making time to explore a world much bigger then themselves. The Csupo-Klakpy Nicktoon followed an adventurous group of toddlers, led by Tommy Pickles, a courageous one-year-old with a screwdriver in his diaper and a knack for getting into trouble. He carries out his endeavors with his close friends, Chuckie, Phil, Lil and later his baby brother Dil and Chuckie’s step-sister Kimi. And who could forget his spoiled brat cousin Angelica who always wanted to ruin their run and had an obsession with cookies. There’s a lot to love about Rugrats, from its floor-level baby perspective cinematography to the adorable silly ways the kids occasionally mispronounced words in the middle of touching scenes.
The day an indestructible alien experiment crash-landed onto Earth is a moment Disney fans, including myself, will never forget. Lilo & Stitch: The Series recounts the duo’s efforts to collect the rest of Dr. Jumba Jookiba’s missing experiments, help them assimilate into their culture and find them a place where they belong. The sloid chemistry between Lilo and Stitch, whether they were bickering like siblings or embracing each other as devoted companions, won me over in a heartbeat. The series surprised viewers with their creative designs whenever an experiment’s primary function was revealed and kept them laughing whenever the blundering Gantu failed to capture any experiments. It was incredible to watch Disney work its magic in my heart and teach me the importance of creating an inclusive community, one that willingly invites others into my ohana.
An animated television series today that shares a similar universe where Earth is in need of defense is a personal favorite of mine, Steven Universe. The titular character is a young boy who lives in the fictional town of Beach City with the Crystal Gems (Garnet, Pearl, and Amethyst), magical alien warriors who project feminine humanoid forms from gemstones that are the core of their being. Steven is a half-Gem and goes on adventures with his friends while also helping the Gems protect the world from their own kind. Rebecca Sugar developed the series while working as a writer and storyboard artist on Adventure Time, and it premiered on November 4, 2013 as Cartoon Network’s first animated series to be solely created by a woman.
Viewers that watch this show will agree with me that one of its driving forces is its affirming representation of queer themes, such as the androgynous fusion Stevonnie and the openly romantic relationship between the Gems Ruby and Sapphire. Another important aspect is the remarkably strong female presence in a series about a boy (all major characters except for Steven and his father Greg identify as female). As an avid fan of the show since episode one, I love that Steven Universe is not afraid to unabashedly show younger audiences positive representation of LGBT relationships and thank Sugar for giving queer youth a television series that has endearing characters they can identify with on the prospect of love.
Remember that time you fought with your older brother over the remote, or that one time your younger sister ate the last cookie you were saving in the cookie jar? Those incidents probably irritated you but imagine if you had 10 sisters like Lincoln Loud from Nickelodeon’s The Loud House. The series chronicles the chaotic life of the young 10-year-old-boy who informs the audience how he survives the challenges of living in a large family. Issues such as sibling rivalry are evident but also serve as the heart of the show’s laughs, and there is always some kind of personality conflict or other bickering at play. Each sister has a distinct persona that is identifiable through their interactions with their only brother and among the sisters themselves. Parents are absent from the show, so there’s little responsible supervision throughout, but every story winds up with a heartwarming effort on Lincoln’s sisters’ part to help him in some way.
Everyone has at least that one summer where they did something awesome, but none can top the adventures of 12-year old Dipper Pines and his twin sister Mabel during their summer vacation. They spent it in the titular setting with their Great Uncle Stan Pines (often shortened to Grunkle Stan), who runs a tourist trap called the ‘Mystery Shack’. Things are not what they seem in this small town, and with the help of a mysterious journal that Dipper finds in the forest, they begin unraveling the local mysteries. Strange situations involving various supernatural or legendary creatures, like gnomes, cryptids, demons, extraterrestrials, and minotaurs surround the town. The dysfunctional family, paranoia and conspiracies all work together to create an exhilarating yet mysterious narrative for Disney youth to engage in.
I encourage modern readers to check out what Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, and the Disney Channel have to offer! All of these have been created within the last four years (SU and The Loud House are still airing) and are a delight to watch. I’ve seen all three of these animated television series and enjoy them all. Yes, the humor and themes have changed since our beloved ‘90s cartoons, but the heart to appeal, inspire, and empower children remains.