Animated Resistance: Counter-Hegemonic Ideology in Adventure Time
Note- I wrote a bunch of essays for class and I want to upload them since they are taking up space in my computer.
Hegemony– “the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group” (Merriam-Websters)
Ideology– ” a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture”(Merriam-Websters)
“It’s not whether children learn from television, it’s what children learn from television… because everything that children see on television is teaching them something” –Joan Ganz Cooney, co-founder of Sesame Workshop.
Children are the future, and the media that they consume now will influence them and the way that think in the future. That is why it is important to study what ideological values are present in television programs made specifically for them. What is this show saying about society? How is race being presented? How is sexuality being presented? How is gender being presented? It is impossible for a show to not have a stance on the dominant ideologies that exist within our culture because ideology encompasses everything. Many modern children television shows both reproduce and challenge the dominant values of America ad similar nations. The animated show Adventure Time is a great example of a currently running show that constantly combats the dominant ideologies of gender and acceptance that exist in our culture through positive representation. Adventure Time is just one of many contemporary children shows that challenge the hegemony presented in media.
Since the main character of Adventure Time is a young boy named Finn, his age begins at 12 in season one and is 16 as of seven, the concept of masculinity is addressed and challenges quite a bit. Chase Wesley Raymond states in his essay that, “Fairclough (1995) describes the relationship between media and society as a dialectal one in that the former is both shaped by as well as shapes the latter, to a great extent a cyclical process” ( Raymond, 24). In many ways, Finn is a young boy enamored by our societies definition of masculinity and attempts to live up to it. In this way, the show is shaped by cultures definition of masculinity. The basic premise of the show suggests that it upholds the ideology of masculinity as it is defined by our culture. A boy and dog goes on fun adventures slaying monsters and being knights for a princess. In many ways, it does uphold this belief system. In episode five, “The Enchiridon”, Finn saves the princess when she falls from her tower. He is then sent on a series of quests in order to find the The Enchiridon, which is, ‘…guarded by a manly minotaur… waiting for a truly righteous hero to claim it”. Many of the trials are solved through violence and the minotaur, whose name is Mannish Minotaur, is shown to be overflowing with muscles. All of this upholds the standard definition of manliness. Most of the first two seasons establish Finn as a fairly standard male action hero. By setting Finn up as the definition of masculinity, the creators can establish forms of masculinity that are alternate to the dominant ideology by having Finn experience them.
There are two ways in which Adventure Time combats the standard ideology of masculinity. The first is by having Finn’s definition of masculinity being challenged directly. In the episode “Blood Under the Skin”, Finn wears a thimble as an armor to protect himself from splinters. The other knights, all of them men, then ridicule him for not having real armor. He is sent on a series of trials to get the best armor. Unlike the Enchiridon trials though, each of these trials are meant to embarrass him and make him less manly. When he finally gets the armor though, it is “lady armor”. His friend Jake, who is not the standard definition of masculinity, wears the armor however and saves Finn from being killed.
As a short aside, Jake is the second most viewable male in the series as Finn’s best friend, roommate, and older brother. While he may be a source of much of the comedic relief, he is also seen as a source of wisdom for Finn. Finn goes to him when he has emotional problems, especially when they relate to women. Jake has his own ideal of masculinity. While he too goes on adventures and resorts to violence sometimes, he is also lazy and prone to avoid confrontation. With experience comes a watered down version of Finn’s masculinity. He cooks, accepts the eventuality of death, does not see the world as simply good and evil, and even settles down and has kids. Jake does not take masculinity as seriously as Finn does, and often act as a counterweight for Finn’s ideology. However he can be problematic sometimes, since he can reaffirm gender expectations, like when he tells Finn, “Make her think it was her idea. That’s how you make the ladies do what you want”.
The second way in which the show combats “Hyperheterosexual hegemonic masculinity [as] a socio-cultural product”(Meyers, 128) is through the showing of emotions. While the American ideological definition of masculinity forbids the showing of emotions that makes one looks weak, such as fear or sadness, Adventure Time does not shy away from showing Finn depressed and sad. When he is rejected romantically by his princess he is shown on the ground, depressed. He sings,
Can’t keep pushing this down any deeper,
Why do I keep trying if I can’t keep her?
Every move I make,
Is just another mistake,
I wonder what it would take,
Because it feels like there’s a hole inside my body,
Like there’s a hole inside my heart.
It’s like this feeling is gonna consume me,
If I keep waiting for this thing to start.
Oh, I feel like I’m all gummed up inside,
It’s like I’m all gummed up inside,
It’s like I’m all gummed up inside
This open expression of melancholy and helplessness is a clear crack in his manly façade. He is later seen punching his tear ducts in an attempt to stop his crying. Finn is shown to cry openly, write poetry for the flame princess, and lose his temper. While Finn strives to be the Hollywood textbook version of a manly adventurer, his emotional reactions undermine this. Adventure Time does not only focus on masculinity though.
One of the most striking features of Adventure Time is that most of the characters with authorities are female. Most of the world leaders are princesses, including Princess Bubblegum. Princess Bubblegum is an interesting character due to her role as the sovereign ruler of the Candy Kingdom. She is one of the most intelligent people in the world as a leading scientist, a pragmatist who is willing to sacrifice herself and others for the Candy Kingdom, and probably the most mature person on the show. The character Marceline the Vampire Queen is one of the strongest individuals in the show, with abilities that far surpass the hero Finn. Just like Princess Bubblegum, Marceline separates from the hegemonic display of women in media. She is a free spirit that loves to play pranks on others. In the first episode that she appears in, she kicks Finn Jake out of two different houses. When they all fight, Jake and Finn only survive and get their first house back because the fight amuses Marceline. In their relationship, Marceline tends to be the more active and superior one. Her next appearance shows her tricking Finn into becoming her henchman, where she harasses him by making him think that she is doing evil deeds. Marceline is the definition of Kathleen Rowe’s unruly woman. She is a spectacle and excessive(Both good things). She tends to be the dominant personality in whatever scene she is in and can only be restrained by Princess Bubblegum. Jake is scared of vampires and Finn usually adheres to her strength and cunningness. Banet-Weiser wrote in one of her essays that,
In the world of children’s television, programs about self-confident, assertive, and intelligent girls such as Nickelodeon’s 1991 hit, Clarissa Explains it All, and more recent animated programs such as As Told By Ginger, Rocket Power, and The Wild Thornberries initiated a new trend in programming that actively rejected the conventional industry wisdom that children’s shows with girl leads could not be successful (Banet-Weiser, 120).
The women in Adventure Time come in all shapes and sizes, with different personalities and moral codes. They do not exist simply to assist Finn or be his romantic interest. Bubblegum rejects him and later another suitors advances claiming that, “Oh, Braco, I don’t want any of that mess. I do love you, but it’s the undifferentiated love I feel for all candy citizens”. Despite her many suitors, it is commonly accepted by the Candy people that she does not date. Flame Princess broke up with Finn and rebukes his attempts at getting her back, instead focusing on herself and her kingdom. Very little of the conversations between female characters are dedicated to talking about men, meaning the show would likely pass the Bechdel test with flying colors. The latest season was focused on expanding Marceline’s backstory and growing her character, a season that Finn and Jake played only a nominal role in. The role of women in Adventure Time is counter-hegemonic because of their own agency. They turn down the main characters love advances for both responsibility and personal growth, they are given adequate screen time and characterization without even the mention of male characters, and all of the main females are shown to be able to hold their own in confrontations. Despite Finn’s role as an adventurer and knight it is acknowledged many times on the show that each of the three women that I have mentioned are either significantly physically or mentally stronger than Finn. Finn accepts this reality and does not particularly care that he is weaker than them, another characteristic that shows how counter-hegemonic the show in when dealing with gender roles and expectations.
Another main ideology present in Adventure Time is the concept of unadulterated acceptance. In society we tend to have conditional acceptance, though we frame it as unconditional. For example, a family member may say that they will unconditionally love another family member. However, societal standards tend to see this as circumstantial and changing with the times. We are finally starting to see LGBT+ characters being treated with unconditional love by their family members, though this is usually done after some soul searching and only covertly done on shows for children since queer characters are still seen as risk in youth television. Character traits are not seen as something deserving of unconditional. Usually if a character has trait that is deemed undesirable, they either change or are rejected. Self-determinism plays a big role in American culture. Unfavorable personalities are things that we have to overcome. Adventure Time denies this narrative though. In the episode “Bonnie & Neddy”, Princess Bubblegum’s brother Neddie is introduced. Neddie is shown to be scared of almost everything and is shown to only be calm when alone or with his sister. When the princess explains that how she enjoyed being connected with others while forming in the mother gum. Jake protests, “ But Neddie’s from the same place you’re from and he’s a wet hotdog around everyone”. She calmly responds, “ People get built different. We don’t need to figure it out, we just need to respect it”. This is not the first time that Bubblegum preaches about acceptance. When talking about the cankerous and mentally unstable Lemongrabs, Jake asks Bubblegum, “But how come we don’t just fix their hearts like we did with Lemonjon so they’re more selfless and less selfish?” Bubblgum responds, “Oh, no, no. Their hearts are fine. They’re just like this”. In the episode “Donny”, Finn attempts to cure Donny of his jerkiness. However, it is shown that by changing him, Finn changed the natural order of the environment he was in and put many lives into danger. Marceline has a whole entire arc in which she must come to terms with being a vampire. Though she initially attempts to expel the vampire aspect of herself, which creates the antagonists of the season, she comes to terms with it by the end. Adventure Time does not discriminate against personality types, and calls for acceptance of others and their differences. The few times that people attempt to force others or themselves to change, the consequences tend to be dire. This could be seen as a reflection of our society that is moving towards unequivocal acceptance as a new dominant ideology.
I do not believe that mainstream television can ever be truly counter-hegemonic. It must adhere to the dominant ideologies to be well received by its viewers and more importantly, the advertisers. However, shows such as Adventure Time have the ability to be counter-hegemonic in small ways, challenging the vanguard ideologies and replacing suggesting alternate forms of ideology that are generally accepted by the young-adult culture that the creators live in. It is the generation of the shows creator Pendleton Ward, age 33, that began to learn what post-feminism meant in the classroom and grew up in a world where television studies was already an established field. Adventure Time is not simply a passing fad or lone shout against the current ideology. It is one of many shows that are participating in the changing of the ideological guards. These young show creators who grew up in the same time periods and went to the same colleges are now established show runners, at least in the youth animation field. Very soon, the ideologies of gender representation equality and acceptance will not be counter-hegemonic, but simply the norm.
Banet-Weiser, Sarah. “Girls Rule!: Gender, Feminism, and Nickelodeon.” Critical Studies in Media Communication 21.2 (2004): 119-39. Web.
Myers, Kristen. “”Cowboy Up!”” The Journal of Men’s Studies 20.2 (2012): 125-43. Web
Raymond, C. W. “Gender and Sexuality in Animated Television Sitcom Interaction.” Discourse & Communication 7.2 (2013): 199-220. Web.