Representation of Depression in Cartoons (and Why it is SO Important)
I was on a plane the other day looking for something to watch when I came across an episode of the new PowerPuff Girls that really stood out to me. It dealt with the theme of depression and how they were all dealing with the fact that Bubbles was just sad. She didn’t know why, she just was. It got me thinking about how depression and mental health has been depicted throughout the history of television, more specifically cartoons. I wanted to do something about the best representations of ailments but we will see where this rabbit hole takes us.
I suppose first I should describe what happened in the episode more clearly. The episode was called “Bubbles the Blue” and it starts out with Bubbles, usually the most upbeat and happy, clearly in a funk. The girls try to make Bubbles happy again but she says she just needs time to be alone. They begin to look to themselves for blame. Blossom starts to constantly apologize and Buttercup takes a more forceful approach. Eventually the Professor has to step in, and at one point Blossom gets so frustrated with Bubbles that she says “She’s just being sad for attention or something”. It is the Professor that says “It’s perfectly OK to be sad sometimes”.
(Important parts of the video are the beginning and at 1:01 when she talks to Harmadillo)
The girls come to the realization that they don’t need to try and fix Bubbles but instead just be there for her. This is the best conclusion that I could have hoped for, it describes perfectly how people that deal with the depressed should act. It is harder for someone dealing with depression when those around them start feeling like they can fix them, or it is their fault. It is also wrong to try and say that they are doing it for attention, which is usually the exact opposite of what they want.When dealing with depression you usually just want to be ignored or treated the same as always until the wave passes you by.
Watching the episode made me think that these shows are very necessary for children who may just be learning about what kinds of mental health issues are out there. It is also a great teaching tool that can be utilized in a way that wasn’t available before. In fact learning about depression from a textbook is much harder to comprehend, they tell you the signs to look out for but it is much harder to absorb when you don’t have a real world example.
The next show I thought of was Winnie the Pooh, and this one is pretty obvious to those who have seen it. Eeyore is perpetually always down, he is a pessimist at heart and some people would say he suffers from Dysthymia. Dysthymia is persistent depression that is a continuous long term form of depression. The way that the Disney adaptation of Milne writes him is a very real look at how depression can manifest itself. One of Eeyore’s most famous quotes is “Thanks for noticing me”, and if that doesn’t make you sad for him I don’t know what will. His self deprecating humor is what honestly made me love him in the first place and I completely related to it. His friends all try to include him even though he shows an obvious lack of interest and I think that is an important message for those who watch at a tender age. You should always treat others nicely and how you would like to be treated, that is the golden rule.
I think that these depictions of these characters are so important and the fact that they are accurately shown even more so. Cartoons used to be a lot more lacking on the seriousness of depression. Take the episode from The Simpsons where Lisa can’t play dodgeball because she is “too sad”. They kind of address it, analyze it, confront her about it, but at the end of the day nothing changes. She is completely fixed by the end of the episode because they find a solution for her. What happens when a solution can’t be found? What happens when someone needs real help?
The only real example that I can think of a character medicating themselves for depression comes from The Venture Bros. Early in the show, Dr. Venture takes pills to hide the feelings of inadequacy that he gets from his father. The show makes a lot of jokes over the broken nature of many of the characters but it also represents a real feeling that people are depressed have. This show is pretty silly but I think that it is important that the main character is not afraid to medicate himself to deal with his feelings of self worth. Rusty’s main attribute is his inability to be the “Jonny Quest” that his father wanted him to be and it haunts him for years, destroying his self worth and empathy.
There are plenty of examples in adult animation, from Bojack Horseman to the characters in F is For Family. However I think it is important to show children that our emotions are fragile and that sometimes we just get sad. It is OK to feel that way and it is always good to express it if the feelings do not go away. It can be easy for children surrounded by bright colors and colorful characters that happiness is normal and not just part of a whole landscape of emotion. So I like that cartoons can tackle or express things they may not understand but feel all the same. I love my daughter but even as she grows up I cannot expect her to feel safe telling me everything, so it is nice seeing the characters she loves feel what she might feel. It is something I wish more cartoons from when I was younger showed instead of just trying to make me laugh. Distraction is great but not feeling alone in the world can be better.
If you ever want to talk cartoons or theories tweet @bremoonprincess