Jourdain Searles is Bitch Media’s 2018 Writing Fellow in Pop-Culture Criticism
The history of contemporary animated television, like the history of television itself, is one in which the most prominent names are male: Matt Groening, Craig McCracken, Stephen Hillenburg, Pendleton Ward. But female animators have been working alongside them as the creators of equally iconic cartoons of the past 50 years. The original Care Bears cartoon series was created by Linda Denham and Elena Kucharik in 1985, helping kick off a franchise that continues to this day. That same year Christy Marx created Jem, a cultural phenomenon that holds a permanent place in the girl-power culture canon.
As a cartoon-focused child of the 1990s, I was aware that while I could always catch new episodes of SpongeBob Squarepants or The Fairly Oddparents just by turning to Nickelodeon, finding cartoons featuring girls and made by women—Pepper Ann, As Told By Ginger, Braceface—required actively searching TV Guide. (Though Ginger aired on Nickelodeon, I wasn’t even able to watch the series finale until I found it online, years after its original air date.) Women had more mainstream success as cocreators of titles like Captain Planet and the Planeteers, Rugrats, Daria, Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, and the Total Drama franchise. The massive success of Daria and Rugrats, in particular, revealed a truth that the animation industry has been slow to realize: audiences of all genders respond to cartoons with interesting, fully formed female characters.
In 2018, the solo creative efforts of female and nonbinary cartoonists are finally on the upturn, typified by the enormous critical success of Rebecca Sugar’s sci-fi fantasy musical cartoon series Steven Universe. The magical anime-inspired show, along with Lauren Faust’s beloved My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Daron Nefcy’s quirky Star vs. The Forces of Evil, and Julia Pott’s low-key newcomer Summer Camp Island have proven that female and nonbinary-led cartoon series can be great when their creators are given a proper budget and creative support. But there’s one area where female and nonbinary animation auteurs still haven’t managed to break through: adult animation.
Though plenty of animated shows made for children have become the basis for adult fandoms (helloooo, bronies!), cartoons made expressly for adults have a somewhat nebulous television history. You can track their roots all the way back to tame, classic fare like The Flintstones, which in 1960 was the first cartoon to premiere during the family-friendly primetime slot. Almost 30 years later, The Simpsons became the modern template for cartoons whose sly irreverence and winking sight gags appealed to kids, parents, and stoned college students all at once. The blend of gross-out gags and media baiting deployed by Beavis and Butt-Head and South Park in the 1990s cemented adult animation as a new locus of unsparing cultural criticism.
But despite their often brazen bucking of social norms, adult cartoons have generally stuck to traditional understandings of gender roles that relegate female characters to roles as mothers, sisters, teachers, and assorted foils for their more maverick male main characters. And though adult cartoons have offered up indelible, beloved women like Marge and Lisa Simpson and Peggy Hill, narratives that centered men (human and otherwise) became a new norm for the burgeoning industry, with women writers regularly sidelined by the same boys’-club mentality that characterized non-animated television. Adult Swim, Cartoon Network’s nighttime programming block, was a collection of animated series that shortly after its 2001 debut became central to defining and understanding adult cartoons. In more ways than one: In 17 years, Adult Swim has never featured a female-created cartoon series.
This is frustrating because in addition to Adult Swim’s beloved original series, including Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Robot Chicken, and more, it has also used syndication to define a modern canon of adult cartoons. Adult Swim is responsible for bringing Family Guy and Home Movies back after their respective cancellations; it launched the career of Archer’s Adam Reed (and his writing partner Matt Thompson) with Sealab 2021 and Frisky Dingo. More recently, Rick and Morty, Adult Swim’s flagship series, renewed and reenergized interest in adult animation.
Ambient sexism quickly becomes institutional bias, and networks that have been inspired by Adult Swim’s success have also adopted its clubby allegience to a particular breed of male creators, rarely greenlighting cartoons from women.
Despite boasting at its 2014 network upfronts that Adult Swim’s audience is 43 percent women, its creative team hasn’t taken criticism of the overwhelmingly male programming slate very well. In a 2016 BuzzFeed report on Adult Swim’s dismal track record with women as both creators and lead characters, a former employee noted that Mike Lazzo, AS’s executive vice president, asserted in 2011 that “[W]hen you have women in the writers room, you don’t get comedy, you get conflict.” Though Lazzo himself took to Reddit to clarify his comments—“What I actually said was…women don’t tend to like conflict, comedy often comes from conflict, so that’s probably why we (or others) have so few female projects”—he made no effort to pledge to do better, or even to acknowledge his own shortsightedness.
And that’s a problem, especially considering how simple it would be for Adult Swim to give already-existing female-created series their own resurrections. Take the nearly-forgotten buddy-comedy series Hey Monie!, which debuted in 2003 as part of female-centric channel Oxygen’s animation showcase X Chromosome. The first (and, so far, only) adult cartoon with two Black female leads, Hey Monie! was created by Dorothea Gillim and further developed by stars and real-life best friends Angela V. Shelton and Frances Callier (also known as Frangela).
Though the show ran for three seasons on BET, no scheduling information, full-episode recaps, or writing credits are available online. The show shares its obscurity with other female-created cartoons like Pam Brady’s Neighbors from Hell, which ran for one season on TBS; and Janet Perlman’s Penguins Behind Bars, a pilot about a women’s prison for penguins that aired on Adult Swim in 2003 but wasn’t picked up.
In other words, despite Lazzo’s confident stereotyping, it’s not that women don’t create the kind of weird, quirky, often inappropriate cartoons Adult Swim has become famous for. They do (repeat: women’s prison for penguins), and Adult Swim is perfectly placed to lead the charge on their behalf and provide the same platform it’s granted to Adam Reed, Seth MacFarlane, Dan Harmon and the many other men whose artistic voices the network has nurtured. But ambient sexism quickly becomes institutional bias, and networks that have been inspired by Adult Swim’s male-centric success, like FX (later FXX) and even FOX (for a time), haven’t just mimicked its adult-cartoon slates—they’ve also adopted its adopted its clubby allegience to a particular breed of male creator, rarely greenlighting cartoons from women.
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Mike Lazzo’s blithe dismissal of women’s contributions to the genre did inspire a reckoning for Adult Swim; after BuzzFeed’s 2016 exposé, actor Brett Gelman severed ties with AS, citing its “misogyny”; the following year, Rick and Morty creators Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland attempted a bit of course correction by hiring four female writers. The upcoming, Amy Poehler–produced satirical series Three Busy Debras also seems like a step in the right direction. And Netflix has happily stepped into Adult Swim’s void, with a slate of women-led animated streaming content that includes Big Mouth, the puberty-horror cartoon cocreated by Jennifer Flackett, and Tuca & Bertie, the new show helmed by BoJack Horseman’s Lisa Hanawalt. An Odd Couple-ish comedy with voice acting by Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong about two very different women (who are also birds), Tuca & Bertie promises to be full of offbeat, entertaining stories.
In the past decade, we’ve seen that when women are the creative forces behind pop-culture products, they breathe unique life into female characters. I’ve always wanted to write for adult cartoons myself, but decades of shows whose women don’t exist beyond their relationships with men—as mothers, wives, sisters, and girlfriends—has made me suspect that men in the adult- cartoon industry simply don’t believe that women can be more than that. With Tuca & Bertie on the horizon, maybe there’s hope for a future that nurtures more women creators, more women characters, and a new era of weird and wonderful cartoons.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated on September 5, 2018 to reflect that Rebecca Sugar is nonbinary.