Thanks to the enormous popularity of The Simpsons, cartoons are no longer just for kids. While if series’ political humor is directed towards adults, its cute catch phrases (“Don’t have a cow, man!”) and Bart’s impertinence continues to appeal to children.
This formula has inspired any number of followers, on network and cable. Nickelodeon’s first entry into the double-appeal market, in 1991, was The Rugrats. Told from the point of view of four toddlers named Tommy, Chuckie, Phil and Lil, the show plainly solicited viewers ranging from ages two to eleven. However, according to an article published in USA Today on 12 January 2001, the aim of the series’ creators, Arlene Klasky, Gabor Csupo, and Paul Germain, was to provide “irreverent humor—popular with kids but still in a parents’ safe zone.” Good idea. Since that time, Nickelodeon has featured a number of other cartoons, like Hey Arnold, The Wild Thornberrys, and Rocket Power, all operating within the same comedic vein as The Rugrats.
More such profit-seeking was inevitable. In October 1992, Ted Turner launched the Cartoon Network, the first network to air cartoons 24 hours a day. In its early years, Cartoon Network’s programming consisted of old Hanna Barbera cartoons, like Looney Tunes and Yogi Bear. But Nickelodeon’s success inspired Cartoon Network to develop its own line of original programming. Dexter’s Laboratory was the network’s first successful venture. Created in 1995 by Genndy Tartakovsky, Dexter’s Laboratory is similar to The Simpsons in that its primary aim is to critique cultural conventions.
Dexter’s Laboratory takes on a range of topics, from gender roles to family structures, to the vaunted field of Science. The show’s premise revolves around Dexter, an 8-year-old, self-described “boy genius,” who has built his very own secret laboratory on the second floor of his parents’ house. Dexter tries to cultivate the image of the serious, methodical, reclusive scientist, dedicated to working on his latest invention. However, his efforts are frequently interrupted by his giggly older sister Dee Dee, who always wants to play. Wearing a short, bright pink sleeveless dress, white tights, and pink ballet slippers, the kind that crisscross partway up her legs, Dee Dee’s girly-girlness stands in stark contrast to Dexter’s tendency to view the world around him in “scientific” terms. Dee Dee does the girly thing, and tries to accommodate her brother, “oohing” and “ahhing” at his gadgets.
Dexter also adheres to gendered expectations, as when, during a family camping trip, he informs Dee Dee, “Camping is very much for your kind of people. And your kind of people are STUPID! As for the smart kind of people like myself, we do not need your fruity little forests. We need to be surrounded by manly, high-tech laboratory equipment. To invent and create!”
While Dexter’s pride in his “manly” endeavors is standard, his view of camping illustrates the ways that such attitudes can sort of change. Back in the pre-video-game day, camping was a plainly masculine activity, forcing men to rely on their primitive instincts to forage for the basic necessities of life. Nowadays, real men work in offices and labs, the site of intellectual “progress.” Dexter doesn’t see camping as a man’s activity because its thrilling physicality has been replaced by the cold, hard, imposing steel of scientific ingenuity, and not incidentally, taking over the function of “creation.”
Still, Dexter is open to suggestions. In an episode titled, “Old Flame,” he reflects on the historical value of the discovery of fire. Anxious to meet the caveman who made the fated discovery, Dexter uses his time machine to travel back and then bring the caveman with him into Dexter’s present. So invested is Dexter in the notion that advanced technology is the pinnacle of human achievement, that he never bothers to consider that the man who discovered fire lived at a time when human communication was quite different. Not to mention when the concept of Science hadn’t even been developed yet. Dexter’s plans backfire when the caveman becomes alarmed in the lab, understandably frightened and confused by all the bubbling liquids and larger-than-life robots.
He attacks Dexter, but, luckily, a circular portal opens, and Dee Dee comes jump-roping into the lab. Stunned, the caveman lowers his arms and gazes at her, as she adorably asks her brother, “Hiya Dexter, who’s your friend?” To which a frightened Dexter replies, “He’s a crazy mad caveman!” Dee Dee gasps in excitement, gazes up at the caveman with wide eyes and says, “Oooh!” The caveman, equally fascinated, does the same. Dee Dee says, “Aa-ahh!” The caveman repeats.
The difference in the ways Dee Dee and Dexter communicate with the caveman has to do with their different perspectives. Wrapped up in the pretensions of scientific knowledge and unable to speak with his guest, Dexter dismisses him as “crazy mad.” Dee Dee, meanwhile, sees the prospect of meeting a “crazy mad caveman” as an exciting adventure, and she communicates with the caveman on a level he can understand.
Dee Dee shows how a hyper-performed femininity can be just as powerful, if not more so, than masculinity. This concept is nothing new, as the phrase “girl power” has been so overused as a marketing tool. Still, it’s refreshing to see a girl with some power.