As a millennial, I’m pretty much obligated to write about ’90s nostalgia in some way, because things were simpler when I was a kid and had zero responsibilities. Like many of my peers, I ran home every day from the bus stop to park myself in front of the TV, much to my mother’s chagrin. Well, mom, I just got my MA, so TV didn’t complete rot my brain. In fact, children’s television has always been a source of reflection and education for me.
Most of children’s cartoons (and television shows in general) either reference schooling, or are based in schools. It’s a great source of reference for children, placing fictional stories in locations that are familiar for kids. Attitudes about schools and individuals within schools (teachers, administrators, peer groups) are constantly reflected or criticized, even subtly through these cartoons. For the next few weeks, I want to look at the ways that television echoes our American sentiments about schools using these cartoons. This week, we’ll start with Animaniacs.
For those unfamiliar with Animaniacs, the central plot follows the antics of Yakko, Wakko, and Dot, out-of-control Warner Brothers cartoons who wreak havoc wherever they go. There is a whole cast of side characters who aid in many pop culture parodies, arranged in such clever ways that rewatching with grown up adult eyes made the show infinitely better. I mean, they do a Gilbert and Sullivan parody.
In the short, “Chalkboard Bungle,” Yakko, Wakko, and Dot, take their antics to the classroom, and everything you expect to happen in a classroom, does.
The teacher is portrayed as the prototypical dowdy, humorless teacher, who finishes her long list of rules with a final “No Anything.” Of course, the very nature of the Warner siblings, and arguably many school-age children watching at home, is to question everything. For example, this great exchange happens:
Teacher: Dot, what can you tell me about the great scientists of the 18th century?
Dot: They’re all dead.
Teacher: No, no, no.
Dot: All right, they’re all living.
Teacher: No, no, no.
Yakko: Well, now we’re getting into philosophy.
Just like many other representations of the classroom in film or on TV, the students begin rebel and act out he second the teacher turns her back. In true cartoon fashion, this means escalating games: badminton, pogo sticks, etc.
The battle for authority and status is present in this cartoon, with the teacher asserting herself through questioning the student’s knowledge, and refusing to be misled by their tricks, while the students respond through their own acts of rebellion. It’s a situation that plays out in almost every classroom, everyday. The teacher’s power comes from her position as the official gatekeeper of knowledge. The students are both receptive to the types of knowledge, but also critical of her presentation of it. The latter part leads them to wildly acting out. Grading is seen as the teacher’s last symbol of authority, which she uses much to the anger of her disruptive students.
Now, I’m not saying that this six-minute cartoon from the mid-’90s represents current school reform efforts and the tensions within schools as they reorganize and implement (sometimes good and sometimes bad) mechanisms in order to promote student achievement, but I’m saying there is something in the way we portray our schools and our attitudes about them. As the Yakko, Wakko, and Dot show us, schools can be outdated, outmoded, and honestly, boring. The question for all reformers has always been: how do we create supportive environments for students, where all members of the school system are valued (yes, even those dowdy old teachers), and where there is room for innovation? It’s hard to make steps towards these changes, when schools as a whole are just constantly seen as the place where we keep kids during the day, and hope that something sticks to them. Teachers don’t exactly fair particularly well in this case either, as the Warner Brothers and the Warner Sister win out in the end.
Maybe this is theorizing about this cartoon too much. I mean, I never got deposited to school sealed inside a box, carried by a parent in a HAZMAT suit. Not that I can remember, anyway.