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A date with running colours

When the little brat stays put before the TV, watching all those mindless, violent cartoons, what does one do, asks BAGESHREE S.

THE EASIEST way to write about films and television is to trash them. They have, anyway, been easy punching bags for all ills of society — from increasing crime rate to declining regard for moral values. I am not comfortable with these too readily available cause-and-effect equations. Every form of entertainment, after all, has been looked upon as "evil" at one point of time or the other. Didn't we, for instance, see professional theatre as a corrupting influence and women artistes there as sirens who would lure away our young sons, before films came to hold sway? Theatre, I suspect, became more "respectable" after we came to have other punching bags in its place.

But parenthood, perhaps, has a way of resurrecting the most conventional self from the dark recesses of one's consciousness. How else would you explain the great anxiety I felt when my not-yet-three-year-old daughter started watching Cartoon Network for what I thought were unreasonable lengths of time? What worried me more was the way she watched it — like a zombie. If any other parent had reacted the way I did, I would surely have given him/her a lecture on how one should not become an overanxious parent!

After the initial apprehension, I grew curious. What was it about Cartoon Network that made her oblivious of the rest of the world? Why didn't books and toys, which she is also fascinated by, have the same effect on her? I tried asking her, and she simply said: "Banna, banna odaththe." (The colours run.)

A date with running colours

So, one day, I decided to sit and watch the running colours with her. Rapid movements, funny voices, and a riot of bright colours can make a zombie of anyone for the first half an hour. It's only later that you really begin to "watch".

As it turned out, it was a part-interesting, part-boring fare. The first discovery was that what I had read on the Net — that an average of over 20 acts of violence are packed into a cartoon strip per hour, as opposed to five in the prime time slot — was not simply alarmist American statistics. Watch just the promos of DragonballZ, Samurai Jack, or Jackie Chan Adventures (By the way, whatever happened to the rollicking fun and the Oriental pride of our Rush Hour man?). The variety that we consider rather cute and angelic — such as Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, or Popeye Show — might just be two notches higher in its violence ratio. What do Tom and Jerry do but bash up each other continually? The debate on the effect of violence on children remains unresolved, though.

A date with running colours

As I watched more, I grew more and more convinced that adults live out their own fantasies in small scale when they make things especially for children. You can't blame them, can you, considering that no one has found a convincing answer to the most fundamental question: what do children really want? So we actually have on Cartoon Network an entire Hollywood spread — thrillers, sci-fi (this almost seems like an obsession), horror shows, romances, comedies, and so on. We also have the same old stereotypes at work. So from the Flintstones to the Jetsons, who represent two extremes in the times they represent (Stone Age and Space Age), we have women and men faithfully playing their assigned roles. Don't miss the detail: Mama Jetson takes away a bewildered Papa Jetson's wallet as he drops her at the shopping mall, on his way to office. More stereotypes about good looks and appropriate roles come your way with Barbie playing Rapunzel.

Talking of Barbie, note how product promotions and cartoons are so often linked. And every commercial on this channel seems designed to breed a pack of precocious brats — the most odious being the "Heroes start early" ad. Richie Rich asks: "Money can't buy you freedom. But why do you want it when you can have a rock band in your bedroom?"

A date with running colours

And you will be disappointed if you hope to get a breather from stereotypes with Powerpuff Girls, where a bunch of girls bash up the baddies. The threesome are also made of "sugar and spice and all things nice" by Prof. Utonium, with just an extra component for extra power. Just when you begin to take heart at the spoofy representation of the muscleman in Johny Bravo or the subversive one-liners of The Mask, you wonder how old one should be to look beyond the visible and read the underlying irony.

All this is not to say that everything is old hat on Cartoon Network. (The changing semiotic patterns in cartoons should make an interesting study in itself for the more academically oriented.) One finds some efforts (however feeble) at going beyond stereotypes too. There is, for instance, a politically correct Captain Planet, who is aided by a squad of people from various racial backgrounds. What's more, he wraps up each episode with a few "lessons" on keeping the beach clean or protecting the depleting ozone layer. It may be better than the racial representation of American Indians or Asians that we often find in the earlier animated cartoons, but even the best among them continue to be unadulterated Americana. And we have virtually no alternatives.

A date with running colours

And if you thought Ramayana, the Story of Prince Ram or The Pandavas were tilting the balance, think again. The Ramayana I watched on Cartoon Network is easily the flattest version of the epic that I have ever come across. The palace in Lanka is a dark cavernous space, and its king a man with fangs who rides what look like dragons to war. He is not a man of honour, a great devotee of Shiva, or a vainika as we traditionally know him. And the two episodes of Ramayana that cast some doubt on Rama's Maryada Purushottama image — Vali Vadhe and Seeta's Agnipareekshe — simply don't exist here. Shurpanakha is seen savagely eating meat and the scene immediately cuts to Seeta cooing to rabbits and deer. Even the traditional rendering of Ramayana (in which I pick a thousand holes) surely gives me greater critical space. My daughter is, I am convinced, better off listening to a Harikathe.

What do we do with cartoons then? Anxious middle-class parents like me have read too many books on child psychology to simply snatch the remote from the child's hand and switch off the TV. We believe in democracy, in negotiations (or so we think). We know that television can never be the singular influence on a child and it is possible to provide him/her things more interesting and stimulating. If I sit with my daughter with a book of Thenali Rama tales or building blocks, resisting the temptation to watch Gladiator on HBO, chances are that she will not ask me to switch to Cartoon Network. But it is not as simple an exercise as it sounds. Back home after a long day's work, you may have no energy to handle a power-packed youngster. You may have a dinner to cook or a half-done assignment to complete. What's more, you are also convinced that sacrificing everything else to take care of one's child is really overkill. To put it simply, it's hard to resist when Mickey, Popeye, Scooby Doo, and Dexter are falling over each other to babysit your child at no extra cost.

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