Growing up in the Renaissance: How 90s cartoons shaped our generation

    Cartoons from our youth now infiltrate pop culture. Photo by the author.

    Correction appended

    For me, the most difficult part of packing for college was dealing with my bookshelf. The hutch over my desk at home is full of DVDs, books and other assorted remnants of my youth. The bulky, one-shelved desks of my Northwestern dorm room only hold so many things. I was forced to decide which few items would represent me to a new world of people.

    But I didn’t take obscure movies or intellectual-looking books. Instead, I went straight for my old and unplayable VHS tapes of Hey Arnold.

    Why use children’s cartoons to express independence and adulthood? Even on a campus of 18-25 year old students, references to the pop culture of our childhoods can create a staggering reaction. On campus, I see cartoon throwback shirts everywhere. Between all the Captain Planets and Legends of the Hidden Temple contestants, Halloween looks like advertising for an afternoon lineup on Nickelodeon. In the dining halls, I’ve overheard countless discussions of those cartoons where simply name-dropping a character is enough to earn inexplicable adoration: “Do you remember ‘Rocko’s Modern Life’ on Nick??” “Oh my god yeah! And like, Heifer!?” “Yeah!! And the Bigheads!!” “Oh my god!!!!” The knee-jerk response to the mere mention of anything related to the era is something to behold.

    This phenomenon indicates that members of generation Y share a common and almost-universal attachment to the cartoons of the first half of the 90s. The only question that remains is “why?” Why is 90’s animation so special? Why do 19-year-olds congregate to watch the same cartoons they watched when they were six? Why do I make friends by wearing my “Reptar on Ice” shirt?


    A Golden Age of animation began in the 1930s when theatrical animations like Looney Tunes became massively popular, especially thanks to a boost from World War II when cartoons adopted relevant and topical subject matter. The period is also marked by the success of feature-length Disney productions such as Snow White. By the mid 1960s, however, most of the excitement around animation had fizzled out, and cartoons had moved from the big screen to a newer medium: television. Most televised cartoon shows were produced by Hanna-Barbera, and at extremely low budgets. Animation work was kept to a minimum (recall all the walk cycles and scrolling backgrounds), which marred the medium’s reputation. A 1961 Saturday Evening Post article accused the studio of “taking shortcuts only a television audience would tolerate.” Due to a decline in demand and profitability, Warner Brothers shut down their animation department. In 1966, Walt Disney died, leaving his company without any certain direction for the future. For the next twenty years, most cartoons were outsourced Asia and were continuously made at very low budgets.

    In the early 80s, the laissez-faire Reagan administration loosened the standards on television, repealing bans on violent action programs and lowering educational requirements. Corporations took advantage by using cartoons to market toys. Think about it: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Transformers, G.I. Joe, Thundercats, Care Bears, all of these shows primarily existed to sell toys. Please don’t take offense, 80s kids—these shows are very memorable, but the cartoons themselves were not standalone masterpieces.


    By the turn of the decade, the doomsday clock was ticking on the animation industry, but from the darkness came a new era. Rather than die out, the animation industry entered a renaissance, where the ideals of the golden era were revived and restored to new heights.

    The desire for a revival struck the cinema industry when Michael Eisner became Disney’s new chairman in 1987. Eisner was determined to put Disney animation back up on its pedestal and did so with features such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Little Mermaid. These mainstream successes affirmed that cartoons were a profitable and respectable business once again.

    In 1989, the animated sitcom emerged when a cartoon short by Matt Groening made the move from the Tracy Ullman Show to primetime television. Almost 20 years later, The Simpsons remains on the air. Northwestern History Professor and pop-culture blogger Michael Kramer recalls the irony of the situation: “The most realistic show on television was a cartoon show, the one that got the essence of how [teens] were feeling.”

    While some cartoons became more like live-action shows, some became all the more surreal. Ren and Stimpy (1991) best reflected the latter subset of 90s cartoons. It was violent, strange and graphic. It had blotchy white backgrounds in place of typical backdrop art. Kramer adds that the show represents “people trying to bring what was marginalized, the civic stuff, into the commercial realm.”

    The show could target children with its aesthetic and adults with its odd subject matter. The characters were frequently depicted beating each other half to death or partaking in other grotesqueries. In one episode, they collect Stimpy’s hairballs to sell for profit, and when Stimpy runs out of hair, he resorts to licking a fat man named Bubba for extra resources. Ren and Stimpy was punk. It brought unprecedented style to network television and cartoons. Not surprisingly, the show’s creator John Kricfalusi was fired two years later for irreconcilable differences despite the shows cult popularity.

    Professor Kramer sees the popular interest in both types of cartoon as an attempt to come to grips with human experience. He suggests that it reflects people’s questions about reality: “What is reality? Is it completely surreal and cartoonish or is it hyper-real? Hence, this is the same period you have the reality show emerge. It’s all about how technology represents the real and the tone or mood of what life was like.”

    New frames opened up to allow for a change in traditional approaches to television, and this potential was soon swept up by commercial entities.

    In the early 90s, television airwaves divided up amongst new cable networks that appealed to much more specific audiences, an effect Kramer calls the “nichefication” of television. Entire channels could commit to one theme, a bold idea in a time before there were eight HBOs and ten ESPNs. The booming public interest in animation was evidenced by the creation of an exclusively animated channel, Cartoon Network. Also, pre-existing network Nickelodeon refocused their attention by developing a number of animated original series: Nicktoons.

    Keys to Success

    With so much newfound airtime and attention, cartoons flourished. Writers expanded upon the medium, developing cartoons in unprecedented new directions. Most animated programming succeeded and endured by embodying a few major principles.

    For one, the shows were relatable, topical, and referenced the outside world. Not since the days of the Captain Planet had animation tackled real-world subject matter so directly. The Rugrats poked fun at proper parenting and child psychology with the ever-present references to Dr. Lipschitz. The Warner Brothers cartoons Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs parodied hundreds of years of culture from Edgar Allen Poe to George H.W. Bush. Rocko’s Modern Life was consistently packed with double-entendres. Kramer notes that this “double-talk” was the key to the success of the Muppets in the back in the 1970s.

    Secondly, these cartoons utilized more intellectual complexity and dimensionality. In his book Everything Bad is Good For You, science writer and distinguished New York University resident Steven Johnson argues that new generations got smarter thanks in part to advances in the cognitive demands of modern TV. While a 1970s show such as Starsky and Hutch was very linear and had similar stories every episode, 90s TV was dynamic and strange, following several story lines at once. The avant-garde animation and incomprehensible realities of Ren and Stimpy or Rocko stretched the preconceived limits of television writing.

    Newer shows also required an extra level of thought which Johnson dubs “filling in.” Viewers would have to fill in the blanks to imagine the parents in Cow and Chicken, to venture guesses as to (Hey) Arnold’s last name, and to understand any of the innuendo. The invisible hand of the entertainment industry pushed writers to give their shows this extra replay value in order to cater to the new aftermarket possibilities of the VHS and DVD.

    Thirdly, these layers of newfound depth in cartoons made it possible for young viewers to make a strong emotional investment in the characters and the series as a whole. Hey Arnold is an example of a series with grounding in reality and a strong focus on character development, one that offers the viewer a chance to make an emotional investment in the show. With the first nine notes of its uncharacteristically jazzy theme song, Arnold represents all the best traits of the 90s cartoon. Composer Jim Lang recalls that from the start, creator Craig Bartlett “wanted to have a show that was about the kids that were in the show and what their relationships were to each other and what their relationships were with the world.”

    Young viewers could immerse themselves in Hey Arnold, and imagine growing up in the boarding house and attending P.S. 118 with their animated peers and neighbors. The show was captivating in a socially interactive way, not just in the way one gets engrossed in the Autobot vs. Deceptacon action of Transformers.

    Naturally, these traits can be applied to some shows more than others. Nevertheless, the presence of these factors indicates that children of the 1990s had access to a new class of cartoon. The decade produced some of the finest animation in the medium’s history. Perhaps the most noteworthy and curious characteristic of all, however, is the enduring relevance of these cartoons and their strange resistance to being outgrown.

    Why college students still care

    The ‘90s cartoon targeted both children and adults from different directions. Children benefited because in cartoons, the kids were the subjects, not just the audience. Cartoons depicted children from “rugrat” age through high school, and could inspire moral and social development customized for the age group. The lessons aimed to teach growing children how to manage their standing in society.

    “[Cartoons] were suspicious of authority,” says Kramer. “They teach you not to earnestly accept everything, and that the world is not a totally safe place.”

    Meanwhile, the adult-friendly themes, double-entendres and pop culture references entertained an older and more learned subset of viewers. Even shows without mature content could hope to charm adults.

    “We always wanted [Hey Arnold] to be something that the parents would enjoy sitting down and watching with their kids,” says Lang.

    College students balance both of these worlds at once. They are at a crossroads of childhood and adulthood and are afforded the ability to appreciate cartoons at both levels. The unexpected side effect of being adult-friendly is that when the kids turn into adults, they still enjoy the programming for new reasons. Mature references aside, these shows are inextricably linked to many students’ formative years.

    For viewers who actively engaged the characters of these programs (via imagination), watching a cartoon at any age is like seeing an old friend again. Nostalgia alone is a good enough explanation for why a college student would still enjoy an old cartoon, but the emotional depth, cultural relevance, and the ability to speak to many age groups are special features that combine to keep ‘90s cartoons special after all these years.

    Epilogue: What happened next?

    If you asked my 14-year-old brother what his favorite shows are, he’d list the same ones that I would: the Nicktoons that were originally made between ’91 and ’96. Why didn’t he take to newer programming? Sadly, while cartoons came on strong at the dawn of the decade, things didn’t stay the same. In 1997, education standards came back strong, insisting that most cartoons have moral and educational value. These regulations may have hampered the creative potential for some shows.

    On newer programs Jim Lang has worked on, he remarks that “show structures were really very consistent from week to week.” Lang refers to late-90s shows like Lloyd in Space, noting that “they don’t take the chances the writers on Hey Arnold took. “Nowadays,” he adds, “there’s a ton of very sweet, very safe animation for little kids, not the same amount of story stuff.” Lang and Arnold creator Craig Bartlett are now developing educational cartoons for PBS. Nickelodeon’s lineup, meanwhile, is almost completely live action these days.

    And so the ends were sealed on the renaissance of animation. Kids who were able to catch original Nicktoons on television stuck to them and then flocked straight to Adult Swim as soon as they got the chance. “[Adult cartoon shows like] Metalocalypse. That’s where cool animation’s gone,” says Lang. Children will get older, and their tastes may mature with them. With the new generation of Family Guy, South Park and Adult Swim at the forefront, the fact that even college-age kids aren’t too grown-up to appreciate the cartoons of their childhood is a true testament to the quality and power of cartoons in the 1990s.

    Updated 3/28: Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs are Warner Brothers cartoons, not Disney cartoons. North by Northwestern regrets the error.


    blog comments powered by Disqus
    Please read our Comment Policy.