Adventure Time is a show on Cartoon Network starring Finn and Jake, two brothers living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland inhabited by a wide variety of creatures. Finn and Jake spend most of their days doing heroic deeds, helping those around them, and having a blast together.
The thing that initially made me love Adventure Time is that it’s so creative and fun, but what made me continue to watch is the incredible depth that the show possesses. Here are some of the many reasons it’s the most progressive show on television today.
1. Gender Swap Episodes
The fact that the show has a gender swap episode at all is very forward-thinking. Furthermore, in the gender swap episodes, the characters keep their same personalities. So, the only thing that changes about them is their gender. This sends an important message: personality traits, likes and dislikes, and interests are not tied to gender.
2. Teaching Consent
One of the characters on the show, Ice King, frequently tries to capture princesses and force them to marry him. Although he doesn’t do so out of malice, but rather because he is lonely, Finn and Jake don’t make excuses for his behavior. Instead, they repeatedly tell Ice King that what he’s doing is wrong and that if he wants to marry a princess, he should be nice, get to know her, and then ask. On the surface, this teaches a good lesson: never force someone to do something they don’t want to do. But underneath, it teaches kids an even more important lesson: consent is necessary.
3. Realistically Representing Relationships
Whether platonic or romantic, Adventure Time does a fantastic job of exploring the joys and sorrows of relationships. Finn and Jake get on each other’s nerves and fight sometimes, but that’s how all brothers are. In the end, they both have to adjust how they interact, so neither of them is forcing the other to change. Friendships are also portrayed as complicated relationships, something that is often overlooked in children’s media. More often than not, children are taught how to make friends, but maintaining good friendships take just as much work. Even romantic relationships, something that is almost always oversimplified in children’s stories, are presented as challenging yet rewarding. Sometimes you like someone who isn’t good for you, sometimes you like someone but you’re incompatible in some way, sometimes someone likes you but you don’t like him/her back. Rarely do you meet your perfect person.
4. Body Positivity
Lumpy Space Princess (LSP), one of my favorites on the show, is a wonderful character for many reasons. One of those is that she does not have a conventional body type, she knows it, and she absolutely embraces it. No character ever shames her for her looks. Her body is accepted as a part of who she is, but it is not all she is. This message is a great one to send to girls and boys alike.
5. Tackling Mental Illness
I greatly appreciate the fact that Adventure Time tackles the topic of mental illness at all, because most children’s shows would not dare allude to such a heavy subject. The fact that it is handled in such a thoughtful way makes it even better. One character, Tree Trunks, shows many of the common signs of depression, and when she reaches out for help she is never turned down, ridiculed, or told to just get over it. Her feelings are never considered less than valid, and all other characters treat her well.
6. Ignoring Gender Stereotypes
Perhaps my favorite thing about this show is the way in which it defies gender stereotypes. Although nearly every character could be used as an example of how the writers behind Adventure Time veer away from gender norms, three characters highlight this best: Finn, LSP, and Princess Bubblegum (PB).
Finn: In many ways, Finn is a typical young boy, but there’s one thing that distinguishes from the stereotype—he is not ashamed to show his emotions. Whether talking to his best bud or confessing his love for a girl, Finn makes an effort to express his feelings. In a world where men are bombarded with images of callousness and emotional detachment as part of masculinity, this makes Finn a very important role model for young boys.
LSP: In addition to being a great example of self-love, LSP defies the gender binary. If not for her title of princess, she could pass as any gender. However, no one makes fun of her for her lack of obvious femininity. Despite the fact that she is not at all girly, she is still treated like a princess. In addition, LSP loves being a girl and celebrates her womanhood in her own unique way.
PB: Just as Finn is a good role model for boys, PB is a great role model for girls. Science is PB’s favorite hobby, and she is constantly working on formulas and experimenting. No one every questions her brains nor her abilities based on the fact that she’s a girl. In fact, other characters (including male characters) are constantly in awe of her accomplishments. Additionally, she is not put in the typical nerdy-looking-and-not-very-feminine box that so many women scientists in TV and movies are. She is feminine and smart, graceful and daring, pretty and nerdy—all at the same time.
The thing that’s so special about Adventure Time is that it’s not just a show for children—it’s for teenagers and adults too. Its wide audience challenges the creative team behind the show to make it age-appropriate for Cartoon Network’s target audience but also provide enough depth of character and plot to keep an older demographic interested. By addressing topics usually ignored by media targeted towards children, the show is able to teach children and adults alike important life lessons.