Cartoons and Heartache2 March 2018
“If you were in Adventure Time,” he suddenly says, staring at the episode on TV, “who would you be?”
You look down at yourself. You jumped on the train to his place straight after work, still wearing the same tights, dress and cardigan from earlier today. Compared to Adventure Time you feel uninspiring and kind of gross.
“I dunno. Flame Princess?” you finally suggest. “She’s got red hair and chubby arms.”
He’s in the middle of drinking a beer but you watch his face light up with silent laughter.
“How about you?”
He lowers his beer. “Are you joking? Finn!”
“Because of your dumb swords?” you tease.
“Or maybe BMO,” he continues, sinking on the couch to rest his head on your shoulder. “Who wants to play video games!” he recites.
You lean on him too and stroke the hair poking out from under his beanie.
“I don’t think I will collect swords,” he clarifies, “I just like them Zelda ones. And I’d wanna build a case before I buy one, anyway.”
“Just Zelda swords,” you tease, “and the ones from Sword Art Online. And the one that guy has in Super Smash Bros…”
“Cloud?!” He cracks up. “That thing’s massive! How would they even—”
He keeps talking and you try to pay attention, but inside you’re glowing. It could be the pale ale (it’s brewed here in Geelong apparently) or maybe how tired you are of always feeling uninspiring and kind of gross, but his laugh melts everything away. It’s always so sudden when he laughs, so unexpected, probably because you don’t know him that well yet.
In February 2016 my boyfriend cheated on me and it sucked. It sucked that the person I’d fallen for was clearly on a different page from me, and it sucked that a relationship I put so much effort into was ending. Mostly, though, it sucked because for ages I couldn’t bear to watch my favourite cartoon, Adventure Time. At that point I’d been watching the show for like six years, bought stacks of merchandise and dragged friends through marathons and trivia nights—but suddenly I couldn’t bear to watch it. Because I used to watch it with my ex-boyfriend: because we watched it the night before he cheated on me.
When I started watching Adventure Time, a lot of the appeal came from the character Lumpy Space Princess, who perfectly satirised six years of dealing with bratty teenage girls at private schools (myself included). Her obsession with the “weekly promcoming dance” reminded me of trips to the mall to find the perfect outfit for high school socials. Her constant screaming at her parents made me recall fits of rage directed at my own, and her friend Melissa who dates her ex-boyfriend Brad but constantly hits on her friend Finn… well, let’s leave that one.
Self-centred, shallow and painfully quotable, Lumpy Space Princess was the best. But she was also my worst nightmare. Nothing about her is self-aware and she’d sooner die than laugh at herself. In the episode ‘Orgalorg’, she bets money on a walrus in a race, whacks it with a stick for being slow and, when it retaliates, screams, “WHAT DID I DO TO DESERVE THIS!?” Whenever she’s in a bad mood she takes it out on others, so people are repelled by her. She’s funny because she’s so real, but she’s also terrifying because she’s so real.
I noticed my boyfriend never laughed much at LSP. Maybe you had to be a girl to understand her, I thought, or go to a private school. Or maybe you had to be slightly broken to recognise and identify with all of her ugliness.
Self-centred, shallow, angry and unlovable: everything LSP is, and every suspicion that runs through your head when you’ve just been blindsided by infidelity. How did I not see this coming? Did I push him away because of who I am?
When you watch the episodes of Adventure Time in chronological order, LSP really just shows up occasionally for comedic relief. But when you watch only the episodes she appears in, things get dark.
In ‘Be Sweet’, having run away from her parents’ house to live in the woods, LSP battles a raccoon that represents her underlying fear that she’s not worthy of good things and is, basically, a garbage human.
We first see the raccoon when it steals a chicken leg that LSP cooked over her campfire. Then LSP scores a babysitting gig and gets to stay in a house, wear nice clothes, and light a fire in a fireplace. After having a snack and listening to some music she whispers: “I deserve this.”
But the raccoon is not far away. It soon appears at the window and eventually crawls up through the pipes of the toilet into the house (still carrying the chicken leg).
“You don’t belong here in the world of decent people!” it declares. “You belong in the woods with garbage animals!” Later, it adds: “You don’t really think you deserved any of this, do you? … Just accept that you are garbage!”
Yeah, so real. This episode actually ends with LSP being kicked out, the raccoon bellowing “PARTAKE OF THE CHICKEN!” as it offers the soiled chicken leg. LSP obediently goes over to gnaw at it with tears in her eyes.
After the breakup I started thinking about the different cartoons that had played an important role in my life:
As a kid in Canberra I grew up watching The Simpsons with my dad, looking to Homer and Lisa’s relationship as a strong father–daughter bond.
In high school I watched Futurama at my impossibly cool uncle’s house during the school holidays, and wished I was cool like him (and knew how to make friends).
In uni I watched Family Guy with one boyfriend and his friends, creating a drinking game from all the predictable jokes and critiquing the less palatable ones about women.
I realised there was always someone there to share cartoons with, and that most of my relationships with boys (romantic or otherwise) had been formed alongside watching cartoons.
Being a writer, my response was to get my thoughts on paper to try and understand things. Why was I more upset that my ex-boyfriend ruined Adventure Time for me than I was about him cheating? After everything, I couldn’t help but think: “We watched cartoons together… How could you?” Reflecting on why cartoons were important to me was amazing catharsis: each example quantified just how many ways this person had hurt me.
Cartoons show situations, relationships and ideas that resonate in the real world and teach us things about ourselves. They’re friends to us from an early age, providing entertainment after school and conversation topics on the playground. My generation, which grew up alongside The Simpsons, shares a weird kind of communal past and common language which now endures mainly through Facebook pages of Simpsons memes aimed at a nostalgic late-20s audience. And thanks to shows like The Simpsons, animated cartoons occupy a space that reaches beyond children’s programming into wider critical and cultural discussion.
I started writing because someone cheated on me and it sucked, and because I couldn’t watch my favourite cartoon anymore. I kept writing because I struck a nerve about how much cartoons mean and the important things they can say about relationships and gender. So yeah, thankfully, I’m now able to watch Adventure Time again, but it’s currently in its ninth and final season. After that there won’t be any new episodes left. Ever. I don’t know how I feel about that, but I do know that Lumpy Space Princess gives me life.
For further reading on cartoons and relationships look for Emma Michelle’s book Watching Cartoons with Boys, available in selected bookstores (including Dymocks Melbourne and the University of Melbourne Coop) and through her website.