About five or so 3 a.m.’s ago, I woke up out of sleep because of this question: “Why are all cartoon animals shirtless or pant-less?” I am careful about using generalizations and considered the implications of “all.”
Is it true that “all” of them are half-dressed?
Minnie Mouse actually wears a dress. Goofy wears a shirt and pants, correct? Babs Bunny of “Tiny Toon Adventures” evidently wears a blouse and a skirt. Mickey Mouse, however, just wears shorts and shoes while his buddy, Donald Duck, in only clad in a nautical-inspired long-sleeve top and cap.
My thoughts sped me back to cartoon shows that I watched in the 1990’s as a kid. Alvin and the Chipmunks classically wore solid-colored turtlenecks that reached their ankles. Yakko from “Animaniacs” had on shorts with no shirt; Wakko wore a shirt with no pants. Their little sister, Dot, didn’t have on a shirt. The Smurfs were usually shirt-less (but showed up in white leggings?). Many of the old-school “Looney Tunes” characters were half-dressed, as well as countless anthropomorphic animals in Disney movies, including in some of my favorite animations “Robin Hood,” “Monster’s, Inc.,” and “Monster’s University.” There are even more observations collected on this page of what has been deemed a popular television trope.
So, that got me thinking. (Yes, still at 3 in the morning.) There must be a method behind the madness—artists who create characters have reasons for decisions made regarding cartoon apparel, whether those determinations are societal-based, politically-based, gender-biased, or whatever. In my initial analysis, there doesn’t seem to be a consistent pattern for male versus female cartoon characters, nor does there seem to be an intentional statement declared through the use of or lack of covering.
Who decides which cartoon animals get to wear what article of clothing? And why? On what grounds? Then, it hit me.
When I was teaching English classes, my students each quarter were privy to a lesson regarding the considerations of the audience they were writing to in any given situation. Sometimes audiences were friendly…or unfriendly. Or neutral. We performed exercises regarding what we’d be required to say on a topic for a super-specific audience to captivate their attentions (like discussing home improvement to a group of preschoolers, for example). The same must apply to the target audiences of different cartoon shows.
Mickey Mouse, for example, has saturated our culture as an icon, so he is more universally known and regarded. However, young children will not recognize that he is usually shirtless. Older children may, but Mickey Mouse is attractive, essentially, to younger generations. Less money and less time can be spent in the generation of a shirt if the audience, fundamentally, won’t take notice. Similar considerations are likely made for different Disney toons, as well as those developed in other cartoon studios.
Even as toddlers, children have the capacity to “relate to” the cartoons that they see. A PBS article, “TV and Kids Under Age 3,” asked, “Can a very young child understand what’s on TV?” According to a study performed by the Kaiser Family Foundation, “children as young as two years old were found to have established beliefs about specific brands that were promoted by television advertising and parental behavior. [Additionally,] one-year-olds avoided an object after they watched an actress react negatively to it on video, suggesting that infants can apply emotional reactions seen on television to guide their own behavior.” (“TV and Kids Under Age 3”)
Cartoon characters, even animals, are bright and loud and make human facial expressions and say really funny things that illicit our laughter. My son and daughter have preferences already about which animations they prefer, none of which are influenced (yet) by the outfits the cartoon creations wear or don’t wear. Cartoon studios, then, were presumably exact in their priorities in this manner.
More so, if a character only has on a shirt, and my 4-year-old is watching from the couch in his t-shirt and underwear, there’s some kind of art-imitating-life-and-vice-versa going on there. Reflection is undeniable for accurate audience response.
My kids love walking around like those half-dressed cartoon animals. Fine. Partial nudity, even if drawn, is part of parenthood, after all. I don’t mind in the least…today.
“TV and Kids Under Age 3.” PBS Parents, n.d., http://www.pbs.org/parents/childrenandmedia/article-faq.html. Accessed Apr. 7, 2018.