Cartoon Demographics – Are We Infantiles, or are Children More Adult-like?

I’ve been thinking of the intersection of genres and demographics for a while, especially as I’ve recently discussed how some shows have demographics as meta-genres, and instead of genres. This recent blog post on The Otaku Lounge by Artemis discussing anime/manga demographics made me try to formulate my words on the topic. I sat down and thought – this genres don’t really apply to me – I watch children shows (though less as time goes by), and I watch both female and male-oriented young-adult and adult shows. I also tried to even identify shows that fall within certain categories and had a really hard time doing so.

Avatar: The Last Airbender (season 2)

That’s when I realized – the shows don’t have these demographics within them. There is no magical connection between the so-called demographic which is supposedly of the show and who really enjoys the show, or can enjoy it – especially if we’re going to resist gender and age-based essentialism, though obviously we’re talking more about life experienced and supposed socialization lines here.
That made me realize – these demographics are merely a construct, and not one truly used by the authors of shows or movies, but by the marketing teams that have to release the work into the wide world.

Well, let’s backtrack a bit and talk about some shows, movies, and other things:

Avatar the Last Airbender – This cartoon by Nickolodeon had first come out in 2005. The Story-Game RPG community I was part of had absolutely loved it. I was 20 when it’s come out, my friend Christian who was 30 years old who watched it with his 3 year old and 13 year old sons. We’ve had numerous men and women ranging from 15 to about 40 who all absolutely loved the show. So what if it’s been categorized as a “Children’s show”? It has good characters, good character and plot development, real conflicts and conflict-resolution that isn’t entirely based on violence. It’s for everyone.

Disney/Pixar movies – Children here are usually taken to watch Disney films as they grow up. I remember being taken to watch Bambi as a five year old, and when I saw my grandmother crying next to me I consoled her, “Don’t worry grandmother, it’s not real – it’s just a movie.” My best friend and I had watched plenty of animated films in the cinemas – all of the Shrek films, Toy Story 3, and recently we’ve watched Monsters University.
We definitely weren’t the only adults there, though going at later hours and watching the films in English rather than dubbed to Hebrew definitely raises the age. The point being, there is definite adult interest in these “Children-shows”.

Now, let’s look at some different examples:

Shounen” refers to young boys, say, first graders to 16 years old or so. There are shows called “Shounen shows” (Bleach, Naruto, One Piece, Fairy Tail, for instance)  which don’t mean merely shows that cater to this crowd, but a specific subset of endlessly running action shows, the term comes from the magazine “Shonen Jump” where some of these mangas later turned into anime are released. Now, we all like action shows, right? In the west, while mindless action flicks are supposedly aimed at the same crowd, more usually they’re aimed at 16 and above, and yes, mostly men.
If you look at most of these shows, you’ll see they’re full of determinators – people who win because they want to win, people who get stronger through adversity and only fail in order to succeed later – and they’ll never stop trying. Most of these shows give you mindless action, gags aplenty, or just cool and broody characters, as one would also find in R.A. Salvatore‘s Drizzt Do’Urden books. But then you have Fairy Tail, my current favourite shonen show, and it’s full to the brim with emotional moments, and it’s full of characters within the show, including the “manly men” and determinators shedding tears. All over the place. It’s still a “shonen show”, but as with the Bambi example above, what you take out of a work of art depends on what you bring into it – if you want to see cool action and determinators, you will, but if you want to see and can appreciate emotional moments – so you will. Bleach’s emotional moments are few and usually ring hollow, but that’s not indicative of all such shows.

Blood Lad which I recently discussed in my weekly episode shows is a show which has either no genres, or too many genres – it’s got fan-service, action, comedy, all supposedly aimed at the shonen demographic. But if you look at the “shounen shows” I referred to above, shonen no longer acts as a demographic alone, it is now a genre, and a meta-genre that acts as an umbrella for some shows as well. These so-called “Shonen shows” may not even be aimed at the demographic intended, but they fit the genre conventions of shows that do. Demographics, or the terms for them, are no longer merely a demographic, but a category for shows by their makers, a genre.

Now, let’s look at a couple more examples of so-called “Demographics”. Let us begin with “Shoujo” or shows supposedly aimed at young girls (up to 16-18 in age). Most romantic comedies fall under the purview of “shoujo”, but why? What effect does it have? I can easily imagine boys who are into romantic comedies being ridiculed because they like things aimed at girls. But in my experience, this is one genre that has parity, more or less – I see as many boys as I do girls who like this genre – though that may mean the percentage within-gender is still tilted for the simple reason that I see more males than females into anime (online), though the difference is less and less marked each time I look again.

Now, if you want to see an example of a franchise that’s the epitome of “Shoujo”‘s ideals in the west, I’d point at Barbie (though increasingly I wonder if it’s not actually a “Children’s” franchise that no longer applies to the next age-bracket.) – The reason I do pick Barbie though is that she’s the closest thing we have in the west to “Moe” – Moe being “Cute”, and “Moe-shows” are almost always about “Cute girls doing cute things” to put it succinctly. Here we see that demographics are about marketing – these shows are marketed at girls, because it’s not boyish to like such shows. But if you look at the hours these shows air (2200 and later) and who goes to conventions of such shows, as OreImo kept pointing out – it’s adult men. There’s more than a fair amount of sexualization and notions of sexuality that are transmitted in these shows, and while the marketing teams can’t come straight out and say that these shows are aimed at mature men – they are the demographic that watches them the most, or at least that spends the most money on them, so while the shows are “cute”, the merchandise is often sexualized if not hyper-sexualized.

“Shows aimed at adults”, “Seinen” and “Josei” for men and women respectively, are the type of show I have the hardest time finding. First, many shows are designated 18+ for extreme violence, profanity and/or sex, these are often used as titillating material, in which case teenagers are quite often the ones being titillated so I can’t use this as a category, and other times it’s not that these things are inappropriate for children but adults had decided so – Princess Mononoke by Studio Ghibli for instance is one of my all time favourite films. I’ve watched it in the cinema when I was 13 with my grandfather and two of my cousins, the youngest being 10 at the time. He absolutely loved this movie, this movie he wasn’t allowed to watch on his own due to the hyper-violence used in some sequences. Ninja Scroll is another famous example of nudity and violence, but if you’d ask me teenagers are exactly the group that not only would like this show the most, but the one it’s actually aimed at.

So then we have shows that are “Adult” for actually having a more “serious” plot, for dealing with issues of morality, with loss and sacrifice, for being self-aware, shows such as Steins;Gate and Code Geass (note I use two shows I really like here) – the post linked to under Code Geass is especially relevant, “The Question at the Heart of Every Story” – a show you watch in order to think of, to think of its themes. Supposedly, that’d make for an “Adult show”, right? Except many people who flock to say, Ayn Rand’s writings, or Nietzsche’s are teenagers, and for good reason. We like to flex our minds, and it certainly makes us proud of ourselves, for deciphering these shows, for using them to iron our ideals, to comment on these characters’ ideals.

These “Adult shows”, it might seem I’m denigrating them, which is why the two examples I’ve used are shows I love. I don’t denigrate them, and while I think teenagers would absolutely love them, why does it mean adults can’t like them too? In many ways, we don’t change once we become adults, and in many regards our tastes don’t either. That a show is something a teenager would love, it doesn’t follow that it’s not a show that an adult would love as well. Would you wish to single out only one group that is allowed to like Babylon 5 or Star Trek, for instance? It doesn’t follow. These so-called “demographics” make little sense, as they are exclusive, rather than inclusive.

There are some “real” adult shows, shows that cover what it is to become an adult, what it’s like being an adult, or who cover adult-life. Anime has only a few of them, but if you look at actual movies, books, or even manga that didn’t get to become anime, then they comprise a large amount of the content, a good anime example would be Welcome to the NHK which deals with the hardships of becoming an independent adult in this world.

The “Adult-aimed shows” also brings me back to my main argument – there are children shows such as Avatar which are enjoyed by people of all age-ranges, and many of these so-called “Adult-shows” are loved by teens or even pre-teens. The demographics outlined above aren’t descriptive – they don’t tell you who does like the show; they’re prescriptive – who should like the show, according to marketing people. And sometimes, they aim the show at one crowd but designate it as aimed at another crowd, for reasons such as it not being “proper” for the crowd it’s really aimed at to like this kind of media, for societal or legal reasons.

Watch what you enjoy, not what you’re told you should enjoy, and that people younger or older than you, of different genders or other groups like the things you like shouldn’t make you question your taste, but marvel and revel at the fact that all of you can enjoy the same thing – and also at the fact each of you can take something different from the shared work of art.

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3 comments on “Cartoon Demographics – Are We Infantiles, or are Children More Adult-like?

  1. hee7 says:

    Great article; agree with all of this.

    Haven’t been a teenager for some time, but I still read “Young Adult” fiction more than any other, simply because most “Adult” fiction I encounter seems to be trying too hard to be ADULT or IMPORTANT.

    I think inclusiveness is a big factor in good entertainment, and labeling is just a cultural thing. It’s why Studio Ghibli films are so popular!

    I mean, not everyone likes the same things, but age rarely plays a factor in these things unless one tries to intentionally exclude via… I dunno. Annoyance factor? Bad writing?

    On the flip side, while I love that we get good Josei manga on occasion, like Princess Jellyfish, ported to anime, I wish there was more of it; it adds a bit of freshness to the palate.

    • Guy says:

      If I feel a story’s plot is too simple, I might dislike it for that. Happened to me with Spirited Away.

      But, I read books aimed at children and young adults all the time, and I quite like them. Artemis Fowl, The Bertimaeus trilogy… I even enjoyed The Shade’s Apprentice, though I did feel that one was a bit too simple and sparse.

      And yeah, there should be more “truly adult” stuff ported over to anime. And I think that’s often that’s more slice of life stuff. All the “adult plot” is indeed, stuff trying to show how edgy and mature it is, which often has the negative result :3

      I like films for instance, or shows, that you can watch all age groups watching together, and enjoying together. Admittedly, it’s not always for the same reasons, but that’s life, and can also happen within the same age group. Not like we do that much growing up after a certain point in life anyway, just that our situations change and we want to see them reflected, a tad.

  2. […] been watching anime for a while, I sometimes reflect on who is anime aimed at, such as in this post about demographics. I confess to finding myself cranky and cynical, when shows aimed at “adult men” most […]

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