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Cartoon Fandom Has a Puritanism Problem

Over the past few weeks, fans of the new Disney Channel animated series Amphibia have harassed the show's creative staff, with storyboard artist Hannah Ayoubi accused of supporting child abuse; those who have defended her have also been labeled as supporting the same. Why? Because she drew Grime, a toad of indeterminate age, carrying Sasha, a 13-year-old girl, and the two of them blushing.

This is the drawing that some have called pornographic, which it isn't by any stretch of the imagination. As for Grime's age, Ayoubi has stated she interpreted the character as a teenager who is simply ugly and deep-voiced by virtue of being a toad. Others have interpreted Grime as an adult, in which case it's understandable they would be uncomfortable with art implying romantic feelings between him and a teenager, but it's absolutely clear that was not the intention. Nonetheless, Ayoubi and her friends in the animation industry have been smeared as pedophilia apologists.

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amphibia

The Amphibia drama is emblematic of a troubling trend among some segments of animation fandom. Call-out culture, toward both animators and other fans, is being taken to unreasonable extremes. The language of real concerns, ranging from representation issues to actual sexual misconduct, gets weaponized for an agenda that can be described as puritanical. These people demand animators keep their online presences as G-rated as the kids' shows on which they work.

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A Medium article published by the user BrazyDay, titled "Kids' TV has a porn problem," has been circulating on social media. It's an incredibly frustrating article in that it makes a few justified points and follows up with a ton of absurd false equivalencies. When a bad take enjoys as wide a reach as this one has, it needs to be deconstructed.

First off, let's acknowledge what BrazyDay gets right: There are actual creeps within the animation industry and fandom. Many of the Newgrounds animators mentioned in the article make undeniably offensive material, and in Shadman's case, such material is actively abusive toward real people. And the Brony fandom is the most notable, but certainly not the only example of a fandom in which individuals failed to keep raunchy fan art away from all-ages spaces.

OK KO

Not all animation fandom spaces, however, are all-ages spaces. If proper age and content warnings are provided, there is no reason why someone's NC-17 Twilight Sparkle/Pinkie Pie fanfic should be treated as some egregious moral crime. If you don't like it, you don't have to read it. And if a professional creator like Gravity Falls' Alex Hirsch or OK K.O.'s Ian-Jones Quartey finds "gross" fan works of their shows amusing, it really doesn't matter so long as they neither act inappropriately toward others nor puts such "gross" content into the shows themselves.

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It should also be accepted that personal art portfolios and social media accounts are not going to follow the same content standards as daytime Cartoon Network shows. It should not be treated as some sort of horrible sin for Shane Glines, the character designer for Justice League Action, to draw nudes, nor should it be for Kyle A. Carozza, the creator of Mighty Magiswords, to follow adult models on Twitter. Yet Brazy's article acts as if this is directly hurting children.

It's a simple fact that artists can make different works for different audiences. It's ahistorical to act as if this is a new phenomenon borne out of 4Chan. Jim Henson did both Sesame Street and Saturday Night Live segments. Osamu Tezuka created Astro Boy and Kimba as well as dark horror and erotica. Jhonen Vasquez wrote Johnny the Homicidal Maniac before creating Invader ZIM. Neil Gaiman wrote both American Gods and Coraline. Robert Rodriguez directed both Spy Kids and Sin City. The idea artists who work on animated children's shows must keep their other work exclusively kid-friendly is excessively limiting.

Steven Universe: The Movie

The absolute worst part of Brazy's article comes when it attempts to rip apart Steven Universe, a show about as wholesome and moralistic as tween-targeted shows get. It's perhaps its reputation as one of the "wokest" cartoons around that leads those who wish to appear "woker than thou" to attack the show and its creator, Rebecca Sugar. That is not to say there aren't serious things to criticize about Steven Universe, but the "criticism" presented here is so nonsensical it feels more like an attack.

So what are the article's criticisms of SU/Sugar? Rebecca Sugar is first taken to task, along with her partner Ian Jones-Quartey, for collaborating with Trigger, one of the best anime studios in the world. Trigger produces a variety of content, some of it problematic but none of it pornographic, and there is nothing "creepy" about the studio's specific contributions to Steven Universe and OK K.O.

Then it drags up some old Ed, Edd n Eddy yaoi comics she posted on her LiveJournal while she was in college. Given the context (she was also drawing yaoi of old Terrytoons and the Mystery Science Theater 3000 robots) and that nothing graphic was shown, it seems as if these drawings were made to be funny rather than sexy. Now you can definitely argue even non-graphic joke yaoi of such young characters is offensive ... and that's probably why she deleted those LiveJournal posts a long time ago.

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The last points the article makes against Steven Universe are the absolute worst. While acknowledging that fusion between Gems is a metaphor for many different types and aspects of relationships, it goes on to presume that most instances of fusion are metaphors for sex, and then makes the even wilder presumption that fully grown characters in the show are "coded" as children.

peridot steven universe

All the Gems, aside from the half-human Steven, are born fully grown. Yet Brazy argues the shorter Gems, such as Ruby, Sapphire and Peridot, are "children" involved in "sexual" situations. In the case of Peridot, this argument is particularly problematic because Peridot is generally interpreted as autistic. She can be immature, but calling a fully grown autistic-coded character a "child" is astonishingly ableist.

It feels like no coincidence that the creators, both professionals and in fan communities, most virulently targeted and often harassed by the fandom puritans tend to be women and/or minorities. Rebecca Sugar is non-binary, Ian Jones-Quartey is black, Hannah Ayoubi is an Arab-American woman. Sarah Z made an excellent video talking about how "cancel culture" tends to end up hurting the marginalized creators disproportionately.

Hopefully people are able to see such animation fandom drama for the self-righteous nonsense it is, attempting to accuse artists of doing "harm" with their art so as to excuse engaging in actual harm to the artists. To end this article on a constructive note, please read this Twitter thread from Disney artist Anna Lencioni about proper fandom etiquette.

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