I was recently reminded of a comment someone made at one of the video game forums I posted at as a teenager. It’s stuck in my mind because it’s one of the few comments I saw posted at a video game forum when I was a teenager that had any sort of intellectual merit. The poster said that one reason he was fond of Japanese games and cartoons was that they were able to be weird without being gross, in contrast to the English-speaking world where weirdness went hand-in-hand with gross-out humour.
He was talking specifically about Conker’s Bad Fur Day (for those unaware, that’s a British video game that started out as a sugar-sweet title about a cutesy squirrel, but was retooled during development to be filled with South Park-esque swearing, violence and bodily function humour) but I think it checks out as a general observation. For some time, the quirkiest and most offbeat American cartoons that received any sort of mainstream acceptance typically embraced gross-out humour: South Park, Ren & Stimpy, and going back a bit, the works of Robert Crumb, Ralph Bakshi and Basil Wolverton.
There are some notable exceptions from the psychedelic era — see Yellow Submarine — but for the most part, you’d have to go back to the splendidly strange Betty Boop cartoons of the thirties to find strangeness without grossness. Meanwhile, growing up, I noticed that many of the games I played had a certain oddball aesthetic that seemed the sole preserve of Japan (Warioware, Parodius and Goemon all spring to mind) and after that poster pointed it out, I realised that yes, the general lack of gross-out was a defining trait.
Twenty or so years later, things have changed. Gross-weird cartoons are still prominent (see Rick and Morty) but there’s much more acceptance in the Anglosphere of cartoons that show a sweeter stripe of weirdness: see Adventure Time, Steven Universe and the comic strips of Jamie Smart.
The thing that got me thinking about all this was, of course, Charlie Jane Anders’ recent Sweetweird Manifesto. Or rather, the discourse surrounding the manifesto, as the above all popped into my head before I’d had the chance to read the essay itself. When I got round to doing so I found that, lo and behold, Anders makes an observation quite similar to the one made by that pster on the games forum years ago:
The core idea of sweetweird is: the world makes no sense, but we can be nurturing, frivolous and kind. We don’t have to respond to the ludicrous illogic of the world around us by turning mean and nasty, or by expecting everyone else to be horrible.
And a little later, she ties this the same trends in recent American cartoons that I’d thought of:
A lot of animation, these days, feels sweetweird to me, including stuff like Steven Universe, She-Ra, The Dragon Prince, Summer Camp Island, Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, Hilda, Star Trek: Lower Decks, and The Owl House.
Anders has been receiving a lot of flack for her essay, and there are legitimate criticisms to be made. I think she would have been better off putting her thoughts down simply as a description of a popular aesthetic, rather than a manifesto with ideological baggage. The piece is at its weakest when it tries to draw a distinction between progressive, LGBT-positive sweetweird and reactionary, nihilistic grimdark.
On the whole, though, I’d say that her description is largely accurate. Whether or not you accept the term “sweetweird”, the aesthetic she’s describing is a major part of twenty-first century pop culture. (In the English-speaking world, that is; globally, we can find it stretching back further, as I said above).
Ideology aside, my main criticism of the essay is in how it conflates literature with cartoons. The sweetweird aesthetic can be found in both media, yes, and Anders cites solid examples to back this up. But in presenting a counterpart to sweetweird, she chooses grimdark, suggesting that she has literature — particularly A Song of Ice and Fire — in mind. While there exists animation that could be termed grimdark, it is surely overwhelmed by South Park, Rick and Morty and other such combinations of the gross and the weird. Grossweird, not grimdark — that is, if we need yet another genre label.
Yet while the opposing aesthetic might vary from medium to medium, Anders makes a fair assessment of an aesthetic — whether or not we call it “sweetweird” — that can indeed be found in both cartoons and literature. As she points out, it stretches from Steven Universe and Adventure Time to the works of Ursula Vernon and Catherynne Valente.
The question that intrigues me, but which is never really acknowledged by the essay, is how contemporary cartoons and fantasy literature managed to find such a close common ground in the first place.