Figments of the 80s Imagination

Until the age of five, I lived in Florida, only about an hour from Disney World. Back then we had some sort of off-season Florida-resident family pass, combining all the savings of time shares, economy packs, and in-state college tuition into one laminated, photo ID'd badge. I'm certain nothing like this exists anymore. In those days ('82-'87) there were no theme hotels except for the Riverboat one, and everyone was looking forward to the NEW MGM Studios park. Pretty much we went went to the Magic Kingdom, and then spend one afternoon over at Epcot.

I loved Epcot. And not just because I think the only thing more fun than amusement park rides is science, and multicultural theme restaurants. Epcot was my favorite because it was the home of Figment, to whom I imagined I was partially related.

"Who the fuck?" you say? Why, this guy:

No? Perhaps more recognizable in cartoon form?

Hmm. Well, there he is. He was the mascot of the "Imagination Pavilion", so I gather, though I knew it only as the Figment ride. 'Figment of your imagination..." get it...?

I had a stuffed Figment, which was "my" stuffed animal among all the others (you understand), and I carried him everywhere. I wish I could find a picture of him to show you, but all the plush Figment's on the Internet are NOT the right one. I remember he had hard plastic eyes, felted horns (on head and tail) and a yellow shirt with a velcro strip down the back so it could come off and on. I'm not sure why--perhaps there were other costumes. However, it no doubt gave me my first unconscious Othering experience with nakedness, allowing me castration transference as I dressed and undressed this horned purple dragon. But, we'll leave that exactly where it is.

I didn't watch TV much as a kid. Just Electric Company, Seasame Street, Mr. Rodgers and other such educational and PBS staples. I certainly knew of other shows, from friends houses, sick days, and etc. Transformers, Smurfs, Care Bears, ThunderCats, and all are definitely in the back of my clogged brain, probably still rubbing stardust and plastic missiles into my aesthetic zones as we speak. Like the other millions of children growing up in front of an 80s TV set (I loved the way those RCA buttons clicked), in my adult life I am still hobbled by a need to spend good, hard-earned money on animation and its characters, toys with folding spring-loaded parts, and video games which allow you to pretend that you in fact are any of these things.

Have we all been brainwashed? Yes. But I wonder how--it strikes me there is a very definite aesthetic in these sorts of characters and programs, that we don't see in material targeted for a similar age group today. Will children of the 90s remember Mighty Morphin Power Rangers with the same fondness? Harry Potter? The books perhaps: but what about the slew of plastic shit slung along with it? Will the Harry Potter toys captivate these child-zombies' cultural pre-conscious? Will people line up at college parties to play the Power Rangers' video game? Normally I always pick three examples with these sorts of rhetorical comparisons, but I can't even think of a third thing from the 90s perhaps affecting a similar age range. Do they exist, and I am just of a decade earlier?

I think there is something about the pixelated, LiteBrite, stardusted 80s cartoon world that speaks outside of its own consumer catagory. There's something about the absolute ridiculousness of creatures mining starbits, of a village populated by little blue men and only one blue woman, of a war fought with weapons that ARE toys, and in which no one ever dies, ever. It's just so zany, so obviously fake, it takes the uncanny valley and flips it inside out, dragging it back around to cover over reality, painting it all yellow, red, and blue and covered in stars, making horrible things like the Reagan years, and the Bush years (when all of this stuff miraculous became hip again) disappear and seem as unreal as cheaply-animated children.

But that sort of cultural analysis is all after the fact, of course. A five year-old doesn't know anything except what's on the playroom floor. So there is something else, something aesthetic, something even a child can understand because, it seems, only children (or adults who act like children) understand it.

Look at Figment's shirt. What the hell is up with the yellow sweater? (My stuffed animal's shirt did not have his name on it, I don't think.) A purple dragon isn't too far out of whack--not so far from the horrid purple dinosaur of the next decade. (There's my third example!) But dressed in a yellow sweater with red piping... hmm. Why dress him at all? He wore other costumes in the Disney attraction, yet he still maintains the "I may be an anthropomorphic magical being, but I'm not naked, and don't you dare mention my lack of pants."

Let's see what other cartoons were sporting in the 80s.

The Care Bears are a good place to start. The rainbow colors, the symbols, the cute and cuddly animals bearing (ha) almost no resemblance to real animals are all of note. In the show, they would often use a lot of bogus gadgets, like "crystals of caring", and speciously designed robots. The bizarre, greeting-card simple world-view goes along with the rainbow colors; everything equally represented along a arbitrary color wheel of a plot, thought very cute.

Rainbow Brite is very similar to the Care Bears in its use of Rainbow Colors, appropriate, color-specific characterizations, and also the greeting-card plot, not insignificantly because both Rainbow Brite and Care Bears were originally conceived by greeting card companies (American Greetings and Hallmark respectively) before they became toys, shows, and all the rest. Rainbow Brite is perhaps more interesting because of its tendency towards a very colorful "lolita"-esque sexual fetish, especially in latter day interpretations. Of course, the "furry" sub-culture (whether sexual or not) could be said to have strong roots around the Care Bears as well. What is it about these simple characters, over-emphasizing a simplistic, ecumenical Good such as "caring and feelings" or "bright colors and friendship" that drives the mind towards sex? Is it a childhood spent exploring a new body on the floor of the playroom in front of the TV, or is it the fantastical innocence? A play world of bright colors, no AIDS epidemic, consistently cute and cuddly personalities, and overflowing and unrejectable friendship sounds like a pretty awesome sexuality to inhabit, come to think of it. I would be in favor of such characters teaching sex ed to teens, even graphically. Who wouldn't listen to a Care Bear telling you that while you can't get pregnant from oral sex, you can still get herpes? If Rainbow Brite told me to wear a condom, you bet I'd wrap it up. Is that twisted? Maybe. But sexual role models as good and caring as Care Bears and Rainbow Brite don't come along every day, or... ever.

So, perhaps the Voltron Force is not the best place for kids to learn about sex and gender roles. Sure, the princess can drive the Blue Lion, but she is also eye candy for the rest of the team. I'm pretty sure the translations are not accurate--I'd swear Hunk makes a poorly-translated masturbation joke at her expense at one point. And I don't even want to take on the subject of Nanny. But we do see the color theme represented again (I never could figure out why their uniforms don't match the colors of their Lions).
But what I think is really interesting is the Force's street clothes. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a picture, but they seem to wear anything they want, even though the rest of the planet wears archaic garments, and other planets wear downright historical garb. Its a very casual feeling, whether you think about it or not. One of them is wearing a race car uniform, another a cowboy suit! It is Japanese, so perhaps there is something I'm not picking up on. But regardless, they wear loose fitting, not uniform, casual looking clothes when their not forming Voltron. This is a new thing for children's TV; clothes rarely look so natural on their wearers, instead they look as if picked to be normal, not natural.

Teddy Ruxpin--the cyborg toy culture forgot. I've spoken about his analog-robomorphic weirdness elsewhere, so instead let's focus on the oddity that is this friendly bear's tunic. It seems the cartoon was designed to look like the toy, which came equipped with a velcro shirt, as easily removable as my Figment toy. Before we start asking questions about why any child would want to force-strip a bear reading him/her a bedtime story, let's set that line of inquiry aside; it was NECESSARY to access the toy's battery and cassette compartments. But the clothing does usher in a similar feeling of casualness. In imaginary worlds populated by anthropomorphic animals, nakedness is really not a big deal. Naturally, one must be clothed or have fur--but this clothing is more representative of one's characteristic color or of a general casual nature, rather than any standards of society. Tunics: why not? If we're going to be building a giant airship, we might as well be comfortable. What are you wearing there, little child, while you watch? Pants? A skirt? That's cool, I guess. But why bother? A simple band of cloth with arm holes and convenient velcro closure is all you really need in this world. If it's not bright colors, it might as well be comfortable.

Link has the tunic thing down, and Zelda is... merely instructing him on how a belt maintains the tunic's stasis in the "down" position? ...showing him who wears the pants in the kingdom, despite who has the sword? ...simply making everyone, including Link, uncomfortable?
This picture might be a fan construction, I don't really know. Actually, the only thing I know about this show is that Link keeps trying to earn a kiss as a reward for saving the princess, and never gets it, though receiving many cold buckets of water on the head, and other such sobering dismissals. Like, a belt tightening. I guess.
Okay, what is really interesting here is that a game with a pixelated, 8-bit character spawns a animated series, which in turn makes kids want to wear tights and tunics for their Halloween costume. Of course, they were probably much more interested in the sword, but they would still suffer tights for the chance to smash ghosts with light beams in real life.

And after all, isn't that what children's programming is really about? The educational programming has its own agenda, but these sorts of sugar-cereal Saturday specials were focused on initiating play--that is, buying the toys associated with the show. Lots of shows do this, but now they are focused on things like action, or kid-centric humor, or other crap. Watch an episode of My Little Ponies, and you'll see what I mean. There is NOTHING there, no content at all. Each episode is twenty minutes of your favorite toys moving, talking, and looking beautiful on top of waterfalls and galloping down rainbows. It is meant to occur in the background, while you're playing with the toy. Perhaps it is the first shot at "interactive" programming, putting thoughts in your head while toys are in your hand. I guess Howdy Doody did the same thing in its day, but this is a whole new level of interactivity.

My rambling through the bizzare world of 80s children's programming has sort of lost its direction, and necessarily so. The post itself is getting a bit disoriented, so lets sum it up. From what we've seen, 80s cartoons bring the following to the table:

A) A disorienting, utter-fantastical world.

B) Bright, rainbow colors, increasing deorientation, and creating dazziling light patterns on the screen.

C) A wholy casual world-view, based upon abstract costumes, plot, and characterizations, doing little else than to wrap the view in a warm blanket of obliviousness.

D) Perhaps an undercurrent of prepubescent eroticism.

E) A play experience, involving a simulated feedback interaction with an actual toy object, enveloping the child into the world of play with both the toy and the media on the screen simultaneously.

All of this is very heady stuff. The toy companies probably only saw an opportunity to brand their toys, and this is why the 80s cartoon aesthetic dropped off: they just kept selling toys, without thinking why it was working. But a generation of children found their daily play opening a new dimension within their minds--a dimension of fantastical, disorientating (from the "real" world) pure play, where their imagination was reflected in their eyes and their hands simultaneously.

This imaginative, hand-eye coordination is ridiculously important. I won't go into the depths of the somatic unconscious, and I will spare you all the Freud. But let's just say this: the children lifting up Rainbow Brite's skirt and putting Raffi tapes in the Teddy Ruxpin? Ten years later, they would discover the Internet. Think it's unrelated? Think there isn't a Voltron porn out there on the Internet, somewhere?

I don't know if all of that is inherent in Figment's shirt. I actually never watched the TV show based on the character, though I did love the ride at the park, but mostly because I liked the stuffed dragon. But the shirt is bright, bright yellow. Why?

I can say this: during the same time period, I had an imaginary friend who was a dragon. I invented this imaginary friend's death, including staging a funeral for him. I also used to play while watching TV. A lot. Now I listen to music, blog, and read the news and philosophize all at the same time.

Go ahead, watch a few episodes of Rainbow Brite. Better yet, do something else while its on. See how it feels.

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