On Found Families in Animation

The convenience of narrative tropes and the cartoonish struggle of living through another day alone together.

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John Maher

Aug 07 2021

10 mins read

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Better Find Your Family Before the Finale

Belonging is the very best thing there is. —Faye Valentine, Cowboy Bebop


What do Cowboy Bebop, One Piece, The Land Before Time, Lilo & Stitch, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Steven Universe, and—one sec, let me check my notes—pretty much every single recent Netflix action-adventure cartoon (I'm looking at you, Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power and Centaurworld and and and—) have in common? Besides that they're all animated, of course. Ah, yes. The inescapable found family trope.

There may be even more found families in animation than dead parents, which is really saying something. (If anyone feels like trying to quantify that, be my guest.) And there are, shall we say, plenty of fair critiques to be made about this.

As someone who is obsessed with, and writes regularly on, representations of trauma in animation—both in this newsletter and more broadly—it is safe to say that I resemble that remark. While I'm not the kind of person who demands a protagonist with whom I can identify in the works of art with which I engage, I'm not going to pretend that I don't find such characters especially compelling; there's a reason I've written essays comparing myself to Katara of the Northern Water Tribe and the eponymous hero of Steven Universe. This stuff is catnip for me.

As a species, humans are pretty much hard-wired to see for ourselves in those around us, fictional or real, be that via empathy or projection. My therapist argues that people need a healthy dose of narcissism, and while I'm fairly certain that what she means is self-love, I don't think there's anything wrong with looking at characters on a screen and seeing yourself in them like Narcissus in the pool. It's vital to find our characteristics and experiences represented in media for a variety of reasons, and one of them is so that we can learn something about ourselves and our lives from them. As long as that's not the only reason we're engaging with media (it's important to learn about others, too, kids), and as long as we can maintain a critical eye, I don't see this as a bad thing.

Still, there is such a thing as oversaturation, and once you see how often this trope is employed, it's pretty hard not to see it. There is a reason certain literary and rhetorical devices or motifs become clichés, and often, it's because they are convenient narrative crutches. How can a writer set an adventure story about a child in motion? Well, get the parents out of the way, of course. This trope is much older than cartoons. It's a classic move in fairy tales, for instance—and if you're the sort of person who has read Bruno Bettelheim's classic Freudian study of that form, The Uses of Enchantment, you probably see the echoes of fairy tales every time you throw on a Cartoon Network show, let alone such Disney films as Snow White or Pinnochio, films that directly adapt those tales. Still, when Bettelheim wrote that “each fairy tale is a magic mirror which reflects some aspects of our inner world, and of the steps required by our evolution from immaturity to maturity,” he might as well have been writing about cartoons.

Found families in fiction play a similar narrative role to lost parents. Once heroes are alone out in the world, they still need others to learn from and in order to survive. Those others are often also separated from their own families either permanently or temporarily, like all the little dinosaurs in The Land Before Time. One trope here begets another, and not too get too Joseph Campbell about it, but if you're going on a hero's journey in the first place, it's probably because you have no choice, and if you run into others on similar journeys, it's probably because they didn't either. All these traumatized characters, severed from what they had and looking for what they've lost in each other, in a way replicate on the screen our relationships with them as viewers. They see themselves in each other—even if they hate it—the way we see ourselves in them. No wonder they stick together, however tenuously.

And it is often tenuous. Maintaining human relationships is extremely difficult. People, no matter how much you project onto them, are not you. Even when they share similar backgrounds or demeanors or experiences or ways of seeing the world, they will never think precisely like you do. Conflict is certain, and so is losing, especially in times of turmoil. This is something many people I know, including me, have experienced acutely over the past year and a half, during which a global pandemic heightened the existential terror of living for anyone who was paying adequate attention. It has taken people from us—quite literally, if you've lost a loved one to Covid-19— and, often, exposed fault lines in relationships and divisions between the priorities and values that underpin them.

These are exactly the times when we need human relationships the most—while we're losing them. We may not be trying to save the world from colonizing sentient alien rocks or a power-mad sociopathic fascist who can shoot fire out of his hands, but things are still rough out there. (In addition to a still-rampaging pandemic, we've got plenty of colonizers and fascists in our own world, too). Everyone needs a family, and not everyone has one that they can rely on for support. In that case, you have to find one.

The thing with found families is that they are not all that different from families tied together by blood. Ultimately, each personal connection is fairly arbitrary, and maintaining it is a choice, although having those connections really is not. One of the great struggles of the human condition is finding a way to thread the needle between our need to be ourselves and to take care of ourselves first and our need to be connected with others, even when it hurts. Love and support is part of that, but that's not all that community means. One of the principal reasons humans are a social species is the woeful inadequacy of our natural properties to protect us in a world that, for example, has bears in it. Banding together has always been our best way to survive. All of human civilization is, arguably, a found family, albeit not a very loving one most of the time.

Pretty much all of the found families in all of the series and films I've mentioned so far do, in fact, come into conflict, like any family. And they're not always that loving. Take Cowboy Bebop. The crew members of the Bebop are all lost and broken people, floating through space trying to make ends meet. They're a found family of convenience, not love. Many found families in cartoons start out that way, of course. Sokka isn't particularly fond of Aang throughout much of the first season of Avatar: The Last Airbender, for instance. Often, human groupings are made of convenience, determined by where we live or work or what we're mutually struggling with or against. Still, they're what we have. We don't always have to keep what we have, but we do have to have people, whether or not we're particularly thrilled with that. And as we stay with those people, it's natural that we hope to keep them, and to be kept by them. We hope to belong to them, and with them. For belonging, as Faye Valentine puts it, "is the very best thing there is."

That is to say that the narrative convenience of this trope is only part of its appeal. The other part is, of course, how identifiable it is. Unless your narcissism is megalomaniacal, you definitely struggle sometimes to feel worthy of love and community. I think that one of the principle reasons many of us identify so strongly with these cartoons and their characters is that we don't feel like we belong, even when we have people in our lives who love us. That's trauma talking, of course. But show me someone who loves art who doesn't love it in part because it is one of the most powerful tools humanity has with which to process trauma, and with which to understand our lives in a world that is filled to the brim with it.

"Artists and comedians are all traumatized," Jackson Publick, one of the two showrunners on The Venture Bros., told me once. "And we’re making animation. We’re obviously all stuck in our own damn childhoods and trying to make sense of them. We’re all in a time loop. Life is Groundhog Day, except maybe on a five-year cycle, and maybe each time you get a little better at dealing with your crap, or you get one level deeper into understanding how you work, and what maybe needs fixing."

It's a bum deal, but it's the one we've got. And it's not a task we can take on alone. So you'd better find your family before your finale, in whatever form it takes. It'll be hard to keep that family, found or not. Living together and loving each other is anything but easy. But if a bunch of damn cartoons can do it, then so can you.


All She Wrote

Recent pieces I've written and other projects.

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Oh, and if you're looking for the best new animation to watch, the pal Eric Vilas-Boas and I have got you covered over at Vulture.


Tips for the Tooned In

What I'm loving right now and other sundries.

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A dear friend who knows that I've been Going Through It lately finally, after years of gentle pestering via GIF, sat me down and made me watch what we call "the People Show" and what everyone else calls Schitt's Creek. (The joke is that I don't watch live-action film or television—a joke that, despite being based on a half-truth at best, simply keeps on giving.) We finished the first season and, so far, it's been mildly enjoyable, which is about the best I can expect from any situation comedy, a genre I typically do not find appealing in any way...unless it is animated. (I like live-action dramas, OK!?)

Still, the show turned me on to the Canadian actress Annie Murphy, which brought me to Kevin Can F**k Himself, a series that kicks relationship sitcom tropes in the teeth over and over again. In some ways, I think the show is a bit of a mess, but I stayed up way too late bingeing it recently nevertheless. Speaking of shows that are a tad messy but impossible to tear your eyes away from: the beautifully weird and compelling BEASTARS has a second season, baby! I'd also recommend the heck out of the donghua Heaven Official's Blessing, which is very gay, very beautiful, and, like BEASTARS, on Netflix. Wow, I've watched a lot of TV lately.

Pivoting to music now. The youngest winner of a Pulitzer Prize, the composer Caroline Shaw, returned with a new album, Let the Soil Play Its Simple Part, earlier this summer, and it's stunning. The extraordinary fingerpicker Charlie Parr is back as well, with Last of the Better Days Ahead, and it's as exquisite as anything he's ever released. Which is really saying something.


Cartoon GIF of the Week

Like a newspaper cartoon, but animated.

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