"All Ages" Means ALL Ages: For Adults who Watch Kids' Cartoons

My family saw television as a shared activity: we watched CSI: Las Vegas at dinner, and House before bed. As large a unifying role as television played in my childhood, one type of programming never made the cut: animation. My parents, like many adults, didn’t consider animation a medium that held value.

Despite the fact that adults in America have watched cartoons for a long time – The Simpsons first aired in 1989 and has secured renewal until 2019 – the association of cartoons as being only for children still prevails.

And yet, older teenagers and millennial adults are watching more animated shows, despite the stigma of immaturity. Moreover, they are watching actual kid’s cartoons, not animated adult programming à la The Simpsons, and with no children of their own to watch with them. Some adults are driven by nostalgia: reboots of classics like Teen Titans Go! draw in older fans of the original series with in-jokes and references. But new cartoons without the cultural clout of a popular predecessor have also amassed huge adult audiences.

Steven Universe, a show without forerunner, occupied two spots in the top 15 cable broadcasts the day it debuted its fifth season, proving its popularity with audiences of all ages. Notable for its more-than-subtextual queer themes, the series has a fandom fiercely protective of its queer representation. To see yourself reflected in the media you consume, is to have your existence validated. To see yourself represented thoughtfully, with complexity and authenticity, is to have your humanity validated. Representation in media matters. Steven Universe is popular, then, not regardless of the romance between femme-presenting aliens and subversion of gender norms, but in part because of it.

A step further lies Danger & Eggs. Like Steven Universe, the LGBTQ-inclusive Danger & Eggs has accumulated a following that spans all ages. Of all the queer representation in shows animated and live action alike, the final episode of Danger & Eggs’ first season has to be one of the most prominent, starring the most diverse spectrum of LGBTQ characters. Titled “Chosen Family,” the episode takes place at a Pride Festival and deals with themes of (you guessed it) chosen family, featuring a smorgasbord of celebratory LGBTQ imagery.

In a society that evaluates worth against a monetary ruler, supporting shows with well-crafted representation pushes back against long-standing negative tropes that reinforce patterns of inequality. The popularity of an inclusive show is proof of concept for networks concerned about profitability, and opens the door for the creation of even more inclusive content.

But ultimately, adult viewers watch Steven Universe and Danger & Eggs because they genuinely enjoy it. In a soundtrack full of silliness, Steven Universe also includes songs that ruminate on loss. Interspersed between fast-paced, gleeful jokes, Danger & Eggs delivers gems like, “Identity takes time.” These shows feel cathartic to watch. If media reflects life, these cartoons imbue their reflected worlds with endless optimism: even in the midst of conflict, the light at the end of the tunnel approaches.

Moreover, the purpose of fiction has always been to transport us from the familiarity of our lives. For demographics who feel consistently unsafe or unwelcome in the “real world,” this respite is significant: viewing a place where queer identity doesn’t preclude happy endings feels good. So watching the likes of Steven Universe and Danger & Eggs can be an act of emotional self-care for those experiencing minority stress. In the iconic words of Audre Lorde, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

My family still doesn’t watch cartoons when we gather in the living room, though I rarely hear remarks now if my parents peek animation streaming on my laptop. Our conversations about LGBTQ issues are more likely to stem from the crime drama How to Get Away with Murder than an animated show like Danger & Eggs. But I’m still going to watch these “children’s” cartoons, because they are uplifting and restorative, stickin’ it to the status quo 22 minutes at a time.