Adventure Time's Victories and Losses
Adventure Time's pilot episode aired over ten years ago in 2007 on Nicktoons. As of 2010, it became a series on Cartoon Network that saw massive success, lasting ten seasons with hundreds of episodes. The show will officially conclude on September 3 of this year, causing many to look back on the history and themes that this show explored during its lengthy run.
I am by no means an expert on the series. Researching characters for this post at times felt impossible because of how many episodes there are and, more importantly, how deep the plots of these episodes actually get. From its surface, Adventure Time appears to be a quirky comedy about a candy kingdom and magical animals who like to go on adventures. However, it reveals itself to be emotionally challenging and mature once you delve into plots of abandonment, loss, grief, nuclear war, rejection, being forgotten by those you love and more, all set in a post-apocolyptic (yet very beautiful) land. There are plenty of lessons to be learned from the show, and it is known to be loved across all age groups, which is why it has been so successful for so long. It's a little impossible to binge-watch, given the amount of episodes, but it is always entertaining.
When it comes to female characters who are tall, strong, chunky protagonists, the search is trying simply due to the sheer mass of episodes. In the main cast, we don't find any TSC ladies. As Princess Bubblegum and Marceline are taller, they are also slender. A lot of this has to do with the animation style of the show, which often portrays even thicker characters, like male lead Finn, with very skinny arms, almost like noodles. However, we do see thicker arms in certain secondary and background characters like Flame Princess, Jungle Princess and Frozen Yogurt Princess. These characters are also the traditional sort of hourglass curvy that is popular in cartoons today, as it diverts from the usual lanky build and becomes more sexual, but it does not represent bigger women in the slightest because it presents a predominantly slender figure with a slight amount of fat in areas deemed conventionally attractive.
In several of the even slightly more curvy characters, there is a common feature. They're very temporary. Either they do not talk or they are only featured in a single episode. We see this with Emerald Princess, Jungle Princess and Frozen Yogurt Princess. Thus, this removes their ability to become inspirational to or representative of young viewers because there is no opportunity for them to relate with the characters.
Another problematic area arises with Muscle Princess. She's a tall, strong, chunky character, but she's voiced by a man and jokes arise out of her believing that men are interested in a relationship with her. One of the "jokes" I have noticed most frequently within children's television is the muscular woman who is voiced by a man and has masculine energy, even though she is dressed in feminine attire. It creates a stereotype that bigger and stronger women are men or that they are manly, removing the validity in being a muscular woman and making strength exclusive to men.
The gender-swapped, fictional version of the series' original villain, Ice King, called the Ice Queen also presents some peculiar gender observations. While the Ice King's clothes are rather dowdy/loose, he has wrinkles, a pointy nose and shaggy hair, the Ice Queen has a fancy/regal gown that hugs her very thin figure, wrinkle-free skin, no nose and perfect hair. Though the argument could be made that, since this gender-bent character comes out of the his imagination, the Ice King makes his alternative self more conventionally attractive because he sees himself as attractive, this is the only gender-bent character in the episode that doesn't quite add up.
Though there are some issues when it comes to representation within this incredibly large cartoon universe, there are two characters who show hope for bigger women. Fionna and Susan Strong are two characters with figures entirely unique to themselves.
Fionna, being the gender-bent edition of the main character (Finn), is actually drawn as heavier than her her male inspiration. She has thicker legs and arms, as well as little rolls when she moves. Though she's only been majorly featured in four out of the hundreds of episodes, Fionna has been cosplayed and loved by fans across the globe. Her character is important because she's a version of the main character, indirectly making a bigger woman a main character through that logic. Since her character is met with love from the fans, I feel that it proves that, if there were a lead that looked like Fionna in a cartoon, people would rejoice in a chunkier, female protagonist and look up to her, not reject her. I wish that Fionna had gotten more episodes within the series because I think that she's a great role model for younger girls who want to see themselves in cartoons and in heroes.
It is far more complex to decipher the character of Susan Strong than it is to study Fionna. While Fionna is a replica of the main protagonist, and thus is automatically written with great depth, complexity, wit and humor (all of these features making her likable and complete), Susan Strong develops over the episodes she is featured in.
If you looked at Susan Strong on paper, you'd call her a certified TSC (tall, strong, chunky) protagonist right off the bat. She's incredibly tall, incredibly muscular and heftier than any other woman on the show by far, all while being a hero who fights for what's right for her people, the Hyoomans. However, when we are first introduced to Susan, she seems less than human. The entire first episode involves Susan coming out of hiding and into the world after the apocolypse. She cannot remember the language, so there's a barrier in communcation between her and the main characters. This allows the characters, mainly Jake, to talk about her directly in front of her, often in a negative way that implies that she is crazy or beastly. Additionally, Susan is afraid of most of the things she encounters during her return, cowering fear at everything. This directly contrasts her appearance and initial introduction, in which she is brave, heroic and definitely strong. In the first episode, Susan is not treated like a woman or even a person, she is treated like Frankenstein's monster. Her speech is broken and she is not talked to as an equal.
As episodes progress, Susan's backstory becomes more clear and we understand that she's not lesser, she's just forgotten her past. Eventually, it is learned that she was on of the strongest "seekers" from the human islands that are cut off from the rest of the world. She had friends and was able to speak perfectly before she crashed a ship and assimilated with the Hyooman tribe, learning to speak Hyooman opposed to human. Once she remembers her past, Susan speaks perfect English and becomes an equal hero to those who were able to effectively communicate with each other the whole time.
An important feature about Susan is that she has always been proud of her strength. In a flashback to her childhood, she's seen admiring her muscular arms and loving her "beefiness." Though Susan is muscular and massive, she doesn't lose her femininity. She is still voiced by a woman and she still has feminine features to her face and body. Susan, once her character is fully developed, is certainly a TSC protagonist woman. She's a fantastic role model for young girls, acting as a hero in all situations, saving babies and encouraging her friends to follow their dreams. We need more Susans on Cartoon Network, but we also need more bigger women who are of realistically large proportions, not necessarilly fictionally massive.
And there you have it. Susan is the only official TSC in Adventure Time across its ten seasons, though she is a very extreme example of the body type, so much so that it almost makes her too extreme for viewers to see themselves in her. If I could have seen anything more in this show, I would have liked it to be characters who were just casually bigger than the usual build, not necessarily massive. In this way, we would be able to normalize bodies outside of the lanky and conventionally curvy options that are given to female characters and most frequently accepted by society. Let bigger women speak and let them exist in fiction as they do in the real world. In a post-apocolyptic candy land of amazing creatures, it doesn't seem far fetched to imagine a few female characters who are bigger than the rest while maintaining their femininity and human nature.
Thank you for learning about the world of Adventure Time with me. I hope you learned something, no matter how small (like that there's a gender-bent version of each of the main characters). Tomorrow, I'll be exploring Avatar.