Okay… this is a big one. The final episode of Adventure Time (my favourite cartoon) aired this week, and as you can imagine I had a lot to say. Thank you to POPSUGAR for publishing my piece “5 Ways Adventure Time Made the World a Better Place.” You can read the piece over on POPSUGAR by clicking here, it’s got a very cool slideshow with a bunch of adorable .gifs (and is in their Parenting section :3)
I wanted to include my original full draft of this piece below, as it includes a bit more about Finn, Jake & BMO than what made it to print. Also, because this cartoon has been such a fixture in my life for the last eight years I’m still honestly making sense of its importance and thinking about what life after Adventure Time will look like.
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“5 Ways Adventure Time Made the World a Better Place.”
1. Finn and Jake taught young men it’s OK to express emotions
*Deep breath* Repressive ideas about what it means to be a man harm us all. Traditional ideas of masculinity tell us to deter boys from crying (lest they appear weak/feminine) and to discourage (or even ridicule) expressions of affection between male friends. When young men are taught to bottle up their emotions, the effects can be harrowing.
Finn and Jake therefore wield considerable power by encouraging viewers to express their feelings:
Season 3 Episode 25 “Dad’s Dungeon” sees them navigate a series of challenges their father designed as a way to “toughen up” Finn. Joshua the dog speaks with a Mid-Atlantic accent straight out of the 1940s, and his remarks about his adopted son are likewise dated: “I bet you won’t even get past the first trial, you whiny baby!” he heckles, then taunts “Cover your ears, Sue!”
Despite this Finn navigates the dungeon with ease, and demonstrates that at age 14 he understands the problem with picking on someone for showing vulnerability:
Additionally, the way Finn and Jake express that they love each other is a rarity for male friendships on television. Every time they’re faced with a mortal threat, the two adventurers are quick to reiterate how much they mean to each other. Whether it’s Finn clinging to Jake’s leg as he climbs into a rocket, or Jake seeking comfort in Finn’s arms after some next-level body horror, their relationship was one of the sweetest on-screen representations of platonic male affection to date.
If you care about someone, says Adventure Time, tell them. Real heroes express their emotions.
2. Lumpy Space Princess preached self-love and body positivity
LSP’s trademark self-assuredness is both hilarious and poignant, communicating the importance of self-love for young women seeking to accept themselves in a world that makes this seem impossible:
By no means is she wholly immune to the negative messages of society: In one episode LSP seeks Finn and Jake’s help to get “surgery… to make my body hot!” But even this is approached from a good place, as she notes “Yeah, I know I’m already pretty smokin’” and holds up the tiny swimsuit she’s bought for the beach. LSP is only trying to improve on perfection.
For notable moments in LSP’s journey watch Season 4 Episode 12 “Gotcha!” and the Season 9 “Elements” mini-series.
3. BMO’s gender fluidity was no big deal
Many characters in Adventure Time are playful with gender. In Season 5 Episode 18 Jake experiments with makeup, and who could forget the first time Finn showed off his hair in Season 2 Episode 10?
But no character embodies gender fluidity better than BMO, the loveable sentient videogame console who’s constantly playing make believe and providing the show with a dose of childlike joy. Referred to as “he,” “she,” “m’lady” or “young man” across varying episodes, BMO’s playfulness with identity is so incredibly earnest and pure that it’s guaranteed to hit you right in the heart-guts:
To quote BMO’s creator (Moe): “BMO is very, very special. I built BMO to understand fun. And how to play!” A whole bunch has been written on BMOs’ gender (including an academic paper!). The consensus seems to be that because the characters in the show don’t treat BMO’s gender as a big deal, it isn’t (and shouldn’t be) therefore Adventure Time is able to communicate some important messages about how useful the male/female binary really is in defining ourselves. For children’s television, this is pretty special.
Watch BMO as a hyper-masculine hardboiled detective in Season 4 Episode 17 “BMO Noire”, or giggle at BMO’s adorable song about being pregnant in Season 5 Episode 19 “James Baxter the Horse.”
4. Princess Bubblegum & Marceline dated (and that was OK)
The past relationship between female characters Princess Bubblegum and Marceline is a major highlight of episodes such as Season 3 Episode 10 “What Was Missing” (where we learn hints of their history) and Season 7 Episode 2 “Varmints” (where they seem to begin reconnecting).
The significance of having a (or at least alluding to a past) same-sex relationship represented in a mainstream cartoon is obvious. Over the past eight years though, I began to worry that Adventure Time walked a line between respecting their relationship by not radicalising it, but then also disrespecting queer viewers by not confirming or showing it overtly.
But as a hetero this is not for me to say. And then, of course, there’s the finale (keeping this article spoiler-free!). I can only hope that after their hundreds of years coexisting in the Land of Ooo, and after 10 seasons, following the events of the finale PB and Marcy have their happy ending. Just like that dream Marceline had once (although minus the vampires this time).
5. Adventure Time helped alleviate the stigma of mental illness
Perhaps the cartoon’s single best message comes from Princess Bubblegum in Season 7 Episode 1 “Neddy”. While dealing with the erratic behavior of her brother Neddy, she tells Finn and Jake: “People get built different. We don’t need to figure it out, we just need to respect it.”
Some people read Neddy as suffering from anxiety, others see him as a trauma victim, but either way Adventure Time has a rich cast of characters who either experience mental illness or are not neurotypical. Many viewers consider Lemongrab as on the Autism Spectrum, and while his lack of empathy and social awkwardness accounts for much of his humour, Princess Bubblegum is quick to dismiss any attempt to “fix” him, instead preferring to help create a situation where Lemongrab can be happy.
We also see the Ice King evolve from a crazy, one-dimensional foe who kidnaps princesses into a complex and fully-fledged character who lost his mind and is still worthy of patience and empathy. The message of respecting each other, especially those who are ill or struggle socially, is of mammoth importance to young viewers watching in-between stints in a classroom or playground setting.
With a heavy heart, myself and thousands of other fans this week bid farewell to a most beloved cartoon. The way Adventure Time conjured silliness and sophistication (often in the same frame) is to be lauded, and its delivery of profoundly important messages to viewers is unparalleled.