bad parenting

Bad parenting is a running joke throughout cartoon history. It might not be as obvious or purely treated as comedy, but it’s really not all that funny. Whether you look at shows like THE SIMPSONS, where Bart is consistently strangled, or more realistic depictions like in HEY ARNOLD!, the stereotype persists.

Some shows treat dark, taboo topics with comedy, especially in adult cartoons. However, it has also become apparent in cartoons aimed at younger audiences. We expect Bart to be strangled— it is a running joke, after all. Still, the question must be asked: why are bad parents so prevalent in cartoons?

Let’s take a look at our extremes first.

One of the shows that is notorious for treating bad parenting, among other issues, with a pure comedy perspective is FAMILY GUY. It’s a running gag that the Griffin’s oldest child, Meg, is treated like absolute garbage. A running joke is for characters to say, “Shut up, Meg,” whenever she tries to add anything.

READ: Why Do We Idolize Abusive Relationships In The Media?

bad parenting

Is it deserved? Well, not really. While Meg used to portray a spoiled, typical teen brat, she has become a representation of abuse, in dire need of affection and on a dark path. Her mother, Lois, blatantly and openly regrets her being born. She consistently criticizes Meg for her appearance, her weight, and lack of popularity at school. It goes as far as Lois becoming exasperated with Meg’s dismay, handing her a bottle of Ambien and a Sylvia Plath book and saying, “Whatever happens, happens.”

The animosity between the two is never exactly hidden in the show. It is clear that Lois and Meg greatly resent each other, and Meg even tells her so in a speech given during the episode “Seahorse Seashell Party”:

Lois: Look, the bottom line here, Meg, is that you’re just taking your own problems out on everyone else.

Meg: Oh, my problems? Oh, I see. Is this coming from my role-model mother? The shoplifter, the drug addict, the pornstar, the whore who let Gene Simmons and Bill Clinton go to town on her?

Lois: [scoffs] So what? A…all those things are behind me now. I’m a better person now because of those experiences.

Meg: Are you? Are you a better person?

Lois: What’s your point, Meg?

Meg: My point is that with all the irresponsible, reckless, idiotic behavior in your past, that somehow, heh, somehow you have the nerve, the arrogance to consistently and ruthlessly point out my shortcomings.

Lois: Alright, well fine! Okay, I’m not the perfect mother; who is?

Meg: [chuckles] Not only are you not the perfect mother, you’re the farthest thing from! From the moment you gave birth to me, I had to trust you. I had no choice. I needed you to protect me from the world to, to be my guide, to help me navigate the difficult, confusing, and vulnerable journey to becoming a person. You have done NONE of those things! You’re my mother and you took a child’s trust and smashed it into bits in a seventeen-year-long mission to destroy something that you killed a long time ago! And honestly, when I turn eighteen, I…I don’t know that I ever want to see you again!

READ: Want to see what abuse can do to a person? Check out The Evolution of Harley Quinn.

This revelation brings Lois to tears, yet it sadly doesn’t change any of the dynamics between Meg and her family in the show. Lois appears to see that Meg is right about her, and it finally sinks in that she has caused irreparable damage to her only daughter. This is something that should be a major change for the show and its dynamic. However, as we still see at the end of “Seahorse Seashell Party,” this revelation is ignored entirely for the sake of the “status quo” and proves to be an infuriating measure taken by the writers. We’ll get back to “Seahorse Seashell Party” in a moment. Lois is bad enough.

Meg’s father, Peter, on the other hand, is in a whole other ballpark. He has kicked her out, hit her, farted in her face deliberately, teased her, and even outright shot her when she said, “Hi, Dad.” We get it—that’s the joke. Peter’s a bad father beyond any kind of reasonable doubt. His actions are so over-the-top that they’re meant to be funny. It’s really not funny, though. Meg even mentions that if anyone outside their home could see the things he does to her, Peter would be in jail.

bad parenting

This is all part of the running gag of abusing Meg in FAMILY GUY. It makes her standing up to her family in “Seahorse Seashell Party” feel extremely deserved and cathartic, but it is all for naught. The most tragic thing about “Seahorse Seashell Party” isn’t just in the revelations, but in the ending. After standing up to her family, Meg sits down with the family dog, Brian. She asks him if he thinks their family needs some kind of “lightning rod” to absorb all the dysfunction. Brian tells her that he thinks she’s the strongest person in the family, and Meg resumes her role as the punching bag.

This isn’t funny. Anyone who is being abused should never stay for the abuser’s benefit. It isn’t noble to be a “lightning rod” and take the brunt of your family’s anger and animosity. Meg may never stand up for herself or get the help she desperately needs. FAMILY GUY might be all about taking shots at society and dark humor, but their attempts to turn abuse into comedy fails spectacularly with this episode as well as the episode that follows immediately after it called “Screams of Silence: The Story of Brenda Q,” in which they try to portray an abusive relationship between Quagmire’s sister and her incredibly stereotypical boyfriend, Jeff. That’s a subject for another time, however.

READ: How important is it to portray a realistic character? Check out STEVEN UNIVERSE and Being a Good Bad Person.

For a character to have any kind of comeuppance, they typically have to have done something to deserve it. Maybe they’re the villain or just an outright jerk. Even that’s pushing it, though. Meg is a teenager girl going through a persistent nightmare—she doesn’t deserve any of it. The bad parenting isn’t funny, no matter how hard they try to push it.

Another example of bad parenting being used for comedy is in the long-running Nicktoon THE FAIRLY ODDPARENTS.

bad parenting

Timmy Turner, an average kid, is subject to his two nameless parents who are, for lack of a better term, consistent idiots. Not only are they idiots, but they are neglectful beyond any reasonable manner and constantly make it clear they regret ever having Timmy. Whether it’s through jabs that other families who are “childless” are able to afford nicer things or their constant ventures to escape Timmy, their bad parenting is another running joke.

The bad parenting is actually integral to the plot, however. Timmy Turner has Fairy Godparents, Cosmo and Wanda, who fulfill his wishes. As a “fairy rule,” fairies are only assigned to miserable children—says a lot, doesn’t it? Cosmo and Wanda end up being the surrogate, loving parents that Timmy is lacking. While Cosmo has gone the way of the stereotypical idiot father, which is also a running joke in cartoons and sitcoms in later seasons, Wanda remains the responsible one, making her fit the part of the “nagging housewife / mother.” Even still, it remains clear the two care for Timmy unconditionally.

bad parenting

Did I mention that his own parents leave him alone with a megalomaniac, highly abusive babysitter named Vicky? The cruel redhead constantly tortures Timmy, ruins his things, and has even come at him with sharp, deadly weapons. Again, it is so over the top that it is meant to be comedic, but it’s not all that funny. Especially considering the fact that Timmy’s parents never believe him when he tries to tell them how awful Vicky is to him. Bizarrely enough, the show likes to switch from Timmy’s parents being incredibly overprotective and then back to neglectful on a whim. So long as they have Vicky to watch over Timmy, they don’t seem to mind leaving him and going out to do whatever they fancy.

READ: California Sexual Assault Bill: What Comes Next?

Again, the bad parenting is meant to be comedic, but it is also integral to the plot. Without the bad parenting and without Vicky, Timmy would never have gotten Cosmo and Wanda, which is the entire premise of the show. While the show itself manages to be charming, and even sweet sometimes, there is a sort of tragedy in the bad parenting that Timmy must endure. It takes an entire FAIRLY ODDPARENTS made-for-TV movie before his parents believe him about Vicky, and that is only with video proof.

Timmy ends the movie by wishing that his parents would forget that Vicky is abusive so she can keep babysitting him. Why? He’d rather keep his fairies then risk losing them because he no longer would constitute being “miserable” enough without Vicky, even including the bad parenting.

Timmy is an average kid, that no one understands. Being an average kid sure does suck.

Finally, we take a look at a cartoon that didn’t use abuse for comedy. That show was HEY ARNOLD!.

bad parenting

Fans of the show might remember the blonde, pig-tailed bully Helga G. Pataki. Her crazed infatuation with the titular Arnold made for a lot of the show’s drama and comedy.

READ: The Value of Maturity in Children’s Cartoons to paint a better picture of why this matters.

However, while her parents were at the butt of many jokes, the episode “Helga on the Couch” showed audiences the real tragedy in their bad parenting.

Helga’s parents are “Big” Bob Pataki, an old-fashioned, angry and arrogant beeper salesman, and the ever-drunk mother, Miriam. Yes, you read that right, Helga’s mother is indeed a drunk. The creator of HEY ARNOLD! outright stated that her constantly making “smoothies” was a way to sneak alcoholism past the censors. There is also the inclusion of the “perfect” older sister, Olga, who constantly overshadows Helga in every waking sense.

That aside, Helga’s family is also a perfect example of a family that is afflicted by narcissistic personality disorder. In this case, Bob Pataki would be the narcissist, Miriam is his enabler, Olga is the “golden child” and Helga is the scapegoat. Let’s take a look at some of the symptoms of NPD:

  • Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
  • Requiring constant admiration
  • Having a sense of entitlement
  • Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
  • Taking advantage of others to get what you want
  • Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others

READ: Where is the line between consent and abuse? Check out BDSM In Three Media Forms: The Classic, The Bad and The Good.

Bob Pataki meets all of these and many more. While it might be typecast as typical arrogance or confidence, his inability to care about others or their feelings strongly supports that he is a narcissist. You can read stories from those who were raised by narcissists on the subreddit r/raisedbynarcissists to get a better idea of what growing up with one is really like.

Miriam is his enabler, and her alcoholism shows a deep dissatisfaction in her own life and how it turned out. She even makes comments about how she was once a world class swimmer but dropped out to get married and the regret that followed. Miriam allows herself to be bullied by her husband, and she goes along with his traits of favoring Olga, even though it is shown that she is concerned about Helga—much more than Bob is. Even still, rather than defend Helga from Bob or make an effort to connect with her child, she goes along with Bob and his tendencies, dutifully taking care of what she can in her drunken state and spending the rest of the time in a depressed, alcoholic stupor.

Olga is what is called the “golden child.” Narcissists favor and spoil the golden child in the relationship, believing they can do no wrong. A golden child will also consistently overachieve to remain in favor and harbor a deep fear of no longer being praised or loved by the narcissist. In the episode “Olga Comes Home,” Helga secretly changes one of Olga’s straight A grades to a B+. What follows is immediate dissatisfaction from her parents, and Olga having a complete mental breakdown. She lies in bed for days, weeping, listening to sad music, and claiming she doesn’t deserve nice things. It’s only when Helga reveals what she did that Olga comes around. She comments that she gets tired of having to “perform all the time” and that Helga is “lucky they don’t even notice (her).”

bad parenting

A scapegoat child is often the one that all the blame is placed on or gets all of the wrath of bad parents. They can be ignored, blamed, have their boundaries consistently ignored or violated, or can even be threatened and physically abused. Helga is often at the brunt of the bad parenting, with her mother consistently forgetting her lunch and her father constantly ignoring her needs or emotions in favor of Olga.

READ: Here’s the real question: Why the Hell Do People Like David Firth?

HEY ARNOLD! did a fantastic job of portraying a realistic case of bad parenting and abuse on a level that most of its audience couldn’t even understand at the time. The show never faltered from dark or dramatic themes, even when it was comical. The structure of Helga’s family and the revelations she gets when speaking to a therapist in “Helga on the Couch” are heartbreaking and touched many.

bad parenting

That brings back the question: why is bad parenting so prevalent in cartoons, especially in a comedic sense? One might guess that the show’s creators or writers might be using it as an outlet for their own experience, especially since comedy is a way of coping with tragedy. Humor is often used to deflect trauma, but to an outside audience, it can be a very mixed message when these situations are portrayed for comedy.

Without question, FAMILY GUY does it in an entirely disgusting fashion. THE FAIRLY ODDPARENTS is more neutral, as Timmy does have occasional loving moments with his parents and his fairy godparents alike, though it is still far from funny. HEY ARNOLD! was, without a doubt, the best representation of bad parenting and a dysfunctional family at the time because of its sensitivity and relatability.

And, in better news, more cartoons are starting to take more mature approaches to bad parenting, such as ADVENTURE TIME, REGULAR SHOW, and STEVEN UNIVERSE. Some adult shows even made a valiant effort like FUTURAMA and GOD, THE DEVIL AND BOB.

READ: Another question for the wisest of the world: Why the Hell Do People Like Tim and Eric?

While bad parenting has been used for comedy plenty of times, and often successfully, it remains a sensitive subject. Cartoons are typically meant to reach a younger audience, an audience that could be suffering through the same things that are being portrayed. Often, cartoons connect with people on a deep, emotional level, and isolated people might take up some of the morals or messages from the show without being cognizant of it. That can be both a good thing and a bad thing. HEY ARNOLD! might teach them the warning signs and that seeking therapy is perfectly healthy and reasonable. FAMILY GUY, on the other hand, might teach them that staying in an abusive relationship is “noble.” That is a dangerous message, even if the idea of looking to FAMILY GUY for wisdom is ridiculous.

We can only hope that bad parenting continues on with a more realistic and helpful portrayal instead of diving back into being a comedic tool that is, to be honest, not funny.

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