Saturday morning's sleepy silence is broken with a blaring “zip, bam, boom.” It's just after 7 a.m., but Otto Rocket and his sister Reggie already are careening down a mammoth ramp on an extreme snowboard course. Their speedy soundtrack echoes from the TV through our ventilation ducts and fills the house.
In fewer than 30 minutes, Chuckie, Tommy, and the rest of the Rugrats will encounter a skunk or attempt to escape Grandpa Boris' lax supervision, and then at 8, it's time for an hour of Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius.
Saturday morning cartoons remain a ritual in my home, bridging the gap between high school and third grade. Bonding through the humor of Bikini Bottom and Timmy's Fairly Odd Parents, my children hang out together as the characters of their favorite animated shows drop by for a weekly visit to share their unlikely adventures.
There's only one problem with cartoons on Saturdays: Watching them can corrupt a child's innocence.
Like most things, cartoons look different than they did a generation ago. There are fewer talking animals in the tradition of Bullwinkle and Underdog. Instead, today's shows feature wide-eyed child-heroes with names that sound like sushi varieties who engage in regular conflicts with extraordinary villains.
The characters live in mythical places where their magic powers enable them to safeguard humanity from week to week. Yu-Gi-Oh, Pokemon, Digimon and Xiaolin rescue the planet from the forces of evil several times before breakfast, usually with a judicious use of air, fire, water, and earth. It's all organic in cartoon crime-fighting these days. Corrupting? Not even a little.
There also are a fair number of female do-gooders. The Powerpuff Girls Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup take their orders from Professor Utonium in an effort to “save the world before bedtime.” Girls also are the heroines on Mew Mew Power, a program featuring five teens who possess the powers of endangered animals to fight various evildoers who would destroy mankind. Obviously, the combination of feminism and environmentalism is no match for bad guys.
Of course, a few of the old standbys remain in the Saturday morning lineup. Scooby Doo, Looney Tunes, Yogi Bear and The Flintstones still draw an audience. The Caped Crusader still patrols Metropolis. Thanks to Cartoon Network, Quick Draw McGraw also still awaits children who awaken too early on the weekends.
There's more good news in today's cartoons: Geeks rule the world. Virtually all the shows my children love focus on likable nerds who wear glasses and short pants, are excluded from the cool cartoon crowd, yet still come out on top at the end of every episode. As morality plays go, you can't beat Saturday mornings to reinforce individuality, integrity, courage, loyalty, and the pursuit of justice.
So if the Saturday morning lineup is filled with stories of good conquering evil and heroes who do homework, just where is the corruption? It's in the commercials. Sandwiched between positive messages and pithy dialogue are commercials that steal the innocence of young viewers and promote an insatiable appetite for buying new stuff.
Thanks to commercial breaks between episodes, my youngest daughter is convinced we need a Betty Crocker Bake'n-Fill, a two-part baking pan that creates a cavity for your favorite ice cream or pudding. She also thinks we need the Bug Wand and a Chocolate Fondue Fountain. (OK, she may have a point about needing the Chocolate Fondue Fountain.)
Being a little girl, it's natural that she responds to ads for the new Barbie Makeover Magic Deluxe Styling Head. She has seen the commercial for it so many times she can recite the script and name all the parts “not sold separately.”
The “As seen on TV” folks push the usual offerings, such as Amazing Elastic Plastic, Slinkies and Rainbow Art sets.
The commercials for prepackaged foods have parents everywhere dreading trips to the grocery store with children who beg for unhealthy offerings by reciting advertising copy. (“It's part of a balanced breakfast, Mom. Really.”)
Worst of all, my Saturday morning viewers sometimes catch ads that convey too much information.
Case in point: the ad in which a couple walks down a beach while a woman's voice talks about a drug she uses to treat her herpes. I have no doubt pharmaceutical company honchos believe they're doing a public service by educating folks about sexually transmitted viruses. I also have no doubt they make a bunch of money selling drugs to people who want to walk on the beach with a new love, free from the burden of STDs.
This is content that gives the Rugrats cartoon All Grown Up a new meaning.
No matter what time of day our children watch television, they're at risk for seeing and hearing about subjects from which we might prefer to shelter them for several years. My son's new practice of watching ESPN in the evenings has us on guard for commercials that sell therapies for sexual dysfunction, a subject our 10-year-old simply doesn't need to contemplate.
Honestly, is there any reason to listen to a woman talk about “lasting satisfaction” during a basketball game?
So we keep the remote in hand, ready at any moment to pounce on the “quick view” button, returning to the previous channel in the hope we aren't confronted with a public service message about condom use and safe sex.
As for Saturday mornings, we encourage lots of channel surfing during commercial breaks. After all, you never know what Yogi Bear is doing over in Jellystone Park.
(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 17 years and mother of four children from second grade to sophomore year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at www.marybethhicks.com. This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)