Many of us, at any age, have taken joy in watching cartoons. Whether it be the Saturday morning block from our childhood or something we have streamed online, cartoons are a type of show that can be enjoyed throughout the years. However, with the constantly changing views and values of our society, it is true that cartoons may have more of an influence than we may think, especially when it comes to social norms and acceptance.
What exactly is “progressive”? To be progressive means to be current while advocating social change and values. Cartoons throughout the years have been subject to progression, especially when it comes to feminism, LGBTQA+ representation, and diversity. Why is this important? What we watch definitely has an influence on what we can and do accept, as well as finding a character to relate to. Even if it simply may be a “cartoon” to some, shows have the power to not only save lives but help both children and adults relate to a character that may share some of the same qualities with. Below is a list of cartoons that stand out as progressive shows that are more unique and different than many other programs, implementing a certain type of hope for a brighter future.
This list contains a mix of newer shows, as well as titles that still would be considered progressive in today’s world. (Movies are not included). Here are 10 really good cartoons to watch that were actually quite progressive:
Legend of Korra
First Aired: 2012
Imagine a world where people known as benders have the power to manipulate the four elements: Earth, Water, Fire, and Air. Each form of bending is based on real ancient forms of martial arts, which is used for fighting and in day to day life. One person, known as the Avatar, is the one and only master of all four elements, being the most powerful person and leader in the universe. The Avatar holds great responsibility as a world leader, having to deal with conflicts between the people, as well as stopping those who threaten the peace. Korra, a teenager from the Southern Water Tribe, sets off on her journey as the Avatar when she must master air, the only element she has not learned yet. This results in a trip to Republic City, the epicenter where every nation representing the elements come together, as the result of the past avatar, Aang. Korra would be considered a spin-off of the original series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, taking place several years after the event of Aang’s story. Not only is this show one of the only cartoons to feature a female protagonist, but it also touches on several other subjects that anyone may relate to. Korra is strong and powerful, both physically and mentally, as she faces any opponent who goes in her way. Across the four Books, she undergoes major character development through the challenges she faces.
Does Korra always win? No, she faces some of the hardest moments of her life, suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and also being disabled after an incident in one of the books. Many characters, especially in cartoons, do not always show or undergo problems such as these, which makes Korra stand out from the others. Korra is the epitome of progression, featuring strong female characters who hold positions in power and an ethnically diverse cast, which is something not shown often in cartoons. For example, Asami Sato, a non-bender from Republic City, eventually becomes the leader and engineer for Future Industries, a company dealing with automobiles and other forms of technology. Each of the characters is important and have a great role in the story, which is something not often explored with side characters.
One other important thing about Korra is the ending, in which a relationship between Korra and Asami was confirmed by the creators, being one of the only LGBTQA+ relationships ever to be shown on Nickelodeon or any network. Not only is Korra an amazing story based on realistic lore and set in a unique universe, but it also features “elements’ that make it stand out from many other shows, possibly being one of the best and most progressive shows of all time.
Network: Cartoon Network
First Aired: 2013
“We are the crystal gems!”
There is a reason that Steven Universe is as popular as it is right now. Featured on Cartoon Network, this show details the lives of powerful beings known as the crystal gems, powerful female (or genderless) characters that have powers based on their respective gem, coming from another world. When Rose Quartz, a powerful gem fell in love with a human, Steven was born, a half gem, half-human boy. In many ways, Steven is definitely not the typical protagonist of a series, standing out as his own unique person whose positive and open values and opinions make him very memorable to viewers.
The cast of gems is amazing in its own right, taking care of Steven while dealing with otherworldly forces that threaten Earth. Not only are the characters strong, but they are respected, each having their own backstory and character development journey that the viewers follow throughout the many episodes. What also makes this series progressive is an ethnically diverse cast and voice actors, a prominent LGBTQA+ relationship, and an array of body types for the characters. Steven is amazing, having a great story with a memorable cast that will always be remembered throughout time.
Bee and Puppycat
Network: Cartoon Hangover (Youtube)
First Aired: 2013
Combine a 20-something aged girl on a job hunt and a supernatural temp job, and you have Bee and Puppycat, an adorable show by animator and creator Natasha Allegri. Bee is someone we can all relate to, a down-to-earth character who loves to lounge at home. What’s interesting about this show is that instead of focusing on preteen or teenage characters, it features an adult woman who is trying to pay her rent. Not only is this different, but it is also relatable to an older audience as well. When Bee comes into contact with Puppycat, an otherworldly being who offers her temp work across the universe, Bee becomes a “magical girl”, which is heavily based on the genre from Japanese animation. This show is progressive through not only its relatable characters but its depiction of realism. Will Bee and her love interest Deckard end up dating or will he make another choice? This is one of many questions for viewers to explore.
Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir
First aired: 2015
If you probably never heard of the Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir series, it’s okay, as it isn’t even out yet worldwide. However, this cartoon has sparked so much buzz online lately, as it stands out from other series that are currently airing and looks so promising. It has enough of a fanbase already to gather fan translators that follow the episodes current airing schedule. What makes this series so special? Set in France, Miraculous features a female lead named Marinette, a high schooler who assumes the secret identity of Ladybug when trouble arises, harnessing the powers of good luck. Her school crush, Adrien, also has a secret identity as Cat Noir, having the powers of bad luck.
Together, they must fight against a villain who releases spirits that in turn, grant people powers, wreaking havoc on the city. What’s interesting is that Marinette and Adrien are unaware of each other’s secret identities, making way for a romantic comedy setting as well as comic relief. Not only does this show take place in another country, but it also, like many other progressive cartoons, features an ethnically diverse cast and strong female characters. Miraculous is set to premiere in the US on Nickelodeon in the coming months, which brings hope to the network’s lineup. Another note is that this series was going to be an animation, but changed direction. Watch the original video here. (Let’s hope an anime happens!)
Star vs. The Forces of Evil
First aired: 2015
Star vs. The Forces of Evil is a very interesting show, featuring an excitable alien princess who comes to Earth after an accident on her 14th birthday that resulted in damage to her family’s castle and property. Star becomes a foreign exchange student with magical powers who always causes trouble to her host family’s son, Marco Diaz. The two have a very great connection and fight together through the various obstacles they must face. Star is an awesome protagonist, being more childish than many other shows, but has a very different personality that makes her stand out from the others. Marco is also a great character who complements Star’s crazy antics. Many of the characters in the cartoon are diverse and unique in their own way. Star vs. The Forces of Evil premiered on the Disney Channel this year and is slated for a second season.
First Aired: 1997
What’s the best time of day for any elementary schooler? The answer is simple, recess. Recess follows the lives of several outcasts and their time during the most esteemed part of the day for any kid. At face value, someone may ask, why would Recess be a progressive show? Isn’t it just about kids who are playing at school? In short, no, this show is much more than that, being an intelligently written cartoon that depicts the time of recess as a social hierarchy created by the students themselves, showing the reality of social expectations and government/politics. Students are expected to follow the rigid rules of King Bob, the “leader” of this time.
The main characters in Recess don’t really fit into cliques and are led by a delinquent that challenges problems faced by this system. Not only does the social system make this show progressive, but the diverse cast and lines also added in the lectures and conversations actually advocate social change. It has been a while since Recess last aired, but Recess is certainly a cartoon to be remembered.
First aired: 2002
At the height of Disney Channel’s success was a cartoon named Kim Possible, a show that was loved by many, lasting for several episodes, a few video games, and movies. Kim Possible followed the adventures of the crime-fighter, as she tried to balance high school life with various missions. Kim was the queen of multitasking, accomplishing quite a bit in her personal, school, and “superhero” life.
Her entire family consisted of geniuses who each had their own quirks and expectations of her. Kim was a very good role model and protagonist in the cartoon world for many, as she proved that anything is “possible” if someone has set goals in mind. However, things for Kim were not always perfect, including her relationships, future career choices, and friendships with others. This show featured strong female characters, as well as a great supporting and diverse cast, and will always be one of the best cartoons to air on television.
Avatar the Last Airbender
First aired: 2005
The original Avatar series before Korra, ATLA dealt with the adventures of Aang, a young airbender who discovered that his entire race and people were wiped out in a war with the Fire Nation upon waking up from a 100-year sleep. Aang was not only the last airbender, but the last Avatar, who disappeared years ago, resulting in a takeover from the Fire Nation. ATLA is definitely a masterpiece, especially when it comes to characters and story. Aang is not the typical protagonist, as he wants peace rather than fighting in a world of war, something that is admirable and different than many shows depict protagonists today. Gender stereotypes are broken several times in the series, making each character an equally important and integral part of the show. This cartoon is one of the most remembered and revered Nickelodeon shows and continues to be until this day.
First aired: 1996
Imagine an urban setting and environment, filled with an array of characters you may find if traveling to a big city. There is one kid who lives in a boarding house, a nice and helpful person who tries to solve everyone’s problems. This is the world of Hey Arnold!, a 1990’s Nickelodeon show with one of the most distinctive settings in the cartoon world, a large, bustling city life. Hey Arnold! teaches us many things, between not judging others based on stories or rumors we hear and being one’s true self. Many of the stories show different social classes, especially those in the middle-lower class and in poverty. This show’s characters are also diverse and have strong backstories that help shape the world and big city life.
First aired: 2001
One of the only cartoons to feature an African-American family, the Proud Family is and always will be one of the most ethnically diverse and best cartoons of all time. The story follows Penny Proud, a high school girl with an interesting group of friends who are often embarrassed by her crazy family, longing for a normal high school life. Not only does the series delve into some aspects of feminism and social acceptance, but it also teaches important lessons about Black history and the African-American community. Even though the series has ended, it has maintained a legacy that will last for many years to come.
Cartoons are a form of storytelling that impacts our lives day by day. Stories move us no matter what form they are in. Many of us grew up with our favorite childhood cartoons, and would still watch them today. Stories involve the times, and many works of art stand out and should stand out, as they are progressive with diverse casts, equality among genders, and LGTBQA+ representation. There are several new series that set an example for future animators, creators, and writers for the years to come.
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