While there are cartoon shows that are clearly targeted towards a more mature audience, as a medium they have generally been considered as predominantly targeted towards children, or at least meant to be safe and uncontroversial. This is why it is always interesting to read about cartoons that have been embroiled in a controversy, for transgressing either viewers or regulatory bodies’ expectations. Here are 5 of the most notable examples:
#5 Dexter’s Laboratory – Rude Removal Episode
One of the pioneers from Cartoon Network, Dexter’s Laboratory is lauded for being accessible to children while subtly tackling mature themes and topics in its episodes. There was no problem for the most part as it was structured in a way that the mature elements were completely invisible to viewers who are not ready for them. The episode Rude Removal, on the other hand, was an exception because some of the more sensitive elements were on full display.
The episode is controversial for a couple of things, first is that the plot involves Dexter and Dee Dee being split into bad and good versions of themselves, resulting in the bad versions going around repeatedly swearing. While the profanities were censored, it was still pretty clear what they were doing. The other controversy is the title card itself – which featured Dexter mooning the viewers while Dee Dee gives flips them the bird.
#4 Pokemon – Beauty and the Beach
The 18th episode of the original Pokemon series featured all of the show’s female characters entering and competing in a beach beauty contest. The concept of a beauty pageant is not something you’d expect from a kid’s show about monster breeding, but it’s fairly uncontroversial. What made this episode controversial is that the male characters, such as Ash and Brock, being stunned by Misty’s bikini-clad figure. Furthermore, the male antagonist James joined the pageant by wearing an inflatable suit that gives him artificial breasts. The sexualisation of characters that look to be minors and the emphasis on body image led to the episode having 40 seconds cut from the Western dubbed version, with the episode itself being excluded from the English home video release.
#3 Tiny Toons – One Beer
Tiny Toons is a spin-off of the Looney Tunes franchise, featuring a cast of young characters based off of the Looney Tunes’ roster of cartoon characters. The series, despite featuring younger characters, is oddly heavier than its sister show and would tackle more mature topics. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the episode “One Beer,” in which the protagonists decide to steal a single beer from their parents’ fridge.
The episode’s plot dealt with “the evils of alcohol,” and went to strange places that include showing the children being drunk, sporting a stubble, and living in an alley. It reached its zenith when the characters end up stealing a police car and crashing into a cemetery, with the characters dying and their spirits floating away.
#2 The Simpsons – Homer’s Phobia
You might not expect The Simpsons to be in this list, mostly because a.) the series is meant to be for a mature audience and b.) it’s still fairly sanitized for a mainstream adult audience. Basically, it’s intended to address adult topics, but it’s not meant to shock or offend (you would have to turn to South Park, if that’s what you’re looking for.)
This episode probably counts. It features Homer being revealed as homophobic. To its credit, the episode means well, as it aims to attack homophobia and by the end of the episode, Homer has learned that he is homophobic, and that it is a wrong view to have. The episode was even lauded for promoting more progressive views on homosexuality. However, the episode itself is fairly controversial for showing a beloved main character as homophobic. Homer has always been depicted as clumsy, dumb, and lazy but that’s fine because the character is still fairly harmless to anyone but himself but painting him as intolerant of a marginalized segment of society turns him into an unsympathetic character that leaves “such a nasty taste in the mouth,” as TV critic Steve Williams says in his review of the episode.
#1 Pokemon – Electric Soldier Porygon
This episode of Pokemon deserves the top spot in this list, because while the other examples are very controversial, it’s only because they contained offensive or taboo subjects. They never hurt anybody physically or directly. The same can’t be said of Electric Soldier Porygon.
The episode featured Pikachu blowing up some missiles in cyberspace, resulting in an explosion depicted in strobing red and blue lights. The scene is very dangerous because it was capable of triggering epileptic seizures among viewers, and there are also reported cases of people who do not suffer from epilepsy, but still had nausea and vomiting spells after watching the scene. The incident has since been dubbed as the “Pokemon Shock,” and was so contentious that it affected Nintendo and Pokemon stocks.