|By Euan Wilson
Originally published in the January 2011 Socionomist
Sometimes the ubiquity of social mood’s impact surprises even those of us here at the Socionomics Institute. For example, when we first started looking at popular American cartoons, we saw no significant mood-related distinctions in such facets as levels of viewership and incidence of violence. But when we looked a bit deeper, we noted that the character of cartoon attributes did indeed appear to be mood-driven in intriguing ways. For example, the nature of cartoon violence, the colors used, animation styles and themes have all changed drastically depending on the phase of social mood in which the cartoons are made.
By the time we went to press with Part One of our study in early August—covering animation from the 1920s to the early 1960s—we were able to show that mood seems to play a defining role in popular cartoons’ content. Those from bear market periods are more realistic in their violence, we wrote. They are risqué, even sexual; their gray morals push the envelope of what is traditionally considered acceptable. Conversely, bull market cartoons most often contain “G” rated fare, feature black and white heroes and villains, deliver slapstick yuks and offer briefer scenes of violence that are both unrealistic and temporary in their effect. For a quick review of our major findings, click on the two graphics below from Part One.
This article completes our study with a look at cartoons from three more-recent periods. First are two Cycle waves: Cycle IV down (1966-1982); and Cycle V up (1982 to 2000). Finally, we finish with a look at animations since the top of Cycle V. As we will see, the popular cartoons from these waves stand, perhaps, in even more dramatic contrast than those of the earlier periods.
Cycle IV: 1966 to 1982
Since its inception in 1922, the Motion Picture Association of America has imposed the X rating on animated films only seven times. Six of those seven films premiered during the Cycle IV bear market.
The most famous of the adults-only animated films was also the first: Fritz the Cat. Ralph Bakshi created the film in 1972. The adult rating was heavily promoted, with slogans like “90 minutes of violence, excitement, and SEX” and “He’s X-rated and animated!” The movie won instant critical acclaim. The public loved it, too; the film grossed over $100 million at the box office and paid for itself 100 times over. Says critic Leonard Maltin, “The film is a vibrant, personal statement about life in the 1960s, the sexual and political revolution, and hypocritical attitudes regarding ‘good taste.’” The movie advocates free love and satirizes political correctness and party politics. Fritz engages in group sex in a bathtub, has a party broken up by police drawn in the form of pigs, shoots a toilet with a shotgun, floods his apartment and watches a synagogue congregation cheer when the US sends weapons to Israel. And that’s just the first act.
In Act Two, characters smoke marijuana and shoot heroin. Prostitutes and car thieves work the street. Fritz witnesses a friend’s murder and joins a domestic terrorist group. But despite all he has witnessed, Fritz remains unmoved and unchanged, experiencing no character growth whatsoever. Eventually he abandons his terrorist cohorts and returns to his simple life of hedonism, embracing meaninglessness.
In short, Fritz is the antithesis of Felix, our quintessential bull market hero from Part One.
Cool Cat Is as Cool Cat Does: Bull-market Felix, the hero, acknowledges the applause; bear-market Fritz, the slob, grabs what he can.
Fritz the Cat was not the only animated film of Cycle IV to reflect bear market themes. Bakshi wrote and directed several more taboo-tackling films, each of which did well at the box office. For example, Heavy Traffic (1973) opens with a pimp paying off corrupt cops who then bludgeon a homeless drunk into a bloody mess. Coonskin (1975) involves three African American friends—a rabbit, fox and bear—who become leaders of Harlem’s organized crime scene. Amid nearly continuous bloodshed, the trio engages corrupt law enforcement, the Mafia, racism and rival con artists. Critics called 1974’s Dirty Duck, a rival studio release, even filthier than Fritz, and 1982’s King Dick, an Italian film from director Gioacchino Libratti that was translated into English, stars a dwarf on the run from a witch named Nymphomania who requires 69 orgasms to restore her beauty. Another 1982 animated film, Hey, Good Lookin’, focuses on Brooklyn’s gang culture in the 1950s and includes episodes of reckless violence, spur-of-the-moment sex and hallucinations of giant nude women and garbage-can monsters.
There was every reason for a non-socionomic futurist to project the wave of negatively themed animations into the future. But after the 1982 low, rising social mood ushered in a near-total reversal in the appearance of culturally extreme animated films.
Cycle V: 1982 to 2000
Cycle V up seemed determined to undo every bit of negativity that Cycle IV down had produced. Its animation was fun and brightly colored. It featured richly detailed storylines of positive themes. The new look and feel was popular with both critics and audiences.
In the 1999 book, The Wave Principle of Human Social Behavior, Prechter noted that Disney is a bull-market company, and the point bears repeating. The well-known Disney Renaissance, the ten-year period from 1989 to 1999 when the Disney Animation Studios reverted to classic fairy tales and stories, returned the company to its glory days of the 1950s bull market. The Renaissance produced such classics as The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), Pocahontas (1995) and Mulan (1998). The first animated film to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, Beauty and the Beast (1991), was also produced during this renaissance.
After the Primary-degree bear market of 1987-1990, negative mood lingered into the early 1990s, as evidenced by a slow economy and sentiment measures. A number of mixed-mood animations were produced during this period, including Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), with its sultry heroine Jessica Rabbit, and the grotesque Ren and Stimpy (1991), a children’s show on Nickelodeon. The latter starred a scarcely recognizable dog and cat; the differences between that pair and the original Tom and Jerry (1940-1957) are stark. Positive mood ended Ren and Stimpy’s run in 1994.
Stark Dog/Cat Differences: Canine/Feline tandems in bull (Tom and Jerry, left) and transition (Ren and Stimpy, right) markets.
Disney-Pixar’s Toy Story 2 premiered in 1999. It was the perfect capstone to two decades of positive mood. A poll at the critic’s aggregate site Rottentomatoes.com christened Toy Story 2 with its rare 100% rating. Other accolades go further: By virtue of it having garnered the most reviews of all 100% rated movies, many critics consider Toy Story 2 to be the best movie ever—animated or not. We find it fitting that the film so named was released precisely at the most significant mood peak in recorded history, as measured by the real Dow and the lowest annual Dow dividend yield ever recorded: 1.4%.
Even the timing of the Disney Renaissance’s end fits socionomics. Critic Steven D. Greydanus said in early 2001, “The Disney animation renaissance is dead. That’s not news, though. What’s news is that the folks at Disney have finally noticed.” Greydanus’ wording was not what might be expected to honor such a historic and positive run. Instead, it was the belittling language befitting the onset of a major bear market.
Supercycle (I) down: 2000 to present
At first blush, it seems that little of the negative mood befitting a Supercycle wave down has found its way into animation. Cartoonists have continued to plumb many of the positive themes of 1990s animation, as evidenced by hits from Disney-Pixar and Dreamworks. We attribute this to the fact that despite being lower, social mood has been mostly in the area of historically high optimism by numerous measures.
Bull-market and bear-market nine-year-olds: Boy Genius (left, Elroy of The Jetsons, 1962-1963 and 1985-1987) and Evil Genius (right, Eric Cartman of South Park, 1997 to present).
But slightly outside the mainstream, we are seeing hints of negative fare. Comedy Central’s South Park is the most obvious example. It uses its sharp satire to skewer authority figures and the establishment, echoing even Fritz the Cat in terms of its political and social commentary. NPR correspondent Julie Rovner notes that South Park character Eric Cartman is “by far the most famous of the four foul-mouthed grade-schoolers who inhabit the cardboard-cutout town of South Park.” Cartman’s antics, according to Rovner, include “giving his best friend HIV” and then urging him to stay optimistic. He also “ground up a rival’s recently deceased parents and served them to him in a bowl of chili.” Cartman’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, call him a “Little Archie Bunker.” (Bunker was the bigoted and sardonic star of the popular 1970s show All in the Family.) Only in a bear market could such an arrangement work.
Princesses in bull markets, princesses in bear markets: Cinderella, 1950 (left) and Belle, Beauty and the Beast, 1991 (center) reflect the “G” rated fare of bull markets. Note the risqué, bear-market allusions to these heroines in Drawn Together, 2004-2007 (right).
Drawn Together, another Comedy Central animated program, featured caricatures of classic cartoon movie character types, including “Disney Princess,” “Marvel Superhero” and even “Betty Boop,” all living together reality-TV-style. Also, 2010 saw the premiere of Ugly Americans, an alternate-reality parody of modern day New York City, populated with monsters, zombies and demons.
The current environment encourages the bear-market tradition of mocking former bull-market icons. The critically acclaimed series, The Venture Bros. (2003-present), spoofs Jonny Quest, cartoon hero of the 1960s and mid 1990s, and the rest of the Quest cast, recreating them as failures. Even the villains are hopelessly incompetent, with names like Baron Underbeit, Phantom Limb and The Monarch—a butterfly-like supervillain riddled with more insecurities than a Wall Street mogul in October 2008.
In the meantime, the Internet is providing cartoonists an alternate, censor-free venue, much as the movie theatre was for Bakshi in the 1970s. Neurotically Yours, a webtoon, features Foamy the Squirrel—a frustrated little monster prone to outbursts of anger. Foamy has a low tolerance for any kind of stupidity and mercilessly shreds any character who doesn’t meet his standard. Contrast Foamy to the happy-go-lucky, bull-market squirrel Rocky, of Rocky and Bullwinkle fame. Rocky thrived during the bull periods of the 1950s and 1980s. Foamy’s sharp-tongued impatience for typical modern life hearkens back to Fritz the Cat. We expect to see more of his type—and more extreme versions—if the current bear market continues.
And for the Eeyores in the Audience
Skeptics might point to the general degradation of morals in our modern society and claim that cartoons reflect that slide. Per our 1985 “Pop Culture” essay, eschewing moral judgements is a bear market trait. As our many studies show, declining social mood leads to harder and more aggressive music, more bellicose politics both domestic and international, and general fuzzing on the barriers of what is considered socially acceptable. Our point is this: It is clear going back to animation’s inception that there are waves of generally positive and generally negative cartoons, themes and animation styles. Further, those waves align remarkably well with social mood as indicated by trends in the stock market. All of this provides further evidence of the deep impact of mood on cartoons—and society.
The past year could go down in history as a watershed moment for animation. Topping mood amidst a longer term bear market produced Toy Story 3, which critics hailed as a masterpiece. We agree: the negative undertones of the film, released in a bear market rally, are well timed. Of particular note is one of the film’s final moments: The incinerator scene is unsettlingly dark and elicited real fear for the characters in audiences worldwide. In another acknowledgement of mood’s sea change, November also saw Disney announce the end of its animated fairy tale films. The currently running Tangled, will, according to the Los Angeles Times, “be the last tale produced by Disney’s animation group for the foreseeable future.” Within months of the final peak of the last big rally, Disney calls it quits. The timing is extraordinary.■
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events of history—such as investment booms and busts, political events,
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