Why Betty Boop will Dumbfound Historians

I think at some point, we all wonder how America will go down in history. I often ponder whether people thousands of years from now will revere us, laugh at us, or do a little of both. There are many cultural and political forces that, for good or for ill, mold the way we will be remembered. But there is a force far greater than any other that will shape America’s legacy. I speak, of course, of 1930s cartoons.

History has been well-documented for quite a while now, but we actually don’t know much about societies that existed a little over a thousand years ago. This is because ancient civilizations tended to keep their history not in books, but in myths and stories. A civilization’s tales are usually based on real events, but when historians study a culture’s myths, they can’t be sure which parts of the myth are fact and which are fiction.

Take the ancient Greek story of Theseus, who fought the minotaur inside a massive labyrinth on the island of Crete. We know that King Minos, ruler of Crete in ancient times, did in fact have a huge fortress, but that’s about all we know. Historians can’t be sure if Theseus was a real person, if some sort of creature actually lived in King Minos’ castle, what exactly that creature was, and whether Theseus actually fought it. We continue to study and retell these myths because in many cases, they’re the closest thing to an actual historical record we have.

Which makes me wonder: what kind of mythology will we leave behind? When the people of the future (who, I presume, will live in a society that’s something of a cross between “The Jetsons” and the short-lived series “My Little Pony: After the Bomb”) uncover our remains and study the tales we told, what assumptions will they make about the way we lived? Thoughts like these make me concerned about the art we create; specifically, cartoons.

Cartoons are weird. Really weird. And their weirdness isn’t just a recent phenomenon; they were strange from the get-go. If you think a cartoon like “Adventure Time” or “Ren and Stimpy” is bizarre, just take a look at about 90% of the animation that came out of the 1930s. Apparently, the best way to distract people from the woes of the Depression was to stick faces on a bunch of inanimate objects and have them sing and dance for about five minutes.

The stuff that happens in these cartoons can make you question the nature of reality itself. Humanoid animals whistle at awkward moments, objects you thought were stationary suddenly jump up and start spanking each other, and everything moves to the beat of a repetitive, bouncy song. Before Popeye hit the scene, the average cartoon made an acid trip seem like a bland Monday morning at the office.

I can’t help but speculate on what future civilizations will think after they unearth some of our old cartoons. I mean, pretend you’re an anthropologist living a few hundred years in the future. What would you think of a culture that produced this:

You’d probably come to the conclusion that, throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, North America was populated by a people who revered chickens above all else and believed that, should you disrupt the sacred birds, a gang of singing, jovial demons would inhabit gravestones, haystacks, and even the Earth itself to wreak horrifying judgment upon you while dancing to catchy swing music. You might even write your graduate thesis on the giant chicken god worshiped and feared by the ancient Americans (5:26 into the video.)

We can’t change this. Like it or not, we’re going to go down in the annals of history as the civilization that thought we could fuse our behinds with chickens and in so doing, create chicken babies (1:53 into the video.) I just hope animators will start to realize what they’re doing to our culture’s legacy and start to offset the ‘30’s weirdness with cartoons that are a little more grounded in reality. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go write a story about a treasure-hunter and his talking, cybernetic llama butler.

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