The Tylt

Gen Z and Millennials find relatable, serious themes in adult cartoons

“Cartoon” used to be a dirty word. Much like candy, parents would allow their children to watch cartoons sparingly, warning that too much viewing time would rot their brains. Who, then, could have imagined a world in which cartoons were not only made specifically for adults, but also held in high esteem?

Cartoons have gathered both critical acclaim and large fanbases in recent years, so much so that a new cartoon subgenre has gained a lot of steam: “adult” cartoons. Previously dominated by lowbrow humor, as seen in early iterations such as “Beavis & Butthead,” adult cartoons have since gained a touch of class, and, for some series, respect within the esteemed arts community. Now a fully burgeoning medium, adult cartoons have taken the entertainment world by storm. 

Take a look at any and every streaming platform; each has leveraged the advancing adult cartoon trend, producing both original content and acquiring popular titles. Netflix churns out a slew of original adult animation practically every month. Its first original animated series,“BoJack Horseman,” was viewed by many critics as a powerful show with many valuable thematic executions. This sudden popularity of the genre is in part thanks to Gen Z and Millennials, whose appetite for nostalgic products has created an entire consumer base – a perfect foundation for adult animation’s popularity.

See, Gen Z and Millennials grew up in what many consider to be the “golden age of American animation,” a period during the eighties and nineties in which cartoons took on a whole new level of depth. Networks such as the Disney Channel and Cartoon Network produced series such as “Gargoyles” and “Dexter’s Lab” that those now in adulthood would still willingly watch with as much enjoyment as a child. In a four-round bracket where The Tylt asked “Which ‘90s cartoon is the GOAT?,” over 214,756 votes were cast, 81.75 percent of which were Gen Z and Millennials, eventually crowning “SpongeBob SquarePants” as the reigning cartoon king of the decade.  

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In this respect, adult animation’s popularity makes sense. Gen Z and Millennials were reared on the best of the best of animation as children and are simply gravitating toward cartoons because of their familiar and welcoming aesthetic. As both demographics have grown, so, too, have the situations which these shows tackle. “BoJack Horseman” blends existential crises and extremely poor adult decision-making with the childishness of a typical cartoon, while other popular adult cartoons such as “Big Mouth” are just the right blend of innocence and absurd vulgarity. One could even say the best adult cartoons out there (“Archer,” for example) have HBO-worthy scripts without the constraints of human actors and sets — creativity at its finest and least inhibited. 

Yet no cartoon genre stirs up more of a conversation than anime. Boasting an incredibly enthusiastic fanbase (anime streaming platform, Crunchyroll, has as many as 60 million registered users, over 2 million of whom are paid subscribers), anime fans are always willing to fully support the shows and characters they love. Other streaming services and networks have gotten wise to anime’s success, speaking to a greater trend that reflects how broad the anime audience actually is. 

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One Tylt anime debate that evidences this is “dubs versus subs.” A topic that never expires (and gets fans inspired) is whether to watch a show dubbed in a different language (referred to by aficionados as “dubs”), or in its original Japanese language (“subs”). When The Tylt asked its audience which they preferred, 70.6 percent voted in favor of subs. At surface level, this data is nothing special; but in digging deeper, The Tylt found how more women cast their vote than men (54.3 percent, to be exact), breaking the stereotype that anime is mostly reserved for gamer boys and male “weebs.” Additionally, many who voted in favor of #DubsOnly are enthusiasts of sports and fitness, while #SubOnly reflected votes from those interested in the outdoors. This is a far cry from the nerdy stereotype anime lovers have suffered over the years, one associated with a lack of physical exertion and a love for remaining in dark, indoor places.

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Much like adult cartoons in general, anime has more of an appeal to a wider American audience than previously assumed. This presents an interesting opportunity for brands to creatively incorporate such art into their campaigns or products. Coach recently got this memo, using self-proclaimed anime fan and Hollywood heartthrob, Michael B. Jordan, to collaborate on a fashion line paying homage to the popular anime “Naruto.” 

But it would be wrong to say that the appeal of adult cartoons ends with Gen Z and Millennials. When seeking to find out which Netflix adult cartoon audiences favored most of all, The Tylt found that 14.03 percent of those who answered were ages 45 to above 65. So be wary, to those who would toss an “Ok, Boomer” to an elder — you may be dismissing a fellow “Rick and Morty” fan. 

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“Cartoon” used to be a dirty word, but no more. The appeal of the adult cartoon lies in its mature plotlines, and maintaining a relatability to audiences while also appealing to memories of fonder days. It’s childhood levelled up, and what fun is adulthood without some childish antics, anyway?