top of page

Overthinking A Cartoon

I binge watched Gravity Falls a few weeks ago, and one stuck with me. (If you have not watched Gravity Falls, then I will give you a quick overview of it: it's a cartoon in which a pair of preteens named Mable and Dipper deal with supernatural entities, some of which want to bring chaos into the world. That was a drastic and unfair oversimplification. It's actually a mind-boggling good kid's cartoon. If you haven't seen it, you should.)

Anyway, the episode that has me thinking constantly is called "The Last Mablecorn." The story goes that Dipper and his uncle want to make a magical force field around their shack so that they protect the family from an inter-dimensional being that can possess people. (It's a complicated story.) In order to make the force field, they need unicorn hair, so Mabel and her little girl friends volunteer to go get it. They go into the forest and find a unicorn who is just the prissiest, most annoying- anyway, her name is something stupidly fanciful and she won't give any hair to anyone who is not 'pure of heart.' She claims that she can see into people's souls so she can judge the purity of heart. It turns out that she is just being a jerk, can't see into souls, and is hanging onto the hair for the joy of messing with people.(She also has this whole thing about shoes, which isn't plot-relevant but is funny and, as we'll see, kind of thematically relevant.) Ultimately, the band of girls beat her up and take the hair.

So, the original Medieval unicorn legend is that only a virgin can tame a unicorn. I'm going to assume that the 12-year-old is statistically likely to be a virgin. Anyway, it's a Disney cartoon. Disney probably doesn't want to be known as the channel that had parents squirming in their seats and trying to avoid explaining what a virgin was. Was that the original reason that the cartoon changed the attribute that tames the unicorn to 'pure of heart?' I don't know. What I do know is that they replaced it with a standard that is vague and can always be redefined. I mean, you can always try to define virginity by gradations, but virtually everyone tends to narrowly define it as 'hasn't had penetrative sex.' It would be immediately obvious if the unicorn tried to screw with Mabel and company by redefining sex in a ridiculously broad way. Changing the virtue the unicorn is looking for to something that is stupidly vague lets the unicorn move the goalposts forever.

Now, given the set up with a female unicorn that is witholding a part of her body, this episode can be seen as a revenge fantasy for writers who think they are owed sex and the unicorn is just being uppity in refusing. (Seriously, it's her hair. Why didn't they offer to buy it or go looking for a more accommodating unicorn?) However, the all-girl party of hunters and virtue being not chastity but goodness changes the message.

See, 'goodness' in the form of being a doormat and having pure thoughts is an ideal that is foisted on women. (I think this may be connected to the unicorn's weird 'thing' about shoes, a bit of paraphanelia attached to women for some reason.) It's a feminine ideal, but its an ideal that is frankly crippling. People striving for it at the expense of all else effectively become useless because they become navel-gazing pushovers without ever actually being good enough. (I'm not against nice- just that it's not a great end goal in some cases. I guess I shouldn't say nice so much as people-pleasing.) In fact, Mabel drops out of the hunting party to dream up ways to become 'pure of heart' while Wendy, the older girl, convinces the other 2 companions to enact an elaborate plot to steal the hair. Mabel can't contribute to protecting her home because she fell for an impossible ideal. The girls beating up the unicorn and taking the hair can be seen as rejecting this crippling, useless ideal. The girl's initial excitement about meeting the unicorn and their disappointment can be seen as initially accepting the virtue and then rejecting it.

The other way of reading the three girls being so excited about actually meeting a unicorn and their disillusionment in this situation is that the unicorn represents something other than a form of femininity. She can represent little girlhood. The teenaged girl is the one with the solution to the unicorn- she isn't enamored of the unicorn's ideal and can see that the unicorn was just messing with Mabel. Beating up the unicorn is defeating a type of girlhood ideal that, let's face it, is just being used as a way to refuse to give them something. The hair that the unicorn won't give is a stand in for social acceptance and self-worth, and the deliberately vague and un-achievable standard a way of keeping those things from them. The message of the episode becomes "You will never be considered 'good enough' because the ideal was always a pose. It is designed to render you useless and refuse to give you something. It's a really mean way of saying no. You need to refuse to play along and take what you want, because the game is rigged."

Anyway, I am probably overthinking a children's cartoon, but that is also the appeal: you can laugh at the obnoxious unicorn and elaborate plot to cut the hair. It's a fun episode. You can also think about the underlying themes for a long time and write a screed about it. The thing is that, as a mom with a teenaged daughter, a person who consumes way too much lit-crit, and a relative of someone who was 'one-more-thinged' out of a visa, this episode struck a chord. It reminded me of a message that perhaps my daughter needs to hear: that the game is not always fair and when it is rigged, you have every right to stop playing. (It probably wasn't the one she got. She was just annoyed with the unicorn and it's not her favorite episode.) It reminded me that it is Ok for me to walk away in those circumstances, too, and that there are multiple ways to enjoy a cartoon.

So I spent a lot of time overthinking a cartoon.

bottom of page