ANIMATION THROUGH A SOCIONOMICS LENS
When Ted Turner pitched the idea for an all-cartoon network
When Ted Turner pitched the idea for an all-cartoon network to investors in 1991, he made one key point: People love cartoons. In fact, Turner showed, love them, with nearly half the cartoon viewers not kids but their parents. The assertion piqued our curiosity: With cartoons embraced by such a broad swath of society, might social mood drive the sort of cartoons that studios produce and viewers watch?
We found that cartoon styles shift dramatically with social mood. Positive-mood cartoons are fun and wacky, for example. Negative-mood cartoons, on the other hand, are usually tragic or surreal. Bull-market animation is safe for the family. But many bear-market cartoons contain themes of sexuality, drugs and even racism.
Figure 1 summarizes the key differences. See how many of the characteristics you can spot as we review the most popular cartoons of the past 90 years.
The 1920s launched the age of plot and characterization for cartoons. Most historians consider Felix the Cat, the decade’s most popular cartoon star, to be the first cartoon character with a distinct personality. Cartoon critic Maurice Horn calls him “the high water mark of silent animation.” Felix is creative, adventurous, fun-loving, hard-working and intelligent—a bull-market hero all the way. In the 1926 classic, , Felix courts a Dutch girl. Rather than fight a rival suitor, Felix inflates the man’s pants with a tire pump and watches him float away into the clouds. It was an apt metaphor for both markets and cat; success came easily and Felix’s popularity soared through the decade.
As reflected by the stock market, social mood climbed to extreme heights by the end of the 1920s. This climate set the stage for Felix’s impish new rival, Mickey Mouse. Viewers today hardly recognize Walt Disney’s early incarnation. In (1928), Mickey is a prank-playing river hand who throttles a cat that looks quite like Felix (Figure 3). Ebullient audiences loved the carefree, rascally mouse.
Figure 3 – A Mouse Transformed: Pre-1929 Mickey gets into mischief.
Mischievous Mickey’s run screeched to a halt with the social mood crash of 1929-1932. Suddenly, Mickey was out of step with the times, and audiences let Disney know it. In 1931, Terry Ramsaye of Motion Picture Herald wrote:
Papas and mamas, especially mamas, have spoken vigorously … about [the] devilish, naughty little mouse. … Mickey has been spanked.
In response, Disney morphed the mouse dramatically. The 1933 post-crash short was released in the depths of depression. It left all frivolity behind. The story opens with wind, thunder, a dark stranger and Pluto’s abduction. A doctor plans a gruesome experiment: He aims to replace Pluto’s body with a chicken’s to see whether the new creature will “bark, crow or cackle.” Mickey dodges traps and undead skeletons until the doctor’s snares finally catch him. In the climax, Mickey eludes a buzz saw, only to wake up in bed and realize that the whole ordeal was a nightmare.
The post-crash plot is a major departure from Mickey’s pre-crash adventures. Nowhere does Mickey cause mischief. The antics and songs are gone, while the doctor’s menace and his castle are frighteningly real.
With the subsequent rally in mood in the mid 1930s, Mickey received yet another role: that of the heroic leading man. The transformation mirrored America’s shift toward optimism, and it is this triumphant Mickey who endures today.
Meanwhile Mickey’s predecessor, Felix, failed to adapt to the negative mood of the 1930s. Despite the breakthrough of sound, the cat clung even to his muteness. His audience grew similarly silent, and his popularity plummeted. Four times since, producers have tried to revive Felix—in 1936, 1958, 1991 and 1995, always in bull markets. The most successful was Felix’s run in the 1950s during Cycle Wave III up, when he starred in 260 new shorts and regained much of his former purr. Each revival, though, faded when social mood again turned down. Hollywood plans a Felix movie in 2012. But the release is years prior to our forecast final low in 2014-2016. As such, Felix’s sixth life should be short.
Meanwhile, the Max Fleischer studio struggled to create a star to rival Mickey and Felix. It finally struck gold after mood collapsed in the early 1930s. Their star: Blatantly vampish Betty Boop. Boop routinely dropped her skimpy top, and her skirt was forever riding up. Betty was so risqué that one 1933 short, , proved too much for even bear-market tastes and was banned in Philadelphia.
Betty Boop tackled both coerced sex and drug use. In (1932), the Black Knight nearly deflowers Betty before Bimbo the dog comes to her rescue. In (1932), Betty is a high wire performer in a circus as the villainous ringmaster lusts for her from below. After the performance, the ringmaster follows Betty to her tent, where he caresses her legs and threatens her job if she refuses to submit—a sore topic at the time, with a quarter of the U.S. unemployed. Koko the clown rushes in and knocks the ringmaster unconscious with a test-your-strength mallet. When Koko asks if Betty is ok, she answers in song, “he couldn’t take my boop-oop-a-doop away!”
In another episode, (1934), Betty tries to ease Koko’s toothache. She administers nitrous oxide but drops the mask and accidentally exposes the entire town to gas. What follows is downright trippy as townsfolk, plants, cars and bridges all collapse into convulsive laughter.
The reign of sexy, druggy cartoons was short-lived. As social mood recovered in the mid 1930s, Betty’s creators fashioned a more modest wardrobe, but Betty couldn’t make the transition. Her boop-oop-a-doop fizzled.
Betty’s successor at Fleischer studios, Popeye the Sailor, debuted in 1933. His scruffy appearance and can-do spirit mirrored the battered but upturning mood that fueled the 1932-1937 bull market. Popeye’s nemesis, Bluto, underwent a fascinating metamorphosis. Paramount and Fleischer first billed him as “Bluto the Terrible! Lower than bilge scum, meaner than Satan, and strong as an ox!” But as mood continued to recover, Bluto’s personality softened from serious threat to mere rival. Robert Prechter stated in The Wave Principle of Human Social Behavior, that rising mood celebrates heroes in “good-guy-versus-bad-guy” conflicts; by the time mood peaks, “Everybody’s a good guy.”
The specials (1936) and (1937) were prototypical bull market cartoons containing a hero’s triumph, exotic settings and rollicking adventure. In fact, the shorts were so popular that theatres billed them ahead of the feature films for which they opened.
, released in 1937, also took full advantage of the Cycle degree peak in mood. Triumph over evil, hard work and adorable woodland creatures in the film all reflect the strong positive trend. The film’s wicked witch is an ideal villain for love to conquer, and Prince Charming is the quintessential bull market savior. The film was a hit. Disney spent $1.4 million on . In the film’s first theater run, he recouped it all—six times over.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average plummeted 52% from 1937 to 1942, and the plunging mood also expressed itself via worldwide anger and fear. But animation studios somehow missed the memo. Some of their films contained dark elements, but for the most part, their themes were just too sunny for the times.
is a good example. The mostly upbeat film premiered in 1940. It contains many bear themes, including imprisonment, drinking, fighting and gambling. But the delinquency belies the film’s overall positive theme of family love. also premiered in 1940 with magic, demonic gargoyles and racial stereotypes. Disney’s hero, Mickey, abuses powerful sorcery and gets in way over his head. But like , overall theme—exciting visuals, beautiful music, Mickey being mischievous—was too positive, and audiences of the day mostly yawned, with neither film breaking even until more than a decade later.
In contrast, MGM more fully captured the negative mood with (1939). In the short, tools of war litter the world. A grandfather squirrel describes now-extinct Man to his progeny. After the final two living men kill one another, the squirrel and his fellow woodland friends dance among Man’s remains. Only in an extended bear market would a children’s cartoon suggest that utopia is born of mankind’s extinction.
Just before the low in 1942, Disney finally tapped the mood with its landmark film . Ostensibly a children’s story about happy forest creatures, actuallyreveals deep fear and misanthropy. Though never seen, Man and his menace pervade the film. The murder of Bambi’s mother remains one of animation’s most memorable sequences. The scene continues to traumatize children 70 years after its release. According to boxofficemojo.com, the film made $3 million in its first release, a remarkable feat given that occupying Germany blocked its screening throughout most of Europe.
Amidst the deeply pessimistic mood, the Warner Bros. studio produced cartoons that shock viewers today. The best example is 1943’s In his 1983 book , critic Leonard Maltin writes:
The stereotyped characters and 1940s-style enthusiasm for sex leave modern viewers aghast. The dialogue is strictly jive talk, and the pulsating music bounces the action along as the evil queen calls Murder Inc. to ‘black out So White’ and keep her from Prince Chawmin’.
Warner Bros. drew both Prince Chawmin’ and the dwarfs with stereotypically expanded features, and So White (named Coal Black in the title) is a Betty-Boop-style sex symbol. Critic Steve Bailey comments in 2003:
[The dwarfs] are little more than thick-lipped comic relief. The racial aspect is merely a smokescreen for what this cartoon is really about: sex. …[The Wicked Queen’s first words] are “Magic mirror on the wall, send me a prince about six feet tall.” So White, far from Disney’s virginal image, wears a low-cut blouse and thigh-high shorts, and sends blazes of erotic ecstasy through every male she meets.
As Prechter and Hall pointed out in the August 2009 , the first halves of big third waves do not reflect rising optimism so much as declining pessimism. Thus, popular cartoons in the early 1940s are fun, wacky works that, at the same time, celebrate residual bear themes. Later in the rally, the cartoons become one-sidedly “bull market.”
As Cycle Wave III began, bull themes returned and pessimism resumed its retreat. MGM tapped the complex mid-1940s mood with Tex Avery’s Wolfie and Red cartoons. (1943) casts Red as a nightclub dancer and the wolf as a lustful cad. The short was a hit with civilians and soldiers alike, and Avery released three more in the series to thunderous acclaim.
Maurice Horn notes, “Avery has been hailed as one of the most gifted and imaginative cartoon directors, a ‘Walt Disney that read Franz Kafka.’” Yet Avery’s real genius was his timing: Such raunchy cartoons can work only in a late bear or early bull market. Cartoons would not openly address sex again for another 25 years.
MGM also gave violence a bull market spin with its Tom and Jerry series. Says Horn, “Their whimsical atmosphere, frenetic motion and choreographed violence were more in tune with the times than Disney’s shorts.” The cat-and-mouse team engaged in slapstick antics with zero consequences. Characters might lose a tooth, get electrocuted or be driven into the ground by a telephone pole, but they always remained safe and whole to play-fight another day. The sunny, bull-market mood showed through characters, story, animation and gags in nearly every Tom and Jerry short, typified in (1946), released the year of a stock market top. Tom is an esteemed pianist and Jerry the unwitting resident inside Tom’s piano. Hijinks ensue at Tom’s recital, with Jerry taking credit for the performance. It was the right cartoon for the times, and Tom and Jerry won seven Academy Awards.
In his 2006 study , socionomist Mark Galasiewski expounded on Prechter’s earlier observations that cars produced in bull markets are angular and sharp-edged, while bear market cars are soft and rounded. Now we find that animation styles at both Warner Bros. and Disney studios also fit this pattern.
Warner Bros. found its feet in the 1940s. The studio created Daffy Duck, Porky Pig and Bugs Bunny during the sideways/down years of the late 1930s, and their early incarnations were flat, dull and surreal. But note how the renderings sharpen as mood improves (Figure 11), just as car lines do. Even Porky becomes leaner and more anthropomorphic. The trio also develops distinct, complex personalities. The gags become layered, and the worst that ever befalls any character is a spinning beak or singed whiskers. Plots lack villains; violence is caricatured and derives mostly from zany rivalries.
The studio’s beloved Wile E. Coyote and Roadrunner series (1948-1966) centered entirely on conflict. Yet the shorts aired during a roaring positive-mood period, and in an extreme expression of inclusionism, both rivals manage to win our empathy. We want Wile E.’s elaborate inventions to succeed, yet we also delight when the same inventions backfire. We know the spectacular failures will result in a long, whistling fall punctuated by a puff of dust. Positive mood appreciates mollified violence; successful cartoons deliver it.
(1999) pointed out Disney’s Cycle wave III successes, with the hits ,, , and others. We call special attention to , released in 1959 after the midpoint in rising mood. signaled a new direction for the studio. The film uses stylized, angular illustrations for characters and background, a departure from the roundness of Disney’s 1930s productions. With social mood strongly positive, the animation style would define Disney for the remainder of Cycle III—as well as during Cycle V.
Consider Woody Woodpecker from his birth just before Primary wave 1 up to his demise just after Primary wave 5. Early Woody (1941) was grotesque, insane and mean, a good example of the kind of characters bear markets produce. By 1945, Primary wave 1 had removed the psychosis from his eyes and mitigated his madness.
In the early 1950s amidst Primary wave 3, Woody was lean, determined, and blessed with clever scripts and fun villains upon whom to exact his heroics. Critics agree that this was the era of Woody’s best cartoons, including and .
Woody’s appearance continued to sharpen into 1960, but he became increasingly benign. By the late 1960s, Woody was cute incarnate and, to most critics, utterly boring. Late-bull-trend morality led to heavy censorship, which took any remaining edge off Woody.
The move toward a benign Woody frustrated Walter Lantz, Woody’s creator. Critic Leonard Maltin notes that:
For [Woody’s] most recent Saturday morning program on the NBC network, [Lantz] had to remove every sequence in which a character fired a gun or hit someone on the head with a hammer. Is it any wonder that Woody and his cohorts became blander as the years rolled on?
To a socionomist, it is not. Woody Woodpecker’s genesis was in a bear market. He successfully adapted to bull market tastes, but after reaching his comic peak early in Primary 3, rising mood ground away what had made the character so funny. By the end of his run he had become so sweet that he did not evolve back to his former self when he needed to.
Horn, Maurice, Felix the Cat. (1980). New York City: Chelsea House Publishers, 271.
Maltin, Leonard. (1980). New York City: Penguin Books, 37.
Prechter, R. R. (1999). . Gainesville, GA: New Classics Library, 232.
Maltin, Leonard. (1980). New York City: Penguin Books, 186.
Bailey, Steve. (2003, April 04). Imdb user reviews for coal black and de sebben dwarfs. Retrieved from
Hall, A, & Prechter, R.R. (2009, August). The Wave principle delineates phases of social caution and ebullience. The Socionomist, 1(3), 3.
Horn, Maurice. (1980). Tex Avery. (1980). The World encyclopedia of cartoons. New York City: Chelsea House Publishers, 103.
Prechter, R. R. (1999). The Wave principal of human social behavior and the new science of socionomics. Gainesville, GA: New Classics Library, 242.
etwork to investors in 1991, he made one key point: People love cartoons. In fact, Turner showed, love them, with nearly half the cartoon viewers not kids but their parents. The assertion piqued our curiosity: With cartoons embraced by such a broad swath of society, might social mood drive the sort of cartoons that studios produce and viewers watch?