Disability in Animation: Adventure Time

Series: Disability in Children’s Animation

Spoiler Warnings: In this post, I’ll be looking at the following episodes of Adventure Time:

  • S.5 Ep 34: The Vault
  • S.6 Ep 2: Escape from the Citadel
  • S.6 Ep 4: The Tower
  • S.6 Ep 6: Breezy

Because this post is basically one giant spoiler, the whole thing will be under a cut.

Trigger Warnings: Discussion of child abuse, ableism, traumatic loss of limbs

Quick rundown on Adventure Time:

A post apocalyptic world full of science and magic. Weird, fifteen minute episodes that are just as likely to bring tears and feels and deep meaning as they are to end in butt jokes. Sometimes there’s both. There’s a robot named BMO and one time they fell in love with a bubble. Sometimes there’s plot arcs and sometimes the main character has a vision where he’s a caterpillar and we don’t mention it again. The characters have a shocking amount of depth and development, as does the world. Animals talk, and lots of people are food.

Like…made of food.

It’s cool. I recommend it.

The two main characters are Finn and Jake, as the theme song will tell you. Finn is a human (the last human) and Jake is a dog. They are brothers. Finn is adopted. Finn was twelve when the show started, but is now more like fifteen.

190px-Original_Finn120px-Jake_Updated_Design

 

Image Description: Left, a picture of Finn. He wears blue pants and a blue shirt, and he has a hat which covers his hair. It has ears. Right, a picture of Jake, a yellow dog with vary large eyes.

The show was created by Pendleton Ward. Seems like a cool guy, I’ll talk more about him in future.

There is a lot to talk about in Adventure Time. Much of it, in my opinion, is good. In fact, it’s one of my favorite television shows. And I will be talking about it a lot in the future–its gender representation, the different relationships we see, the plot development, and certainly the character of the Ice King and the way the show uses him to talk about things like dementia. Today, however, I’m going to be talking about something that has played a pretty big part in season six.

Early in the show, they started to hint that at some point, Finn was going to lose his arm. Every alternate or future version of him (except the gender-bent fanfiction version) was missing an arm. The same arm.

In season five, Finn got a cursed sword, his grass sword, which permanently attached itself that arm. Clearly, they were leading up to something.

Then, in season six, Finn lost his arm. And he did so in a strangely graphic and clearly traumatic way. They managed to keep it clean–no blood–but it was still very dark. They addressed the feelings that went along with it. They were doing very well.

Then Breezy happened.

We’ll get to that.

First, let’s look at one of the last episodes where we saw an alternate Finn missing an arm (also the one where it was most directly addressed).

S. 5 Ep 34: The Vault

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Image Description: Shoko, a young woman with long black hair and skin that is a sort of light green. She has a dagger strapped to her chest, and is riding a tiger.

Meet Shoko.

She’s Finn in a past life. She’s also missing an arm. Her parents sold it in exchange for a computer. (They also abandoned her at a dojo when she was little. They’re not great.)

Shoko needs money, so she takes a job from the infamous Bath Boy gang: steal an amulet from Princess Bubblegum of the Candy Kingdom. (For those of you who don’t watch the show, Princess Bubblegum is still alive, and hasn’t aged, by Finn’s time. This may have something to do with the fact that she’s made of candy).

Shoko pretends that the Bath Boy gang knocked her out and left her for dead in the woods, and Bubblegum comes to the rescue. Bubblegum explains that parents shouldn’t sell their kids’ arms in exchange for computers, says she wants to defeat the Bath Boy gang, and shows Shoko her kingdom. Shoko helps her out with some physical labor– she needs to cover a radioactive river with candy.

After Bubblegum sees Shoko beat up one of the Bath Boys (Shoko tells him she’s gaining Bubblegum’s trust), she shows Shoko her new project: the Gumball Guardians. The Gumball Guardians are giant sentient gumball machines designed to guard the Candy Kingdom. (These are what the amulet Shoko needs to steal controls).

To thank her for all her help, Bubblegum decides to give Shoko a present.

The present is a robot arm. Shoko is very grateful. She’s also very upset. See, Shoko has a problem.

423px-S5e34_Shoko_about_to_steal

Image Description: Shoko with her robot arm.

If she doesn’t steal the amulet, the Bath Boys will kill her.

She tries to steal the amulet, even though she doesn’t want to, and the Guardians chase her into the radioactive river. Bubblegum tries to get her out, but it’s too late.

Later, Shoko crawls out of the river. She has two arms now, although she has no legs and is mostly a blob.

Then she dies.

So, good points:

Shoko is a fully capable warrior even with only one arm. In fact, we never see her do anything with the new arm. It’s also very pro-prosthetic, which is nice.

On the other hand, rewatching it now, I can already see kind of a focus on fixing the disability. We don’t see anything that Shoko can’t do when she has only one arm, so the prosthetic and even the happy ending of “yay, she has two arms, too bad she’s about to die” don’t seem to have much point beyond “it’s good to have two arms”.

The robot arm makes sense as a gift from Bubblegum because Shoko’s parents took away her arm, however that’s getting into the territory of using disability as symbolism, which is concerning.

Overall, I enjoyed the episode, and I like the character of Shoko. She’s not villainized, more portrayed as someone who’s been backed into a corner. The could have done a lot worse. They could have done better, though, and in the context of later episodes the episode seems more problematic than it does by itself.

S6 Ep2: Escape From the Citadel

There’s actually not a lot I want to talk about here. This is the episode where Finn loses his arm, but it doesn’t happen until the very end. Most of the episode is focused on Finn finding his father, who turns out to be a criminal who doesn’t care about him.

In the end, Finn’s father basically pulls off Finn’s arm trying to escape–Finn is holding onto his ship, and Finn’s dad makes it go faster and faster until the arm is pulled off (they avoid gore and explain Finn’s grip by having his grass sword grow around the arm).

The scene where Finn loses his arm is shocking. The moment that follows it, where Finn lies on a beach, shirt gone, hair wet, only a flower where his arm once was, is heartbreaking. He doesn’t cry, although one of his friends does. Jake says that it will be alright.

Finn just lies there, in shock.

640px-S6e2_Finn_with_Flower_as_arm

Image Description: Finn lies on the ground. Where his sword arm once was, there is now only a flower. Jake sits beside him, comforting him.

S6 Ep4: The Tower

There’s an episode between the Citadel and this, which does not talk about Finn’s missing arm. He isn’t working in that episode, which is reasonable–he just lost his sword arm. While one could easily interpret that as part of the grieving process, it mostly seems to be a filler episode. Adventure Time is still supposed to be a fun show, and they had just done two very serious episodes in a row. Going straight into The Tower, another very serious episode, might have lost them some audience members.

The Tower is dark. Very dark. After The Tower, I actually saw some people thinking that Finn was being made into an antagonist. I disagreed, for various reasons, and actually found some of the comments kind of offensive. The Tower is dark because it is about Finn coping with the loss of his arm and the discovery that his father never loved him. He’s angry and in pain, and those are perfectly natural reactions to something like that. And they should be allowed. When something bad happens to you, you should be allowed to be in pain. And you should be allowed to work through that pain.

The Tower also confronts the difficult question of how to help someone who’s in pain.

The episode starts with Finn attempting to use a giant candy  arm constructed for him by Bubblegum.

It is useless. He has no control. It’s too heavy and too strong and too unwieldy. He tries to make spaghetti and the spaghetti breaks. It sucks. Then he gets mad, understandably, and the arm explodes.

All of this is kind of strange, because we saw Bubblegum make a perfectly good robot arm for Shoko in The Vault.

One way to interpret this–and really, the only way that makes sense to me other than just bad writing–is that the unwieldiness of the arm represents Finn’s feelings. (Sticking in a disclaimer here: I have never lost a limb, so I’m working off of what I’ve read of other people’s feelings and  off of my guesses.) Finn just lost his arm. No prosthetic is going to fix that. He wants his arm back, not a candy one. He’s angry and frustrated. The arm doesn’t feel like part of him, and we see that through his inability to control it like part of him. It feels too heavy and too unwieldy.

This actually makes a lot of sense as an interpretation, I think, given what we find out soon after:

Finn has developed a psychic arm. It’s a projection of his anger.

It’s around the time that Finn fails utterly at making spaghetti that we start to see the other issue tackled in this episode: how other people can help someone with grief. Jake tells Finn that all the prosthetic arms being donated by princesses are just throwing him off. He needs to listen to his heart. His melon-heart, specifically. The heart in his head.

Apparently Finn’s heart is telling him to punch his dad in the face and steal his arm.

Which is totally understandable, but not a good idea. And Jake’s reaction is honestly not very helpful. He laughs it off, tells Finn that can’t really be what his heart is telling him because it’s bad, and leaves.

Finn is contemplating his melon-heart when he discovers the psychic hand (telekinetic? I’m actually not sure what the right term is here), which has started building a tower without his knowledge, and which, he concludes, must have made the candy arm explode.

Scawry_gost_arm

Image Description: Finn’s psychic arm. You can still see the flower inside it.

(Note: rewatching the episode, I have discovered that the correct term for the hand is “telekinetic electro-emotional prosthesis”. I’m going to keep calling it “psychic hand”. Hush, I’m aware of the term’s inaccuracy.)

By the time Jake gets back , Finn is a good ways up, and Bubblegum has roped off the tower. Finn is pulling blocks from all over, Minecraft-style. One of them has a deer on it. It’s a mess. But, Jake thinks they just need to let him work things out for himself.

Jake and Bubblegum start an argument here which will take the rest of the episode to resolve, and which I think is a conflict a lot of people feel when someone they love is hurting. That person needs to work through things themselves, may want to be alone, but on the other hand they’re hurting, and you love them, and you may even be worried they’ll hurt themselves.

In the case of the latter, I’d have to say: don’t mess around. If you are genuinely worried they’ll hurt themselves, talk to them about it. In college and before there are often options when you’re worried a friend might hurt themselves. I don’t know about afterward, honestly.

What you should do to help someone who is grieving is a really tough question, because it’s different for everybody. Often the only person who can really answer it is the person themselves, and a lot of the time, they don’t know.

(A good therapist, by the way, should help you to develop the coping skills to figure that out, and even walk you through it. Unfortunately, good therapists are rare and expensive.)

By this time, Finn’s tower is very tall (he accidentally builds straight into a cloud) and doesn’t look very stable. Finn doesn’t seem very stable either. He builds straight through the night, singing his song (“Baby’s building a tower of revenge”).

Jake thinks Finn building the tower is healthy. And while I’m on board with the idea that Finn needs to work through things in his own way, this is clearly neither healthy nor safe, and it seems like he could use some help from his friends. They can’t work through it for him, but they might be able to help him figure out what he needs.

Which is kind of what Bubblegum does. She rescues Finn while he’s hallucinating (the oxygen gets pretty thin), pretends to be his dad, and lets him try to pull off her arm. Finn realizes that pulling off his dad’s arm isn’t going to make him feel better. And it seems like that helps.

We find out two episodes later that he has just sunk into a deep depression, but that’s the thing. Feelings suck. Something like this doesn’t go away quickly. Finn has been through a traumatic event, and it should affect him. Even if they limit those effects due to it being a kids show, I appreciate that they let him take multiple episodes.

To be honest, I love this episode. I’ve been in that place before, that dark, angry place where you just want to hurt whoever did this to you. In my case, my fury was a lot more directionless–no one gave me a five month migraine or severely debilitating GERD–but I understand the anger. There are things going on with your body, and there’s nothing you can do about them. And that’s all you want, really, is something to do. Some kind of control.  You want to be able to fix it.

But some things you can’t fix.

S4 Ep6 Breezy

I hated this episode almost as much as I loved the Tower.

I saw a lot of people who had problems with the sexual themes of this episode and how they were handled, and yeah, it was kind of messed up, but that’s not what I hated.

The episode starts with the doctor telling Finn that he needs to work through his depression (it’s killing his flower). And he is depressed–I recognize the apathy. He doesn’t feel like anything matters. Including saving his flower. But he tries anyway, with the help of a bee.

640px-S6e6_Ughhh

Image Description: Finn slumped onto the floor in apathy.

And okay, I like how they showed Finn’s depression, I like that they let him be depressed, at least for an episode, although it gets weirdly hung up on his not-all-that-recent breakup, but what comes at the end is just…

Finn has a dream, and when he wakes up his arm is back. Not even a grass arm. His regular arm.

640px-S6e6_Reborn6

Image Description: Finn’s arm is back, covered in…some kind of honey or something.

That really angered me. The idea that disabilities need to be fixed is a very harmful one. If you lose your arm, or are disabled in whatever way, you are perfectly entitled to want those things to get “fixed”. But abled people, and in general people who aren’t you telling you that you need to be fixed to be happy? Is not okay.

There’s also a slightly weird “love or sex will heal you” thing going on? It’s not very clear. It’s just…weird.

Honestly though, even looking at this from a writing perspective, rather than a disabled one? This decision does not make sense to me. They spent like five seasons building up to the loss of Finn’s arm, foreshadowing it. And then they give him back his arm after four episodes, in a kind of weird dream scene that makes up the last couple minutes of a single 11-minute episode? I don’t get it. As an audience member, I felt cheated. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.

My hopes for Adventure Time’s handling of this were so high, and they fell so short. The bottom line is: they had a chance for a one-armed hero (and protagonist) in a children’s show, and instead they fixed his disability, and they didn’t even do it in a remotely sensible way. They could have given him a grass arm if they wanted, but they just…gave him his arm back.

It’s very possible that Cartoon Network intervened and told them they couldn’t take Finn’s arm arm away permanently (although after re-watching Shoko’s episode it seems less likely), but if that was the case I think there still had to be a better way.

Part of me wants to think they’ll fix it somehow, but I don’t see that happening, and really don’t think they can. Adventure Time still has a lot of merit as a show, and I still recommend it, and parts of the disability storyline were handled really well (the Tower), but overall…

I think part of their problem may have been that they were attempting to tackle disability and parental abuse at the same time, and some of the disability became symbolic of the parental abuse, and I don’t think they really decided exactly what they were doing.

It’s less than I expected from a show like Adventure Time, which is the main reason it angers me so much. It’s not that it’s the first show to do disability badly, or the worst example, but it had a ton of potential, and it’s a show I love a lot.

Sigh.

Tomorrow: Finding Nemo! You can’t see me, but I’m doing my happy dance right now.


All pictures from the Adventure Time wiki.

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