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Family Structures and Gender Expectations in Adventure Time
Adventure Time is an animated American television series created by Pendleton Ward. Adventure Time follows the adventures of Finn the Human and Jake the Dog in the post-apocalyptic Land of Ooo. The Land of Ooo is described by Ward as “Candyland on the surface, but dark underneath.” Finn & Jake’s interactions with reoccurring characters, as well as each other while they live in this magical world, make up the majority of episodes. These reoccurring characters include Princess Bubblegum, the pink ruler of the Candy Kingdom, The Ice King, a sexist imbecile who is constantly kidnapping princesses, Marceline the Vampire Queen, a vampire who has been alive more than one thousand years and is a bass player in a band, and BMO, Finn & Jake’s little robot Game boy/computer friend who lives in their tree house home. These unique characters contain many traits and characteristics that the audience can both resent and aspire to. The broken land of Ooo has broken homes and broken the rules for what is expected both of families and gender roles.
The main character, Finn, was adopted by Jake’s family when his mother and father found Finn, then a baby, crying in the woods. The show sometimes shows the two parents in holograms since they have passed, meaning that the main family structure of the show is a twenty-two year old raising his ten year old adopted brother, a very unusual family dynamic. Since this is a children’s television series it is likely that this dynamic is in part to remove the parental influence within the show, allowing for these adventures, but it may also be in order to present a non-traditional family structure that is still based on love and understanding for each other in the face of adversity (i.e. parental death).
This non-traditional family structure is a common motif within the series. In the episode “Simon and Marcy” a young Ice King and Marceline travel and survive 996 years before the time of Finn & Jake right after what is called “The Great Mushroom War” (likely a nuclear war) that created the Land of Ooo. It is clear in the episode that an adolescent Marceline is without parents while the middle aged Simon protects her at any and all costs, even to his own sanity. This is another example of adoption as a large importance to the show, presenting to the viewer that in times of peril people band together and adults should help those young people who cannot help themselves.
The most interesting non-traditional family structure in the show I found included BMO the little robot friend of Finn & Jake. BMO is interesting in that s/he does not have a strict gender assignment and is referred to as both he and she by Finn, Jake, and other characters. In the episode “James Baxter the Horse” BMO has strapped a cup to his/her screen and placed an egg in the cup; s/he then innocently sings “Oh, BMO, how’d you get so pregnant? Who’s the mother, who’s the father?” This is interesting in that no character in the show ever questions BMO and BMO never has to defend, it is simply the way BMO is. This message about gender is reminiscent of Third Wave Feminism which tries to include all scopes of those who identify as females, even those who do not fit neatly on the gender binary.
This is important in the series especially in the episode “BMO Lost” where BMO meets and falls in love with another non-clearly gendered object, a bubble. While lost in a forest BMO and Bubble find and adopt a lost baby who BMO names Ricky and Bubble names Sparkle. The three travel together until the baby’s mother takes Ricky/Sparkle back. Soon after they find their way back to the tree house where Bubble professes love for BMO and the desire to get married. BMO agrees and then suddenly Bubble is popped by Jake, who doesn’t realize the importance to BMO. This profession of love and a desire to marry between to non-clearly gendered objects may be perceived as simply nonsensical to someone not invested in the characters or even by most children or adults watching, but the inclusion is just another example of interesting family dynamics as well as gender expression.
The gender expressions and expectations are not only broken by BMO, but by the character Princess Bubblegum as well. P.B. appears as a stereotypical princess; crown, flowing dress, and covered from head to toe in pink, but that is where the stereotype ends. P.B. is a scientific genius who rules her kingdom with a logical head and is never distracted by male intrigue. In the episode “The Suitor” she even builds a robot version of herself to keep a particularly pesky suitor named Brocko at bay, despite attempting to “peacock” her or “seduce through the art of superficiality.”
In recent episodes there has been a good amount of time delving into the history of secondary characters and their relationships with each other. One intriguing episode, “Sky Witch”, revolves around P.B. and Marceline. The episode opens with P.B. getting out of bed wearing a t-shirt Marceline had given her two seasons earlier. She then walks to her closet, opens it, revealing a photo of P.B. and Marceline with their arms around each other, P.B. gives her shirt a long smell, then puts on a coat. Further on the two attempt to retrieve an object of significant sentimental importance to Marceline from the Sky Witch. The two have an air of familiarity and distance in their interactions and in the end P.B. trades her sweater with the witch to make Marceline happy. This episode greatly hints at a likely romantic past between these two beings. A subtle lesbian undertone in the relationship between the two characters in a children’s television show goes mostly unnoticed by the children watching it, but it is another example of the Adventure Time staff representing another aspect of real life; that these relationships do exist in the real world and in the future the gender of the respective parties will not be of importance.
Adventure Time has built itself to be a solid children’s show with themes and characters that are enjoyed by people of all ages. The show explores avenues other children’s shows are unwilling or unable to, including adoption, loss of parents, gender expression, and same sex relationships. By setting these in the future they become a world where these current issues are no longer issues and people are valued by their actions not who or what they are. This message is intended to entertain and inspire the viewers.