Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Art and the Consumer, Part 4

"Know Your Enemy: Demographics" Continued

I'm a full-time demographic loser. I belong to groups whose existence the demographic demons prefer not to acknowledge. On the one hand, I'm one of those "girl geeks" who would rather watch superheroines kick bad-guy butt than watch fashionistas powder their noses while they pine over men; I'd rather see a good adventure than a romantic comedy, and accordingly I can't help wishing female characters played more prominent roles in adventure/action films. Warner Bros./DC Animation's Justice League Unlimited was one of the first good shows to give superheroines a fair share of screen time (though the same company's animated series of Batman and Superman paved the way with their depictions of Batgirl and Supergirl). Accordingly I was a big fan, and I was crushed when the show was cancelled even though it was quite popular.

But I went from sad to mad when I learned why the show was cancelled despite its popularity, and realized I belong to yet another group deliberately ignored by demographics-worshippers: adult animation fans.

Adult animation fans and comic book lovers enjoyed JLU and were eager to see more. In cancelling it, Cartoon Network couldn't argue that "not enough people were watching," but in their eyes, the wrong people were watching. They wanted an audience of children, so they cancelled JLU and replaced it with more kiddie-friendly fare. The demographics demons do not deem adult animation fans a worthwhile audience to target. According to their dictates, here in America at least, cartoons are strictly for kids, and any cartoon that doesn't appeal specifically to kids is a failure. This wasn't always the case. In the days of classic Hollywood, cartoon shorts accompanied every feature, regardless of the demographic to which that feature appealed, and so, to quote one of the geniuses of the animated short subject, Chuck Jones, the creators of those shorts were "forced to make them for ourselves." But as the animated short died, so did the notion that animated fare might appeal as much to adults as to children, if not more so. In our current demographic-ruled climate, only the creators of The Simpsons, Family Guy and South Park, as well as Pixar, with its depiction of middle-aged and elderly protagonists, have challenged the idea of animation as just, or primarily, for kids.

Adult animation fans aren't even the hardest hit group; we at least get thrown the occasional bone. The people the demographic demons most assiduously disregard are those over the age of 55.

Demographic-based cancellations aren't a rare thing. Matlock and Murder, She Wrote get a lot of ridicule as the shows of choice of elderly viewers, but one can see why seniors would be drawn to those shows: both depict seniors as active, energetic problem-solvers who are important, even valuable, in the worlds they inhabit. Both shows were cancelled while they were still popular, in order to make room for shows that would appeal to younger audiences. Look at television now, and you'll find seniors all but wiped off the map of the airwaves, except as minor supporting characters. On the big screen the picture is similarly bleak: seniors' stories rarely get told, because that hot young demographic supposedly won't flock to movies about old people. Two years ago, however, one movie studio had the cloud to make, then sell, a film with an elderly protagonist, and because the story was told with wit and poignance as well as color and adventure, audiences embraced it. The film? Pixar's Up.

Up -- along with almost all good-to-great films -- concerned itself more with storytelling than with demographics; its creators never assumed that its potential audience was only interested in seeing movies about people identical to themselves. If we want to see film and television that would actually merit the name of art, we have to take on the demon Demographics.

The best way to do this is to vote with our wallets, to seek out movies and television shows that don't fit the usual demographic patterns and that actually promise to tell stories that don't turn on stereotypes. Being fortysomething, I'm not far away from that over-55 group that gets ignored. Indeed, mature adult audiences, audiences over thirty, find themselves disregarded at nearly all times of the Movie Year except the fall. We adults need to let the "money men" know that we are here, and that when we throw our support behind a movie, we too can make a hit. Who do the money men imagine turned The King's Speech into a moneymaker? I'll give them a hint: it wasn't teenage boys.

The bottom line: we'll get the kind of art we deserve. If we're not satisfied with what we're seeing, we have to demand something better, and make our feelings known with the dollars we spend. If we're not willing to do that, then we'll only prove the government right: consumers can't be trusted to promote worthwhile art.

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