More than meets the eye time! We now bring you part two in our new series on nostalgia and cartoons (and a whole lot more) from Jeremiah Lawson aka Wenatchee the Hatchet. For part one, go here. Who knew Transformers were such an overt expression of Reagan-era sensibilities? Certainly not me – I was always more of a G.I. Joe guy, but Jeremiah is nothing if not persuasive. Enjoy:
Plenty of film critics have sounded off on how terrible the Transformers movies have been, typically laying most of the blame on Michael Bay. But let’s face it – those critics would not take a Transformers movie seriously if Stephen Spielberg were directing it. They probably have no idea how much Transformers lore has developed over the years, or what the “mythos” of Transformers even is. When it comes to stories created to make money, it is more respectable to pay homage to yarns spun by directors such as Stanley Kubrick or Robert Altman, stories written by Faulkner or Hemmingway or Tolstoy, and music by Bob Dylan or Beethoven than to invest lifetimes of money into films featuring John Saxon or directed by George Lucas, stories written by Danielle Steele or Tom Clancy, and music made by Journey or Air Supply. The belief is sincerely held that serious accomplishment and longevity in the arts is the domain of the auteur and not the corporation or collective. Critics can easily dismiss Transformers as the acme of craven 1980s-era promotion of covetousness in children and content themselves that their willingness to collect every single Beatles B-side or to read production notes from an Altman film does not display a comparable level of religious devotion. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The 1980s weren’t the first time that a corporate structure took advantage of foreign ideas/creations and marketed them to American youth who had never seen or heard anything like it before. Children in the 1980s had Transformers and teens in the 1960s had Beatlemania.
Nevertheless, the popularity of Transformers does speak to an important set of conditions that were unique to the United States in the 1980s. It was during this decade that it became legal to create a cartoon about a line of toys and to have commercial breaks featuring advertising for the toys themselves (and comic books featuring stories about the toys). Critics and historians who miss this most obvious detail will imagine that the stories were made to sell the toys without realizing that the toys had been selling in Japan before. The unique sales pitch was not the toys but the STORY about the toys. These were toys that had a history, a trite and contrived history perhaps, but one which children were invited to participate in by way of purchasing toys and other products. In both Beatlemania and Transformers-mania impressionable young minds were invited to use their power as consumers as a way to embrace a movement that provided them both an identity and a shared story.
The cultural magnitude of the Transformers phenomenon was discussed at length in articles written for Wired in 2007 by Scott Brown and Chris Suellentrop. They voice the claim of many of their (male) peers, that Optimus Prime was like a father to a generation of latchkey kids in the 1980s. More than one man has said that Optimus Prime was the closest thing to a father figure that he had, conceding ruefully how poorly this spoke of the health and happiness of his childhood. As Scott Brown put it, with paradoxically equal parts mockery and mawkishness, Optimus Prime died for freedom, for righteousness, and shelf space in the 1986 Transformers movie to make room for other toys. If we’re to believe everything that has been said about the character, Optimus Prime could be considered a kind of robotic totem of all that was good about being an American male child in Reagan’s America.
Brown writes that cynics would call Transformers a toy commercial. This is not cynicism at all; it is the truth and a reliable history of the cartoon. The line between cynicism and idealism does not lay in whether or not you say Transformers was a cartoon and a comic book invented to sell toys to kids. Plenty of cartoons were made to shill toys, but they were shilling toys that have continued to sell long after the cartoons have died. The Diaclone toys sold in Japan but they were toys that did not have names or character descriptions. What American marketers brilliantly devised in the 1980s was a way to sell previously anonymous toys by giving them names and stories. A movie about the Beatles promoted the band in the same way that the 1986 movie promoted the toys. Albums and movies and comics and cartoons were not merely products but sacred texts that provided a canon from which a young person’s own tale could be told. The cynic lacks the insight that a fan can have. Any toy can be sold, but if you sell a child on a toy’s story (witness Pixar) you have created not just a corporate juggernaut but a life-shaping narrative. It then becomes important what the story tells. The basics become paramount, the “who”, “what”, “where”, “when”, and “why”.
Let’s take Optimus Prime, the Transformer so praised by Scott Brown in Wired. Until this toy was given a name and a story it was just a toy made in Japan. Then the toy became Optimus Prime, leader of the noble, peaceful, and freedom-loving Autobots from the planet Cybertron. Over time, Optimus Prime became that surrogate father to a generation of latchkey kids Scott Brown says he was. Optimus Prime’s name tells you everything you need to know about him. He’s optimal, he’s prime, and he’s the best of the best. He’s a big red and blue robot that turns into a truck and his motto is “Freedom is the right of all sentient beings.” He is pretty much perfect – the ultimate good guy. Peter Cullen’s voice famously lets us imagine that if John Wayne were a robot (that turns into a truck), he’d be Optimus Prime.
In the 1980s, the Superman franchise began to founder. With George Lucas claiming he was done with Star Wars movies and Superman movies turning goofier and more didactic both franchises had no promise of continued adventure. Optimus Prime, however, was practically a Superman substitute right down to his dominant colors and his stolidly do-gooder attitude. Yet his being a robot made him the ultimate droid that George Lucas didn’t think of. What is more, by dying in the awful 1986 Transformers film, Optimus Prime became the rock star martyr of children’s’ entertainment in the Reagan era. If the best way to become a legend is to die before everyone gets tired of you, then surely dying was the best thing that ever happened to Optimus Prime. Just as John Lennon’s murder at the dawn of the age of Reagan cemented his legend in the hearts of his (adult) fans, so Optimus Prime’s murder at the hands of Megatron cemented his legend in the hearts of Reagan-era children. The myth-making power and emotional pull of both legends have been comparably powerful.
In terms of cartoon nostalgia, while many would like us to believe that Optimus Prime lived up to his name, even in the 1980s there were some skeptics. I admit I was one of those kids (regarding both the cult of Optimus Prime and of John Lennon). I found Optimus Prime boring for much the same reason I found Superman boring: he was too perfect. Not even his death in 1986 seemed to be anything more to me, even as a 12 year old, than a stunt to take the toy out of circulation and sell new ones. My childhood didn’t end with the death of Optimus Prime, as it did for others; I saw it as a waited-for disappointment. For me, the death of Optimus Prime was simply the death of a character who was too good to be true. The 1986 film was the point where I realized that if I was being sold on a story, it was a story I was no longer willing to buy. Once I stopped buying the story that was used to sell these toys I stopped buying the toys. The great strength of the Transformers brand, its story, also became its weakness. This was no irony of history but the opportunity cost of both 1980s marketing and 1980s pop culture narrative.
Next up, Part 3: Cartoon Morality in Transformers!