Screen Time

The Gloriously Incompetent Politicians of Children’s Television

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo screengrabs of The Simpsons, Hey Arnold!, Phineas and Ferb, and Powerpuff Girls.

Screen Time is Slate’s pop-up blog about children’s TV, everywhere kids see it.

The monocled little man who falls apart when his assistant goes on vacation, hiding in his underwear in his ruined mayoral office, clutching his jar of pickles. The self-centered, cigar-smoking womanizer flanked by models, who makes only the barest attempt to hide his corruption, holding his constituents in open contempt. The insecure man-children wearing sashes that declare them “MAYOR”; the tentacled aliens wearing human skin, barely passing as real people; the charming phony who uses a bill to protect his town from killer robots as a coaster. Who runs the world in children’s TV? Buffoons!

From Townsville to Hillwood to Springfield to D.C., one doesn’t have to travel far across the kids’ TV landscape to find someone terrible in charge of government. Adorably small or gluttonously large, tiny hands or tiny hats, it is the scale of their incompetence and greed that stands out most of all. How did our cartoon offices come to be filled with such ignorant and self-interested politicos?

Take Mayor, the tiny man who “runs” the city of Townsville by calling on the Powerpuff Girls, a group of kindergartners, whenever something goes wrong—be that a monster destroying the city or a particularly tight lid on his pickle jar. He’s childish, clueless, needy, and easily distracted by balls of colored wool. He’s well-meaning, but utterly incompetent, causing far more problems than he solves, and at a loss without the women in his life. But he can talk the political talk, and isn’t that all that really counts? “I’m a fierce political creature, and I never give up the fight!” he cries. “Besides, I love to kiss all of those adorable babies!”

Over in (Hey Arnold!’s) Hillwood, Mayor Dixie is less well-meaning. One of the elites, she seems mainly interested in schmoozing with the rich and powerful. When Arnold approaches local hero Monkeyman outside the opera, reminding him of his forsaken mission to protect the weak and powerless, the fur-coated mayor is among his opera-going entourage, laughing at Arnold’s naïveté. It’s Mayor Dixie who approves plans to turn Arnold’s neighborhood into a luxury mall, cozying up to the evil developer Scheck, already on the side of the corporate giant. A politician’s politician, she is almost always wearing her “Re-elect Dixie” badge.

Perhaps the most subversive aspect of children’s TV is the way it teaches kids that politicians are inherently unreliable, careless, and cavalier. Their dreadfulness makes them easier to laugh at, up until the point they approve plans to destroy your neighborhood or take away your health care. Don’t take them too seriously—they take themselves seriously enough as it is!

Oh, there goes “Diamond Joe” Quimby, that “illiterate, tax-cheating, wife-swapping, pot-smoking spendocrat!” Quimby, whose social circle encompasses Fat Tony and Miss Springfield, has given up any pretense of professionalism. “Corruptus in Extremis,” says the seal on the mayor’s office wall. “Who are you to demand anything?” says the mayor himself. “I run this town—you’re just a bunch of low-income nobodies!” The self-serving mayor cares little for Springfield (or. as he once called it in a meeting, “Sprungfield”), or the people in it (morons), or the town’s distinguished guests, or anything that isn’t himself. He takes bribes and embezzles money, blames high taxes on illegal immigrants, and bends the law and the truth for electoral gain. Vote Quimby.

And that’s not to mention gubernatorial candidate Burns, with his claims that three-eyed fish are a natural result of evolution, or kongressional kandidate Krusty, katapulted into office by Fox News bias. Those seeking office are just as bad as those who hold it, and those who have left it—three former presidents (Carter, H.W. Bush, and Clinton) are played out as the Three Stooges, though only one stoops to the level of feuding with Homer.

Distrust the politician, kids are taught. It’s up to the kids to save the world, the neighborhood, the environment, as they repeatedly do. For real leadership they have to look a little closer to home, to a Tommy Pickles (compassionate, courageous) or a Bob the Builder (Yes we can!). Children recognize the inherently corruptive nature of political office, and they see this political world of arbitrary rules and undemocratic systems and out-of-touch leaders for what it is: silly. Once one accepts the system is fundamentally silly, one is free of it.

Never has the cartoonishness of TV leaders felt more apropos than our current era, with the American president a real-life cartoon: crude, attention-seeking, flailing, lying. American adults have been surprised to see a buffoon in charge of our great nation. American kids expect it. May they soon save the world.