For most college students, Adventure Time isn’t exactly an unfamiliar name.
The show certainly has a reputation for concentrating on fairly heavy, profound, and often taboo subjects—particularly mental illness. Nevertheless, Adventure Time discusses the subject of mental illness with grace, leaving the topic easy to digest for even viewers who may have never encountered such emotional anguish.
Adventure Time, created by Pendleton Ward, is essentially an animated, action-packed, fantastical, post-apocalyptic drug trip. Trying to figure out the show’s plot is absurdly bizarre for those who have not experienced the show for themselves. Finn, a spirited human with strong morals, and Jake, Finn’s magical dog “brother” who shares striking similarities with Danny DeVito, are adventurers in the Land of Ooo who fight monsters and help people in need. The show features a variety of delightful and colorful (literally and figuratively) characters, each with their own unique histories and personalities.
The show lies somewhere between Steven Universe and Regular Show—while it lacks Steven Universe’s unyielding commitment to diversity, it nevertheless champions a celebration and respect for difference among people and ideas, and while it (thankfully) lacks Regular Show’s tiresome emphasis patriarchal tendencies, it possesses the same charming creativity and a similar dynamic duo to reflect on the male experience.
The show has something to offer for everyone. Finn, Jake, and all of their friends and acquaintances in the Land of Ooo are loved by adults, teens, kids, boys, girls, and everyone else, and it boasts a healthy balance of masculinity and femininity.
In mass media, insightful, honest commentary on mental illness is often kept under wraps, and even the smallest hints at the influence of gender on individual experiences with mental illness are, without a doubt, nonexistent. Yet Adventure Time tackles the subject with an incredible degree of authenticity—specifically through the relationship between Marceline the Vampire Queen and the Ice King.
“And I need to save you, but who’s going to save me?”
It is common knowledge among loyal viewers of Adventure Time that the Ice King is mentally ill. In “I Remember You,” we learn that the Ice King used to be a man named Simon, a close friend and caretaker of Marceline before the devastating Mushroom War. However, through his work as an antiquarian, Simon happened upon a jeweled crown that, upon being placed on his head, began to weaken his sanity. Despite his initial recognition of his deteriorating mental state, when danger was imminent and Simon began to fear leaving Marceline alone for eternity, he succumbed to the will of the crown in an effort to survive the War and live forever to protect Marceline.
“I’m so alone. Won’t anybody tell me what’s wrong with me?”
The crown caused Simon to have blackouts, experience hallucinations, and hear voices, until it transformed his entire physical being into the Ice King, leaving him with no memory of his past life.
The crown destroyed his mind and his relationships, leading him into a desperate life of misunderstood attempts to find compassion and companionship, and his relationship with Marceline as the Ice King speaks volumes about how both victims of mental illness and their loved ones cope with the effects.
“You’re really letting me down right now.”
Marceline’s experience with mental illness has garnered less attention among Adventure Time fans. In “Finn the Human,” Finn creates an alternate reality in which the Ice King actually saved humanity from near extinction during the Mushroom War by sacrificing his own life. As a result, Marceline lives as a hermit in a cave to protect the Ice King’s body and his crown, exhibiting physical and mental deterioration similar to what Simon experienced in becoming the Ice King. She loses her mind in the cave, often hearing the Ice King inside of her own head.
“Stop acting crazy!”
It is incredible how closely the animated exchange in “I Remember You” and the paralleled deterioration of Marceline in “Finn the Human” mirror the reality of dealing with mental illness: the confusion, the frustration, the torment experienced by both victim and onlooker. . .but what is even more incredible is that Adventure Time accurately represents the differences between how men and women cope with mental illness, a striking observation which is too often ignored.
The manifestation of mental illness in men and women is highly dependent on life experiences, and because of the disparate societal treatment of the two sexes, men and women struggle with mental illness in very different ways.
According to “An Invariant Dimensional Liability Model of Gender Differences in Mental Disorder Prevalence” published in the APA’s Journal of Abnormal Psychology, men with certain mental disorders are more likely to externalize their emotions, resulting in “aggressive, impulsive, coercive and noncompliant behavior,” while women are more likely to internalize emotional distress, leading to “withdrawal, loneliness and depression.”
The Ice King’s mental illness results in his status as a villain as he aggressively captures women to coerce them into marriage, while Marceline’s disorder results in her withdrawal into a cave and the destruction of her self-esteem as she hears the Ice King say that she is “letting [him] down.”
Not only does Adventure Time place an authentic representation of the experience of mental illness in general at the forefront, but it also differentiates between how men and women cope with mental illness. The Ice King so obviously externalizes his emotional response to his illness with definite aggressive and noncompliant behaviors, yet Marceline deals with her illness internally, hiding herself away from the world.
“I just want to be loved.”
Read more of Lindsay’s work on Cartoon Network programming at http://toonin.xyz