The cartoon world of showrunner Pendleton Ward’s Adventure Time has been lauded as one of the most feminist, genderqueer, and generally progressive in all of modern children’s television. Hugely popular and widely acclaimed, the show follows the adventures of a pre-teen boy (Finn the Human) and his adoptive brother (the shape-shifting Jake the Dog) through the brightly coloured and seemingly innocuous land of Ooo. They live together with Beemo, a sentient video game console, in an elaborate treehouse near the Candy Kingdom, which is ruled by Finn’s crush Princess Bubblegum. Her royal steed Lady Rainicorn, a Korean-speaking unicorn rainbow, is Jake’s girlfriend. Finn and Jake’s nemesis is the cackling and insane Ice King, who lives in the Ice Kingdom. And among their friends are Marceline the Vampire Queen, a rad emo bass player, and Lumpy Space Princess, who rules a dimension where everyone is grey and formless. In each episode, Finn and Jake tackle adventures from fantastical quests (like slaying the evil monster Lich) to internal struggles (addressing Finn’s irrational fear of the ocean).
Adventure Time has plenty of standard fantasy tropes—princesses who are constantly in danger, demon possessions, and magical beings, to name a few—but many episodes play more like The Twilight Zone, with characters exploring strange parts of their world or psyche. Adventure Time goes out of its way to imbue these standard characters (such as the hero, the princess and the sidekick) with rich and full lives, as well as with characteristics unique to their personhood. Jake plays the viola, Marceline protects a beloved childhood stuffed animal named Hambone, and Princess Bubblegum is not only the ruler of the Candy Kingdom—she’s also a scientist. These characteristics are not meted out on sex or gender, but rather are presented as having grown organically from a concept of who these characters are as people.
To watch the Adventure Time gang, with their lack of gender biases, is to follow some of critical theory’s most popular theories of gender performativity unfold onscreen. In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler challenges the notion that biological sex determines gender and that those categories are immutable. Conventional wisdom suggests that the man is the subject who has what is considered male genitalia and who “acts like a man,” while the woman is the subject who has what is considered female genitalia, the ability to incubate life, and who “acts like a woman.” In most cultures, what constitutes sex remains more or less consistent, while what constitutes gender can vary. This variance highlights the fact that gender is both fluid and culturally constructed—a notion that Ward’s show positively relishes—even within a single culture that purports to have a consistent and unchanging conception of manhood or womanhood. When taken to its logical limit, this premise reveals there is no causal relation between the sex of a body (male/female) and its gender (man/woman). Just ask Lumpy Space Princess.
Butler, it would seem, would be an Adventure Time fan then, with its non-conforming characters and storylines. Princess Bubblegum’s passion for science challenges the prevailing societal view idea that this field is a “masculine” interest, especially in an undisputedly “girly” character. Lumpy Space Princess is voiced by a man speaking in a grating Valley Girl accent, though she is arguably “girlier” in word and deed than Princess Bubblegum. In “Princess Potluck” (S5E18), the male-identifying Jake wears makeup to the titular party, dismissing Finn’s skepticism with a concise: “My makeup looks pretty. I look pretty!” In the ninth episode of the third season, “Fionna and Cake,” Finn and Jake find the gender-swapped fan fiction their arch-nemesis the Ice King has written about them: a story about a girl and a cat who share many of Finn and Jake’s tics and traits—but not their genders. In “Jake the Dad” (S5E12), Jake’s wife Lady Rainicorn has puppies and Jake becomes an overbearing parent in an effort to protect them using a guidebook called Mom’s Manual. These are examples of what Butler would call “non-existent” identities. Non-existent identities are those that should not exist within a cultural matrix that defines the relationship between sex and gender as causal. A feminine male or a masculine female disrupts the cultural myth of the causal relationship between sex and gender.
This kind of gender fluidity and joyous redistribution of desires, activities, and performances between boys and girls has been part of Adventure Time’s DNA from its first episodes. But from season three on, the show has taken an interesting turn and started to address biological sex as a construction of culture. In the land of Ooo, girls and boys could trade and share any number of purportedly “masculine” or “feminine” characteristics, but only females could gestate children and give birth. However, the episode “Margaret and Joshua Investigations” (S6E12) deals with Jake’s origin story by offering an alternative reproductive option. The episode opens with Finn and Beemo celebrating Jake’s birthday, asking Jake to tell them the story of his birth. In the flashback that follows, the viewer meets Jake’s parents: Joshua and the very pregnant Margaret, a crime-solving couple. Due to the financial pressures of another mouth to feed, they are pressed into conducting another investigation, so Joshua chooses the least-threatening-sounding situation: a case of stolen pies at an idyllic cottage. Predictably, there is something more sinister afoot, and he and Margaret find themselves in the woods fighting a shape-shifting creature. While Margaret’s pregnant belly is stuck in a tree, Joshua is bitten on the head by the monster. Back at home, Margaret ignores Joshua’s increasingly feverish pleas for her to keep the baby safe and suits up to milk the monster’s fangs and make the anti-venom that will save her husband. In a change from her everyday pink-and-red pillbox hat, Margaret’s ass-kicking outfit is a mix of feminine and masculine—a heavy ammo belt around her protruding belly, a crossbow and quiver, and a wide-brimmed flowery hat.
She corners the monster in the forest, shooting arrows while it shape-shifts. One of the arrows hits a giant pile of baby paraphernalia that the monster seems to have gathered. When Margaret registers this, the monster shape-shifts into a baby. When confronted with the baby-monster, Margaret softens. She lowers her crossbow and tears quiver in her eyes as she addresses the baby-monster. On another show, this would be an optimal trap: the gender-based idea of female-sexed body as caregiver above all else. However, Adventure Time makes a clear choice to reject that biological imperative narrative. Margaret suddenly says “Sorry baby!” as she smacks the monster on the head and milks it for anti-venom. Her personal history (the love she has developed for her partner) is more important than any sex- or gender-based feeling of maternal sympathy toward a baby (monster or otherwise).
Returning home, Margaret finds Joshua staggering around their alley in pain, a blue lump throbbing in his forehead. However, before she can administer the anti-venom, the bump on Joshua’s head bursts. Cut to a small Jake, dancing in a puddle of his own afterbirth singing “Hello mommy, hello daddy!” Margaret has failed to cure Joshua, but his lump was no ailment: it was a pregnancy. A moment later, Margaret gives birth to a puppy (Jake’s biological brother Jermaine). In the final scene of the flashback, Margaret and Joshua are pushing Jake and Jermaine in a stroller. Joshua has a short scar in his forehead, which Margaret covers with a hat. She expresses uncertainty at Jake’s relationship to them, a kind of postpartum dissociation, but Joshua responds happily. “Yes,” he says, “we’ve got one boy I gave birth to and one boy you gave birth to.”
Adventure Time still occasionally implicates traditional ideas of girliness, but the overall effect is of a progressive redefinition of sex and gender suitable for children—and adults. It will be interesting to see if future seasons of Adventure Time tackle the third part of Butler’s triumvirate of gender trouble: desire. Heterosexuality seems to be the norm in Ooo, though it does not seem compulsory. Take for example “BMO Lost,” a fifth-season episode that culminates in Beemo’s engagement to a genderless (though masculine-voiced) bubble. Or “Breezy” (S06E06), in which the episode’s eponymous bee falls in love with Finn—though more accurately, it is the flower that has grown to replace the arm Finn lost. As Finn grows older, there’s a possibility that his desires will change. His stalwart crush on Princess Bubblegum and his relationship with Flame Princess suggest that he’s male/boy/straight—but then again, there aren’t many boys his age in Ooo with whom to fall in love. Regardless of where Adventure Time goes, the show’s rambunctious disregard for culturally constructed notions of gender proves that kids’ TV is capable of challenging some of the adult world’s most strongly held constructions.