Since they started uploading cartoons from the eighties on the Netflix streaming service I’ve been watching them during my Sunday morning breakfasts almost every week. I know, it should be on Saturday mornings, but I go out for breakfast on Saturdays so I don’t bother. If Trader Joe’s starts putting toys in my cereal then maybe I’ll consider it (said the thirty-two year-old…).
As I’ve been watching them I’ve noticed a pattern emerging in a lot of them. I don’t mean in terms of specific plots or anything. There were a few writers that worked on multiple shows, and they recycled stories all the time. I’m referring to a general trend in a lot of cartoons in transformation. Characters would start off as a normal person (in their universe), then, sometimes as the climax of the story, change into something else to save the day. Sometimes it wouldn’t be limited to the climax, as transformation sequences were popular with the kids, or the story called for the change early on so the character would be a superhero throughout the story.
The obvious one to point out would be Transformers. Like many of the toy lines, the transformation isn’t just a plot point but added play value. You could have a toy robot or a car, and it’s fun to change one to the other. In the story, this is just an aspect of the characters everyday lives. They don’t change from one to the other to be more powerful (usually) but different configurations have different uses. This goes for all of the other robot toy lines, such as Go-Bots or Zybots. There were other toy lines that used a transformation technique, although not quite in the same way. M.A.S.K., for example, had vehicles that turned into other vehicles.
Sometimes the transformation is just in the fiction, not related to the play value of the toy line it’s based on. He-Man and She-Ra both had figures, but Prince Adam and Adora did not. M.A.S.K. also falls under this category. Each of the little figures came with helmets that did nothing without the accompanying fiction to tell us that those helmets gave the characters special powers. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, in every accompanying fiction, tells the back story of how ordinary turtles became superheroes. In turn, the toy line later included figures that transformed from one to the other… although you had to imagine that the size changed as well. In addition, let us not forget Super Shredder from the second movie. We’ll forget Ninja Rap, but not Super Shredder.
The idea of transformation from one character to the next dates back further than the eighties. Popeye had to eat spinach to become super-strong. Mighty Mouse had to eat a bunch of vitamins to achieve the same effect. Comic book superheroes sometimes also had to change form an ordinary citizen to crime-fighter; often times just a simple costume change will do the trick. But it was the eighties that this whole transformation trend really took hold.
Why is that? Well, in some cases smaller toy companies were trying to follow the trends of what was selling well from the larger companies. Often times the play value of the toys dictated what came of the fiction. This was especially true of Japanese imports such as Transformers. But this still doesn’t explain the franchises where the fiction included transformation where the toy line did not, nor does it explain the fiction that came first with the toy line based on it. Finally, it does not explain why the the whole trend became popular among consumers and viewers in the first place. After all, what if Transformers didn’t do well in the States?
As a child growing up in the Regan era, I remember getting the feeling that we were pushed to be more than what we perceived of ourselves. That isn’t a bad ideal to push, but it seemed to be overkill. I ultimately proved to not be realistic. After all, we can’t all change ourselves to become superheroes, or even talented people at all. I saw a lot of my generation grow up to become slackers in the late nineties. Still, the economy during the eighties did prosper, despite all of the bullshit behind the scenes. The toy business was booming, and our parents had the money to spend for our fun. In turn, we were being fed the idea of becoming more that what we were, which should have inspired us to keep the economy moving when we became adults.
I doubt that there was a big conspiracy amongst the adults to push this idea. I think it more likely became a collective idea that spread. Those in charge initially pushed it, while everybody latched on. It could be argued, then, that those of us children growing up in the eighties were raised by sheep wanting to be wolves. Of course, that has been the case for several generations–but ours had colorful robots to go with it.