How The Ren & Stimpy Reboot Reignited the Debate Around Animation Gatekeepers

Comedy Central’s Ren & Stimpy reboot announcement has garnered renewed attention over whose perspectives and visions in animation are consistently told.

Ren and Stimpy Gatekeepers
Photo: Viacom

On Aug. 5, Comedy Central announced a reboot to the classic 1991 cartoon The Ren & Stimpy Show. The show’s initial airing, as one of the three original Nicktoons (alongside Doug and Rugrats), was a milestone in cartoon television history, with its purposely crude yet dynamic visuals and heavily exaggerated animation and aesthetics. It also had a deeply complicated run. Ren & Stimpy was controversial both in public and behind the scenes and its sordid history includes creator John Kricfalusi’s inability to complete episodes on time, episodes Nick edited down or refused to air, and the criticisms of the show’s most disturbing aspects. Nevertheless the show was able to cement itself with a passionate, dedicated cult following.

That sordid history, however, reached an impassable point in 2018 when Buzzfeed reported a grotesque expose on Kricfalusi, and his grooming and dating of a 16-year-old girl during the show’s production. Before this point, Ren & Stimpy and John Kricfalusi had been provided a certain degree of street cred from beleaguered artists, who saw the show and creator as  brilliantly and bravely fighting the corporate whims of sanitized Americans (also often omitting the more grounded stories of Kricfalusi being notoriously bad at his job). But this overt act of sexual predation, rightly, was too far. John Kricfalusi was “canceled.” 

So upon hearing the news of the reboot, much of animation Twitter revolted. Even though Kricfalusi will reportedly not be receiving any credit, residuals, or other financial benefits of this reboot, it still felt insulting, particularly to the victims of Kricfalusi’s actions. Nothing can really untie the connection between Ren & Stimpy and John Kricfalusi; the two are deeply intertwined in the way some television programs are synced so distinctively to their showrunner. The revival, to some, feels like a celebration of the counterculture hero worship Kricfalusi once profited from but no longer deserves. 

But this revolt is also driven by more than an ethical awakening. This Ren & Stimpy reboot controversy also epitomizes a broad response to the so-called “gatekeepers” of animation – a field that has been notoriously insular, controlling, toxic, and demeaning–and that’s across the board.

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Among the animators who opposed the Ren & Stimpy reboot was Lauren Faust. (She expressed her support with one of the victim’s of Kricfalusi’s actions, and passed along a petition against the reboot of the show.) Her agreement with the opposition is particularly interesting, given her own history with the full spectrum of the problems of the shifting, dynamic roles of gatekeepers. Faust was the creative mind behind the 2010 reboot of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, itself a show brimming with controversy and awash with toxic gatekeepers. There’s a lot to explain here to fully understand the context of this, but I’ll keep it as brief as possible. My Little Pony at the time was one of a handful of shows to debut on the now-defunct The Hub, a Hasbro-run network where toy-based cartoons were always going to be part of the overall strategy. Nothing about that is surprising. 

Upon the announcement of that reboot, however, Amid Amidi, the author and editor of Cartoon Brew, wrote a lengthy criticism of the news and how it represented the death of creator-driven animation. At the time, Cartoon Brew was the premier and most well-known location for animation news and stories; many industry vets and fans mingled in the comments sections for years. It also had a deeply negative reputation, particularly Amidi himself, who was known to be fairly hostile towards most modern corporate-driven cartoons (he did champion indie animation a lot, but it was strangely pick-and-choose, and he was also notoriously a huge John Kricfalusi fan). In Amidi’s perspective, My Little Pony was the antithesis of an era that propelled original, creator-driven (and, it should be noted, all-male) cartoons to the forefront. Arguably starting with Kricfalusi, it includes shows like Rocko’s Modern Life by Joe Murray, Dexter’s Laboratory by Genndy Tartakovsky, The Powerpuff Girls by Craig McCraken, and even Family Guy by Seth MacFarlane. (Ironically, Amidi also criticized that particular era’s burgeoning reliance on rebooting animated properties and television shows based on film properties.)

Amidi’s article created a lot of pushback, as evident in the comment section of that same article, but also from burgeoning corners of the Internet that mainstream news outlets had not yet caught up to. Primarily, there was the one underground online spot that skirted rules and protocols to discuss cartoons of all degrees with a certain equality: 4chan, specifically, its /co/ section, dedicated to cartoons and comics. /co/ discovered Amidi’s article and also revolted for perhaps an unexpected reason. My Little Ponys sudden surge in popularity and appeal arguably came from the denizens of /co/ watching and promoting the show to spite Amidi. It was the first all-out “attack” against Amidi as gatekeeper himself, rebelling against his thesis and propping up a “corporate-driven” show. Gatekeepers aren’t just the people who have corporate power; they’re anyone who wields access and influence primarily on personal needs, desires, and whims, and not on the talent, value, and input of others.

Over the years though, the parameters of gatekeeping in animation shifted, courting in its own ways figures that vied for the mantle. Faust left the show after the first season, and while stories abound over why, it’s often attributed to Faust and The Hub execs having “creative differences” – the most loaded term in entertainment history. The show would continue on for eight more seasons, many of which were coupled with pockets of controversy, from wonky storylines, awkward characterizations, “ships,” and one particular moment in which a background character spoke for the first time with a… questionable voice.

All of this, though, were just moments that exemplified a deep concern over the show’s social-media fanbase and its relationship to the show, its cast, and its crew. It probably was the first time all these sides were so intertwined, in which the shows crew, the fans, and the Hub itself vied for a sort of control, a “gatekeeping,” of the show’s reputation and direction. My Little Pony, despite Faust’s vision to appeal to a broad swath of the audience, was a show built to appeal to the demographic of young girls, but that fanbase’s most vocal and active members were mostly reactionary men

It seems so obvious in hindsight now, and I don’t doubt that a huge number of them did genuinely enjoy the show and its fan-driven projects, but certain type of angry, reactionary men “gatekept” the show, controlling the reactions, fan works, and forums, well into 2020. Such a sentiment may be more common and understood now, as any analysis of Comicsgate or Gamergate would tell you, but it’s arguable that these types of fans have tested and dabbled with this kind of controlling, dominating, non-inclusive attitude in various fan spaces, such as Tumblr, Youtube, message boards, websites, and artwork/stories, even back in 2010. Lest you think this take is exaggerated, well, take a look at Buzzfeed’s report that the My Little Pony’s fanbase seems to have a “Nazi” problem.

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Such a concept being exposed in 2020 is, unfortunately, not that surprising. There is a top-down reckoning with all matters of vicious, controlling, toxic gatekeepers, many of whom are male, white, cis, and straight. Animation, in particular, has an ugly history of shifting but problematic trends of gatekeeping. The insidious “CalArts” style criticism tossed about on social media (often attributed to John Kricfalusi, who coined the term on his blog back in 2010) currently is absurd, but it’s an idea derived from a particular narrow career pipeline in which a majority of animators had to go through CalArts to increase the chances of getting a job (thankfully, it’s not nearly as problematic as it once was). 

There’s the infamous story of Brenda Chapman and her firing from Brave. The first female director for a Pixar film to be let go is not a good look, and her comments at the time suggested some understated, egregious “boys club” behavior that took place behind the scenes at Pixar. Chapman’s comments would be proven even more credible a few years later when multiple women came forward detailing producer John Lassiter’s non-consensual behavior towards Pixar female employees; for which he resigned in 2018. In that same Vulture piece, Jim Morris, the president of Pixar, all but mentions the “old guard” as gatekeepers who are on their way out, emphasizing more of a diverse workforce in the years to come.

Two years later, the absolute re-thinking and re-imagining of entire industries through more diverse perspectives and people has taken shape in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. The full cultural shift is wildly complex and its worth examining on its own, but it can be broadly and generally tracked as thus: protests against police brutality led to a re-examination on how police are portrayed in pop culture, which then led to an overall reckoning on whose perspectives we place front and center, and why. Showrunners, directors, producers, and all matter of gatekeepers, once confident in their vision, had begun to concede the inherent blinders and obstacles their visions created. 

Even prior to this current reckoning, Bojack Horseman Raphael Bob-Waksberg creator admitted regret on casting  the white Alison Brie to play a Vietnamese-American; he directly explores this even more here. Biracial characters in both Big Mouth and Central Park, once voiced by white actors, now will be recast to reflect their race, with Central Park already choosing Emmy Raver-Lampman as a replacement. (It’s interesting to hear, in particular, Loren Bouchard’s comments in regard to the casting of Kristen Bell as the original voice for Molly.)

It’s important to note that in no way are the decisions of people like Bouchard and Bob-Waksberg comparable to the behaviors of Lassiter and Kricfalusi. But they all do speak to a perspective of gatekeepers, even well-meaning ones, who are blinded by the inherent restrictions their visions can be. The overall industry, animation in particular, is so subsumed by a combination of networked, closely-synced friends and a cavalier attitude towards vocal, toxic, sexist and racist environments (the former often utilized to avoid complaints of the latter) that such hostilities and obstacles have become normalized, a part of the systematic flow of “how things are” instead of the unfair, moral, ethical, and sometimes criminal issues that they actually are. These were the big news stories; Twitter itself is awash with stories of smaller, individual stories of industry vets going through awful, toxic points in their careers. (As of this writing, two new stories have cropped up in relation to all this: one concerning a staff mutiny against the showrunner of the show All Rise, and one about the Criterion Collection’s lack of films from Black directors–both stories speaking to the narrow lens that gatekeepers, and those who empower gatekeepers, employ.)

It’s hard, in many ways, to contextualize the specific accounts told on Twitter. Social media is not a monolith, and its specificity and constant churn make it hard to narrow in on anything like a cohesive perspective. Still, the general consensus seems to be that the industry needs changing, although that also is butting up against a new crop of critics, staking their claim to a new “Amidi-like” control of what constitutes the animation worth paying attention too. 

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YouTube videos and social media influencers have garnered perhaps more attention than they should, often ranting and proselytizing oft-kilter, often-wrong opinions like the aforementioned CalArts style, criticizing changes in character designs, or otherwise completely misunderstanding how animation today even works. The specific circumstances that My Little Pony faced back in 2010 have essentially diffused across a whole swath of social media venues in 2020, of the push-and-pull between viewers and animated shows, of the fanbase and (hostile) critics, of the industry vets and professional critics, all vying for a voice, a stake, a role in the great gatekeeper narrative, to either open or close the door on new, unique perspectives.

It all comes back to the Ren & Stimpy reboot. John Kricfalusi used to offer animation classes, and he was also notoriously known to detest most modern cartoon sensibilities and aesthetics, even before he was outed as a monster. He was, in his own way, a gatekeeper. Comedy Central, instead of opening up to novel, original, and ideally, BIPOC artists, chose to hone in on a show that has too much baggage and history, a choice that itself feels like an act of gatekeeping on its own. There are new shows and new rebooted shows on the way due to the sheer number of cable, streaming, and online outlets that are available to the public. But Ren & Stimpy shows we have a long way to go to break these classic gatekeeper visions. Some things, whether they’re shows or ideas on whose voices to uplift, are best left in the past.