Hidden characters in popular 90’s shows: a marketing strategy?
Odds are your favourite cartoon as a kid had a beloved secondary character who never showed their face. I’m talking about Ms. Bellum from The Powerpuff Girls, Benedict Uno from Kids Next Door, Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget and almost every adult ever from Peanuts. These characters were obviously not the main focus of these shows, but after 20 years of cartoon-loving television-watching, I can’t help but still question why we never saw their faces out in the open. We only ever caught glimpses of their full bodies, and when we did, their faces were never revealed (apart from a few instances discussed below). As Mammy Two Shoes (Tom & Jerry) said it best, “what on earth is going on […] here?” Bear with me while I try to answer that by putting to practice my two years of a university film degree and over analyse kids’ cartoons.
I can’t deny that I would love nothing more than to sit here and romanticise nostalgic cartoons all day, but maybe we should face the sad truth: it’s all about the money. If you carefully take into consideration a number of popular kids shows, you’ll notice a not-so-pleasant pattern among them. Several shows have kept a character’s face mysterious for years (even decades) just to make the big reveal in an anniversary landmark episode, a special movie release, or worst of all, through none other than the traps of our old pal Consumerism. But we’ll get to that.
Directors, producers and distributors alike want to keep their shows running for as long as possible while holding the highest viewership figures as possible. What better way to do this than teasing viewers (who are none other than inherently curious children) with a mystery they can’t quite put their hands on? After these shows have grown a significant fan base by building up expectations and enticing curiosity in their audience, they finally come out with a special release to reward people’s loyalty; which, let’s face it, is nothing short of a brilliant marketing strategy.
Take Disney’s The Proud Family, for example. Predecessor of critically acclaimed shows like Gravity Falls and Phineas and Ferb, it was a popular pre-teen sitcom about a loveable family living in the fictional city of Whiz Ville, California. The city was named after Wizard Kelly, a famous basketball player who we only ever saw from the chin down, until his face was finally revealed in the franchise’s animated movie. Likewise, Ed, Edd and Eddy subtly built up mystery over the years as to what Eddy’s oldest brother (the coolest of them all) actually looked like and finally revealed the big bully’s face in a made-for-television movie entitled Big Picture Show.
The downside of building so much suspense and making big revelations like these is that they might fall short of viewer’s expectations, as was the case with Benedict Uno, the arch nemesis of Cartoon Network’s Kids Next Door whose scary figure was always flooded by a black shadow. In the animated series’ film Operation Z.E.R.O, he finally stepped into the light wearing goofy suspenders, a bow tie and a much friendlier expression than anyone suspected. Fans weren’t pleased. I wasn’t pleased. But thinking back on it years later, I wonder if Cartoon Network outsmarted us all and was deliberately trying to teach us a valuable lesson; that once we finally face our fears they aren’t actually all that scary. Kudos to them.
Cartoon Network must also be credited for consistently coming up with ingenious ways of concealing Ms. Sara Bellum’s face in Powerpuff Girls, who always hid behind her luscious red hair. The mystery was finally addressed in the show’s 10th anniversary special ‘Powerpuff Girls Rule’, where audiences saw her face which didn’t feature much detail and was still partially covered by her hair. Some people speculate that her face was always cut off because creators wanted us to see her from the mayor’s perspective who only cared for her body even though she was the brains in the office and sometimes even saved the day.
However, the more probable explanation is that drawing human faces for secondary characters was really time consuming for animators back then. Apart from the fact that some of these characters only appeared every now and then, creators would have to adhere to strict deadlines considering the frequency of the episodes, hence why the majority waited to make the big reveal in a special movie or anniversary episode, when they had more time to get creative outside the pre-established templates of the shows.
Apart from that, there is also the simple fact that if they didn’t draw the characters’ faces, they wouldn’t have to control their lips or their detailed expressions to match the dialogue on screen. This meant that writers could then easily make last minute changes to the script without the need to re-animate the characters’ faces, which saved time and consequently (drumroll) saved money.
And talking about money, allow me to introduce you to Dr. Claw, the reason our parents’ pockets were shy of however many dollars back in 1992. In the detective show Inspector Gadget, Dr. Claw was the evil villain who never revealed his face. A decade after the show made its debut on television, action figures of all the characters were released, and to everyone’s surprise, among them was Dr. Claw. But that’s where the trick comes in. The toy company hid his face on the packaging itself (gluing a big sticker over it) so you were forced to spend a few pennies to buy the figure and finally unveil the mystery.
Seeing it from this angle, hiding characters’ faces was either a marketing strategy, a way to raise viewership, or a means of making money, or all of the above. Sad as it may be, that seems to be the truth. Well, part of it at least. The other side of the truth, and frankly the one I’m more interested in, is that the focus of these shows were the kids. And only the kids.
No one would switch on their television sets hoping to see Mammy Two Shoes stealing the scene while Tom and Jerry chased each other, or Ms. Bellum as the main focus while the Powerpuff Girls saved the day. As a kid, we fell in love with these characters (as we do with many others) because we saw ourselves in them. Maybe animators saw this as an opportunity to take it one step further and create the world of the story from the protagonists’ perspective, always at a low angle and occasionally glancing up, just as we did when we were kids. Perhaps something lights up in a child’s developing brain when they see a baby on tv looking at an adult from the same angle that they do in real life, but ladies and gentlemen, that is beyond the scope of a one-page article.
What I can say is that although it seemed as if the kids ruled the world, if you look carefully enough there was always an adult close by keeping an eye on them, for better or for worse. Take Mammy Two Shoes, for example. She is the maid who looked after the house in Tom & Jerry and is allegedly also Tom’s owner. Apart from one episode, all we ever saw of her was hidden behind an old pair of socks, worn out slippers and a ruffled apron. However, every time she walked into a room to investigate the damages of Tom and Jerry’s commotions, it’s safe to say that even without looking at her face, everyone could feel her intensity and intimidation just by the way she walked. As if on watch, she always appeared just as all hell was about to break loose and introduced some peace in the household, which usually culminated in a few broom spanks for Tom.
Perhaps the goal with this was to subconsciously teach kids to always do good things because an adult was watching them at all times and if they acted foully, someone would come along and put them in the right path, even if that included a scolding. That’s what Mammy Two Shoes did anyway, but on the other end of the spectrum lies Nanny from Muppet Babies who serves the same purpose but has a much softer approach.
While one of Mammy’s most famous catchphrases was “What in the world is going on in here?!”, Nanny calmly says, “My goodness, what happened here?” when seeing that something isn’t right. Across several seasons and even in the 2018 remake, she is always shown from the muppets’ perspective. The closest we ever got to a full reveal was in the episode ‘Around the Nursery in 80 Days’ where the muppets search for Nanny. They finally find her, and we see her full body in a long shot, but an umbrella obscures her face. However, the muppets (like everyone else) recognise her from the stripped tights, shiny purple shoes and matching skirt.
All in all, I can’t deny that although these secondary characters had a special little place in my heart, the real stars of the shows were the kids, and only the kids. As Peanuts creator Charles Schulz himself said, he designed the popular cartoon to depict the world of the children and the last thing he wanted was for the adult world to spill all over it, because after all, grown-ups just did not interest him. These shows relied on the imagination of their viewers and in their essence, they were all about kids. Kids, learning about the world. With no adults standing in the way of their imagination. Let’s leave it at that.