The way we get around shapes the world we live in – and vice versa.
George Jetson is ejected from his cozy bed in the morning right onto a conveyor belt that draws him through his whole morning routine (and with my toddler getting up for the day most mornings at 5:30, WHAT I WOULDN’T GIVE for that contraption!). He dials up a push-button breakfast, then is delivered to his flying car for a grueling two-hour work day.
We’ll ignore for now the fact that George would surely not have maintained his svelte figure if he’d never had to move a muscle all day long, thanks to the conveyor belts that rendered functional feet obsolete.
The Jetsons’ Saarinen-inspired community – can we call it a community? – is suspended impossibly in mid-air, perched atop narrow pillars that inexplicably never seem to sway. Although the family lives in an apartment, the show portrays the ultimate suburban dream – lots of space, yet everything is easily accessible. A futuristic world built around flying cars looks appropriately weird to our eyes.
(Go ahead, take 56 seconds to relive your childhood and watch the intro.)
It’s worth noting that as much as the way we get around shapes the world we live in, the converse is also true: the world we live in shapes the way we get around. Taking a walk would involve a long, treacherous fall for a Jetson – the flying car was it for them even more than our grounded vehicles are for us.
The movie Cars is similarly unbelievable. In this case, rather than being set in the far future the movie is peopled entirely by, well cars.
The little burg of Radiator Springs has seen better days. The interstate passed them by and the poor cars of Radiator Springs languish, desperate for a visitor to bring business in to town.
Lightning McQueen, the little racecar who could, growls around town with the locals. A tire shop, a drive-in themed motel, racing the roads outside of town. Much of the action takes place in streets or parking lots, a logical public space for cars.
Radiator Springs could be any of our towns, its main street found anywhere in North America. Wouldn’t you think that a city designed for a movie in which cars are the main characters would look a little strange? I mean, it’s built for CARS. Not people. Our cities are built for people – right? But a town built as a habitat for cars looks completely familiar and comfortable to us… because our cities are built – or have been retrofitted – for cars.
The shape of our community shapes our sense of community
The interesting thing about these cartoons is the relative presence and absence of public space. In the Jetsons, there really isn’t much public space – it’s hard to build a park mid-air. Interestingly enough, we see technology – like video calls – taking the place of that in-person interaction.
In Cars, on the other hand, almost all of the action takes place in the public realm. The streets of this little town function like the public plaza of a medieval city, where everyone gathers by intention and runs into each other through the course of their day. Cars don’t fit in houses very well, after all.
Neither of these communities is built around the individual person. That works well for the cars, because they ARE the individual people in their story. I suspect that the world of the Jetsons would have been somewhat less rosy in real life.
A couple other cartoons that are interesting for seeing how characters are portrayed getting around are Curious George (since monkeys don’t drive)…
And Richard Scarry’s Busytown, where apparently all animals drive everywhere and all the time:
So what do you think? What cartoon do YOU live in? What would your kids say? Feel free to leave a comment, or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.