The problem with swords in children’s animation

Children’s animated programs, particularly action shows, often feature characters with swords. However, due to the inherently violent nature of swords, creators are hamstrung in portraying the accurate use of weaponry.

Fantasy action shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, and ThunderCats feature a lot of fighting, but the violence is often sanitized since these shows are technically for children. In this post, I want to explore the use of swords in children’s animation. Many action heroes carry swords, as they seem—on the surface—less violent than guns. But any kid knows that swords are instruments of death.

Which is why creators of animated programs need to abstract how swords work, creating fantasy worlds were swords do not operate the way they should, or characters don’t use them the way they are intended. While these sanitations might fool some, I never bought them as a kid. I didn’t have the vocabulary at the time, but I always felt that these shows were lying to me in how they depicted the use of swords.

I’ll show you why.

Using swords in combat

Swords are meant for cutting, slicing, and chopping, yet cartoon characters cannot hit each other with swords, as anybody knows that a sword will leave a mark. Ranged weapons are easily sanitized. Children’s shows typically use lasers in place of guns with bullets. A character can shoot a glowing pink or green projectile at another character, and the impact is usually shown. Laser guns don’t exist in real life, so there’s no harm in showing kids this form of violence.

Melee weapons are meant to hit a person, and in some ways, the close-quarter combat of melee weapons is a more primal, visceral experience than shooting guns.

The challenge for animators is: how to depict these weapons in shows targeted to kids?

Some shows, like Dungeons & Dragons (1983), limit the use of swords all together. The Barbarian, or fighter character, carries a club instead of a sword.

Barbarian in Dungeons & Dragons

The Cavalier, a Paladin scrubbed of religious overtones, carries a shield.

Cavalier in Dungeons & Dragons

And Diana, the Acrobat, carries a staff.

Acrobat in Dungeons & Dragons

These weapons are fine, of course (except for the shield. No kid role-plays as the guy with the shield), but swords are so much cooler!

Think of the Sword of Omens in ThunderCats (1985). It’s such a powerful weapon. Lion-O, however, chained by the constraints of 80s moral television, doesn’t use his sword to hit people.

In the following example, the Thunder Tank is stolen by Mumm-Ra’s henchmen. Lion-O attacks, not by cutting his enemies, but by slicing the barrels off the tank’s guns.

Lion-O attacks

Guns on Thunder Tank sliced off

He stands over his enemies, and instead of attacking them, let’s them run away.

Lion-O stands over henchmen

ThunderCats

How many of the ThunderCats’ problems would’ve been solved if Lion-O actually used his sword on his enemies? If he wants to live a life of peace and refrain from killing, then carry a stick, not a sword.

Cartoon characters often find ways of using swords in ways that defy logic, even to children.

The sword as a defensive weapon

Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005) is my favorite animated show of all time. The show has been praised for its accurate depiction of war, genocide, and child abuse. The show is meant for kids, and the creators are usually successful in not talking down to children, but in adapting these serious issues in ways that make sense to them.

However, even Avatar pulls its punches.

One of the main characters, Sokka, isn’t a bender. He cannot manipulate the elements of fire and earth and water like his friends. Instead, he uses melee weapons, like a sword and boomerang, in combat. However, he frequently uses these weapons for defense, rather than offense.

In one episode, he helps rescue his sister and the earthbenders from a Fire Nation prison. The guards attack the kids with spears, and Sokka uses his sharpened boomerang not to attack the soldiers, but to break their weapons. As he slices the heads off spears, he tosses them up to Aang’s flying lemur Momo.

Sokka slicing spear

Sokka slicing spear

Momo catches spear heads

In Season 3, Sokka is feeling sorry for himself because he can’t do cool things like all his bending friends. His friends suggest that he needs a master to teach him how to fight. He becomes the pupil of a Fire Nation sword master, and later crafts his own sword out of a meteorite. As I watched that episode for the first time, I got really excited. Sokka finally has an awesome sword! And he’s trained in using it!

Sokka's master

Unfortunately, the space sword merely becomes a stylized version of his boomerang. He uses it not for offense, but for defense. On the Day of Black Sun, when the resistance fighters invaded the Fire Nation, Sokka led the charge, once again resorting to disabling weapons.

Sokka on the Day of Black Sun

Sokka on the Day of Black Sun

What’s strange about swords in animation is that they are often shown to be more powerful than swords in real life. In many shows, they are simply lightsabers made metal, able to cut through anything. For example, in Samurai Jack (2001) Jack uses his sword to cut through robot after robot as if they were butter.

Samurai Jack

Samurai Jack

In the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2012) Leonardo slices through the Kraang in much the same way. The Kraang are brain-like aliens that control powerful robots by residing in their stomach cavities. Leo has a remarkable ability to slice exactly through the center of the robot without somehow cutting the brain, as seen in the opening.

Leo fights Kraang

Leo fights Kraang

Holding back

Even though swords can’t really cut through metal, having the good guys cut through robots, cannons, and weapons with their swords is okay from time to time. Just because a hero uses violence to solve problems doesn’t mean they always have to kill.

That said, in some cases, it would make much more sense for the character to use the sword to at least injure or incapacitate their enemy.

Let me give you a couple more examples from TMNT.

The Kraang control these deadly robots, and while disabling the robots is sometimes part of Turtles’ mission, it doesn’t really solve their problem. The Kraang, the brains, are the problem. Destroying the robot only makes the problem go away temporarily.

In one of the early episodes of the 2012 series, the Turtles infiltrate a Kraang base. Leo slices through a Kraang droid, leaving the brain exposed.

Leo fights Kraang

Leo fights Kraang

Leo fights Kraang

The Kraang tries to run away, presumably to alert the other Kraang in the base that the Turtles are here. Even though Leo would be perfectly justified in killing the little brain (after all, the Kraang are trying to terraform planet Earth into a replacement Dimension X, a move that would likely kill all life on earth), Leo steps aside so Mikey can clobber the Kraang with his nunchuk.

Mikey hits a Kraang

Mikey hits a Kraang

Given the cartoony stars floating around the Kraang’s head, I’m guessing he won’t be out for very long.

In another episode, Donatello invents a robotic turtle, Metalhead, to do his fighting for him. Metalhead is a little slow and clunky, but has incredibly high-powered weapons. While initially devastating a squad of Kraang droids, one brave Kraang plugs himself into Metalhead, takes control, and starts attacking the Turtles!

Kraang on Metalhead

The Turtles expend a lot of effort attacking Metalhead the robot, even though their weapons are useless against him. Leo in particular swings his swords not at the Kraang placed conveniently on top of Metalhead like a cherry, but at Metalhead’s face.

Leo attacks Metalhead

Leo attacks Metalhead

Why, though? The problem is not with Metalhead, but with the Kraang on top of Metalhead!

One of the worst examples of holding back comes from Avatar, season 3. Sokka and Zuko break into a Fire Nation prison, the Boiling Rock, to save Sokka’s dad. As Team Avatar is escaping, Azula, the baddest princess around, confronts Sokka and Zuko atop a cable car.

Azula attacks Zuko and Sokka

Azula shoots fire at Zuko, which he blocks. Sokka, hiding in the wing, rushes ahead, sword pointed at Azula’s face.

Zuko blocks fire

Sokka attacks Azula

Azula

For a split second, Azula is actually terrified. Sokka points the sword inches from her face, and then mysteriously, pulls back so Zuko can attack Azula again!

Sokka attacks Azula

Zuko attacks Azula

Zuko attacks Azula

Sokka had the perfect opening: Azula so rarely lets her guard down. Every time I watch this scene, I cringe. What’s the point of Sokka having this awesome space sword if he can’t even use it?

Predictably, Azula flies away, escaping harm yet again.

Azula escapes

The loopholes

Children’s animators clearly feel pressure to restrict the use of swords, especially when it comes to harming other human characters. However, animators are clever at bending the unspoken rules of television to include more palatable forms of violence.

Samurai Jack, for example, predominantly fights robots. He frequently dismembers robots, and sometimes oil and sparks exit the robot’s wounds as if they were blood.

Samurai Jack attacks robot

Samurai Jack attacks robot

Attacking robots is fine, though it should be noted that children’s shows like Samurai Jack and TMNT often feature very lifelike and humanoid robots: it’s a way of having graphic violence without technically hurting anybody.

What bothers me most about swords in children’s animation is that they are frequently used to cut or kill other living, non-human creatures—monsters and fantasy beasts.

In one episode of the 2011 ThunderCats, an ocean’s water is stolen by a giant plant monster, turning the ocean into a desert. Lion-O gets sucked inside this monster, then slices it open from the inside, restoring the water.

Lion-O cuts plant monster

Lion-O comes out of plant monster along with water

Plant monster returns water to ocean

TMNT uses this same cop-out. The Turtles fought a giant plant creature with tentacles and claws called Snakeweed. Leo slices through one of the tentacles, spewing purple guts everywhere.

It’s okay to show this kind of violence, apparently, because Snakeweed is “not real” and it’s not really “blood” coming out of it.

Turtles fight creature

Leo cuts tentacles

I guess in the minds of the creators? the censors? the television execs? parents? violence against monsters is okay because MONSTERS ARE BAD and MONSTERS ARE NOT REAL and MONSTERS ARE NOT PEOPLE.

As a kid, though, I never made those distinctions. To me,monsters and mutants were just as human as the human characters. Mutants and monsters are living creatures with their own goals, intelligence, and spirit. Harming a mutant should be no different, in these fictional universes, than harming a human.

What’s interesting is that TMNT, in particular, often goes out of its way to show that the mutant enemies were in fact humans at one time. Snakeweed, moments before the fight with the Turtles, was a misguided gangbanger named Snake who teamed up with the Kraang. In the midst of the battle, a ton of mutagen, the substance that creates mutants, spilled on Snake the human. Look at the pure terror on his face as he transforms into a vile mutant.

Snake transforms into Snakeweed

Yes he’s a bad guy, but does that mean his humanity is stripped away simply because he becomes a mutant?

At the end of the episode, Leonardo burns Snakeweed up with a power core, leaving him for dead.

But remember, by the standards of children’s television, this is okay because Snakeweed is NOT A HUMAN.

Overcoming the problems of swords in children’s animation

One children’s show that pushed the graphic use of swords pretty far was ThunderCats 2011. From time to time, they actually showed Lion-O hitting enemies with his sword. True, he never sliced through the more human-like enemies, and there was never any blood, but at least there was an impact.

Lion-O attacks Lizards

Lion-O attacks Lizards

Lion-O attacks Lizards

While this is uncommon, it’s apparently okay by the censor’s standards as the lizards aren’t human. The world of the ThunderCats is populated entirely by anthropomorphized animals who are quite human in their emotions, rationality, and goals.

So how should swords be depicted in children’s animation?

One possibility is to get rid of them entirely, the same way realistic guns are largely absent from children’s animation. I’m not sure, though, that this solves anything. No matter what method of violence a character uses—lasers, fists, magic, throwing rocks—some amount of sanitation is usually applied.

If swords are left in, then they should be depicted somewhat realistically. If a character is going to flash a sword against another living creature, then they should use that sword on the creature. The gore can be sanitized a bit—I’m not advocating for Kill Bill levels of blood in children’s shows.

But children’s animation should show the consequences of violence, and show that swords and other weapons really do hurt people. I think kids can accept this even at an early age. Avatar: The Last Airbender is the gold standard when it comes to showing the consequences of war: if only they’d pushed the realism of violence a bit farther when it came to swords.

After the closing credits roll, kids will go into the backyard to reenact the shows they just saw. My brother, cousins, and friends did this all the time. We role-played as Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers, soldiers, professional wrestlers, even Freddy and Jason from horror movie fame. We used sticks for swords and bananas for guns.

And we learned early on that if we got too rough, and somebody got hurt, then we needed to pull back.

Using swords to slice through robots and mutants and monsters is a distraction. These sanitations might make the violence acceptable to network execs, parents, and censors, but kids can see right through it.

Give kids more credit: they understand what swords are meant to do.

~Dennis