In-groups, Out-groups, and Socialization in “Belle and Sebastian,” My Favorite 1980s Cartoon

While I enjoyed kindergarten, I longed to return home in the afternoons to watch the anime, Belle and Sebastian. It aired in the U.S. in 1984 on Nickelodeon, although the series originally aired in Japan during 1981. As a six year old, I identified with the problems that Sebastian faced: coping with bullies, longing for friendship, and a thirst for adventure. Sebastian travels over the Pyrenees Mountains from France to Spain to find his biological mother, as well as to help Belle, the maligned Great Pyrenees, survive. As a girl, I wondered if I’d ever get the chance to travel the world, meet new people, and see new places. I even loved the bread and cheese that Sebastian often ate, starting a life long love of cheese. (As a vegan now, I stick to plant based cheeses.) The show inspired my imagination, and I often thought of short plays based on it, even when I was an older child. Mom recorded all of the episodes for me on VHS, and over the years, I watched the show when I was home sick. The show comforted me.

I’ve used the show (and other cartoons) occasionally in my classes as an example of how media is an important agent of socialization. Agents of socialization teach us our culture, including norms and values. Belle and Sebastian taught me about being a good friend, defending those who might have less power than you, and being wary of those in authority.  Authority figures are not always correct, and it’s important to think for yourself.  In fact, I’ve been thinking a great deal about how I remember the show portraying violence.  Often, the adults using violence did not give the benefit of the doubt.  The show emphasized avoiding the abuse of power.

I rewatched the first episode recently, and I realized that the show illustrates concepts like in-groups and out-groups.  In the first episode, Sebastian is being bullied by the other boys.  They were from the village; whereas, he was from a farm.  People make fun of Sebastian because he doesn’t have a mother; he was different, in other words.  Belle, the dog, is in a similar situation.  People are afraid of her so they assume that she is harmful.  In fact, the humans, with their guns, are actually much more dangerous than Belle is. Yet, they perceive themselves as protecting their community from a menace. Sebastian meets Belle and because he isn’t predisposed to be afraid of her, he develops a friendship with her.

This reminds me a bit of the stigma attached to dog breeds in the U.S. today like pit bulls and german shepherds.  From this Salon article, “pit bulls are the most frequently abused, tortured, abandoned, and euthanized bred of dog in the United States…Because of their stigma, they’re often difficult to adopt out; a ride to the shelter is almost always a one-way trip for pities.”  The article mentions how pit bulls were actually used as nannies for children in the past and this discussion gets at the social construction of beliefs surrounding dog breeds and their meaning in society.  “The media seems to feed off the idea of monster dogs—it makes great copy.”  Belle and Sebastian was dealing with the negative view of Belle; she’s thought of as a monster and dangerous.  The show teaches tolerance and appreciation of diversity.

In terms of tolerance and diversity, Sebastian’s mother, is a traveling “gypsy”, and I’m really curious to see during my viewing if she is treated respectfully by the anime.  There is a great deal of stigmatization and vilification of Romani persons in the media.  (I’m having a terrible flashback to the second Sherlock Holmes movie.  I almost walked out of it due to the discriminatory portrayal of Romani individuals.) Sebastian is adopted by Cecil, who is essentially his grandfather.  Cecil’s granddaughter, Anne-Marie, mothers Sebastian, although she is relatively young.  I was shocked to see Anne-Marie’s actions border on abusive.  I didn’t remember this as a part of the show.

I’m planning to watch all 52 episodes again and plan to blog about ones that are particularly relevant in some way.  I’m really curious as to how cartoons and anime for children are functioning as agents of socialization today, but I really don’t know what shows are out there.  My sense is that modern television focuses more on a dominant masculinity and violence, but I haven’t actually watched any or read any academic articles to know for sure.  I’d love to hear of examples, if you know of any, and how it might be socializing children.

  • What television shows impacted you growing up?  What did you learn from them?
  • What shows do you think are helpful or harmful for children today? Why?



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Filed under Sociology, TV Show Reviews

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