In the history of cinema, there have been few films that have aged as well as It’s a Wonderful Life or so thoroughly cemented themselves in the pop cultural firmament. The existential pivots of its plot are comfortingly familiar: George Bailey is a good and honest man who winds up in massive debt due to the idiocy of his uncle and, just before offing himself, is visited by an angel named Clarence who shows him what the world would be like without him. The story is powerful and also — being a Frank Capra morality play — eminently lampoonable. SNL, The Simpsons, and The Muppets all had It’s a Wonderful Life episodes and each of those is worth a watch. But the best and darkest ever take is actually a six-minute minisode from the nineties Cartoon Network show Johnny Bravo that directly and stingingly condemns Johnny’s hypermasculine narcissism.
For those of you who did not grow up consuming obscure nineties cartoons, Johnny Bravo was a cartoon that aired on Cartoon Network from 1999-2004. The show centered around the titular Johnny Bravo, a vain, dim-witted man who has the voice of a low-quality Elvis impersonator and loves nothing more than showing off his muscular physique pompadour hair-do. Johnny falsely believes himself to be a gift to women everywhere and constantly makes life more difficult for his family and friends. Like most classic cartoon characters, Johnny never learns his lesson nor experiences any lasting change. But in the second season episode titled “Johnny’s Guardian Angel”, he comes as close to personal growth as he would ever get.
“Johnny’s Guardian Angel” begins with Johnny spotting some wet cement in front of his house and deciding that instead of going with the standard handprint or initials, he should stick his entire face in so that the world can see his dashing good looks. The cement immediately freezes on his face, which makes it so he cannot see. Instead of staying put and asking someone to help him get the dried cement off his head, Johnny begins blindly wandering around and ends up breaking his friend Carl’s homemade computer, destroys his mother’s freshly planted flowers, and makes his young neighbor Suzy’s balloon fly away. In a rare moment of self-reflection, Johnny declares that he wishes that he had never been born and, right on a cue, a guardian angel appears to teach Johnny a valuable life lesson about not taking life for granted.
It turns out that having a self-obsessed misogynist with a piddling EQ banging around the joint was of negative value.
But what seems like a straightforward parody of one of the most beloved movies of all time actually turns into something much darker. In It’s a Wonderful Life, the entire point of the movie is that Clarence helps George see how many lives he’s made better with his selflessness and hard work. It’s a powerful, life-affirming message Clarence sums up to George with one great line: “No man is poor who has friends.” But when Maurice shows Johnny what the life of his friends and family would be like without him, Johnny is offered a view of a better world, as literally everyone he knows is happier. It turns out that having a self-obsessed misogynist with a piddling EQ banging around the joint was of negative value. Not a shocker, perhaps, to today’s viewers, but an edgy statement in 1999, when even the most progressive TV shows still casually embraced the trappings of reductive gender norms.
Like George, Johnny initially does not believe that the angel is on the level so Maurice takes him to find his friend Carl. Johnny is surprised to find that his nerdy friend is no longer a downtrodden sad sack. Without Johnny treating him like an emotional punching bag, Carl is now a billionaire inventor who revolutionized the computer industry. And when Johnny tries to remind Carl of their friendship, Carl replies, “I shudder to think what my life would be like if I had hung out with an overstuffed macho monkey like you.” Johnny then heads to Pop’s, a low-quality restaurant that he used to frequent, and finds that, thanks to his absence, it’s now an extremely successful establishment that other people actually enjoy. Finally, Johnny goes and sees his mom, who is now an international spy because she was not burdened with her parasitic relationship with her son.
The entire experience is devastating to poor Maurice, who intended to show Johnny that his life had value but instead he admits to Johnny that he is “nothing but a big piece of meat with a mouth hole.” Rather than offering a Capra-esque pearl, Maurice offers a harsh rebuke. “The world’s a much better place without you,” he says.
The episode also makes clear that Johnny’s behavior is not just detrimental to others, it’s detrimental to himself. Not only does he lack productive and close relationships with others, but he also lacks anything resembling a relationship with himself
But just when it seems like Johnny may have to face the fact that his vapid, selfish existence has made life worse for everyone around him, he notices that the face imprint he made in the wet cement is gone as a result of the fact that he doesn’t exist. It’s a seemingly minor detail but for Johnny, a man who is almost entirely motivated by vanity, it is unacceptable to imagine that the “entire planet is being deprived of my pretty.” He decides that he wants to live again. And, upon his return to existence, he immediately begins screwing up everyone’s lives again. He does not notice and he does not care. He’s just happy he gets to show off his beautiful face to the world.
The entire episode is a merciless condemnation of not just Johnny, but of the distinctly male egotism and selfishness his character represents. Bravo is little more than a bumbling buffoon, but his entitlement and arrogance know no bounds. Despite clear evidence that he is doing nothing to better his life or the lives of those around him, he remains convinced his existence is invaluable. His is the ultimate life of privilege and his greatest privilege, the episode points out, is in never being forced to come to terms with his own failures. He is, after all, insulated by his own shortsightedness. Because he believes he lives up to a social ideal — handsome, womanizing, strong — he feels he has no other obligations.
And the true depths of how Johnny’s destructive ego has shaped his friends and family is never fully realized until it is removed from their lives. His mother is finally free of the burden of trying to raise someone who refuses to grow up and so she has time to find herself and discover her passion for international espionage. And as evidenced by Carl, Johnny’s selfishness does not just hold back the women in his life. With Johnny, Carl sees himself as a nerdy loser (this was before nerd culture went mainstream) who is lucky to have a “cool” friend like Johnny. But without Johnny, he is no longer plagued by constant belittlement that causes crippling self-doubt and so he has the confidence to become a beloved and successful inventor.
The episode also makes clear that Johnny’s behavior is not just detrimental to others, it’s detrimental to himself. Not only does he lack productive and close relationships with others, but he also lacks anything resembling a relationship with himself. His “self-love” is entirely formed by what he thinks other people see. It’s something closer to self-lust. Again, Johnny Bravo creator Van Partible and episode writers Jed Spingarn and Gene Grillo call out the hazards of conforming to traditional, shallow notions of overt masculinity. Chief among those hazards is the inability to understand one’s place in society or change. Johnny’s arrested development is his curse. He’s stuck with Johnny, just like everybody else.
Johnny Bravo creator Van Partible and episode writers Jed Spingarn and Gene Grillo call out the hazards of conforming to traditional, shallow notions of overt masculinity. Chief among those hazards is the inability to understand one’s place in society
In the age of Rick Sanchez and BoJack Horseman, perhaps an animated examination of the fragile male ego does not seem that subversive but in 1999, this was a downright radical notion for a cartoon. And it’s an especially ambitious prospect when you remember that Johnny Bravo was not made for adults, it was made exclusively for kids. And more than any other television genre, animated kid’s shows often rely exclusively on framing characters as archetypes — and even stereotypes — to ensure the younger viewers are not confused or bored.
But while it’s nearly impossible to deny that Bravo is anything more than a typical meathead, Partible dug deeper to find the nuance in Bravo’s cartoonish lack of nuance. And by subverting the classic story of It’s a Wonderful Life, Partible was able to reveal just how hollow and fruitless Bravo’s existence really was thanks to his inability to escape the trappings of his own masculinity. ‘Johnny’s Guardian Angel’ was more than just a fun send-off of a classic Christmas tale, it was an innovative episode of that offered unsuspecting viewers a wholly original perspective on a hilariously unoriginal character. Not bad for a kid’s cartoon.