If you wish to maintain your positivity and innocence in the face of certain children’s shows, I would warn you to stop reading. I’m about to make one kid’s cartoon very, very sad.
As a father of young children, I watch a lot of children’s cartoons (and by the by, it is interesting that, in this day and age, I must specify). Anywho, one of my daughter’s favorites is Justin Time – a show about a little boy who imagines that he goes back in time to various places around the world and learns lessons while there. On the face of it, the whole thing is pretty tame and basically educational. My primary critique would be that very little effort is made for historical accuracy, unfortunately, but it is clear that such is not the show’s purpose – it uses imaginary environments to teach our protagonist, Justin, lessons about responsibility, honesty, manners, and so on. In that regard, it does a fine job.
What is curious about the cartoon are the characters. Justin is a stereotypical imaginative little boy living in the suburbs somewhere with his Mom and Dad (who barely feature in the cartoon at all). Justin has an imaginary friend, Squidgy, who is some kind of blanket/shammy that Justin carries around and who takes on various shapes and talks while we adventure in imagination-land. Third, and most perplexing, is Olive – the slightly older girl who lives wherever back in time Justin travels. She acts as guide, friend, and assistant through Justin’s adventures.
What I find peculiar about Olive is how she differs so completely from all of Justin’s other imaginary creatures. Squidgy and the denizens of the imaginary past are all caricatures – silly, one-dimensional, and peripheral to Justin’s struggles. Olive, however, seems like a real person who is engaged in Justin’s conflicts in each episode directly and who, unlike most of the other characters, has a direct emotional impact on Justin’s mood. Justin cares how she feels and always works to help her and she does the same – they are a team. Furthermore, she is everywhere Justin goes while in the past. She is there waiting for him, every time.
So, why would a boy who already has an imaginary friend who travels around with him feel the need to create the same, fully realized, slightly older girl in every historical period he imagines? Why not shake it up? Why is Olive so central to the plot every time?
To answer this, I enjoin you to read this brief article by Ronald Pies PhD on PsychCentral.com. In it, Pies explores the phenomenon of hallucination and delusion as a response to grief. This explains Olive and Justin. Olive is Justin’s older sister. His deceased older sister. What we are watching in this cartoon is more than just a boy’s imaginative adventures through personal development – we are watching one little boy’s dealing with complicated grief.
Now, of course, this could all be just me projecting my own always-simmering grief over the decease of my own brother and I will readily admit that my evidence is entirely circumstantial, but the theory does fit. Consider this: if Olive is, indeed, the image of Justin’s dead sibling, then a lot of other things fall into place, too. Consider her name: Olive, as in Olive Time, as in “All of Time” – the same kind of play on words as her brother. Consider her role: supportive, wise, friendly, very older sister-ly.
Justin’s parents don’t mention or discuss her, true, but this, in fact, may be an indicator of why Justin’s grief has become so complex. The parents, bereaved at the loss of one child due to accident or disease, shelter their other, younger son. They explain Olive has “gone away” and then cannot bear to discuss her further. Justin, imaginative as he is, invents an “away” for his sister to dwell in – a place where he can visit her and be with her without upsetting his parents (whom he must know are upset). So, there we find Olive or, perhaps more accurately, her shade – there in the past, waiting to guide her brother towards maturity, trapped in limbo for all of time – until Justin, at some unknown point in the future, can finally release her.