Recess a Reflective Look at Capitalism The Trenchcoat Mafia’s Project on Cartoons And Social Theory

In the popular late 90’s Disney cartoon show “Recess,” there is an episode that focuses entirely on economics of capitalism, titled “Economics of Recess.” The core story of this episode seems to have much in common with Marcuse’s theories. In the episode, our main protagonist TJ Detweiler returns to Third Street School and finds that recess has been commodified and turned into a capitalist economy with “Monstickers” as the established currency. TJ starts out at the bottom of the pile with only one sticker to his name. Deprived of recess, TJ is part of the proletariat mass society trying to make his way up the social ladder by working for stickers. But this goal comes at a price. When Menlo the rich kid comes by, he proposes an offer that TJ cannot refuse: 5 Monstickers for his signature red baseball cap. TJ gasps at the offer and yells, “Get lost. I’m not selling my hat it’s my identity! My trademark!” There in lies the true price of capitalism: individualism and free-thinking.

This ties in nicely with Marcuse’s idea of one-dimensional thought. Marcuse believed that the culture industry created one-dimensional thought in the masses, and allowed for no individual thinking or critique of capitalism as an oppressive system. In fact, this can be clearly seen as TJ, even after losing his most precious item, has not a bad thing to say about the system. Instead he vows that he will ascend the ranks and play along instead of rebelling. He ultimately conforms and buys into capitalism, fully believing that one day he will be happy and successful. Fortunately for us, TJ quickly learns his lesson.
TJ becomes so consumed with greed and hording in the latter half of the episode that his friends soon abandon him. He later apologizes saying, “I got so caught up in hording stickers, I forgot that I only wanted them because I want to play with you guys.” TJ’s quote hits the core of Marcuse’s theory because he realized that possessing more material goods did not ultimately lead him to happiness, as promised by the lure of capitalism. TJ eventually reached a point at what Marcuse called “free of want,” that he is finally happy because he no longer wants what capitalist society dictates; Monstickers or otherwise. TJ learned that there are more important things to life than money.

Unfortunately, despite the many common theories Recess shares with Marcuse; Marcuse would be very disappointed that a capitalist economy still survives at Third Street School. Monstickers’ currency value collapses as a new fad consumes the kids: Lick N’ Stick Alien Stamps. This new change seems to reinforce the idea that capitalism will continue on despite drastic changes. It exhibited what Marcuse described as “repressive tolerance,” that capitalism makes room for what is considered valuable at any time and uses it to live on eternally.

Recess makes great sociological insights and commentary on today’s capitalist society. Its core story seems to share many of the same concepts that Marcuse had, but ultimately Recess does not push the envelope far enough. Why not show TJ rebelling against capitalism and questioning the entire structure? Why did he have to sell his individuality in the first place? Marcuse would have liked this episode for its ability to teach kids about the dark side of capitalism and the price of individuality. But it is highly likely that Marcuse probably would’ve liked to see a more daring and scathing reflection of capitalism.

Do you think TJ should have rebelled? Do you think he could do it?
What do you think Marcuse would say about TJ’s “rags to riches” transformation and how it affects children today?

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  1. Pingback: The Trenchcoat Mafia presents: Cartoons and Social Theory | Contemporary Sociological Theory

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