When it comes to animation, it's a frequent tool by the creators to get some kind of message across, be it one from the actual creators, like the Simpsons episode 'Lisa the Vegetarian', or one thrust upon the creators by someone "higher in the creative process", like the Kim Possible episode 'Grande Size Me' which was intended to be both a parody of the documentary Super Size Me while preaching about healthy diets at the same time.
But sometimes the moral of the story just comes across as either kind of bizarre or just out of place for the series it's in. Sometimes the moral is mishandled or unintended, or just plain unintentionally offensive. I've picked out four examples of these kinds of Aesops to poke fun at them, and to show how sometimes the lesson you're teaching people can be kind of distorted by how it's taught.
Avatar: the Last Airbender, the Runaway
Accidental Aesop: Being a con artist is awesome!
The Plot: For those who don't know, the plot behind Avatar: the Last Airbender consists of the last surviving member of people who can control the element of air, Aang, who is also the personification of the planet's spirit, attempting to defeat a nation of pyrokinetic fascists called the Fire Nation before they can take over the world. He's assisted by a girl who can control water, Katara, her non-powered brother, Sokka, and their blind earth-controlling friend, Toph.
At this point in the show, the four where making their way through Fire Nation territory to meet up with an army of people from the Water Tribe and the Earth Kingdom, where they'd then go on to launch an invasion on the Fire Nation's capital city. Unfortunately, due to the kids not keeping to their schedule and going off on side quests, including getting Sokka to learn how to sword fight, an episode long Footloose reference in a Fire Nation school and an irritating environmental episode with a polluted lake, the team have run out of money a lot faster than they expected.
What do they do in this situation? Toph has the obvious solution: using her powers to con people out of their money! Fair enough, they're in enemy territory and Toph starts off just by going after people who are actively attempting to con her, a 12 year old blind girl, first.
The problem is that they only START by going after the people who deserve it, and in the end they start performing scams like, Toph faking getting run over by a rich person's coach, and then Sokka poses as a policeman while accepting a massive bribe from the rich guy not to arrest him. It's kind of at this point where they go from targeting criminals to just flat out becoming them themselves.
Accidental Aesop: Now, conventionally when a series does an episode like this, the people pulling the scheme would see how their scams are hurting ordinary people, and they'll be guilted into seeing what they do is wrong. For example, what happens to Moist Von Lipwig in the Discworld novels. But in the Runaway that doesn't happen, for three reasons.
A) Toph is so awesome that she manages to consistently get away with it when she's working with Aang and Sokka.
B) The cons only fail when Katara, aka the sensible one, caves into peer pressure and decides to mastermind a scam of her own to work with Toph. The scam being getting Toph arrested, getting the reward money, and then breaking her out of jail. This does not work.
C) In the end they get to keep most of their stuff, don't return anything, and only get punished, per se, when the assassin from the main plot shows up, recognises them from their previous encounters and both both girls in jail. Which they escape from anyway.
As I was saying, the thing with these kinds of stories is that they normally show that there are consequences to their actions, but really in this episode the heroes both have a whole mess of fun pulling off the scams AND manage to earn a ton of cash while doing so. Really it could be argued that the Aesop should be "don't keep hitting the same small town over and over again, of you'll get caught" but really they're only caught because a guy after them for different reasons recognised them.
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, the Mysterious Mare Do Well
Accidental Aesop: If your friend is too boastful, bully them socially!
The Plot: Okay, this one is a bit more straight forward. A big part of this series is about how different types of people can be friends, either because or despite of their differing personalities, so you have a nerdy slightly OC person being friends with a "wacky" party obsessed girl etc.
In this episode, the pony Rainbow Dash is seen as being awesome by the town due to being the equivalent of both a near Olympic athlete and superheroine. The fact that the town of Ponyville is suddenly flooded by a series of Standard Superhero Situations: a baby carriage rolling down a hill towards danger and the like, causes her to get even more praise than normal, resulting in the not exactly humble Rainbow Dash becoming even boastful than normal.
Rainbow's friends decide that they've had enough of Rainbow Dash's attitude, and together create the superheroine persona The Mysterious Mare Do Well to show up at disasters just when RD shows up, and hijacks the rescues. The public's hero worship is shifted away from RD to the "Mare", who not only has more superpowers than RD but has a snazzy costume too. Everyone loves her, with even Rainbow Dash's friends constantly singing the new hero's praises.
Rainbow becomes depressed following the public suddenly loosing interest in her, having always had fans of some sort or another even before becoming an actual superheroine sort. And after attempts to help people out like she used to fail due to the Mare taking care of them in advance, RD ends up embarrassing herself in front of everyone by just coming across as needy, jealous and desperate. This whole state of affairs her get massively depressed.
In the end, her friends reveal that they all took turns being the Mare, explaining why she appeared to alternate between being an ordinary Earth Pony, a Pegasii and an unicorn. They then said that they did it to make Rainbow Dash realise how it felt for someone constantly talking about how awesome they were all the time. Rainbow takes this revelation with surprising good grace, and ends the episode attempting to be a bit more humble about her awesomeness.
Accidental Aesop: This, again, is sometime of a common Aesop, as no one really likes it when someone goes around talking about how great they are. But, where the Aesop falls apart in this case is just how underhanded RD's friends handling of the situation is, and the fact that as boastful as she was, they still needed about five people to fill the role that RD managed to handle entirely by herself.
Really the entire thing could have been resolved differently, as the fact that they complimented the features that they themselves brought to the Mare, sorceress Twilight Sparkle talking about how awesome her use of magic was and Rarity complimenting her own fashion sense for example, really kind of made it more a kind of social bullying than an intervention.
The Simpsons, Homer the Heretic
Accidental Aesop: You must have a religion, any religion, to be socially accepted.
the Plot: My issues with this one may just come from my position in the UK, as we are kind of more secular over here than our brethren in the US of A. The plot behind this episode, which actually is really funny by the way, is that Homer is fed up of having to go to Church on Sundays, and decides to just stay at home and enjoy his weekend instead.
His wife, who makes a point of taking their kids to church during a snowstorm, an action that nearly results in them freezing to death, begins to actively shun Homer as a result of his decision, explaining that she has to as her husband's decision to not go to church conflicts with the morals that they were trying to instill in their kids. She complains that she'll have to tell their kids that their father is wicked, because that is what her religion says is the case.
And in case you thought that it was just a case of just his wife being overly intolerant of Homer, the minister of their church manages to break from his standard sermons to flat out state how Homer is the Devil and how he's actively tempting people with a sinful lifestyle. The Simpson's neighbours the Flanders even get in on the aggressive religion front, and actively pursue Homer to bring the "stray sheep back to the flock".
I have to also note that at this point in the episode, Homer met God in a dream and explained his reasoning for not wanting to go to church: He works hard and loves his kids, so why should he have to spend half his Sunday being told that he's going to Hell? God agrees that Homer has a point there, and allows Homer to go off and pursue religion on his own terms.
Homer faces social stigma from most of his neighbours, which he deflects by being active rude to other religious people he meets, for example, mocking the store-owner Apu's Hinduism or actively slamming the door in the face of Krusty the Klown, who is collecting money for a Jewish Clown Charity. However, Homer learns his lesson when he accidentally burns his house down after falling asleep while smoking a cigar, and he's rescued by a group of volunteer firefighters made up of the religious people he'd offended over the course of the episode. His life having been saved by religious people, Homer agrees to return to Church, but he promptly falls asleep in the middle of a service and snores loudly, disrupting it for everyone.
Accidental Aesop: The thing with this episode, is that it wasn't so much resolved as Homer being effectively wrong, and him learning an effective lesson, he only modifies his behaviour when his own stupidity almost kills him. Yes, Homer is intolerant towards Krusty and Apu, but only in the same way that the entire town seemed to be intolerant to his decision as well.
And it wasn't even as if he'd completely abandoned religion entirely, he'd just come to the decision to pursue God in his own way, even if the way he decided upon focused entirely upon his own personal tastes. Calling in to work to get time off by inventing random holy days, for example. It was just the fact that he wasn't doing it the same way as everyone else that caused the community, even his own WIFE, to suddenly focus its wrath upon him. And really, considering the result got him to come to church in the end, but he wasn't even conscious for the sermon and just disrupted it for everyone else really preferable to just letting him do his own thing on Sunday mornings?
Accidental Aesop: Opinionated Breast Augmentation 101
The Plot: Once and a while you come across a show that just baffles you with one of the episode that they put out. An episode that you can kind of get what they were going for, but its done in just such a weird manner that it just comes across as being kind of skeevy. 'Busted' is one of these episodes.
Braceface is a Canadian show that follows the troubled teenage years of Sharon Spitz, as she has to deal with having to wear braces, an idiot brother who almost freezes himself to death in one episode, starting her period and the like. 'Busted' was the creators attempt to show different attitudes to breasts, in a way made the entire enterprise come off as kind of icky.
The episode kicks off with Sharon not being allowed in to see a new film, seemingly based off of the James Bond franchise, only she's not allowed in because the ticket booth person thinks she's a good couple of years younger than she actually is. After seeing a couple of more endowed girls getting let in, Sharon comes to the conclusion that she wasn't allowed into the movie because her small boobs make her look younger, though her friends deny that this is the case.
Later, Sharon manages to get into the film, which seems to be one of those films that appear in fiction designed to target the insecurities of just one person in the audience, namely Sharon. Having been given massive self image issues by the film and its off brand Halle Berry, Sharon decides to invest in an expensive inflatable bra to enhance her bust line.
She increases her boobs by a cup size or two, and after proving that her breasts determine how old people think she is, improving her confidence and making her feel better about herself. Sharon then continues increasing her breast size a little bit more throughout the rest of the episode, to get a boy she likes to notice her, to enhance the effect of the dress she'd bought etc.
However, the larger her breasts get, the more she has to deal with guys, even random strangers, actively staring at them, and even the boy she was interested in making an advance on her sexually by putting his hand on her thigh. The episode then decides to skirt this increasingly awkward moment by going for Carry On Film style slapstick instead, with someone breaking the bra's remote control, making Sharon's fake boobs swell until they explode. This is the point where everyone laughs at her, and after a talking to from her mum, she apparently learns the lesson that it's best to let herself develop naturally and just be happy with the results...
Accidental Aesops: Urgh, where to start with this one. On the one hand, I guess that providing a lesson on body issues was within the show's remit, but the overall result is just a mess. The creators method of dealing with this touchy storyline appears to be trying to be a metaphor for Sharon getting breast implants, with the lead character getting larger breasts because she's lacking in confidence and generally feeling about herself afterwards, which apparently is what the case is like for a lot of women that decide to under go breast augmentation.
The show then appears to make the point that if people do decide to change their physical body shape in some way though, that they won't be able to stop, and what was first a self esteem issue evolves rapidly into one of wanting to attract attention and not being able to deal with it when it occurs in ways that they're not comfortable with, IE people just walking up to her and staring at her breasts for a few feet away, or men assuming things about her sexual openness because of them... What kind of point is that to make?
Telling girls that they should be happy with the way they look doesn't exactly fix the issue that caused them to feel bad in the first place, and really in some cases cosmetic surgery does actually improve people's lives. Saying that having breast augmentation leads to a slippery slope that ends in implied "Blame the victim" territory is both kind of unpleasant AND inappropriate for the age range the show was intended for.
And what about girls who are in the opposite side of the issue to the show's lead, where they have naturally larger breasts and have to deal with unwanted sexual behaviour or LAUGHTER because of their breast size? Is the show trying to imply that it's their fault people act the way they do towards them, instead of it being the other way around? And if the show's actual "You're okay just the way you are" moral is meant to be applicable in all cases, then it just seems to be telling people to "just suck it up and deal with it"... Which is a terrible Aesop, whatever the storyline it's attached to.