Ability, Cartoons, Essays

Disability and Language in Adventure Time’s “Bonnie and Neddy”

The seventh season of Adventure Time brought its audience back to a Candy Kingdom facing big changes. An exhausted and frustrated Princess Bubblegum handed her throne over to the selfish, air-headed King of Ooo, and left to build a new life in the middle of nowhere. In the midst of the first true regime shift in the history of the Candy People (sorry, Lemongrab), Finn, Jake and the new Princess/King make an incredible discovery: a candy dragon lives beneath the tree-like castle and feeds off its roots in order to produce the candy juice that fuels the entire kingdom. Oh, and that candy dragon is Neddy, Princess Bubblegum’s brother.

Finn discovers Neddy.

Finn discovers Neddy.

This episode, titled “Bonnie and Neddy,” is a fascinating season opener, but hasn’t generated much conversation. Andrew Tran from OverMental published an interesting analysis describing Princess Bubblegum as a mother figure enduring post partum depression, and Neddy as a trauma victim. Oliver Sava from the AV club released the only other review I’ve seen, and criticized the episode for suggesting that the best way to take care of a disabled family member is to lock them up.

Sava’s reading is important. “Bonnie and Neddy” is a problematic episode because, as he points out, young viewers may read Bubblegum’s actions as justifying isolating people with disabilities. However, this reading assumes that Neddy’s situation cuts him off from the outside world. If we take a step back to look at how his natural responses affect his interactions with others, we can see that Bubblegum has given Neddy a unique way to connect on his own terms.

Neddy had a rough spawning.

Neddy had a rough spawning.

Watching Neddy interact with the world gives us a look at how his sensory and auditory issues affect his ability to communicate. In a flashback, Bonibel and Neddy spawn from the Mothergum, a goopy substance filled with sentient life forms that had individual personalities, but whose minds were all connected. Neddy’s first experience is pain; while Bonibel lands softly in a puddle, he falls onto a sharp rock. Later, when the King of Ooo shouts at Neddy, he reacts with fear and runs away. Seeing Bubblegum again also fills him with fear, and when she touches him he shudders. It’s not until Bubblegum uses the sing-song language only the gum siblings speak that Neddy relaxes.

Once, Bonnie could comfort Neddy...

Once, Bonnie could comfort Neddy…

The gum language is key to understanding why Neddy’s place under the Candy Castle isn’t isolating. After spawning, both gum siblings were working with the same language barrier. However, Bonibel could interact physically with other creatures, like the butterfly she carries. Neddy had no tools to overcome the language barrier, but Bonibel—who went on to create an entire race of Candy People that all speak English—clearly did. From a cultural standpoint, she assimilated to a new culture by learning its language; Bonibel became Bubblegum.

...but now, not so much.

…but now, not so much.

The episode does not shame Neddy for the barriers that keep him from communicating. In fact, Bubblegum’s assimilation is quite sad. When they had just recently spawned, Bonibel could hug Neddy to comfort him. When she finds him hiding in a cave after his encounter with the King of Ooo, she attempts to calm him first by simply showing her face, and then by touching him. Neddy starts upon seeing her face and shudders under her hand; it’s only when she uses their native language that he relaxes. Bubblegum has changed so much that her brother barely recognizes her.

My tree!

My tree!

When Neddy wakes up to find himself back underneath the candy tree, he gleefully sucks on its roots and gets the juice flowing again. For Neddy, this isn’t just a moment of comfort—it is a reconnection. The juice goes out to all the members of the Candy Kingdom, connecting him to them just as the mothergum once connected him to his gum siblings. When Finn asks Bubblegum if she misses the Candy People and she shrugs, it’s a disconcerting, lonely moment that deeply contrasts Neddy’s reunion with the tree, because she is disconnected from her family.

If season seven has a theme, it is identity and change. Even outside of Bubblegum’s endeavor to be a simple pumpkin gardener and Marceline’s attempt to rid herself of her vampire-ness, minor characters are questioning their identities. Root Beer Guy becomes Dirt Beer Guy, and BMO faces off with an alternate personality. Just how much can a person, or a candy dragon, bubblegum princess, vampire, or robot, change before they become someone entirely different?

This is the face of happiness and connection.

This is the face of happiness and connection.

Adventure Time has not always done a good job of addressing disability; Cinnamon Bun’s role as a “not fully baked” comic relief always made me uncomfortable. However, Bubblegum’s statement at the end of “Bonnie and Neddy” is a call for acceptance. A difference in the way someone interacts with the world doesn’t necessarily mean that person needs to change. Instead, the world can show them love by changing itself to allow them to connect and painlessly participate in society.