When people make jokes demanding to know why, in the year 2017, they still haven’t gotten their flying cars and jetpacks, they’re probably referencing The Jetsons. Since its debut in 1962, the Hanna-Barbera cartoon has become synonymous with the gleaming utopia promised by technology. The world where George, Jane, Judy, and Elroy Jetson lived, with robot housekeepers and ozone-scraping luxury smart homes that can dress and groom you by themselves, was a vertical manifest destiny, one where audiences could hang their starry-eyed hopes about the future.
But as history and literature have taught us, one person’s utopia is another’s dystopia, and The Jetsons is no exception. Thus far, the series has been more or less taken at face value as the happy-go-lucky “misadventures” of a wholesome nuclear family living a life of innovative luxury a few centuries into the future. But as anyone familiar with H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine or the Fritz Lang classic Metropolis knows, there are often ugly truths lurking beneath the cloud cover of a futuristic paradise. A new Jetsons comic, out this week from DC Comics, finally broaches the question of why the Jetsons and their community live their lives in the upper atmosphere, and the answers it offers aren’t pretty.
The rebooted series updates several glaring outdated elements from the original series. Once a housewife, Jane Jetson is now a brilliant NASA scientist who commutes into space for work. Rosie the sentient robot maid, once a de facto slave, has become the synthetic carbon body that holds the consciousness of George Jetson’s 124-year-old mother. It’s also not as glaringly homogeneous; where all of the characters in The Jetsons were previously white, now-teenaged Elroy Jetson has an Asian-American love interest, Lake, and some of Jane’s unnamed colleagues appear black.
Its biggest retcon, though, is the revelation of exactly what sent humanity to settle the stratosphere in the first place. The comic informs us that a few decades before the rebooted series begins, a 200-mile-long ice meteor crashed into the Pacific Ocean, causing massive worldwide earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and rising ocean levels that completely submerged the planet. A fraction of humanity was able to escape to space stations built in orbit as insurance for just this sort of disaster, and they waited there until floating dwellings could be built for survivors in the upper atmosphere. That’s how the Jetsons ended up in their swanky hover-recliners and brightly colored space cars: because an environmental apocalypse killed billions.
When Elroy and Lake decide to go for a deep-sea dive to recover art from what was once the Museum of Modern Art, we get a bone-chilling look at the ruins of New York City at the bottom of the ocean: the most populous city in America, transformed into one immense shipwreck.
As series writer Jimmy Palmiotti explained, these choices ground the franchise more firmly in our current and future realities, and bring the series into more believable territories. But the new take also unintentionally confirms a darker truth that has lingered at the margins of the series since it debuted in 1962: the future of The Jetsons is defined not just by what it shows us, but by what it doesn’t.
For years, viewers and critics of color have half-joked that the countless all-white casts of science fiction entertainment could be the result of some unnamed bitter race war or genocide, an event so terrible that even mentioning it has become taboo in polite society. Placed in the context of a speculative future, The Jetsons’ all-encompassing whiteness suggests a similarly ominous explanation: people of color either died, or were killed off, in the intervening centuries.
It’s an undertone that grows even more malevolent in the shadow of a catastrophic extinction event, especially one where only a privileged few were given the opportunity to escape. In an address to her colleagues, Jane Jetson notes that “the number of people left behind was staggering, but nothing could be done.” Clearly some decisions were made about which survivors got a spot on the escape ships. So who got to make those choices, and what does the world of The Jetsons tell us about who they valued and who they deemed disposable?
In the present, chillingly dismissive statements like “nothing could be done” are already used — if not literally, then implicitly — to shrug away the devastation that has struck poor countries and communities as a result of climate change. Historically, impoverished groups and developing countries tend to be the the most vulnerable to death and destruction when catastrophic environmental disaster strikes. So let’s be honest: though long held up as the quintessential utopia, The Jetsons is a perfect dystopia, built on the corpses of a billions-strong underclass deemed unworthy of a life in the clouds.
But the seamy underbelly of The Jetsons doesn’t end with grim survival-of-the-fittest implications. It also explores labor in a world where technology has replaced huge swathes of human labor. In the original cartoon, the artificial intelligence industry is booming, and despite their apparent sentience, AI beings like Rosie the Robot are still indentured for life. Corporations like George’s employer, Spacely's Sprockets, and its primary competitor, Cogswell’s Cogs, dominate modern life in ways that feel easy to swap out for Google or Amazon. They’ve outsourced their factories to asteroids in outer space, and they relentlessly abuse their remaining human employees. In the cartoon, CEO Cosmo Spacely fires George repeatedly; in the new comic, George is tasked with uncommonly dangerous electrical repairs, as the “only person that can still do this type of work.”
Unskilled workers no longer seem to exist. Their jobs, like those of today’s working class, seem to have been automated and outsourced to corporate robots. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that they are largely absent from the world of Orbit City; it’s hard to imagine that someone so economically disposable would merit a seat in the escape pods. The high-tech lifestyle the Jetsons and their friends enjoy has undoubtedly come at a great cost, particularly to the poor and marginalized — already at the doorstep of the real-life tech industry. With so much familiar darkness lurking under the surface, here’s hoping the ominous origins of this reimagined Jetsons are only the beginning, and that they teach us to think twice before wishing for flying cars again.