Possibly the greatest article written about the greatest cartoon of my generation.
Literary types often regard Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita as the greatest love story of the 20th century. They're close, but it's actually the '80s cartoon series Robotech.
Specifically, it's the Macross section of Robotech, based on the 1982 anime Super Dimension Fortress Macross, the first of the three Japanese cartoons that were cobbled together and re-edited to make the Robotech cartoon that aired in the US. While so many other children's entertainments were going on and on about true love (or avoiding the subject entirely), the Macross saga helped countless kids understand that love isn't perfect, it isn't good, and most importantly, it's never easy.
Robotech's Macross saga was a romance more than it was a sci-fi adventure, and since it was full of jets that transformed into robots, a giant race of aliens named the Zentraedi, and the giant spaceship called the SDF that had accidentally crash-landed on Earth they would stop at nothing to take, that's saying something. Here are five truths about love that only Robotech had the guts to admit to kids:
Love Knows No Bounds
Macross understands that you love who you love, and there's no class, race, or any kind of status that matters. Lisa Hayes, the second-in-command of the most powerful spaceship in the galaxy (and she's also the most sober commander, she ends up in charge most of the time), loves a lowly pilot recruit. Young Chinese pop star Lynn Minmei loves her cousin Lynn Kyle. Ace pilot Maximillian Sterling loves the beautiful alien Miriya, who's trying to kill him. Even more insanely, veteran pilot Roy Fokker loves Claudia Grant, a - gasp! - person of color. I know it doesn't seem worth congratulating now, but showing an interracial relationship in kids' cartoons in the mid-'80s was simply unheard of, and Robotech had the cajones to never even comment on it in the scripts, portraying it as completely natural. The heart wants what the heart wants, and there's no amount of reality that can sway it.
Love Is Messy
After countless cartoons where the prince gets the princess at the end (or vice versa), Robotechgot kids ready for a lifetime of relationships by revealing that love as first sight was a lot more rare than awesome jets that transform into robots. The show basically centers on Rick Hunter's incredibly long, unrequited infatuation with Lynn Minmei, and Lisa Hayes' simultaneous crush on Rick. Both of these take up most of Macross' 36 episodes, forcing viewers to wonder if Rick will ever wake up, drop the mercurial Minmei, and realize that the infinitely more awesome Lisa has the hots for him- or, conversely, if Lisa will ever stop pining over the bastard who keeps ignoring her for the 15-year-old Chinese pop star who treats him like shit. Unrequited love isn't fun, but it's a hell of a lot more likely than some fairy tale ending.
To clarify the above, Rick doesn't just sit in his bunk pining over over Minmei; no, that's only what he does in-between the times she's leading him on and/or breaking his heart. Minmei does just enough to keep Rick thinking he's got a chance" asking for him along to her concerts, accepting his gifts, giving him kisses on the cheek, and more. Inbetween these moments of happiness are: Minmei ignoring him, Minmei fawning over Lynn Kyle, and Minmei generally breaking his heart. Minmei was the most hated character in anime in the '80s, and her torture of poor Rick is the reason why; but what we didn't understand is that Minmei wasn't actually trying to be cruel - she genuinely likes Rick, and likes being with him - she just likes someone else. Sure, she's flirty and flighty, but she's a 15-16-year-old girl. Who could reasonably expect her to choose a stable relationship as opposed to the dark, brooding Lynn Kyle? Boys watchingRobotech in the '80s, that's who. But we were wrong.
Moreover, everything Minmei does to Rick? Rick does to Lisa, only worse. At least Minmei's flirty nature gives Rick hope some of the time. Rick makes his feelings for Minmei abundantly clear to Lisa, and she's still so in love she simply waits and hopes he eventually wises up.
Love Is Gross (Usually If You're Doing It Right)
In one of Robotech's most iconic scenes, Rick, Lisa and fellow pilot Ben Dixon are captured by the giant alien Zentraedi and interrogated. Since the Zentraedi are cloned and immediately bred to be warriors, they have no sense of romance or relationships or sex. As these alien interrogations often do, the subject of love comes up, specifically kissing, and the Zentraedi demand the humans kiss to find out what the hell they're talking about. Lisa kisses Rick (sorry, Ben) and immediately disgusts every Zentraedi watching. They're stunned, appalled, and actually retching at the site of the two humans touching mouths (and potentially tongues) - to the point where they consider the act an actual weapon. Look, if you think there's a better way to slyly hint at the biological messiness of love in a kids' cartoon, you're lying to yourself.
Love Is Dumb
When summarizing the Macross portion of Robotech, one could do worse than trying to describe the show's primary love… er… polygon. The most powerful woman in the galaxy is so in love she washes the underwear of a young pilot who is in love with a 15-year-old Chinese pop star who is in love with her cousin, who throws gin bottles at her. I'm serious. Love makes Lisa Hayes - the second in command of the SDF-1 - actually does Rick Hunter's laundry at his apartment… while he's out chasing Minmei. Minmei has the hots for Lynn Kyle, who gets so mad at her success that he does throw bottles at her (that they're gin bottle is my hypothesis, but I stand by it). And these things don't affect Minmei or Lisa's affections in the least. Oh, they're upset; they wonder what the hell they're doing; but they're still in love. Because love makes us dumb.
Also, Max Sterling asks the alien spy Miriya on a date while she's actually trying to kill him… and they end up having the most solid relationship in the series. Because love is dumb.
Love Is All That Really Matters
But for as dumb, gross, messy and cruel love can be, it's what makes humans human, and it's what holds the crew of the SDF-1 together during their horrific war with the Zentraedi. It what keeps the crew and unwilling residents of the SDF-1 sane during their attempt to travel home, even if that love is returned or not. When the Earth is pretty much annihilated in episode 27, all people have to hold onto is each other, as they try to survive and carve a new civilization out of the ashes. Love isn't a cure-all; it's not going to bring humanity back, and it's not going to conquer everything. But whether you're facing giant aliens in space bent on your annihilation or just everyday life, it's obviously the best thing we've got.
Now, maybe you fell in love with your partner at first sight and were in bliss from that moment on, but if so, you're the exception, not the norm. Most of us will feel the pain of unrequited love, of debasing ourselves for someone who may not deserve it (or even notice), will have our hearts broken, and/or end up in multi-person relationship drama that would make Romeo and Juliet's heads explode (I, for one, have experienced all of these things, multiple times). Lolita might have revealed that love is blind, unquenchable and not always good, but Robotech taught us that and more, and did it in a kids' cartoon to boot. Sorry, Nabokov. Better luck next time.