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Cartman, a true hero of our age

These characters are the ultimate weapons in the war between grown- ups and children
THERE IT is, tucked away in the In Brief section of a newspaper: one of the most uplifting little paragraphs you are likely to read this month. "South Park's cartoon star Eric Cartman is the top personality for children --ahead of soccer stars David Beckham and Michael Owen - according to a poll of 100 eight- and nine-year-olds by NatWest Bank. Bart Simpson came second."

Never mind the risibly small number of children surveyed (psephologically useless, but just dandy for the purposes of newspaper comment); just reflect on the implications.

For those who do not know him, Cartman is a fat, dysfunctional, foul- mouthed slob. Sneaky, treacherous, contemptuous of all noble thoughts and causes, grossly insulting to his over- indulgent mother, he is at the same time strangely tolerated by his peers, who defer to his massive self-belief and his powerful, inventive and indeed distinctive vocabulary, the precise details of which I shall spare you, as you may be reading this in the morning.

As a role model, he leaves much to be desired, as does Bart Simpson (with whom I assume you are familiar). Unlike those nice, clean-cut soccer stars Michael Owen and David Beckham.

Which is to confuse the terms "top personality" and "role model". Actually, "top personality" is not a particularly meaningful term, in fact it stinks, but we'll let that go. The point is that da yoot' finally have characters whom they can not so much identify with but for whom they can root until they are hoarse, and scare the slacks off us while they do so. For Cartman, E and Simpson, B are creations (aged roughly the same as the questioned audience) who represent the ultimate weapons in the war between grown- ups and children.

In these consensual days, where we are meant to be in touch with the child within, and, by implication, the child without, it is very easy to forget that there is a war between adults and the young; a continual, attritional war, which if it's waged properly can leave its scars throughout an entire life. The very fact of the eight- and nine-year-olds' endorsement of Cartman's Weltanschauung is a sneaky and audacious act of table-turning; Cartman may be a lightning-rod for adult fears about problem children, but he's not meant to be enthused over by children, who shouldn't be watching South Park at that age anyway, should they?

We have, of course, been here before. Cartman is only the latest in a long line of infant rebels. Mutatis mutandis, his position is a version of nigel molesworth's anomie, his world-weary cynicism ("Roll on thou grate and restless wave roll over THE LOT"), the knowledge, always bringing him to the brink of despair but never quite over it, that the world is not only an adult conspiracy, but an ineptly-governed one at that.

molesworth's language may have been more decorous than Cartman's but then some things can still be expressed decorously and still be highly subversive and shocking. Queneau's Zazie, nine years old if I recall, was herself famously foul-mouthed and urbane; the children of Vigo's Zero de Conduite inverted the adult order in an act of spontaneous and violent revolution (later remade in this country as If...); and, as we all remember, Christopher Robin was particularly prone to launching into a string of astonishingly fruity expletives whenever things went wrong for him and his cuddly toys.

All right, that last bit is wishful thinking. But I hope it illustrates the point that how we would like to see our fictional children behave is neither how they do nor should behave. Milne's version of childhood, idyllic, ideal and innocent, actually had a very pernicious effect on the real-life Christopher Robin, who found himself tormented by the fact that the memory of his innocence had been frozen in time; something private and special for him - his relationship with his toys, his father - had been violated and exploited for the world's entertainment.

Not that we can blame Milne or ourselves for this exploitation; but it is something we should bear in mind when faced with far less cosy examples of childhood being cheered on by the children themselves. (What would we think of a group of 100 eight- to nine-year-olds who claimed Christopher Robin was their "top personality"?)

But there are two unambiguously beneficial aspects to the popularity of Cartman. The first is that it is a significant blow to the bully's ethos and the Victorian tyranny of the sporting ethic - which would have demanded a lifetime of suffering for fatsoes like Cartman.

And the second, and perhaps more significant one, in an age where so many adults act like kids - is that finally, we have a group of people who are acting their own age.