“Parent Teacher Night”—3B—is something every small child loathed; it was that special time of the year where you not only had to confess your sins, but had no choice but to reveal your insecurities and wrong doings, least you suffer the wrath of your instructor… plus, having to return to school on a night where you should have had off kinda blowed. So, Zim, of course, with an important a task as world domination, would be especially troubled by this night since he doesn’t even have parents.
Correction: flesh and bone parents. He does have, however, robot parents. What could possibly go wrong?
Not much, surprisingly. Zim opts to reprogram his robot parents with a training program but, unbeknownst to him, GIR switches off the program to Earth television. So, at the parent teacher night, as Zim pathetically attempts to wave off his robotic parents’ obvious malfunctions, his parents are hitting all the high marks of culture in a postmodern society.
To name off a few signs: A Clockwork Orange is referenced as the robot parents are subjected to brainwashing; their eyes are pried open as their restrained bodies absorb the images. During the actual event, Zim’s ‘parents’ reference a variety of television commercials. After his robotic dad’s arm is torn off, Zim shouts, “he lost his arm… in the war!” As the dad shouts, “they took my squeezing arm, why… ?!” Which, considering his presumed age, would have put him in the generation of Vietnam veterans. Soon after, before they fly Zim home, they perform what I believe is a traditional Scottish (or perhaps Irish) dance.
What does all of this point to? Cultural fragmentation. It is an expression of postmodernism most clearly defined by Marxist critic Fredric Jameson; when culture during the late capitalist period attempts to think history during a time when history has been forgotten, the result is a kaleidoscope of meanings and signs divorced from any referent. This is why Zim’s parents go on a whirlwind tour of everything culturally significant without pausing to consider the ramifications of their actions. To them, and Zim more generally, the culture they must blend-in with is simply irrelevant. Thus, Zim’s fascist aesthetics win the day over Earth’s postmodern dilatation.
Another noteworthy feature of this episode is that we see an additional parallel between Zim and Dib: both lack parental figures in their lives. Zim is shown to be born from a cloning tube, raised as a solider from the moment he is broken free of his slimy tube. The closest thing he has to parents was a robotic arm. Dib, meanwhile, though possessing a biological dad, even if there is no mother in the picture, is shown to be both distant and overworked. Dib’s father, the famous professor Membrane, is so busy with work that he must broadcast his presence from his lab and project the image onto a floating television screen which attends parent-teacher night. So, in the end, Zim and Dib, for whatever the lack of parenteral figures represents, each lack a loving center to call their own and so must search for their own idols to confide in. The fact that they chose each other, should be of little surprise.