Rebecca Sugar’s queer universe

Here are the notes from my presentation on Rebecca Sugar and queer theory in Steven Universe.

Today I’m going to talk about Rebecca Sugar, an american animator born in Maryland in 1987 who graduated from the School of Visual Arts in New York. She worked for several years on Adventure Time, where she  wrote some of the best loved songs of the series including: “Making Bacon Pancakes”, “Daddy why did you eat my fries” and “Everything Stays”. At the same time she started work on Steven Universe, which premiered on Cartoon Network in 2013. She is the first and only woman to have her own show on the network.

Steven Universe is about a kid called Steven, who lives with three aliens: Amethyst, Garnet and Pearl – the four of them together are the Crystal Gems.

 

They live in a temple, next to Beach City. (The backgrounds to this show are incredible.) where they spend most of their time saving the earth from being invaded and colonised by hostile gems from their home planet.

They also spend a fair amount of time eating doughnuts, going on road trips, practicing fighting and learning about friendship, love, community and all that good stuff.

Each crystal gem, is a distinct character, in the superhero tradition each have their own weapon and way of fighting. In order to make themselves more powerful they can join together to make a fusion who embodies the powers of the gems that make her up. All the gems are referred to by female pronouns, but as projections of light they can’t really be said to have a gender. Fun fact: the animators worked out what the fusions would look like by playing the game exquisite corpse, where you fold up a piece of paper and different person draws each part of the body, until you unfold it to see what the thing looks like as a whole.

Rebecca Sugar uses her cartoon to explicitly talk about different kinds of genders and relationships. When asked about this in an interview with The Verge, she says:

So much of the preexisting language for cartoons is heavily gendered. For example, how many cartoon couples are two identical characters, except one has eyelashes and a bow? This is the time and this is the tool to expand people’s visual language when it comes to what a couple looks like, and to create gender nonconforming characters that are so compelling that you can’t deny their humanity. *

If you look at Mickey and Minnie mouse or Mr and Mrs Potato Head there is nothing essential in the characters that genders them, they are merely accessorized in such a way to signal that they are male of female. What happens when we remove those accessories? Does the system of binary gender disintegrate?

In her book, Undoing Gender, Judith Butler describes the performance of gender as follows:

 

If gender is a kind of doing, an incessant activity performed, in part, without one’s knowing and without one’s willing, it is not for that reason automatic or mechanical. On the contrary, it is a practice of improvisation within a scene of constraint. Moreover, one does not “do” one’s gender alone. One is always doing with or for another, even if the other is only imaginary.**

Here, Butler separates the idea of gender from that of biological sex. Gender is not to do with what our bodies look like; but rather it is the place where what we project out into the world, and what the world recognises in us, comes together. We enact our gender everyday in the way we move around and interact with the world and because everyone’s performance is different, then it follows there must be as many genders as there are people to enact them.

In Steven Universe, Rebecca Sugar shows us the expansiveness of gender and its myriad presentations. In Sadie’s Song Steven dresses up in drag to perform a show stopping hit at the Beach City talent show. Unlike many other cartoons, this is not played for laughs. Steven totally smashes the set and the fact that he is wearing a dress is not even commented on.

In Alone Together, Steven and his best friend Connie fuse to form the genderqueer character Stevonnie. We witness the exhilaration that Stevonnie feels in their body that is neither male nor female, but also the confusion of the humans who encounter them. Where the gems are excited, and celebrate Steven and Connie’s fusion, the human characters are uncomfortable with Stevonnie and they don’t seem to know why.

This is highlighted because while she celebrates the diversity of gender, Sugar doesn’t brush over the fact that it is far from easy to slip outside of the gender binary.

In Undoing Gender, Judith Butler describes how “social norms” are used to police our performance of gender and that we have to choose whether to resist or submit to these in order to live what she calls a “livable life”. How much will it cost us in violence, abuse and/or invisibility to transgress these norms? How much will we be dehumanised, isolated or unfulfilled by remaining within them?

If I am a certain gender, will I still be regarded as part of the human? Will the “human” expand to include me in its reach? If I desire in certain ways, will I be able to live? Will there be a place for my life and will it be recognizable to the others upon whom I depend for social existence? ***

We rely upon others to recognise us, and thus recognition becomes a site of power for those who seek to give or withhold it.

Steven Universe shows this struggle in the episode Fusion Cuisine. Steven’s best friend Connie tells her parents that Steven is part of a normal nuclear family, so that they will let her hang out with him. But they become suspicious at never meeting his parents and ask them to come to dinner with them. Steven wants to bring all three of the crystal gems who play the role of mother to him – but Connie tells him he has to choose just one. Steven lines up the gems and asks them: “Which of you would make the best and most nuclear mum?” (see clip: Fusion Cuisine 2:40) We see Steven trying to force his queer multi-gendered family into a nuclear mold that they can not possibly fit.

In the end they decide all three gems will fuse, to be one mother. This totally fails to convince Connie’s parents that they are “normal”. The fusion, does not know how to behave at a human dinner party – they are too big, too loud, too “uncivilised”:

And this is where I think the show goes beyond the mere representation of gender non normative characters and enters the realm of queerness. To explain what I mean by this, I want to start with a couple of short definitions of queer theory – while acknowledging that it is a huge and varied field of which I will only brush the surface:

“For scholars influenced by queer theory, “queer” names or describes identities and practices that foreground the instability inherent in the supposedly stable relationship between anatomical sex, gender, and sexual desire” ****

“Queer is by definition, whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant” *****

Queer theory uses the non-normative as an entry point for discussion, it flips the script on “social norms” and “societal expectations” by questioning their legitimacy. Through queer theory we are able to observe the world from a whole other angle, where the the “normal” or “natural” ceases to be so and it’s weirdness is fully exposed.

As a quick example lets look through a queer lens at the way gender is constructed in our society: babies genitals are glanced at at birth and whatever the doctor believes they have identified determines the shape of that child’s life: from the clothes they will wear, to our expectations of their intelligence and athleticism, to their paycheck when they enter the workplace. This is patently ridiculous, and causes huge amounts of pain and suffering to humans of all genders who are forced into the system, and yet it is widely accepted as both “normal” and “natural” in societies across the globe.

Judith Butler argues that “the capacity to develop a critical relation to these norms presupposes a distance from them, an ability to suspend or defer for them’. In Steven Universe, Sugar achieves this distance is by having the main characters LITERALLY come from another planet. The earth is alien to them and so they see it without the normalising filter that we do: everything that humans do is strange to them and the gems continuously question things that to the humans in the show and the audience seem completely obvious. In an interview on Hot Topic, Rebecca Sugar explains that this idea underlies the entire series:

It’s always been our theory of the show, this sort of reverse escapism theory, which is that a fantasy world and fantasy characters became interested in real life and wanted to participate in that and Steven is the son of a human being and a crystal gem and he’s the product of fantasy having this love affair with reality. And all the imperfections of real life could be beautiful and fascinating to someone and those are things that are exotic and foreign and interesting to these characters who are used to the impossible perfection of their fantasy world. ******

So the gems alienness coupled with their non-normative genders and relationships give them a queer perspective on the earth. This scene between Peridot, Steven and Amythyst – shows the potential comedy of such a scenario:

When we compare these moments with the scene with Connie’s parents we see the multiple ways in which characters are “alienated” from their surroundings. But this alienation is not always painful, sometimes it creates comedy and sometimes it enables the gems to see the beauty in things that humans have long taken for granted.

In conclusion, much has been made of representation in this show, which is part of what has garnered it it’s HUGE internet following. Representation is important: being able to see yourself reflected in these worlds can be life changing for children and adults alike. But I think Steven Universe goes even further: it doesn’t just SHOW us admirable non-normative characters, but the show embodies a queer perspective on the world we live in, in all its humour, terribleness and beauty.

Footnotes:

* Rebecca Sugar, quoted by Kwame Opam, (2017), Steven Universe creator Rebecca Sugar on animation and the power of empathy, https://www.theverge.com/2017/6/1/15657682/steven-universe-rebecca-sugar-cartoon-network-animation-interview

** Judith Butler, (2004), Undoing Gender, New York and London: Routledge, p.1

*** Judith Butler, (2004), Undoing Gender, New York and London: Routledge, p.3

**** Robert J.Corber and Stephen Valocchi (2003) Queer Studies, An interdisciplinary Reader, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, p.1

***** Nikki Sullivan (2003) A critical introduction to Queer Theory, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, p.3

******  Rebecca Sugar in Hot Topic interview, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9rQlh0KxYo (2.10)

Choir Tour

 

I loved this film Sean showed us in class the other day. The character animation of the children was brilliant. They all move as one body with several heads, which are slightly out of time with each other which is a super effective in the impression of a rowdy group of children. Also the choir mistress’ red eyebrows are the best.

From metaphor to reality and back

Un Jour by Marie Paccou, starts off with a wide angle shot of the city, the lights going off and coming on again as day breaks. There is a lot of black and a mournful cello score comes in to underscore a dark mood.  As the camera pans we realise that we are seeing from the point of view of a woman, looking out of her window. She starts to speak: “One day a man entered my belly” – the camera pans around to focus on her face. This mise-en-scene: the darkness, the music, the early morning setting, leads us to assume, that she is speaking euphemistically about a sexual encounter. She herself is entirely passive in the account “I realized I would have to get used to him” she says. Alongside the mournful mood that has been established by the cello and setting, we assume that this was not a consensual or enjoyable encounter and our expectation is the story will be a dark one. However, as the camera pans down her body we see, to our surprise, that there is an actual physical man sticking out of her  – head and shoulders out the front – legs and feet out the back. This is a clear moment of humour, partly because of the absurdity of visual image, but also because our expectations that she was speaking metaphorically have been overturned: there is a literal man in her literal belly.

The encyclopedia of positive psycology defines humour as follows:

Humor is distinguished from other forms of play by the presence of elements that are perceived to be incongruous, odd, unusual, surprising, or out of the ordinary. Thus, as many theorists have noted, for humor to occur there needs to be a particular type of cognitive appraisal involving the perception of nonserious incongruity.

Koestler coined the term bisociation to refer to this cognitive process, in which a situation or idea is simultaneously perceived from the perspective of two self-consistent but normally unrelated and even contradictory schemas or frames of reference. *

Here the two “frames of reference” are the visual and the verbal: the words the character says told us one thing but the visual that accompanies them show another. The incongruity this creates is what makes the situation humourous.

But in the course of the film, Un Jour loops us back from absurdity to reality via the metaphor of the man in the belly.  As the film progresses, we see the woman take on the burden of carrying, clothing and feeding the uninvited man, who contributes only in the most minor ways.  This exposes the unrewarded burden of reproductive labour that disproportionately falls to women.  We see a more extreme version of women’s oppression under patriarchy in the neighbour who is forced to carry a shouting, drunk and violent man in her belly.

At the end of the film, the man leaves, leaving a literal hole in the woman’s belly: once again we are brought back from the metaphorical exploitation of women to the literal physical effects of having carried a man in your belly.

In Understanding Animation, Paul Wells describes metaphor as a narrative strategy:

Metaphors make the literal interpretation of images ambiguous and sometimes contradictory because they invite an engagement with the symbolic over and above the self evident. *

Thus metaphors can be used to create a parallel narrative, where the audience is ‘reading’ both the visual and the symbolic simultaneously. The interplay between these narratives allows the film to veer from the comic to the tragic within an extremely short amount of time, which makes it all the more effective at engaging its audience.

*Martin, R.A. (2009). Humor. In S.J. Lopez (Ed.), The encyclopedia of positive psychology. [Online]. Hoboken: Wiley. Available from: http://arts.idm.oclc.org/login?qurl=http%3A%2F%2Fsearch.credoreference.com%2Fcontent%2Fentry%2Fwileypospsych%2Fhumor%2F0%3FinstitutionId%3D105 [Accessed 26 October 2017].

*Paul Wells, (1998), Understanding Animation, Oxon: Routledge, p.84

 

Queer bouncy Larban theory balls

This week Steve got us started with bouncy balls – we tried rolling various balls down a slope and watching how the difference in weight and size affected the speed and bounciness of their fall:

Animation school: never a dull moment

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Then we tried animating it. I drew many many many circles; using my x-sheet and a surprising amount of maths to get the pacing and movement right so you could tell a ping pong bounce from a bowling ball one. It was oddly absorbing and before I knew it the day was over!

Tuesday we tried it in 3D. This was my first time ever using 3d animating software and it was a bit of a struggle. I really enjoyed being able to manouvre the scene to see it from different angles and I feel like this might be primarily what I use the software for in the future rather than animating with it. That said I did get very excited when I made a weird bendy gerkin thing:

3D animation is creepy…

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Wednesday we had a Laban movement workshop which was definitely the highlight of my week. I have known about Laban ever since I can remember because my grandmother, Rene Sakula, studied under him and he is her absolute hero. She has been a dancer all her life and after the Second World War she went to Belsen Concentration Camp as part of the relief effort and taught dance classes in the Rundhaus building that had once been the headquarters of the SS officers. She describes these classes in an interview for the Laban Guild (Autumn 1992 Vol. 11 No. 3):

“It was a palacial building and the groups I taught from the camps were able to overcome their feelings about the purpose for which the Rundhaus had been used by almost recreating themselves. Surprisingly they did not dwell on and explore their seemingly hopeless experiences of the past, but presented images of a more hopeful future. Some of them lived to fullfil their dreams, others did not.”

But this is by the by. Back in the movement workshop Lydia Baksh got us moving through games, in which we sometimes used each others bodies as puppets and sometimes moved in conversation with each other. She taught us about Laban’s “palette” of movement – how different types of motion create different feels, actions and characters.

 

The other fun thing I did this week was get deep into some queer theory in preparation for my presentation next week. One of the essays I read was Judith Halberstam’s Animating Revolt and Revolting Animation  from  The Queer Art of Failure. Halberstam examines a series of children’s animations from Chicken Run to Monsters Inc in order to answer the question: “how do revolutionary themes in animated film connect to queer notions of self?”

Halberstam first looks at representations of utopia in Chicken Run and Toy Story. In both these films, characters seek to eschew the capitalist industrial complex – represented by the battery chicken farm or the massive anonymous corporate toy store – and find a collaborative way of living in which diversity of character and ability is celebrated and where one can take pleasure in the control of one’s own labour. What Halberstam calls:

“Intricate stories of collective action, anticapitalist critique, group bonding, and alternative imaginings of community, space, embodiment and responsibility.”

Then the author moves on to looking at relationships between humans and non humans in these films. They show us how these relationships open us up to different ways of living and thus queers our perception. For example in Monsters Inc the bond between Sully and boo “is queer in its reorganisation  of family and affinity and in the way it interrupts disrupts more conventional romantic bonds in the film.”

Another moment of queerness comes in Robots – where a robot couple has a child delivered and proceeds to put it together from a box. Finally the father says “we did want a boy didn’t we?” and sticks on the phallus, emphasising the interchangeability of gender.

The labour of producing the baby is queer in that it is shared and improvised, of culture rather than nature, an act of construction rather than reproduction.

Black Power, Rachel Whiteread and #ShowUabody at the Tates

Last week, I did a Tate binge, as I was briefly in possession of a Tate card and wanted to make the most of it.

First I went to the Tate Modern to see the Black power exhibition. It started with videos of speeches of various icons of the civil rights movement including Malcolm X, Angela Davis and James Baldwin. Their strong voices followed me around the exhibition which both celebrates blackness and exposes many oppressive systems of white supremacy through four decades of black american art.

My favourite painting was by Frank Bowling, a Guyana born, British artist who painted this  HUGE neon canvas:

You can just about the glimpse the mass of continents, although only the americas are clearly outlined, in the bottom you glimpse human figures in the darker areas reaching up towards the pink and orange. The painting makes reference to the middle passage, when inhabitants of west africa were captured and forcefully transported across the Atlantic to be slaves in North America and the Carribean.

Bowling refers to his work as “poured paintings” and experiments with surface texture by pouring layers of paint on top of each other blurring the original image in the mass of colour.

The next day I went to see the Rachel Whiteread exhibit at the Tate Britain. I did my GCSE final project on Rachel Whiteread in 2004 just after she won the Turner Prize – the first woman to do so. I thought she was the best thing ever at the time, but had not returned to see her more recent work so I was excited to do so. The retrospective however made me feel like it was much of the same. I loved cast bookshelves with the vanished book, and the upside down stair case, but couldn’t get as excited as in my teens.

Finally I went to see Linda Stupart’s brilliant collaborative piece #showUabody also at the Tate Modern. The piece is designed with and for trans and gender non conforming children. Stupart as asked children to look at pieces in the gallery and think about how gender plays into them. This is one of my favourite responses:

The text reads:

Me: why do you think he is wrestling the snake 
Boy: because he is transgender and people are making him wrestle a snake to prove he’s a man 
Me: then what happens
Boy: the man wrestles the snake but it’s still not good enough for the horrible men who are challenging him, so then he’s like whatever and throws down the snake and leaves, at which point the mean cis guys realise they’re stuck in the room with a snake. Meanwhile the wrestler has gone to the bar for a milkshake. The end.

 

The beginning…

So I’ve made it through my first week at Central Saint Martins and my main feeling is: omg! art school is even more fun than I expected!

We started the week on Monday with talks from many people on subjects ranging from critical theory to library catalogues. Some of the things that got me excited were:

  • Sean talking about how we convey feeling through body language: we will learn to observe and create postures and movement that denote emotions such as sadness or happiness or anger.
  • Steve telling us that animators have to be sketchy and fast rather than perfectionists about their drawings – which as somewhat of a dasher offer suits me great!
  • Lilly talking about how “nothing is obvious” and “how cultural practices relate to wider systems of power”. I can’t wait to do more thinking and writing about issues of representation and power in animation. I want to deeply question my own practice: how what I make both reflects and shapes the world around me – and how to disrupt rather than entrench the oppressive systems of power that are part of the patriarchal, capitalist, white supremacist, herteronomative society that we live in.

Towards the end of day one Steve set us all up with a light box, a pencil and some animation paper and said “GO! DRAW! MAKE SOMETHING MOVE!”  I felt pretty lost – having never done anything like this before. I started off drawing a person jumping, as they jump they lift their arms up in the air and the smile on their face gets bigger and bigger. When I put it on the line tester to see the drawings move, it made me laugh but it was very clunky and you couldn’t feel the weight of the person or how they were becoming airborne. So I tried again this time with a person rolling over in their sleep. This was easier because I have been practicing sleepy postures recently for a comic I am writing and I could envision how the different parts of the body would move in relation to one another. Here is the result:

I like the way the body moves, but feel like it looks a little too athletic for someone sleeping, I tried to slow it down by making each picture last more frames but that just made it jerky, I think next time I may need to do more drawings. All that said, I am quite fond of this sleepy babe as my first ever piece of drawn animation.

The other animation project we worked on this week was a shadow puppet film. Brief aside: The format of the workshop reminded me a of Ru Paul’s Drag Race which I have recently watching (Shout out to season 4!). At the beginning of the day the teachers gave us a bunch of materials and a brief and sent us on our way, we had to come up with a story, characters, make puppets and backgrounds, rehearse movements, rent and learn to use the video cameras, and film the whole thing before a 4pm screening. The manic-ness of this schedule meant there was no time for faffing or too much perfectionism. Things I learnt about making shadow puppets:

  1. They have to be BIG otherwise they don’t move nicely (or at all)
  2. Making joints both strong and move smoothly is HARD – I ended up using small pieces of wire twisted in on themselves.
  3. We struggled in our team to agree on sizing between the different characters and backgrounds.
  4. Unless the tracing paper is stuck directly to the glass – not just taped around the outside, you lose a lot of the definition so there is no point putting too much detail into the puppets
  5. Detailed backgrounds stuck to the glass however look banging.
  6. Even very simple sound adds a lot to the final film.

Watching everyone’s film at the end of the day was great, they were all very funny and laughing with the rest of the group was a nice way to relax and start to feel a little more comfortable with each other.

The final class of the week was life drawing. It was mostly three minute poses, so no time to get bored. I was rusty but just as I was warming up and starting to like what was coming out of my pencil, Vanessa came over and said “lovely lines but you’re making him flat” she drew a sphere a cube and a pyramid on a piece of paper and showed me how the body can be broken down into versions of these three shapes. At first when I tried this my drawings looked like boring computer graphics – you couldn’t even recognise the model anymore and I felt a little resentful. But I persevered, and began to see a real improvement in the accuracy of poses I was capturing – it was a kind of magical. Below you can see some of my drawings at the beginning of the class:

Vanessa’s sketch:

My drawings after Vanessa’s intervention: