In his essay The Queerness of Animation, Sean Griffin looks at the way recent animation scholarship has focused on how animation creates “the illusion of life”. He writes “Characters reaveal their personality through the rhythm iof their walk or the way they manipulate their facial expressions.” Without this movement these characters can’t be said to live at all. He goes on to argue:
the importance of motion in the creation of identity [in] recent animation theory, ties directly into current social constructionist arguments about sexual idenity, that all genders and sexualities (not just homosexuality) are learned and performed.
This ties back to my last blog about Judith Butler’s statement that “gender is performance”. So in animating characters we are creating a performance of gender, and we can chose how to enact it. As Griffin goes on to describe much of the gender performance in animation has been conservative and reactionary. And yet even when the cartoon seeks to deride homosexuality, something queer is happening, as Griffin describes in this example:
“to see bugs wearing lipstick and a wig is to see a drawing of a gender neutral rabbit acting like a human male pretending to be a human female. The levels of impersonation reach the sublime, to the point where boundaries seem impossible to nail down”
Griffin goes on to point out, using Butler’s Gender Trouble, that when the various levels of multiple discourse become so absurd and parodic they expose the constructedness of gender and sexuality.
So does that make animation inherently queer? Something to think further about…
In Jonna Bouldin’s essay Cadaver of the Real (Animation Journal: 2004, Volume 12, p. 7-26) she observes and analyses the distance between animation and reality, and the influence of technologies such as the rotoscope on this relationship. She starts by looking at how theorists such as Bazin and Barthes have talked about photography
“It is important to note that Bazin and Barthes describe the photographic copy’s proximity to the original, and thus to the ‘real’, in sensuous and material terms, rather than purely visual or aesthetic terms. The visual accuracy and exact correspondence between referent and image is less important than the indexical nature of the representation. This Indexicality-the physical contact or material connection with the original-is what gives the image its powers, not its verisimilitude.”
This idea of the image’s “power” is really interesting. What does it mean for an image to have power? Power over what or whom? Here Bouldin describes it as an erotic power – the image’s proximity to reality is sensual – perhaps all the more so for lacking “visual accuracy”. Photography and films use this distancing from reality to create romantic or sensual atmospheres, blurring footage to avoid sharp outlines or close up focus.
But later, Bouldin explores a different form of images’ power:
In his preface, Taussig defines the mimetic faculty as “the nature that culture uses to create second nature, the faculty to copy, imitate, make models, explore difference, yield into and become Other.” […] Like a magical totem, amulet, or figurine, mimesis allows the copy to draw on the power of the original.”
Here the power of the mimetic image, is more fantastical, magical even. This reminded me of how when I show people my animations (basic as they are) they will often bring up how magical it is that my drawings are moving (as if they didn’t watch images move in films,tv and youtube all day long.) But at the same time I kind of agree, it does feel magic when something comes to life under my fingers, even though I can see under the bonnet as it were and so know for sure that magic much less of a part than sweat and tears.
I also love what Taussig says about being able to “yield into and become Other” – this feels particularly pertinent of character animation, where in bringing a being into life you have to enter into that character – ask yourself the Stanislavski questions about who they are and what they want – move as the move, contort your face into their expressions. And when after you have put all these aspects of yourself into them and they begin to move independently it does feel a lot like magic.
Bouldin goes on to build a critique of mimesis in animation, particularly in regards to Snow White and Betty Boop who are both rotoscoped off real life dancers. She writes the following about spectator’s reactions to Disney’s Snow White:
Viewers are not given the space or perspective to grasp that these ‘real’ characters are also constructs; they are discouraged from reading these bodies as effects of power, as the products of the patriarchal, white, middle-class, heteronormative prerogatives that guided Disney’s (re)construction of bodily reality. Just as unnatural or unlikely as the dwarves in the enchanted forest or as Cab Galloway’s spectral performance in Minnie the Moocher, Snow White and Prince Charming are also fantasies, simply of a more mundane nature-fantasies about the bodily performance of gender, race, class, and heterosexual romantic love.
Disney films, as a huge part of the last three generations’ childhood, play an important role in reinforcing “social norms”. How “real” is Disney’s version of “reality”? How much does it create the myth of objective neutral normality – ie white, heterosexual cisness?
Despite it’s sophisticated technology, Disney’s claim to the real erases so many of our lived experiences – even the most magical mimesis can only represent the experience of its makers.
In the course of my research for my Steven Universe presentation, I read (most of) Undoing Gender by Judith Butler which I surprisingly found both accessible and incredibly relatable, finally I get why the internet is so full of Judy B memes!
Butler is most famous for her statment in Gender Trouble that “gender is a performance” as opposed to purely biological or purely socially constructed identity. She was subsequently criticised by those that argued that if gender was a performance – a mere putting on of costume – why did people feel it so intensely at the core of their identity? If children as young as three or four, could identify themselves as trans, if people were willing to go to huge lengths to get gender affirming medical care, then how could gender be a mere performance? Something you could put on and take off?
In Undoing Gender, Butler delves into the idea of gender as performance to tackle some of these criticisms:
“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 that other is only imaginary.”
We do not perform our gender alone, and thus we are not free to perform it as we please. Unlike a performance, gender has no script, each of us must “improvise” our own understanding of gender within the “scene of constraint” which is a binary obsessed society. And that performance is heavily policed, from birth onwards we are slotted into a binary system over which we have no control, and those that seek to escape from that system face punishment. Travis Alabanza, a gender queer poet and performance artist, expresses this beautifully in their ted talk “Who is allowed to be a victim?”:
They describe the violence they face as a trans person of colour, every time they “step outside” – not only the direct violence of abuse and attacks but also the violence of the silence of the onlooking public.
Butler goes on in Undoing Gender to talk about the type of gender policing that Alabanza describes and the way that “recognition becomes a site of power”. She writes:
“Certain humans are recognized as less than human, and that form of qualified recognition does not lead to a viable life. Certain humans are not recognized as human at all, and that leads to yet another order of unlivable life. If part of what desire wants is to gain recognition, then gender, insofar as it is animated by desire, will want recognition as well.”
We do not live in a void and so depend on those around us to validate our existence, and in order to do so they must recognise us. I want to think about this when I animate – because I want to create characters with non-normative genders and yet the language of animation like that of society is still so binary.
One exercise I like to do is draw a face and watch the way in flits between male and female depending on what lines I add to it. How no matter how hard I try and resist these categories my brain still wants to fit my drawing into them…
So questions I want to think about are:
What makes a character appear male, female or non binary when one draws it? What are the signifying marks?
How can I use the fluidity of animation to reproduce the fluidity of gender?
ls it possible to make my characters be recognisable to others as non binary when we are so programmed to be hunting for gender signifiers?
Finally, this quote that I loved from Undoing Gender and that sums up so many of the questions the book raises for me:
“If I am someone who cannot be without doing, then the conditions of my doing are, in part, the conditions of my existence.”
Where is the line between doing and being? How much do I have to do in order to be? Why does my doing and being cause me to be so often at odds with those around me? How does one live in such a world?
One of the things I’ve always loved about cartoons is the transformation of objects as their context changes: in the south korean cartoon above the dinosaur reaches into the sky and grabs a rainbow, suddenly it is a skipping robe. In many warner brother car chases a piece of the scenery is used to repair a car engine. In adventure Time, Jake’s legs stretch to impossible proportions so they can see over an obstacle. We think we are looking at one thing, but then the angle changes and we realise it is something else altogether. This ability of objects and people to shift from one shape to another, depending on their context is defined by Paul Wells as “Plasmaticness”:
‘Plasmaticness’ ‘… a rejection of once-and forever allotted form, freedom from ossification, the ability to dynamically assume any form.
This is unique to animation. Live action cannot recreate these impossible acts and in text the explanation of the change would take away some of it’s magic and surprise. Paul Wells goes on to describe the comic potential of this technique:
Suddenly the human body could move in ways that it was both impossible to do in the ‘real world’ and impossible to represent in live action. This spectacle was inherently funnny because it illustrates the literal breakdown of social order as it is located in the physical environment. *
The comic potential of this is almost limitless, nothing is out of bounds. But if anything can become anything that’s more than just funny, it can be revolutionary. Judith Halberstam quotes Sergei Einstein talking about Disney in The Queer Art of Failure:
Disney’s film are a revolt against partitioning and legislating, against spiritual stagnation and greyness. But the revolt is lyrical. The revolt is a daydream.” (1988:4) In this day-dream says Eisenstein, we are able to see the world differently through a series of absurd oppostions that shuffle the coordinates of reality just enough to deliver Americans from the standardized monotony of life under capitalism. **
So the ability to metamorphose, to change from man to woman, human to animal, rainbow to skipping rope – destroys the binary classifications of the social order – we are all made of this infinitely flexible stuff, that cannot be contained in a single form. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that animation for so long has been pidgeon holed into a medium for children. In a world where so much is censored in the name of “protecting the children” – animation is slipping in under the radar. In “No Future” Edelman proclaims “fuck the social order and the child in whose name we are collectively terrorized”*** but what if the children are actually the ones who have access to what is really going on?
So can children’s cinema give us a way out from stultifying social norms? Halberstam argues that it does:
“Children’s animated features are replete with fantasies of otherness and difference, alternative embodiement, group affiliations, and eccentric desires […] Each film make explicit the connection between queerness and this joining of the personal and the political: mostrosity in Shrek, disability in Finding Nemo and species dysphoria in Babe become the figurations of the pernicious effects of exclusion, abjection and displacement in the name of family, home and nation” ****
It is a big claim, and is so tempting, I love these films, I want them to be the revolutionary pieces of cinema. But then these films are made by big corporates with shady histories: Disney was a fascist and has produced no end of sexist and racist material. Pixar is run almost entirely by straight white rich cis men, can we really rely on these companies to give us our revolutionary visions?
*Paul Wells, Understanding Animation, p.128
**Sergei Eisensteil quoted in Queer Art of Failure p.174
When I watched Joanna Quinn’s Girl’s Night Out this week it really reminded me of the recent Universal Studio’s feature film Girl’s Trip – which I loved so much I went to see it twice in the cinema.
Both films are about a group of women friends, who, as an exception to their normal lives, are going ALL OUT. Girl’s Night Out is a 6 minute animation that features a single night of partying, while Girl’s Trip is 2 hour feature film about a three day extravaganza of drinking, dancing and sex. However, both films beautifully capture the exhiliration these women feel as they let go of the rigid social norms that shape their lives. They leave behind husbands, children and responsibilities, swapping them for the joyful solidarity of female friendship. Unencumbered and encouraging each other they inhabit their own bodies and desires fully, whether this is removing a male stripper’s thong, wetting themselves on a zip wire above a busy New Orlean’s street, starting a bar brawl, or having sex with a man half their age. And it is the time constraint that enables this freedom: for one night, one weekend they are free. There is a sense that outside of this fabulous window their lives go on as normal, but the fact that they can escape it, even for the shortest of times, makes that fact more bearable.
In Black Looks, Bell Hooks describes how theorizing black experience is a difficult task, because, having been socialized by a white supremacist education system and a racist mass media, the language just isn’t there to do it. She states: “Without a way to name our pain, we are also without the words to articulate our pleasure.” I wonder if it could be argued that Girl’s Trip provides some of that language. The film is, among many other things, an exploration of black women’s pleasure – their pleasure in each other as friends, their sexual pleasure (as seen in this amazing scene with the grapefruit) and their pleasure in their work and accomplishments. For representation of any oppressed group to be successful – it must show not only the oppression of the individuals involved – but also their humanity. I think Girls Trip and Girl’s Night Out are both highly successful examples of this.
Things I want to learn from these films and use in my work:
Capturing joy and freedom through movement, particularly dance
Creating magical spaces in which social norms can be broken
Giving voice and humanity to characters that are too often sidelined in traditional media ie women of colour and working class women