Last night I went to see Jack Halberstam give a talk at Goldsmiths entitled Trans* A visual History of Gender Variance in which they traced a few histories of trans masculine lives as they disappeared and reappeared through the archives.
Jack started their talk with the idea that “Trans*” isn’t an identity but an opening up of the problem of identity. They were jumping off from a New York times article the headline:
What does it mean to conceal your identity? When does a concealed identity become an identity? Why is the the concealing the active verb in this sentence?
Quoting Sadiya Hartman and Tina Camp – Halberstam goes on to explore the idea of “low life” and how to create histories for a queer undercommons.
Incoherent idenities are not the excpeption they are the norm!
Who passes a critical threshold of ambiguity? And how does that affect how one’s body moves through space?
Today I read most of From Mouse to Mermaid: The politics of film, gender and culture – a collection of essays about Disney’s films edited by Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas and Laura Sells (Indiana University Press: 1995)
There were a couple of really interesting essays in the book, that I wanted to make some quick notes about on here.
As I was reading, Memory and Pedagogy in the “Wonderful World of Disney” by Henry A Giroux, I realised I’ve seen it quoted in quite a bit of my reading recently so it was interesting to go back to the source. I was particularly interested in his discussion of Disney’s use of the concept of innocence to reinforce a political and pedagogical agenda:
“Innocence in Disney’s world becomes the ideological vehicle through which history is both rewritten and and purged of its seamy side […] The Disney Company is not ignorant of history, it reinvents it as a pedagogical and political tool to secure its own interests, authority and power.’ (p.46)
Through this vehicle Disney shows us “strict gender roles”, “unexamined nationalism” and “a series of identifications that relentlessly define America as white and middle class.” Giroux argues that it is important for social activists, academics and political movements to critically examine these cultural outputs as they provide a pedagogy at least as powerful if not more so than our schools’ education systems. Have we risen to “the challenge of a new cultural politics” as Giroux puts it, since 1995. I would argue that while we have a wider range of representation these days, the disney classics still hold massive sway. And while there seems to be a great deal of critical scholarship debunking the Disney myths – is it accessible to the children who are still entranced by the “wonderful world of disney”? I’m not sure…
Somatexts at the Disney Shop: Constructing the Pentimentos of Women’s Animated Bodies by Elizabeth Bell was also a very interesting read, although the ideas and critical frameworks were familiar to me, the specific way she breaks down Disney’s representation of women was very effective. She starts the essay by pinpointing the space in which women existed in the labour of making these films:
“The hands of women, painting and transcribing the creative efforts of men, performed the tedious, repetitive, labor-intensive housework of the Disney enterprise.” (p.107)
Then she moves on to describe the three types of women included in Disney films:
The teenage heroine (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel) slim, white, innocent, from noble families – modeled or rotoscoped from ballet dancers.
The middle aged villain (Maleficient, Evil step sisters, Ursula) – large, sexual, predatory – modeled on drag queens and divas
The old ladies including fairy godmothers and friendly servants. Generally plump and unthreatening, their witchyness contained in sparkles rather than the more traditional (and powerful) roots and plants. They are modeled on “rotund old ladies, usually at the dog food counter.” (p.119)
Particularly interesting is how Bell brings these all back together at the end, describing how “On the Disney cultural and somatic timeline, the young heroines will become their stepmothers; the stepmothers, too, will become the good fairies and godmothers. They in turn will care for the next generation of young heroines…” What does it mean to present women’s life in these peaks and troughs of good and evil?
Laura Sells in “Where do the mermaids stand?” Voice and Body in The Little Mermaid goes still deeper into this issue. Most interesting to me, was her exploration of Butler’s ideas of gender performance with regards to Ursula – and her reading that this frees women from the Disney patriarchy:
The lesson that Ursula gives Ariel about womanhood offer an important position from which to resist narrowly drawn patriarchal images of women, a position absent in Disney’s previous fairy tales […] Ariel learns that gender is performance; Ursula doesn’t simply symbolize woman she performs woman.” p.183
As Butler argues, defining gender as perfomance, dismantles the illusion of a natural category – and thus enables us to question it.
I attended the LIAF screening of Torrey Pines, on a very cold Friday night at the Horse Hospital. The venue was only about a quarter full and it was freezing. I had expected a stop motion queer coming of age film, and although the film does sometimes elude to that narrative, most of it is a celebration of the wildly varied american landscape. Each slow panning shot is painstakingly painted and cut out – and rolls on seemingly forever mirroring the boredom of a child staring out a car window.
Below is one of the moments the film does confront Petersen’s queer identity – when 12 year old clyde is sees his mother getting out of the shower and is suddenly terrified of what his body could become.
Last week I went to see the London International Animation Festival (LIAF) documentary screening. There were sixteen different short films being shown of hugely varied style and content. My favorites were probably The Junction – an animated interview with Chilly Gonzales and Peaches about their musical interactions – directed by Patrick Doyon, see trailer below. I liked the simple drawing style and the metamorphosing lines of the piece rather than being particularly drawn in by the content.
Another beautiful film was Surprise by Paolo Patricio – a conversation between a mother and her 3 year old child who is recovering from kidney cancer. I loved the melding of the child and adult drawings, and the lines that appeared and were wiped away. The conversation was beautifully edited and gave you a real sense of the characters’ relationship to each other.
Finally, Yours Faithfully, Edna Welthorpe (Mrs) by Chris Shepherd – was a great story coupled with some very convincing After Effects puppet animation – that was both funny and strangely touching.
However my favourite part of the evening was definitely the Q&A afterwards where the film makers discussed some of the reasons why animation is good for documentary making. The three main ones they came up with:
Animation allows you to tell people’s stories without exposing their identities. For example Blue Light by Harriet Croucher was about people in the fire service telling their stories and the trauma that often accompanied them. The original interviewees were worried they could lose their jobs if it was found out that they were suffering from PTSD.
Animation can use an image to symbolise something bigger and more universal than itself, for example in The Junction the filmmaker uses an apple being eaten by worms to show the idea of selling out to the music industry -this image enables a visceral response from the spectator – and – as one panellist pointed out is much easier to draw!
Stories can seem more universal when they are animated. It enables the story to not just be about the one individual being interviewed and the spectator’s relation to them but for a more generalised empathy to exist between the characters in the film and the audience.
Last week, at 9am on Wednesday, I went on the postgraduate salon outing to the Basquiat: Boom for Real exhibition at the Barbican. We were lucky enough to have the assistant curator of the show giving us a tour and it was well worth the early start time!
I had not seen Basquiat’s work up close before and was immediately drawn in by the bright colours and bold lines. Basquiat work is covered in a kind of code – a mixture of letters and symbols that allow it to be read on many levels at once. It was a privilege to have someone talk us through these layers as we went through.
There is a sense of found pieces and places in Basquiat’s work that draws you in – he drew on buildings, old mattresses, hoardings – and it was interesting to see these pieces of the city brought into the art gallery space. Below, his poem inscribed in a New York doorway when he was only 17, mocks the gentrifying yuppies who are taking over the city:
As well as the mixture of mediums, Basquiat super imposes the content of his work. For example, in Jawbone of an Ass (below) the triptych presents us with three very different scenes: on the left we have Basquiat’s version of Rodin’s thinker, and Basquiat’s crown symbol that reoccurs throughout this work – perhaps representing an idea of patriarchal white philosophy. Then in the middle we have a list of historical figures and events from Alexander the Great to the Emancipation, Cleopatra to Jesus Christ – in a kind of condensed colonial history. Finally on the right we have monstrous cartoon characters that biff each other on the nose and speak in onomatopoeia. What is Basquiat saying by putting together these words and images? His he mocking the western canon, and yet simultaneously placing himself within it? He is comparing the so called “great men of history”, to children’s cartoon characters? Is seeking explanation in such a piece equivalent to attempting to find order in the history that it emerged from? I’m still thinking about all these…
I was also interested to see several references in his work to animation – apparently he was a big fan of saturday morning cartoons and would often watch them while he painted. Many of his works includes copies of images from television, music and books – as the exhibition program notes: “Delighting in the clash between supposedly ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, he assembled an arsenal of words, images and symbols that connected his favourite subject matter, wehther ancient myth, cartoons or beat poetry.” In the painting below we see references to the road runner and daffy duck:
My favourite paintings though were those in his encyclopedia collection, intricately drawn diagrams and labels that sometimes related to each other and somtimes are intriguingly criptic. I’m still decoding my two favourite paintings from the exhibition below: