Stuart Hall and Black Panther

Danai Gurira in Black Panther


Stuart Hall starts chapter one of Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices with the question:

How does the concept of representation connect meaning and language to culture? (p.15)

He begins by defining the concept of representation itself in its broadest sense: the use of one thing to stand for another. He argues that language is a primary example of this process where letters, which represent sounds, make up words, which represent things: both tangible and conceptual. One thing is not represented by the same word across languages and cultures, just as different languages and cultures have different collections of concepts and how to understand them. Because of this, representation can never be an exact science, one thing can never exactly map onto another without relying on context and the knowledge of both writer and reader, speaker and listener. Stuart Hall, therefore, emphasises the importance of recognising that language creates a constant “sliding of meaning” (p.33) where meaning is being determined by a combination of the writer’s intention, the reader’s understanding and the historical and cultural context in which the exchange is happening.

Hall breaks representation down as the process which links together THINGS (ie objects, people, animals), CONCEPTS (ie ideas, abstractions) and SIGNS (ie words, pictures, symbols) – concluding that:

“Representation is the production of meaning through language” p.28

So representation is a process, one in which meaning is constantly being negotiated in order to enable communication, however inexact it might be. BUT the slipperyness of language is not the only complication in this process, another huge factor is power.

Foucault argues that the way we interpret language is in fact based on “relations of power, not relations of meaning.” (quoted p.43). Hall explains that knowledge does not exist in a vaccuum, it is instrumentalised and the process by which this happens affects reality. He gives the example of crime: if you think crime is mainly a result of drugs and addiction, you use the police and prisons to come down hard on drug users and dealers, however if you think it is mainly a result of social and economic inequality you draft legislation to change these conditions and fund services that help to alleviate them. These two approaches will have very different results, even though they began as a response to the same problem. Crime itself is complicated by the fact that it is defined by law, which itself is written by those in power. In the past it has been legal for white people to own black slaves, if they tried to escape – this was a crime – now it is owning slaves that is considered a crime, and the law attempts to help free those in modern day slavery. The definition of a crime is dependant not only on historical context but also on who commits it, for example white drug users in the USA have historically received much lighter sentences than black drug users.

Therefore having control of knowledge, and it’s interpretation gives you a huge amount of power – and this creates what Foucault calls “regimes of truth“:

Each society has its regime of truth, it’s general politics of truth, that is, the type of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true. (quoted p.44)

Those who have power and social capital –  have a huge amount of control when it comes to making their own discourse “function as true” – from legislation, to control of the media, to education the “regime of truth” is consistently upheld. Richard Dyer, explores this further in Chapter Four. He describes how those in power can make their own values and beliefs appear as objective truth:

“The establishment of normalcy (ie what is accepted as “normal”) through social and stereotypes is one aspect of the habit of ruling groups… to attempt to fashion the whole of society according to their own world view, value system, sensibility and ideology. So right is this world view for the ruling groups that they make it appear (as it does to them) as “natural” and “inevitable” – for everyone – and in so far as they succeed, they establish their hegemony.” (quoted p.259)

The idea of what is “normal” or “natural” is such a huge part of our socialisation that it takes many of us years to question such concepts, and often only when we are forced to stand outside of them. This “normalcy” is hugely damaging to those who do not fit within it’s narrow parameters. Because to deprive a human of social recognition denies their existence. Judith Butler expresses this in Undoing Gender:

“If I am a certain gender, will I still be regarded as part of the human? Will the “human” expand to include me in it’s 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?”

Without seeing ourselves in the society presented to us at school, on television, in books, by our families, how do we know we exist? And if we don’t how do we survive?

I was thinking about all of these ideas when I went to see Black Panther, the new blockbuster from Marvel, last night. There has been much hype in recent weeks about the representation of the black and african community in this film. Black Panther has an almost entirely black cast, there is not one but three powerful black female leads, the costumes are by black designers who have done huge amounts of research into the cultures from which they come, african rituals and ways of speaking are showcased and celebrated throughout the movie.

The film is set in the legendary country of Wakanda, an African nation that is the richest and most technologically advanced in the world but hides itself beneath the illusion of a third world country. The argument of the film is between those in Wakanda who wish to isolate themselves and remain safe in their comfort and riches and those who call upon a wider idea of pan-blackness in which they should not remain hidden while their communities outside Wakanda face ceaseless oppression. This complex representation of blackness, which covers many different cultures and communities across the globe is in stark contrast to the stereotyped usually lone black character in most mainstream hollywood releases.

This film reverses the assumptions of white supremacy – our society’s current “regime of truth” – in which African peoples are considered “backwards” or “primitive” and rely on the aid sent by “white” “advanced” countries. The film sets forth a different idea of “normalcy” one in which female warriors armed with spears defend technologically as yet unimagined, in which African tribespeople are the most powerful, rich and knowledgeable in the world, in which they have both the power and the weapons to overthrow and destroy their oppressors. Obviously, this is fantasy, Wakanda does not exist,  imagining it exposes the lies and stereotypes behind the “regime of truth” we are socialised into and that is consistently sold to us throughout our lives.

Could representations of other worlds, of other ways of living and being create a possibility for a broader definition of what it means to be human and how we live in the world? Imagining these possibilities seems, perhaps, a good place to start.

*Quotes from Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, Edited by Steven Hall, Open University, 1997

Butches from another world

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?

From Mouse to Mermaid: The politics of film, gender and culture

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:

  1. The teenage heroine (Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Ariel) slim, white, innocent, from noble families – modeled or rotoscoped from ballet dancers.
  2. The middle aged villain (Maleficient, Evil step sisters, Ursula) – large, sexual, predatory – modeled on drag queens and divas
  3. 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.


Queer Animation by Sean Griffin

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…


Cadaver of the Real by Joanna Bouldin

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.

Undoing Gender by Judith Butler

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:

  1. What makes a character appear male, female or non binary when one draws it? What are the signifying marks?
  2. How can I use the fluidity of animation to reproduce the fluidity of gender?
  3. 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?