The relationship between modes of production, and individual practice in women’s independent animation.
Feminist film critics such as Laura Mulvey have suggested that classical film narration has always had a male perspective and positioned the viewer as male. Her 1975 essay “Cinema Visual Pleasure and Narrative,” is a key work in feminist film theory and a turning point in the understanding of the representation of women in film and animation. She highlighted the lack of female filmmakers, writers and protagonists in Hollywood films. She contends that a female voice is sorely absent from mainstream cinema. Thus the depictions of women and the female identity in film are always a male interpretation.
Further more she suggests that the language of film itself is masculine. The essay asserts claims that classical film narration assumes that the audience is male through objectifying female subjects within the frame. She contests that a position of power is almost always given to the male subject through a series of looks. The male characters are in possession of the ‘look,’ while the females are looked at. They are often objectified by focusing on specific parts of the anatomy. The woman is thereby idealised and sexualised into a male fantasy or marginalized into a stereotype or narrative function.
This marginalisation of women is evident in Animation from the same period with figures such as Minnie Mouse, who dutifully played house wife to Mickey. The overtly sexual, (and disturbingly child-like,) Betty Boop. Or the extremely curvaceous Red Hot Riding Hood, who was a prototype for Jessica Rabbit. The identification of this imbalance provoked an immediate reaction to address it. “At this point the main demand was to replace on female role model by another, stronger and more independent. Or to find images of women that were realistic and relevant to women’s real life experience.” (Mulvey, 1978, p204)
After WW2 16mm equipment that had been used to make newsreels, became available cheaply, and progress in sound technology in the sixties made synchronised sound recording much easier. The end result was to give people outside the commercial arena the ability to make films.
This independent scene emerged at a highly politicised time and gave people the opportunity to make politicised films which addressed issues of the time such as the women’s movement. Not only feminist filmmakers emerged, but feminist readings of unconsciously feminist art. As Sharon Couzin’s definition demonstrates, the defining parameters are very broad.
“Feminist art is which acknowledges that difference of being a women – i.e. what it is to be a woman – and then integrates that consciousness into the art.” (Law, 1997, p 67)
Mulvey points to the avant-garde as genre through which feminist filmmakers and animators could express their concerns free from classical Hollywood representation. In her own words; “the avant-garde poses certain questions which consciously confront traditional practice, often with a political motivation, working on ways to alter modes of representation and expectations in consumption.” (Mulvey, 1978, p200)
By breaking away from traditional and accepted systems of narration, the audience is forced to decipher the meaning of the films from the films aesthetics and semiotic signifiers, thus foregrounding the films intended message in the minds of the spectators.
Animation has a lot in common with the avant-garde in as much as it is a largely abstract form of representation and expression. That is that unlike live action cinematography, which tends towards mimesis (the desire to accurately reproduce the ‘real’ world,) animation is usually concerned with the suggestion of concepts and the representation of ideas.
The processes of animation allow Mulvey’s concerns to be addressed directly. The flexibility of the medium for using different drawing styles, colour schemes, animation techniques lend animation an immense imaginative potential that is only limited by the imaginations of the animators themselves. Animators can use these techniques to challenge dominant modes of narration and aesthetic expression.
Secondly animation has been described as an auteurist medium. The vast degree of collaboration necessary to make a photographic film is greatly reduced in an animated medium. Indeed it is possible for animators to create completely individually and in doing so, create art with an entirely subjective perspective and articulate feminist concerns unfettered.
A fine example of both these principles in action is Karen Watson’s Daddy’s Little Piece of Dresden China. In the film Watson marries scratch animation, line drawings, collage and puppetry to tell a deeply subjective story about domestic abuse.
The different puppets are made from different materials to symbolise their characters. The father is metallic with a razor blade mouth and glass head. He is drunk, cold, dangerous and extremely harmful. The mother is made of a wooden spoon and dried flowers; this shows her domestic role and her bygone fertility. The daughter is bandaged and has a china head. She is damaged, though not yet broken but extremely delicate.
The use of puppets removes the spectator from full identification with the characters, leaving them to quietly ruminate on the effects of domestic abuse on real people. Although the film is essentially one extremely powerful account of one woman’s own unspeakable domestic problems, the use of collage places the events in a wider social context and makes the spectator wonder about the greater extent of such problems.
Alison de Vere’s film The Black Dog is devoid of any dialogue, and is entirely reliant on aesthetic symbolism and visual narration. The flexibility of the medium allows visual shifts in landscape which invite comparisons with stream-of-consciousness narration. The spectator is invited to come along with the protagonist’s through the wilderness on a journey of spiritual death and rebirth.
Her walk through the desolate wilderness is apparently ended when an oasis appears in the form of the complex fata, a small complex comprising of boutique, a club and a restaurant. In the boutique she is dressed and adorned to make her ‘beautiful’ before going to the club. It is her where she becomes the object of desire for a room full of lecherous men. She catches sight of her self in a mirror, and decides to reject her designated engendered role, and false identity of seductress within the microcosm of the complex.
At this point she finds that the price she pays for leaving of staying is her brain, her heart and her hands. The implication is that a woman must betray her own intelligence, desires and abilities to conform to the engendered roles that society expects of her. Death becomes a recurring motif of the complex such as the butchering of animals in the kitchens; the use of animal furs in the boutique; and drunken brawls that escalate into murder in the night club. All these images paint a portrait of a brutal and uncaring society and also serve as a visual motif that matches the protagonists fall from innocence and brief loss of individual identity.
She flees the complex by diving into a river and being rescued by the eponymous Black Dog. The imagery here suggests a loss of innocence and an attempt of cleansing through water.
The malleability of the medium is often explored through metamorphosis of characters of objects from one thing to another. In his book Understanding Animation (1998) Paul Wells argues that the use of metamorphosis is a ‘particular device which is unique to the animated form, and some would argue is the constituent core of animation itself.’ (Wells, 1998, p69) However computer animation techniques have been blended with ‘real’ footage to achieve the same effect in ‘live-action’ cinema, blurring the distinction between the two art forms.
Meaning is derived from the fluid change of one form to another in the same way that Eisenstein creates meaning from editing one photographed image with another. ‘Metamorphosis also legitimizes the process of connecting apparently unrelated images, forging original relationships between lines, objects, and disrupting established notions of classical story-telling.’ (Wells, 1998, p69) It is a way of connecting abstract ideas into a narrative form.
Joanna Quinn’s films Girls Night Out and Body Beautiful use metamorphosis to directly confront the issue of the sexualized female aesthetic, and reclaim the female form as something to be appreciated in all shapes and sizes. However it does so by using the method within the confines of a traditional narrative structure. The protagonist of both films is a large, working class woman called Beryl, who is completely at odds with the Betty Boop and Red Hot Riding Hood figures.
Quinn uses line drawings with immense kinetic energy. The lines are dynamic allowing them to fluidly change shape. The fluid movement of the lines of Beryl’s body extenuates her generous curves, and the wobble of her breasts is particularly prominent as an expression of femininity. In this way her shape and size are celebrated through the animation process. In contrast her husband is completely static, bored, uninterested and uninteresting, a completely unsympathetic character.
In Body Beautiful the dynamic lines are used to completely morph Beryl’s shape into symbolic expressions of her subjective experience. These metamorphoses are determined by her own perception of her self. When looking at the models in a fashion magazine she disappears into thin air, as a representation of her marginalization. She does not conform to societies given values of female beauty and as such feels negated. In a scene where Vince is commenting on her appearance she transforms into a pig. She is publicly humiliated and made to feel ashamed of herself, and as such reluctantly accepts the ‘fat pig’ mantle that is forced upon her.
The film resolves itself with Beryl learning to appreciate her own figure on her own terms, during a rap song she lists a multitude of body types and transforms into them one by one. She rejects all of them and literally steps out of them as an affirmation of her own femininity.
Beryl is representing all the women who do not have the perfect hour-glass figure and as such she is a figure to be identified with as opposed to one who is objectified. She is a celebration of the female body as opposed to a fetishist examination. She is desexualised as a male fantasy of female perfection, but re-sexualised in terms of her gender and defined by her feminine figure.
In contrast to Joanna Quinn’s kinetic line, Candy Guard uses a simple, economical and direct aesthetic style in her animated films such as Wishful Thinking and What about me? In both these films two women ask each other questions about their, own appearance, but are never satisfied by the answers they are given and continue to worry and obsess over the matter, to the point of near torture. The figures themselves are comprised of a handful of black lines, they are largely shapeless and aesthetically at least, virtually androgynous. The characters are identified as female through voice and dialogue.
In the mouth of Bernard manning jokes about women worrying about clothes or hair may come across as sexist, offensive and dismissive of women. But Guard is showing us how these women are torturing themselves in their attempts to conform to the modes of conduct and appearance that society enforces upon them. The women themselves are complicit in their own torture by their attempts to conform to preset notions of beauty. They never challenge the expectations put upon them and as such they are doomed to forever be enslaved by their own attempts to conform.
Guard breaks from narrative tradition by having no resolution to her films. The women of the film will continue to worry about their appearance, just as the female spectators of the film have felt pressure to look their best. It is here where the realism lost aesthetically is regained, as the realism resonates emotionally. The uber-simplistic 2d line drawing style is also thematically fitting, by attempting to conform to societies given notions of female beauty the women are caricaturing themselves.
The films discussed in detail here all offer different perspectives on issues of female identity, and engendered roles within society but they all “explore, through their use of imagery, the existence of the female form as something that is malleable and whose femaleness can be enhanced or reduced. They illustrate that femininity, as it is traditionally represented, something that can be put on and taken off at will.” (Furniss, 1978, p243) This demonstrates that despite differences in subjective experience all the animators discussed were expressing the need to break away from the rigid definitions enforced by classical film narration.
We can see clearly that the various modes of practice available to animators have allowed female practitioners a platform on which to address feminist concerns of cinematic representation, as well as commenting upon the lager problems facing women within a modern patriarchal society. Paul Wells has neatly summarized the properties of Animation that have made it an ideal medium with which to redress the balance.
“Animation has the capability of rendering the body in a way which blurs traditional notions of gender, species and indigenous identity further complicating debates concerning the primary political agendas of men and women, and enabling revisionist readings which use the ambivalence and ambiguity of the animated form to support the view that traditional orthodoxies in society itself must be necessarily challenged.”
(Wells, 1998, p188)
Of course an all encompassing feminist definition of ‘women’s experience’ or femininity is impossible and any attempt to do so is every bit as false as the fantasy representation offered by classical Hollywood. As Maureen Furniss explains in her own theories on representation. “One can argue that the media is dominated by images representing the priorities of a white male culture, but how does one go about depicting an alternative? How does one define ‘women’s experience’? And, even if it were possible to come up with a definition, could it encompass the realities of women across the world?” (Furniss, 1998 p 243) What these animators have been able to do is break the masculine bias of film narration and spectatorship, and contribute to the woman’s movement by creating a feminine aesthetic based upon individual subjective experience as opposed to tired patriarchal stereotypes.
Furniss, Maureen. ”Isuues of Representation”(Chapter 12), in: Art in Motion. Animation Aesthetics.London: John Libbey, 1998, pgs.231-249
Law, Sandra. ”Putting Themselves in the Pictures. Images of Women in the Work of Joanna Quinn, Candy Guard and Alison De Vere”, in: Pilling, Jayne(ed.) A Reader in Animation Studies. London: John Libbey, 1997, pgs. 49-70
Mulvey, Laura: “Cinema Visual Pleasure and Narrative” 1975 in Penley, C. Feminisim and film theory. London: BFI 1988, pgs, 57-68.
Mulvey, Laura: ”Film, Feminism and the Avant-Garde”, in O’Pray Michael. The British Avant’Garde Film 1926-1995. Luton: Luton University & John Libbey Press, pgs. 199-21
Wells, Paul. Understanding Animation. London: Routledge, 1998.
Black Dog, The. (Alison de Vere, 1987)
Body Beautiful. (Joanna Quinn, 1989)
Daddy’s little bit of Dresden China (Karen Watson, 1987)
Girls Night Out (Joanna Quinn, 1986)
Red hot riding hood (Tex Avery, 1943)
What about me? (Candy Guard)
Whishful Thinking (Candy Guard)
Who framed Roger Rabit? (Robert Zemeckis, 1989)