A study into Issues of Representation in Animation: what they are, why they were established and how have they affected character design
This paper investigates the issues of representation in Animation: what they are, how they started and why. The main aim of this research is to examine the conjunction of race, gender and sexuality of iconic cartoon characters in animated film, and the relative context and issues surrounding it. To address this, I will use an interdisciplinary approach, considering multiple concepts: theories of ideology and principles of psychoanalytic theory for example. By examining these issues I hope to better understand the political incorrectness associated with passé cartoons and how undercurrents of use of racist caricature and sexual bias still resonate in animation today. This research will help inform the design of my own animation: which will essentially be a visual, chronological history, of a one of these issues.
To research the Issues of Representation, I chose to investigate; what they are, and the matters resulting from combinations of gender, race and sexual issues; cultural context and ideology concerned with why they were established, and modern interpretations of how have they affected modern character design. The research will inform my intention to produce a metamorphosis of different characters from a certain minority, morphing into one another. The characters will be the iconic designs by artists/animators and will clarify the context of the age they were designed in, etc. progressing from the start of animation, until now. I will include each character by incorporating them into the age they were introduced to as characters, principally, a chronological history of cartoons. Aesthetically, I will research the cartoon designs; academically, I will explore the changes of both subject matter and change in context (areas I will study include: gender, sexuality, sexism, femininity, racism, cross-dressing, ideology and stereotypes).
Racial typing in Animation was formed to “recognise existing ‘racial types’ (the ‘drunk Irishman’ for example), Animation scholar Charles Solomon, states “most people considered this style of humour both good fun and good taste”; however, when racist hieroglyphics signal the identity of the individual as a whole it conjures existing prejudices in the audience. Sandler L. Gilman points to the Psychoanalytic theory of an innate ‘pathological need to stave off anxiety through institution of crude stereotypes’ that exists in all of us (Gilman 1985: 29). Therefore, stereotypes do not have to entail negative consequence. The myth of the classic cartoon as pure entertainment is unfounded, a view shared by James Snead who believes “more perhaps than any other animated genre animated cartoons encourage the rhetoric of harmlessness” (Sandler 1998: 134). Kevin S. Sandler’s view that “failing to see beyond the innocuous or childlike nature of Hollywood animation simply perpetuates a fallacy of innocence” (Crafton 1998: 101) illustrates an important point: the possibility animation’s ostensible purpose for children averts inquire into real issues of representation.
Issues of Representation are complex: Paul Wells states the importance of considering firstly “its purpose of representation” and secondly “by its expression” (Wells, 1998: 188). Similar to cartooning’s use of satirical devices to display either commentary; through exaggeration (focussing on caricatures of physical traits), or design strategy; redefining aspects of the body for purely aesthetic purposes. For example, in current animations, South Park uses the satirical device to make outrageous commentary on current affairs, whereas it could be argued Adventure Time uses design strategy to create awesome fantasy worlds and creatures in their own narratives.
The twentieth century sparked the subject of revisionist readings concerning political correctness in art forms: predominantly its racism and sexism. In order to properly understand these matters in the context of animation, it is important to recall that these animations prefigured the Civil Rights and Feminist movements who demanded sensitivity in art (and all aspects of society).
In the 1930s, Disney was loved by the public and “universally praised” (White 1998: 39). Discussion of Disney’s work is abundant, British critic David Low description as “the most significant figure in art since Leonardo” is noteworthy of the respect they received. However, the name of Disney declined in the sixties and became to the public “a guarantee of quality” and to the critic “corporate blandness free from individual artistic expression”(Sandler 1998:22) unlike Warner Brothers’ image rejuvenation. Yet Disneyfication was seen as “dollarfication” which implemented “Imperialist Ideology” according to Mattelart and Dorfman in How To Read Donald Duck.
Cell animation dominated the form and significantly established the hyper-realist agenda in the animated film. Warner Bros. developed a style of their own: character designers were told to create distinctive character personalities of anthropomorphised animals or recognisable caricatures which brought to life the story ideas of the writers. Contrasted to Disney whose cartoons characters consisted of Disney-style infants and anthropomorphised animals that became metonyms for Disneyfication “cuteness”: characters with ‘heads as big as their bodies … readily connoting vulnerability, equipoise symmetry and instability’. (Walz 1998: 54). The original Quasimodo was written as a grotesquely deformed bell-ringer was reduced to a “cuddly gnome” demeaning “complex characters and grand narratives to pre-digested formulas” (MacLean 1996). These findings have allowed me to draw the relation between the juvenilisation and feminine to create an ‘appealing cuteness’.
The Ideological importance held in animation can seep into culture unconsciously thus stereotypical comprehension establishes a new imagistic code of discrimination. Iconic characters are highly intertextual and depend on the viewers’ ability to understand the character as a likeness of a specific individual, not just another character in the fiction. Thus for modern audiences the references and the humour of these caricatures are frequently missing (Crafton 1998: 105) explaining why some dated cartoons leave us feeling cold.
The ethnic typecasting in early (particularly American) animation is an important aspect to consider in my research into representation issues. Whilst ‘racial stereotyping in the USA was familiar, almost reassuring to white audiences’ (Wells 1998: 216), they would too easily inherit the biases and prejudices of the day. Yet, whilst racial stereotypes and sexist bias are inexcusable, it can be agreed the designs derived from an insensitive climate so acclimatised in political inequalities, the depictions were seen as playful not malicious. The books, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks (Bogle 1991) and Slow Fade To Black (Cripps 1977) both assumed stereotyping was inherently a negative practise. Films, Little Lion Hunter (1939) and Little Hiawatha (1937) characterise identical behaviour and reactions; racial stereotypes are kept to a minimum (Hiawatha easily passable as white) and both underline a universally detectable awkwardness and vulnerability audiences relate to and consequently care for them both in a protective way. Still ‘(Mis)Representations of Black people’s cultures are at best marginalised and at worst continually undermined and derogated by popular media’ (Young: 1996) expressly when the ethnicity of the characters becomes the butt of the jokes and or narrative, it becomes “difficult for contemporary audiences to deal with the cartoons” (Solomon 1998). Cartoons act as an indicator of public stance about race. The risk occurs when representations of a type, to some (insipid persons) can become stereotypical fact: “be it dim-witted earnestness or ethnic insensitivity, the images of blacks in animated films contributed to evolving mass popular folklore, promulgated indiscriminating racist attitudes placing a mediated image of “foreign people” even a tribal people before a xenophobic public eye” (Lindvall and Fraser 1998). This is more than apparent in Alice Cans The Cannibals (1925), One Step Ahead Of My Shadow (1933) A Day At The Zoo (1939), and Coal Black And De Sebben Dwarfs (1943).
The black idiom works as a means for white audiences (and animators) to rehearse their fears and dream scenarios, (black characterisations include: excessive physicality, gambling, drinking, over-sexualised etc). Thus “black stereotypes are essentially the symbolic embodiment of hypocrisy” (Wells, 1998). The previous disparaging opinions of race depiction are “contrary to what some may believe: there has never been conscious effort to stigmatize particular racial or ethnic groups” but they are more from the Animations industry’s unconscious adoption of derogatory culture stereotypes prominent in that age, than out of genuine malice. “No production company would deliberately alienate a potential segment of its audience by attacking an entire race” (Schull and Wilt 1998).
“When Freud needed a trope for the unknowability of female sexuality, the ‘dark continent’ is close at hand” consequently Psychoanalysis can be seen as an complicated type of ethnography (Doane 1991) can be mirrored by Young’s observation that “Mulvey’s essay Visual Pleasure And Narrative Cinema (1974), represents the implicit assumption that white experiences represent human experiences” (Young 1996).
Warner Brothers represent an “era gone by” hence the not entirely fair condemnation of them, if the dated originals fail to meet contemporary standards. However, contextualised, these are now used to promote the evolution of cinema against these dominant forms. Next I will explore the issues of representing gender within animation.
Women’s Animation recognises the shift from the representation of woman as a subject, not mere erotic spectacles with little or no narrational interest. Challenging hyper-realist ideology: Joanna Quinn’s “Girls Night Out’ (1986) allows the audience immediately identifies with warm Beryl’s mundane existence as a bored housewife. Its establishment of being a feminine gendered film reclaims the language of film, (predominantly gendered masculine: by prominence of male characters, modes of action and adventure with the relegation of women to subordinate roles and narrative function). Quinn recognised the inherent subversiveness of animation as a medium to facilitate the necessary changes Mulvey promoted by creating a new ‘language of desire’ located in laughing at the codes and conventions by which women have been represented. What Beryl achieves in the narrative, Quinn achieves in the manipulation of film form and reclamation of particular ideals, which privileged the male position and rendered women absent or passive. Muley’s wish to ‘revise outworn, oppressive forms’ is fulfilled. This type of depiction of women is far more modern and consistently portrayed in current animations such as The Simpsons (Marge), Family Guy (Louis), American Dad (Francine), Bob’s Burgers (Linda). Modern representation of these women although all still married to (mostly) loving husbands, dismisses the passé requirement that women remain passive or as purely sexual objects, as they have all ‘rebelled’ from the stereotypical housewife characterisation to fulfil their own ambitions. However, the fact remains each of these characters are the wife to a man whom is the protagonist, reverting to gender roles and verifying Mulvey’s idea of a heterosexual woman being fundamental to represent male consumption.
Mulvey theorized that an example of male’s recovery from ‘Castration Anxiety’ (stimulated by woman’s lack of penis) is to investigate her, in order to demystify and control her. The female is scrutinised by the male to assert control and punish her for evoking/provoking (forbidden) desire. Woman’s sexuality represents a threat, and way of countering this threat in Animation is to locate her in the confines of a patriarchal structure of a monogamous heterosexual family/couple. Molly Haskell posits that woman is recognisable from “set of external playable mannerisms” whereas man is as “unlimited as the ocean”. For example Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck have copious roles (spaceman, cowboy etc) unlike Daisy Duck and Petunia Pig who are reduced to physiological and emotional characteristics (but with added make-up, breasts and susceptibility to seduction).
Ostensibly pathologically male (run by men, expressing interests of men, creating patriarchal hierarchies in major studios) it is contrarily argued that female and black artists were involved with aspects of production with the works now criticised as being misrepresentations of these people. It is argued that the heterosexual female body is an essential component of most mainstream cinema as a symbol of male consumption (Mulvey 1974) this analysis pertained from the Freudian theory of Scopophila (the pleasure in looking) is seen as a fundamental component of human sexual disposition. Nevertheless, men are major protagonists in most mainstream films; it is through their motivation, actions and thoughts that sense is made of the narrative. Often women stimulate the man into action: the female body activates fear, anxiety, and desire, which propel the male character towards action, stimulated by desire or aggression.
Dress and behaviour play important roles in assigning gender to animals in animated cartoons; they require a certain degree of imitation or impersonation of human traits in order to succeed. Thus Bugs, Daffy, Daisy etc, are impersonating male and female traits with respect to their values and behaviour. Male characters are defined by what they are, and their behaviour traits (aggressiveness) diametrically opposed to female characters are understood by their ‘appearance and stereotypical (passive) traits and mannerisms’. Minnie and Mickey Mouse artist Fred Moore said he drew Minnie with a smaller mouth than Mickey for expressions and reactions with added eyelashes, “suggesting a ‘petiteness’ and ‘prettiness’ in Minnie similar to Betty Boop’s representation, defining juvenilisation as feminine” (Wells 1998: 204).
Bugs Bunny And The Three Bears (1948) embodies dichotomy. ‘Mama Bear’ is depicted as elderly, unattractive, with sagging breasts and a whiny voice, is seduced by Bugs (to avoid Papa Bear killing him); her reaction implies she adores the sexual objectification received from Bugs and she gladly submits to his wishes: emulating the ‘happy hooker’ ‘blonde bombshell’ and ‘bathtub beauty’ (all character types Bugs performs as a transvestite). Ending with her ‘comedic’ chasing of Bugs, purportedly indicates her “unfeminine appearance clashes with her sexual behaviour”, her “mother role conflicts with her ‘seductress’ role”, she can only be one: a love object or an asexual subject for masculine recognition. Supports the idea of heterosexual patriarchal discourse confining her threatening sexuality. Circuitously, maintained for the purposes of the regulation of the obligatory frame of reproductive heterosexuality, the terms “man” and “woman” serve only to institutionalise reproductive sexuality and heterosexuality as “authentic” and “natural”. “Gender attribution results not from a “true” masculinity but from a practise of what males and females are purported to be” (Butler 1990).
Disney rewards ‘real’ gender performance and punishes perversion: Ursula is evidently a drag queen in The Little Mermaid (1989), Scar is effeminate in The Lion King (1994), Frollo is emasculated in The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1996) and they are all villains who are ultimately defeated. “Animation has the capability of rendering the body in a way which blurs traditional notions of gender, species, and indigenous identity” (Wells 1998:188) this begs the question, why do cartoons still adhere to the coherent gender core?
Whereas, Warner Bros. are only interested in (non-sexualised) animal chases: Hunter/prey – Elmer Fudd/Bugs, Cat/bird – Sylvester/Tweety, Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner. Unlike, Disney’s romantically associated/ included characters Mickey/ Minnie and Donald/ Daisy. Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse display no conspicuous genitalia: thus according to Delgaudio have an “equal” claim to manhood and identity as any male celebrity, for example, when Brad Pitt is shown wearing clothes hiding his genitalia (his proof of male identity) from the viewer, we still read him as male, certainly exposure of a penis [or vagina] could help further identify the gender attribution of Pitt (Delgaudio 1980). Yet prominently all characters are automatically seen as male unless proven female: through recognisable signs of female identity (femininity) or external characteristics. Male is always assumed of cartoon characters, in contrast to females who are explicitly called for, Bugs Bunny (for example): is seen by both interior and exterior audiences as “female” only when he is, as Delgaudio describes, an “exaggerated garb of the transvestite (dress, make-up, breasts), i.e. when he uses the assumed gender codes of the female gender as a “gendered evasion” (an escape).
Transvestites’ parody and laughter work as a tool for the normalisation and naturalisation of heterosexuality and gender identity. Gender reversal films are able to emit the notion of a “natural” gender, maintaining a “comfort level” for their audiences temporarily for a necessary disguise. In ‘Temporary Transvestite Films’ male characters reverse genders in response to social economic necessities, e.g. Tootsie (1982), Mrs Doubtfire (1993) but return by the conclusion.
These films eliminate an ideological threat through the re-institutionalisation of heterosexuality via heterosexual union. Strayer describes this as ‘overthrowing gender constructions without challenging sexual differences’ in ‘Redressing The ‘Natural’: The Temporary Transvestite Film’. ‘Transvestism serves to bestow contempt upon women since the men imitate female behaviour with mincing steps, high voices, narcissism, and self-indulgence: a grotesque characteristic of the sex’ (Mellen 1977). A somewhat cynical opinion of transvestism further research into cross-dressing in animation seems to be necessary.
In Backwards Bunny (1959) Bugs Bunny’s gender performance is simultaneously believable to the films characters and unbelievable to the film’s audience. Diegeticially Elmer does not recognise the gender performer, extradiegetically, the spectator recognises the gender performer Bugs Bunny and “his” performance as imitation: while the exterior audience has no previous knowledge of Bugs’ “real” identity the interior audience is unaware of the disguise. We must read Bugs as both “male” and male cross-gendered female to understand the gag.
Does this succeed in subverting gender norms or reinforce naturalised categories of identity and desire? Experiencing a trespassing of society through Bugs’ transvestism means (as Bugs is anthropomorphically gendered as male in 131 episodes, versus, the 37 transvestism episodes) Bugs Bunny cartoons must succumb in reaffirming and recirculating the hegemonic ideals in order for the cartoons to remain popular with a mass audience
Anthropomorphism always assumes identification with contemporary gender configurations ‘with a set of norms that are not “realisable”. Bugs Bunny’s bravura and triumph make such irresolvable tensions appear socially and culturally possible for the audience unlike Daffy Duck who represents the rigid gender and sexual boundaries of society. (Sandler 1998: 171) Cowardice and cowardice hinder his success and the audiences relate to his “recognition of [his] ineptitudes” where Bugs is a “glorious personification of our most dapper dreams”. “We love Daffy because he is us and we love Bugs because he is as wonderful as we’d like to be” (Chuck Jones: Sandler 1998: 171).
In my practical work I decided to focus on human (not animal) depiction: specifically the development of the female (and in retrospection, by keeping my drawings black outlines I inadvertently evaded the depiction of race). I portrayed significant characters from popular Western animation to reveal visually the whether contemporary animation resisted or redefined the inherent vocabulary: the ideological premises established by (white) men within the studio ethos.
My decision to depict the female protagonist meant nine were wives, six were independent/single and one was a girlfriend. Even chronologically shown, there was no decline in the orthodox ‘heterosexual wife’ depictions however, my representations are in no way a fair representation into all cartoon depiction of women, I simply did not have a broad enough spectrum. Cartoons today, commercial and non-commercial depict women as protagonists, The Simpsons are perhaps aired realities of modern society with examples of feminists (Lisa) lesbians (Patty), and gay (Wayland) characters, in particular in episode Homer’s Phobia (1997); the Bob’s Burgers portrays transvestite prostitutes in episode Sheesh! Cab, Bob? (2011). The nineties and noughties saw a surge in ‘girl power’ icons in The Powerpuff Girls (1998), Totally Spies (2001), and Kim Possible (2002) etc, and in ‘controversial’ or adult cartoons, representations of unorthodox realities are more common e.g. Archer (2009), Robot Chicken (2005), Ugly Americans (2010).
To further my investigation, academically, I would research gender ‘pervasion’ more thoroughly as the representation of sexuality and cross-dressing in cartoons was highly intriguing; aesthetically, I would redesign the same female characters but as male and their male counterparts as female, to reveal if making formerly female characters would ‘work’ as well as the male designs. Alas, I hypothesise this would not work because of many factors: original ‘feminine’ character design incompatible for male representation, whole character behaviour change etc. Poignantly, this somewhat identifies in myself, the subconscious opinion: ‘the ease and plenitude of the narrative fiction film [has] to be negated in order to re-orientate image making, which merely endorsed patriarchal norms’ (Mulvey 1975).
• A Day At The Zoo 1939 Animated Film Directed by Tex AVERY USA Warner Brothers
• Alice Cans The Cannibals 1925 Animated Film Directed by Walt DISNEY USA Walt Disney Productions
• Baby Puss 1942 Animated Film William HANNA and Joseph BARBERA USA Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
• Backwards Bunny 1959 Animated Film Directed by Chuck JONES USA Warner Brothers
• Bob’s Burgers Season 1 Episode 6 Sheesh Cab Bob 6 Mar 2011 TV Fox
• Bugs Bunny And The Three Bears 1948 Animated Film Directed by Chuck JONES USA Warner Brothers
• Coal Black And De Sebben Dwarfs 1943 Animated Film Directed by Robert CLAMPETT USA Warner Brothers
• Girls’ Night Out 1986 Animated Film Directed by Joanna Quinn UK
• Jungle Drums 1943 Animated Film Directed by Dan GORDON USA Warner Brothers
• Little Hiawatha 1937 Animated Film Directed by David HAND USA Walt Disney Productions
• Little Lion Hunter 1939 Animated Film Directed by Chuck JONES USA Warner Brothers
• Mrs Doubtfire 1993 Film Directed by Chris COLLUMBUS USA Blue Wolf Productions
• One Step Ahead Of My Shadow 1933 Animated Film Directed by unknown USA Warner Brothers
• The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1996 Animated Film Directed by Gary TROUSDALE and Kirk WISE USA Walt Disney Pictures
• The Lion King 1994 Animated Film Directed by Roger ALLERS and Rob MINKOFF USA Walt Disney Pictures
• The Little Mermaid 1989 Animated Film Directed by Ron CLEMENTS and John MUSKER USA Walt Disney Pictures
• The Simpsons Season 8 Episode 15 Homer’s Phobia 1997 TV Fox
• Three Orphan Kitties 1935 Animated Film Directed by David HAND USA Walt Disney Productions
• Tootsie 1982 Film Directed by Sydney Pollack USA Mirage Enterprises
• Adamson Joe 1990 Bugs Bunny 50 Years and Only One Grey Hare 2nd ed Toronoto First Owl Book Publishing
• Butler Judith 1990 Gender Trouble USA Routledge
• Delaugio Sybil 1980 Seduced and Reduced Female Animal Characters in Some Warners’ Cartoons New York Dutton
• Doane Mary Ann 1991 Dark continents epistemologies of racial and sexual difference in psychoanalysis and the cinema 1991 London New York Routledge
• Dorfman Ariel and Mattelart Armand 1984 How to Read Donald Duck Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic 2nd ed Publisher International General Amsterdam
• Gilman Sander L 1985 Difference and Pathology Stereotypes of Sexuality Race and Madness USA Cornell University Press
• Horton Andrew S 1991 2 Comedy/Cinema/Theory California University of California Press
• Kenner Hugh 1994 Chuck Jones A Flurry of Drawings Portraits of American Genius California University of California Press
• Kessler Suzanne J 1985 Gender An Ethnomethodological Approach Chicago University Of Chicago Press
• Mellen Joan 1978 Big Bad Wolves USA Pantheon
• Mulvey Laura 1974 Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema Basingstoke Macmillan
• Sandler Kevin S 1998 1 Reading The Rabbit Explorations In Warner Brothers Animation London Publisher Rutgers University Press
• Strayer Chris 1992 Redressing The ‘Natural’ The Temporary Transvestite Film New York Pantheon
• Wells Paul 1998 Understanding Animation London Routledge
• Young Lola 1995 Fear of the Dark Race Gender and Sexuality in the Cinema London Routledge
1 Reading The Rabbit: Explorations In Warner Brothers CHAPTERS:
The View from Termite Terrace: Caricature and Parody in Warner Bros. Animation by Donald Crafton.
Charlie Thorson and the Temporary Disneyfication of Warner Bros. Cartoons by Gene Walz.
A Short Critical History of Warner Bros. Cartoons by Barry Putterman.
Darker Shades of Animation: African-American Images in the Warner Bros. Cartoon by Terry Lindvall and Ben Fraser.
Gendered Evasion: Bugs Bunny in Drag by Kevin S Sandler.
From Disney to Warner Bros.: The Critical Shift by Timothy R. White.
2 Comedy/Cinema/Theory. CHAPTER:
Notes On The Sight Gag Noël Carroll