Friday, August 22, 2014

Représentation pour tous Reblog

My post Fact Check: Only 13 Female Protagonists was used as a reference for this wonderful web comic about gender representation.

It is by the funny and fabulous French artist Mirion Malle. Click HERE to check it out.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Belle Movie Review

The genre, a comedy of manners, often features quick-witted women who fight injustice with their words, while humorously and critically navigating class and romance. Jane Austen classics are a great example, and are still popular today. The recently released film, Belle, gives viewers everything they expect from the genre, along with something noticeable lacking from stories like Pride and Prejudice: people of color. Romantic, smart, and headstrong protagonist, Belle, is black. This movie is based on true events.

Dido Elizebeth Belle was born in 1761. Her mother was a slave, and her white father, a captain in the Royal Navy. After her mother’s death Dido escaped the harsh life her skin color should have confined her to. Instead she was raised by her Great uncle, Earl Mansfield, as a member of their family, given an education befitting a lady. Belle might have been forgotten by history if not for a famous painting that depicts her and the cousin she was raised with.

According to Sarah Minney, a genealogist who spent two years researching Belle's history:

“Images from the period, most famously Hogarth’s work, show black people living in the squalor of London’s underclass. But there is one notable exception – a remarkable portrait of an aristocratic black girl.”

In the painting, Belle, is wearing wealthy clothing, her white cousin's arm affectionately at her waist. They appear as of equal status. This painting is a prominent part of the movie, and Belle’s unique true story (with some liberties taken) is explored as a sweeping romantic historical fiction.
Dealing with class, courtships, status, gender and race, this movie is both comedic and dramatic. Set against the backdrop of the young abolitions movement and a controversial court case involving slave traders killing off their cargo for insurance, viewers follow Belle as she tries to make a good match in a society that does not know where to place a black women of status. She is, to quote the film: “too high in class to dine with the servants, while too low in class to eat with her family.”

Bringing up fascinating issues of the time, like a young man who wishes to break down the confines of race and class, and yet must do so by rising up the political ladder of class himself. Or the complexity of a women’s place in a time where a good match was made by having a dowry, which meant a women ended up paying a man to take ownership of her, as after the marriage she would be considered his property.

As a fan of historical fiction, I loved this movie. Belle is a Jane Austen styled flick that uses modern sensibilities to ask the difficult questions about politics, race and class that are often glossed over in films based on classic literature about the time period. I would highly recommend this movie, and would rate it five out five stars if not for one unfortunate flaw.

Belle, a movie starring a black protagonist, about class and race, featuring the abolitionist movement – only just passes the Racial Bechdel Test by a single conversation. This conversation, about hair, between Belle and a black household servant is the only time we see Belle speak to another character of color. Mabel, the servant, is the only other black character of any substance in the film, and in reality she is in only a few scenes, with a handful of inconsequential lines. The result is that a social rights movement in which black men and women fought against a system that oppressed them is retold through a primarily wealthy white voice.

Historically at the time this movie takes place, there were black freeborn men and women in England, and freed slaves who became abolitionists. During the same years as this story, Ignatius Sancho became the first black person from Africa to vote in parliamentary election in Britain. Though the film prominently features the Zong case, which helped end slavery in Britain, Belle forgets to mention the work of people like the Sons of Africa: black freedom fighters, including famous author of Interesting Narratives (1789), Olaudah Equiano. Sons of Africa worked to publicize the Zong case, using it to fight against the enslavement of their people.

The end result is a bit like watching a movie about the women’s suffrage in which the female protagonist only has one minor conversation with another woman, and all conversation on women’s rights are discussed with men. This creates an unfortunate shadow on a film that by all other accounts is a wonderful watch.

So, I recommend this movie, but I recommend it along with other readings like:

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African by Olaudah Equino
Voices From Slavery: The Life and Beliefs of African Slaves in Britain by Chigor Chike
And for an interesting (and far less romanticized then this movie) look at what living in London at the time would have been like: 1700s: Scenes from London by Maureen Waller

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Bee and Puppycat

Yet another We Love Fine contest I didn't win, but it was really fun getting to celebrate a new cartoon series (that I loved enough to help fund during their kickstarter). I can't wait for the season to start for realz. For anyone who hasn't watched the pilot, please do, it is really wonderful. It was made by Cartoon Hangover (Frederator Studios), and is the creation of Natasha Allegri who is best known for her work on Adventure Time. Love Fiona and Cake? They were thanks to Natasha - did I mention you should watch Bee and Puppycat? You should, it's right there, right below this text. Click on it.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Ren and Stimpy Featurette


Cartoon Closet Part 5

Part 5: The Ren and Stimpy Effect

Gandy Goose and Sourpuss

Before working on Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures in 1987 under Bakshi, John Kricfalusi worked for Filmation and Hanna-Barbera. He considered this type of animation in the eighties, “the worst animation of all time (Spin, Anuff).”
He’s spoken about the lack of respect and creativity animators experienced. Studios, like Filmation, pushed for extremely limited animation, and requiring artists to simply trace the character designs. Working on Mighty Mouse helped define Kricfalusi’s process for creatively driven animation, and helped him explore character traits and humor that would end up being incorporated into Ren & Stimpy.

First airing in 1939, the Gandy Goose cartoons were surrealistic, normally starting and ending with Gandy Goose and Sourpuss arguing in the bedroom. When working on Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures, John Kricfalusi reinvented the characters of Gandy and Sourpuss by exploring the domestic aspects of their relationship. When playfully describing the original characters, Kricfalusi wrote:

"Gandy is a loveable homosexual, Sourpuss was a mean curmudgeon. Gandy and Sourpuss had a funny relationship. They slept together and would invade each other’s dreams. Sourpuss was the asshole character and Gandy loved him nonetheless. Their relationship inspired Ren and Stimpy.”

Though side characters, and only in a few episodes, Gandy and Sourpuss were written as an ambiguous couple. When Gandy Goose is first introduced to the series, he has a mental breakdown because he cannot find his partner Sourpuss. Mighty Mouse takes Gandy Goose to a psychiatric hospital, and Gandy begins to hallucinate about his friendship with Sourpuss (by having flashbacks to the original cartoon). One of these scenes involves Sourpuss shouting:

“Stop that nonsense and come to bed,” followed by a scene of them both sharing a bed.

Ever self-aware, this episode also parodied the animation of the eighties, having Gandy be shocked by the type of schlock that had become popular since the 40s when he was a star.
...or for 2014: My Little Zygote Friendship is Magic

In a later episode Mighty's Wedlock Whimsy it is clear that, though off scene, Gandy and Sourpuss are showering together. In the same episode, they attend a wedding, appearing to be each other’s date.

Mighty Mouse was not immune to the heavy hand of censoring that had become rampant in the eighties. Some adult viewers deemed the show unfit for children, and yet there seemed to be confusion over what exactly to complain about.

A scene of Mighty Mouse exaggeratedly inhaling the scent of a flower was said to be a coded drug reference. “We heard on the radio that some crazy preacher was raising a stink about Mighty Mouse sniffing cocaine,” Kricfalusi said. “There were plenty of other things we got away with in the cartoons that someone could have jumped on, but this flower thing was manufactured out of nothing. (Wired)”
Krifalusi admitted that they pushed boundaries on the show, that there were many intentional things that could have been considered controversial at the time– like the ambiguous relationship of Gandy and Sourpuss, instead censors went after an inappropriate interpretation of their own making (Spin, Anuff).”

Nicktoons and John Kricfalusi

Labourne and others at Nickelodeon were insistent that the channel would not develop programming just to sell products, as the broadcast networks were doing so successfully in the era of Reaganomics and deregulation. The shows on Nickelodeon, in other words, would not be about ‘toy-hawking’ but would rather be about establishing a place in television where kids could ‘just be kids.’” (pg56).
Ren & Stimpy was one of the first three original cartoons developed for Nickelodeon along with the groundbreaking, but far more gentle, Doug and Rugrats. When Kricfalusi first pitched the show to Nickelodeon, it was in a format similar to what networks had wanted in the 80's. Ren and Stimpy were owned by a diverse cast of multi-ethnic boys and girls. Nickelodeon wanted something different, the heart of Kricfalusi's pitch, Ren and Stimpy themselves.  The show became not only the most watched cartoons they aired, but one of the most watched shows they produced (Labourne Interview). first two seasons of Ren & Stimpy were wildly popular, both with children and adults. "The show did seem to be for everyone but children. But children loved it. Early market research indicated the Ren & Stimpy doubled Nickelodeon's ratings among children aged two to eleven, increasing the total number o viewers to 1.2 million (pg. 170)."

Nickelodeon used this to help develop their brand. Ren & Stimpy also aired for a time on MTV in order to cross market the new channel and bring the teen and young twenties market back to Nicktoons. "The result was a near-doubling of viewers to 2.2 million households, with 45 percent of the audience being eighteen or over(pg. 171)."

Yet, as the series progressed Nickelodeon became more and more uneasy with the type of material that had come to define Ren & Stimpy. The second season became an ongoing  battle with Kricfalusi about story content, with the end result in him being fired. At the time, official statement was that Kricfalusi couldn't keep deadlines, while Kricfalusi called out Nickelodeon on their censorship (pg. 198). But in actuality it was more complicated then that
In retrospect, it is almost shocking that a children’s show like Ren & Stimpy was made at all, considering the Care Bear fare of the eighties. But the nineties gave creative freedom back to the animators. “The early years at Nickelodeon were characterized by a heady sense of freedom in the historically highly controlled children’s television industry (pg. 60)."   

Because of its timing, Ren & Stimpy was allowed to revel in a level of both gross out and black comedy that would never slide passed Standards Departments of today. Kricfalusi took advantage of that, exploring  how far he could push the medium without conforming to expectations of "child-friendly." He actively critiqued the child genre and the kind of marketing to children that had become common in the eighties(pg. 196). 


Ren & Stimpy is the kind of show that would have been an Adult Swim darling if such an animation block had existed at the time, but the Simpsons had only just begun airing a few years prior, adult targeting cartoons were few and far between. Ren & Stimpy was rated TV-Y7, and Nickelodeon feared it excluded that child market (as defined by the network, because clearly the show was popular with children).
As Banet-Weiser puts it, "Nickelodeon wants to be hip, but not that hip: while dedicated to "respecting" and empowering its audience, the channel defines respect and empowerment within the terms of the general market (pg. 198)."
Labourne had regrets about how the situation with Kricfalusi ended. Ren & Stimpy was symbolic of the creator driven animation movement Nickelodeon wanted to foster, and yet, as she said of the show, "in some ways it was a more adult property then we should have had on Nickelodeon." Labourne felt that at a certain point Ren & Stimpy began to violate Nickelodeon's basic standards for children. The network decided that "parting ways" with Kricfalusi was their only option.

Ren and Stimpy

Like Gandy Goose and Sourpuss, Ren and Stimpy had an ambiguously coded relationship. In the audio commentary for the uncut DVD, Kricalusi talked about one of the censorship incidents for the episode Son of Stimpy (Here). In this Christmas themed episode Stimpy "gives birth" to a sentient fart, but when his child goes missing, he becomes inconsolable. While trying to cheer up Stimpy, Ren suggestively points out the mistletoe that hangs above them, fluttering his eyelashes flirtatiously. This angers Stimpy who ends up only emphasizing the sexual undertones of the scene by saying "Gosh darn it Ren, that's all you can think of?!"
Initially Nickelodeon asked that the mistletoe scene be removed, because of the potential gay reading, but when they found out that cutting the scene upset a gay employee who worked for Spumco (the animation studio for Ren and Stimpy) the network had the scene added back. Nickelodeon was not blind to the homosexual undertones of the characters, but they clearly had mixed feelings. They didn't want to offend or negate a gay viewers experience or to imply that a gay reading of the characters was negative - but officially there was no gay reading as far as the network was concerned.

In the "In the Beginning  Featurette" Kricfalusi mentioned that he received letters from gay couples who identified with Ren and Stimpy's relationship. When Kricfalusi goes on to say, "I don't whether they're gay or not, that's their own business." His statement seems a bit tongue and cheek, after all Ren and Stimpy are his creation, their business is his business. 

But, what exactly Ren and Stimpy's relationship was, has been much debated by fans and scholars alike. Jeffrey Dennis article Queertoons is a good example of how the coding of the characters received very different interpretations from different viewers. "They reflect the Hanna-Barbera era of presenting signs without sufficient contextual markers to fix the dyads as friends, siblings, or coworkers, but with the added awareness that there was another possibility: as Provenzano (1994) states, the two are "not not gay." But Dennis was quick to add that he saw the show as presenting same-sex desire as "perverse" and that the pair was "presenting a parody of heterosexual relationships."

I would argue that it is not that Ren and Stimpy aren't coded as a couple, but they are less comfortably so. Because Kricfalusi went back to the 1940s animation traditions, he focused on strong personalities that could be put in any situation. In one episode Stimpy is a masochist who loves being struck by Ren. Ren is just as likely to lovingly flirt  with Stimpy under mistletoe, as to threaten to tear Stimpy's limbs off - while Stimpy (no longer masochistic) cowers in the corner, whimpering in fear.

Ren and Stimpy are depicted in a relationship, it is just not consistently a healthy one - or consistent period. Because their relationship is  treated as separate to their identity in each episode - and with no linear reality connecting the stories together, Ren and Stimpy are as "gay" as an episode needs them to be. While they are coded in a relationship, situational comedy trumps character identity.

One could argue that the ambiguity of the two bulsters Provenzano's opinion that the pair is "not not gay."   But I would say that Ren and Stimpy are not a parody of heterosexual relationships, as Dennis suggested, they are just a parody in general. Ren & Stimpy uses camp humor to critique everything from consumer culture and child-targeting animation - to, at times, gender constructs.

Ren and Stimpy were not openly recognized as a canon same-sex couple until the Ren & Stimpy Adult Cartoon. This new series targeting adult audiences aired on the new Spike TV. The press release at the time stated: "the duo is back -this time as a gay couple" (emphasis mine). Spike TV was careful to point out to their adult audience, that as a children's cartoon, Ren and Stimpy were not gay. But what about Ren and Stimpy's friendship had actually changed? What subtle nuances now marked their relationship as romantic? The main difference in their behavior towards each other was that they were now having sex (albeit be it graphic visual euphemisms for sex, like "playing baseball" and "sawing wood.)"

Fan reaction at the time was mixed, many viewers expressing shock at the characters "new" sexuality.  "Because in this cartoon, Ren and Stimpy are apparently lovers," said one reviewer. Echoing the press release, this sentiment was repeated in a multitude of reviews when describing Ren and Stimpy, "who are now apparently a gay couple." "Ren and Stimpy are now gay, it seems," wrote another.  

Not that all the reviewers were negative, the more neutral Entertainment Weekly compared Ren and Stimpy's relationship to that of Ignatz and Krazy Kat, writing that, "Kricfalusi indulges the weirdly asexual-yet-homosexual relationship between Ren and Stimpy."

While forum comments, on the other hand, leaned towards the more dramatic:

But the fact was, Kricfalusi had officially outed the pair six year before the Spike TV series, and five years after he was pulled from the original show on Nickelodeon. In a 1997 interview with the San Francisco Examiner he was asked if Ren and Stimpy were intended as a gay couple, and said:

"Totally. In Ren's case, it's not completely by choice. He'd rather have a beautiful human woman if he could get away with it. Since he can't, Stimpy's easy. He's madly in love with Ren."
His description of their relationship emphasized aspects of the classic traits of the male duo but within a romantic context. His focus on domesticity, camp humor, and a knowing wink at a modern audience in terms of a subtextual reading of classic duo comedy - not only influenced animation of the nineties, it shaped modern expectations for the male duo in cartoons. Ren & Stimpy, despite being torn from its creator, ushered in a new decade. Animation became zany, it was allowed to cross boundaries between adults and children: campy was cool.

Part 6: Campy as a Commodity

Friday, February 7, 2014

I'm Just Your Problem

Good Luck Charlie, Lesbian Moms, and All That Jazz

Good Luck Charlie is unique to the Disney Channel, in that it was designed to be a sitcom that reached the family market. With hopes of expanding their live action comedies from their current shows that primarily targeted the 9-14 year old crowd, to something that could reach across generational lines. According to Chmielewski, Disney wanted to recapture the types of audiences that watched The Cosby Show or The Wonder Years.

"Disney Channel's attempt to capitalize on the timeless appeal of the family sitcom in hopes of luring children and adults reflects a larger industrywide return to more inclusive comedies -- such as ABC's "Modern Family," CBS' "The Big Bang Theory" and Fox's high school-centered musical comedy "Glee."(Chmielewski)."

Premiering April 4th, 2010, Good Luck Charlie is currently airing it's forth and final season (the season finale will air on February 16th). In 2011, 21% of it's audience was 18-49 (Gorman), airing during Prime Time, it has garnered high ratings (here, here). And recently Good Luck Charlie featured the first same sex couple (and official LGBTQ characters) on the Disney Channel ever.

I have written before about Disney wanting to reach out to wide audiences, but their caution about ostracizing current viewers. As a company Disney likes to play it safe, and they have for years hedged their bets when that inclusion deals with sexuality.

For example, Ryan Evans is the ambiguously gay character of High School Musical. A campy theatrical drama queen, he is coded with as many stereotypical rainbow colors as a gay character in a Hays code film.

Simpatico the playwright of the stage production, said he considered Ryan a gay character, and developed the play accordingly. Ryan swoons about how attractive the male lead is, and has pictures of hunky men in his school locker. These choices had to have been approved by Disney. Yet, Ryan is not an out character. Disney has no statement to make about his sexuality.

While Glee was not inspired by Disney's highly successful High School Musical franchise (but by the creators own high school experience) the success of the High School Musical movies proved that there was a market for a show like Glee. Articles and advertising definitely emphasized the edgy aspects of the show sometimes by comparing them to the chastely explored issues of High School Musical (Not That High School Musical).

Kurt Hummel, could be seen as the Ryan Evan's counterpart in Glee, except that the series explicitly deals with his sexuality. In fact, Glee deals with all different shades of sexuality, and types of difficult teen issues. Glee was embraced as a family show. An article published in 2011 that looked at 6 months worth of television viewer data, found that Glee was the 4th most popular show for the 12-34 year old market, with an average of 3.9 million viewers from this demographic. In 2012 Glee took home three Teen Choice Awards.

Though Disney clearly sees it's "family friendly" image as a core part of its identity, by trying to not offend any of their viewers they are making themselves less relevant to the same demographic they are marketing to. They are facing a parental generation in divide over whether or not LGBTQ characters should be considered family friendly (much to the chagrin of actual gay families), but the youth have spoken. 81% of voters aged 18-29 support gay marriage. Children flock to shows like Glee.

Disney's silence and lack of representation has been drawing attention. Good Luck Charlie was a perfect choice to take their first tentative step into admitting that, yes LGBTQ people exist. This is a show that targets an older demographic range, airs later, the two mothers shown are not going to be recurring characters, and the show is being canceled. This was as safe a situation as Disney could have asked for. The episode does little more then simply show that gay parents exist, and that its not a big deal.

Which for Disney, is a big deal.