Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Issue with Jem and the Holograms Live Action (yes it has to do with gender)

80s style realistic artwork

JEM began as a series of 7 minute segments, sandwiched between ROBOTIX and MONSTER TRUCKS in the weekly first-run syndicated animated anthology series SUPER SATURDAY. The idea was to create a series aimed at girls that had enough action that the boys wouldn't switch channels, while waiting for the next "boy" cartoon to come on. 

For anyone who would like a more in depth read on how deregulation of children's media affected the types of cartoons being produced for television in the eighties CLICK HERE.

Cartoons in the eighties were product based, and created to sell. The animated Transformer's movie killed off the majority of the main characters as a marketing ploy to sell a new line of Transformer toys to children. Like most cartoons during this time period, plot and character decisions were based around what new products were going to be sold. Each episode an advertisement.

Many girls enjoyed G.I. Joe as much as boys did. But, in terms of marketing, cartoons in the eighties were designed and advertised in a very gendered way. G.I Joe toys were created with boys in mind, the majority of characters are male, cartoons revolved around what marketers thought boys wanted.

Nostalgia has been hitting hard. Transformers and G.I Joe have already been reinvented as live action flicks. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has had multiple reincarnations and Thundercats and He-Man are said to be in some vague stages of pre-productions.

It was not surprising to me that the cartoons being turned into big-budget live action flicks are "boys toons" because we still see media staring and targeting men as universal, while stories staring and targeting women are seen as "for women only."

So, I was genuinely shocked when I heard they were making a JEM live action film. Of course I should have known...

For anyone who didn't watch JEM as a child, the series revolved around Jerrica Benton, a young woman in her twenties, who lives in the halfway house she helps run for twelve foster children. Jerrica, her sister, and their two best friends are the four members of the band Jem and the Holograms.

Jerrica's father owned Starlight Music, and when he died he gave the company to her, along with a secret high tech computer he had built. This tech, Synergy, could create complex holograms which they used to hide Jerrica's identity when performing, and to help them escape whatever action adventure plot episodes would have them fall into. Jem's creator Christie Marx talks about  how the series was unique for having an action adventure story targeting girls (She-Ra being one of the only others at the time).

Much of the tension of the show came from the villainous manger Eric Raymond who had been embezzling money from Starlight Music and his rival band The Misfits. Jerrica used her band, secret identity, and Synergy to help try and win back her family company. Jerrica was also in a love triangle with her long term boyfriend Rio, who had feelings for Jem. Every episode was cut in with two or three trippy music videos that would tie in to the plot.

I'm not trying to say this was a fabulous classic of a cartoon. It was designed to sell dolls and fashion accessories to girls. Yes, it was eighties cheese, but JEM was no more convoluted in plot or silly in writing then G.I. Joe or Transformers.

2015 comic artwork.
2015 comic on the other hand, worth reading
As John Swansburg of Slate writes: "Bay's Transformers bears no resemblance to the original in terms of plot, but both movies are grounded in the same fundamental mythology."

JEM the live action film is not. This isn't a situation of hardcore fans being upset about changes to canon. JEM appears to be so far removed from the source material that it makes I, Robot look like a glowing homage.

I want to give the makers of this movie the benefit of the doubt, but everything we know about the creation process was problematic. There were no women involved, they cut out the original creator, and wouldn't consult with her. They released a strange brotastic video about wanting to crowd-source ideas for their film. I can't find any proof of if they actually incorporated any crowd-sourced ideas, so feel free to comment with a link if you have more information on this.


If G.I. Joe  had been made into an action-less "now you know" inspired young adult flick about teenage boys in a military academy it would have been a loss for fans, but not for men or the movie industry over all. There are many action movie targeting boys, with male protagonists. There are not many movies targeting girls with a female protagonist who is a CEO who uses sci-fi technology to hide her secret identity while working alongside a makeshift family of other capable young women. 

There was the potential for this to be an incredibly unique movie: a fashion forward musical action adventure. Just as when Jem was created, and the action was originally added to try and draw a male audience. It is as if little has changed in what marketers think men and women want. Why have action in a movie whose only audience is going to be girls?

So, instead of a creative reinvention of the original material, nearly all aspects of the plot and characters have been erased. We now have a Hannah Montana rip-off with little base in the animated world besides names.

And I will leave you with this SNL joke:

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Clarence and Changing Gay Coding

Clarence was influenced by 90s animation, and reflects the zany comedy style of early original Cartoon Network shows. It also received a lot of media attention when creator, Skyler Page, was dismissed from the show due to sexually assaulting a fellow artist. That's not what I'm going to be talking about in this post, but I feel it would be remiss of me not to mention it.

Clarence is a show about a cheerful boy and his two best friends. Jeff is one of these friends, and one of the show's protagonists. In the episode Jeff Wins, we are shown his two mothers.

It is not unusual in shows that are pushing boundaries through coding, to hint at something that's never made explicit. But in case anyone watching Jeff Wins thought perhaps the two women were related in some other way (sisters, friends), in a recent episode Jeff calls them his moms.

Yes, they are lesbians. Yes, they are a couple. Yes, they are raising Jeff together. It might seem that Jeff referring to them as his moms is simply confirming the obvious, but it is revolutionary for a kids cartoon to cross the line from coded gay character to explicitly canon gay character.

While this in an incredibly huge leap forward when it comes to representation, child-targeted animation still deals with heavy censorship when it comes to LGBTQ characters, and so still must rely on double coding most of the time.

In an earlier episode, a scene where a gay couple were going to kiss never made it to the screen. Instead, Cartoon Network had the men kiss on the cheek.  In what appears to be an attempt to counteract the censorship and show that the relationship was romantic, the music changes while the men have their European style greeting. The lyrics are: "love is love, lovely love." Making it as obvious as possible that the men are a couple, so that the gentle punchline of the scene still works.

To anyone one out there who hasn't checked out Clarence, it is well worth your time. I'm very curious to see what this show brings us next.

Seriously, it's not just pushing boundaries for representation, it's funny too.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Girls and Guys from Summits and Skies

Celles et Ceux des Cimes et Cieux from Gwenn GERMAIN on Vimeo.

Gwenn Germain is a 22 year-old french artist, who created this stunning animation, inspired by Hayao Miyazaki, Jean Giraud and Syd Mead.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Reblog: Rantasmo Korra

This is an awesome video by Rantasmo about The Legend of Korra.

I think when discussions of queerbaiting come up, it is important to look at the role social censorship has had in affecting what is allowed on the screen based on what is considered morally appropriate in child/family targeting animation. If we look at a film produced during the Hays code, we would never describe a flamboyant character as queerbaiting. During the Hays code LGBTQ characters were not allowed on the screen. Coded behavior, dialogue and visual markers were the only way to hint at a character sexuality. Similarly, in American animation creators work within the confines of what is considered appropriate for their target audience.

Here are some quotes from  Bryan Konietzko, co-creator of The Legend of Korra, that shows both the way creators censor their own ideas when they assume something won't be approved of by networks, as well as the censorship by the network in shaping the original intent for the characters:

 "As we wrote Book 1, before the audience had ever laid eyes on Korra and Asami, it was an idea I would kick around the writers’ room. At first we didn't give it much weight, not because we think same-sex relationships are a joke, but because we never assumed it was something we would ever get away with depicting on an animated show for a kids network in this day and age, or at least in 2010. "

"We approached the network and while they were supportive there was a limit to how far we could go with it, as just about every article I read accurately deduced. It was originally written in the script over a year ago that Korra and Asami held hands as they walked into the spirit portal. We went back and forth on it in the storyboards, but later in the retake process I staged a revision where they turned towards each other, clasping both hands in a reverential manner, in a direct reference to Varrick and Zhu Li’s nuptial pose from a few minutes prior. "

Friday, March 27, 2015

Cartoon Closet Part 5

Part 5: Female Duos (in practice)

While there are not a lot of examples of female duos to draw from in animation (pun intended), in this section I will look at a popular pair of female duo side characters: Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy. 

moving image. Harley holding onto Ivy, as ivy displays credit cards like a hand of cards

Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995) was a darker look at the franchise then early television versions. Incorporating quick dialogue and a film noir aesthetic, it used coding and visual and verbal euphemisms to wink at the older audience that made up a large portion of it's viewers.

Harley Quinn was a character created for the series, and one that became so popular she was incorporated into the comic book canon. The short comic, Mad Love, featuring Harley's back-story won an Eisner Award.

moving image of harley and ivy with jewleryIn Batman: The Animated Series. Harley is top henchwoman to the Joker who she is also in a not so subtle relationship with (see above video). She and the Joker are a comedy duo team, with Harley as the devoted heart to the Joker's brains. 

As a duo they embody all the traditional elements of a comedy team including slapstick violence... but with the dark setting of the show the violence against Harley at the hands of the Joker is presented to adult viewers as a clearly-coded case of domestic abuse. As Zack Beauchamp writes in Batman: The Animated Series. 

"The abusive structure of the Joker-Quinn relationship being obvious to adults but invisible to the show’s young audience reminds the adult viewer of how societal blindness perpetuates actual instances of horrific abuse."
ivy and harley having dinner wearing only men's shirts
In the episode Harley and Ivy Harley is kicked out by the Joker and ends up teaming up with Poison Ivy. The duo become a crime team, and Ivy takes the position of the brains in the comedy duo she forms with Harley.  While only containing a relatively short screen time together, fans latched on to their ambiguous relationship. 

The characters lived together in Ivy's home, with one bed. They had meals together, languishing in a casual attire of just men's shirts. Scene's driving in Ivy's pink convertible drew visual reference to  Thelma and Louise. 

ivy and harley in a convertablethelma and louise in a convertable
The question of whether or not the lesbian undertones of the relationship were originally intended is debated by fans. Considering the sophisticated writing style of the show, and the repeated use of coded adult narratives, it is not a far stretch to say that the writers knew exactly what they were doing. The comic Batman:Harley and Ivy which features writing from Paul Dino and artwork from Bruce Timm (the producer of the animated series), also includes much slashy fan-service and a prison shower scenes of the two.

Regardless of whether or not the gay undertones were originally intended, just as viewers loved the character of Harley Quinn, viewers loved her ambiguous friendship with Poison Ivy. Even her most recent series, Harley Quinn (New 52), incorporates her winking relationship with Ivy as a part of her character.

In the next section I will look at the history of the 80s, and what led to the 90's revival of the animated Male Duo.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Glen Keane's Duet