Monday, October 20, 2014

Banned, Censored, and the Obscure: Part 3

Witch's Night Out

When I was at the store they had a  Halloween cartoon for sale that I haven't seen in years. Every year after trick-or-treating my family would watch this special. While not banned, or censored, this is one of those strangely obscure cartoons that has a cult following and is not well remembered, (despite the fact that it was released on VHS, and aired every year on the Disney channel and Fox through the mid nineties.)

This is the first year it has been released on DVD. Blogger and author Adam Selzer has the most  information on this cartoon, and a fabulous interview with Jonathan Rogers the creator of Witch's Night Out. Rogers apparently had no idea until about five years ago that the special had even been airing for all those years, or that it had such strong fan base. He currently has partnered with Jimmy Cross and written a Valentine and Thanksgiving special that *fingers crossed* will soon be made.

Witch's Night Out is the story of a morose witch who has been out of work for some time. Meanwhile, the adults of the town decide to throw a Halloween party in what they believe is an abandoned house (really the home of the witch). The adults are out of touch with their child side. None dress up, and  Goodly who helps plan the event sees the whole thing as a sort of community building activity. Tender and Small our child protagonists want to celebrate the spirit of Halloween and reach out to the witch to help them.

The character designs are like nothing you've seen before. Each character has a playful outline and is painted a monochrome color, with the kind of inky edges that makes me think Shinbone Alley. It is vibrant, fun, and the perfect kind of kid-friendly creepy. It starts with a catchy song, blasts through the twenty something minute short, and ends with everyone happily embracing the Halloween festivities.

I remember finding this cartoon visually enthralling as a kid, but I also remember loving the ending. Halloween is about having the opportunity to be someone you're not, but it is also - as is the case for the gently wicked Malicious and Rotten - an opportunity to explore who you could be. Even just for a night.

Having just rewatched it I can definitely recommend the DVD, it cost me a whopping $5 on sale for Halloween, comes with some golden age bonus cartoons, and has been gloriously remastered. It was also everything I remembered it to be.

Check it out here:

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Boxtroll Review

Having never read Here Be Monsters, the book this animated film was based on, I can make no comment on similarities to the original tale. So, this review will only be looking at the movie itself.
Growing up, I was a huge fan or Roald Dahl. But there is something about the grim, exaggerated nastiness of the villains paired with strange sometimes violent humor and plucky child protagonists that seems to be difficult to translate well into visual story telling. The Fantastic Mr. Fox, by Wes Anderson, managed to make that jump and The Boxtrolls follows suit. It takes this genre, and makes a movie that manages to capture the heart of these kind of strange tales.

Eggs is our primary protagonist, the adopted human child of a family of Boxtrolls that live under the city. The humans who live above believe the Boxtrolls are violent monsters. Meanwhile, the cunning Pest exterminator, Archibald Snatcher, creates a deal with the White Hat Society that if he kills all the Boxtrolls he will be allowed to join their illustrious club.

The characters are so much fun. Eggs is sweet, and funny, and utterly sympathetic in his adventure to try and save his dwindling family. Archibald is a fascinating villain, whose dream of eating cheese with the White Hats is a struggle in the impossible, made all the more hysterically absurd because of his deathly allergy to cheese. His henchman, Mr. Trout and Mr. Pickles, have deep (sometimes fourth wall breaking) discussion on the moral grays of their profession. Both insistently believe they are the heroes of the story.

The Boxtroll is funny, exciting and absolutely gorgeously animated. It is also the kind of world where the secondary protagonist’s father takes the money for a children’s hospital and uses it to buy cheese – and he is not a villain. He is simply one of many comedic morally ambiguous adult figures that populate these kinds of stories.  Children are our heroes and they live in uncertain worlds where adults cannot always be trusted, and there are harsh consequences to ones actions.  But, as someone who loved Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, despite the cruel consequences that were doled out to unreasonable children – I think kids gravitate to these kinds of stories. The Series of Unfortunate Event books are proof that a love of this genre lives on.

Navigating growing up is complicated, it is a common experience for children to feel unheard, or misunderstood by the adults in their live. While adults might look upon these kinds of stories as too grim, they carry a humor children love. They speak to an understanding of the child experience, without writing down to them. There is no candy-coating. Terrible things happen…  but so do great things. And it is the smart, brave, children who will save the day.

The Boxtrolls is not the type of family animated film we are used to seeing, but it is absolutely a film for families, and one I cannot recommend highly enough.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Cartoon Closet Part 4

Part 4: Female Duos (in theory)

But what about female duos? Clearly the comedy tradition is not inherently gendered, and live action comedies like The Heat have done well. While there were a handful of female/male duos like Cow and Chicken or Wanda and Cozmo in the 1990s there were no female duo leads, even while the male duo had a resurgence.

When looking at animated female duos, it is important to look take into account the role of female characters in animation. In 1991, Katha Pollitt wrote an article that helped define a common trope: The Smurfette Principle. In the article Pollitt discusses the tradition of a male cast of cartoon characters having only one female character, who tags along with the boys.
“The message is clear. Boys are the norm, girls the variation; boys are central, girls peripheral; boys are individuals, girls types. Boys define the group, its story and its code of values. Girls exist only in relation to boys.”

Nostalgia Chick has a fabulous video that gives an overview of this phenomenon. As I blog about in more detail HERE, the 80s became a spread of marketing based animated shows. The cartoons also became decidedly gendered, with shows like Transformers for young boys, and My Little Ponies for girls. In the nineties, shows became less product based, and less gendered in their marketing. Cartoon’s became more inclusive for viewers. But as the Nostalgia Chick points out, the result was that in the shows themselves, the majority of protagonists were male. Token female characters would be a part of ensemble casts, but primary female character who carried a show were rare.
Looking at Disney Channel cartoons from 1990-2000 gives a good example of this. 10 out of the 24 shows that aired were ensemble shows with no primary protagonist. Even though these shows had an upward of 8 main characters, and averaged 5 characters per show - no show had more then 2 female main characters.

Of the 24 shows that aired only 2 had female primary protagonist. While 14/24 of the shows had 3 or more male main characters  (including ensembles), only 1/24 shows had at least 3 female main characters (including ensembles).

And Disney was leading the pack. It wasn’t until 1998 that Nickelodeon featured a cartoon with a primary protagonist who was female, The Wild Thornberrys. Similarly, 1998 was the year that Cartoon Network first featured a show with primary female protagonists, with an ensemble cast, The Powerpuff Girls.

It’s probably not surprising then, that while on the rare occasion male/female comedy duos appear, female/female comedy duos don’t. Rarely are there enough female characters to make a comedic duo. Even when there are, female characters are more likely to be daughters, love interests, or sisters to a male character. There is little room for female characters to have a female partner and carry a show, the way male duos did in large numbers during the 90s.  

What would a Female Duo look like if they followed Male Duo traditions?
Two of my favorite web comic artists, Lisa Vandenberg and Rebecca Schauer, co-created an animated web series for a while. It was the first time that I had seen a cartoon that brought the comedy duo to female characters with all of the traditional comedy duo humor (including ambiguous/not so ambiguous relationships). Embracing the hapless idiot and angry friend trope, not only does Nikki and Page embody the best of the “heart” and “brain” characteristics that define male duo comedy in animation – it rises to the standard of bizarre wit that Adult Swim has popularized for older viewers.

Watching this cartoon, is like getting the taste of food everyone tells you can’t be cooked. Of course it can, you’re eating it right now, it’s delicious… but when you try to order it out an a restaurant, everyone simple stares at you blankly and tells you “food like that doesn’t exist.”

Nikki and Page is hysterical, and it doesn’t shy away from overtly “female” comedy. Two shorts in a row joke about menstruation, in the kind of gross-out humor one expects from Ren and Stimpy tradition. Jokes like this don’t fly on mainstream adult targeting animation, humor that deal with “womanly” issues must be coached through a male perspective to be considered universal humor.

Vandenburg  recently posted on Tumblr, about a cartoon that she and Schauer had pitched to Nickelodeon.
I saw this in my old folder and remembered when me and Becca pitched this show about young lesbian girls who hang out with spoiled snails that have realistic baby faces to Nickelodeon. They didn’t think it was as funny as we did, though.”

#the world isn’t ready for this kind of greatness
…and though the hashtag is intended with humor, she’s absolutely right. But this is exactly the kind of show (in genre) that was being made with male characters in the 90s. Shows like Ren and Stimpy capitalized on the humor that came from the ambiguous relationship of its title characters.  

Vandenberg is now working on Sanjay and Craig as a Storyboard Revisionist. This is a male duo show that matches her comedy style. Seeing an artist like her get an opportunity working for Nickelodeon gives me hope that someday we might see more diverse female characters in shows that are considered not just for female viewers, but for everyone. Maybe someday animated female duos will rise to the ranks of Pinky and the Brain, Ren and Stimpy, and Sanjay and Craig.

Part 5: Female Duos (in practice)

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.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Cartoon Closet Part 7

Part 7: 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

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.