The Power Girls Before Girl Power: 1980s Toy-Based Girl Cartoons – Katia Perea

Abstract: The socio/cultural history and partnership of toy advertisement and children’s television is rich and well documented (Schneider 1989, Kunkel 1988, Seiter 1993). In this article I discuss the influence of policy in girl’s cartoon programming as well as the relationship between commercialization and financial motivation in creating a girl cartoon media product. I then discuss the formulaic, gender normative parameters this new genre set in place to identify girl cartoons as well as girl media consumption and how within those parameters girl cartoon characters were able to represent an empowered girl popular culture product a decade before the nomenclature Girl Power. This research considers the socio-historical framework of programming in the 1980s toy-based cartoon era to assess how cartoons playfully promote a counter-hegemonic force on television’s socially compulsive gender coding. This research textually analyzed several episodes of Rainbow Brite, My Little Pony, Care Bears, Strawberry Shortcake and television girl cartoons from 1981-1988, to initiate a thematic coding scheme documenting what is occurring both verbally and visually regarding gender display and gender dynamics between characters. The coding was analyzed to identify systems of gender behavior that are both intentionally overt and naturally transgressive, traditional feminine traits and subtle, counter-normative characteristics. This includes, but is not limited to, clothing, behaviors, accessories, jokes, images, songs, background design, friendship dynamics and dialogue reproduced verbatim.

 

My Little Pony.

My Little Pony.

Introduction

Riot Grrrl[2] subculture and third wave feminism[3]are accredited as the cultural predecessor of the 1990s Girl Power popular culture (Taft 2004), minus the political consciousness or DIY consumer sensibilities; however, its commercialized predecessor, the 1980s toy-based girl cartoons, is what established the discourse on girl media culture as well as establishing a popular culture genre that associated consumerism with girl empowerment. The age group of the intended viewers for these 1980s girl cartoons grew up to be the teenagers and young adult women of the 1990s. The main distinction between these different types of Girl Power consumption is that the adventures of Rainbow Brite or the Little Ponies were inspiring young girl viewers to be empowered without sexualizing them.

Unlike the often overly sexualized portrayal of the adult female body in many cartoons, such as the buxom, corseted Wonder Woman, the curvaceous, mini-skirted She-Ra, or the boyfriend invested Daphne[4, 1980s toy-based girl cartoons had pre-pubescent girl characters who were all under the age of twelve. These girl cartoon lead characters were not tween, pre-teen or teenagers, a distinction within the definition of "girl" that had been under-explored in feminist media literature until the nomenclature of "girls studies" in the 1990s. This research found twelve to be the magic age that media gives girl characters boobs and boyfriends.[5] The under-twelve cartoon girl bodies of the 1980s were portrayed without any overt sexualization such as breasts, curves, sexually suggestive clothing or heteronormative romantic interest; the girl and boy characters are friends[6]

The 1990s Girl Power popular culture was heavily defined by its marketability; the things you consumed defined your girl power.  Its empowerment consumption was encased as depoliticized, individually expressed and purchasable (Taft 2004, Weeks 2004, Gonick 2006). Girl Power of the 1990s did not need girls to identify global sexism, it asked girls to be confident, pretty and sexy.  Its media representations were mostly young women that acceptably span from teenagers into elder adulthood.  It seemed not to matter how old you were, but it did seem to matter how young you were. The 1990s Girl Power’s representation was not for little girls, it was for post-pubescent girls and women; basically, girls with spending power and girls that can be sexualized, in other words, girls that were women. 

The 1980s girl cartoons were also defined by the marketability of the things girls consumed; the toys. Girls played with toys based on communicative and adventurous cartoons where they were leaders; it had nothing to do with being pretty for the boys. The 1980s toy-based cartoons created a realization, albeit a commodified one, that girls were a valuable target audience. While confidence and pretty things did abound in cartoons like Rainbow Brite and My Little Pony, the portrayal of strength was attributed to the cooperation within the group; friendship was the strength and its empowerment was in the girl, there were no sexy things.

These are key to describing the creation of girl power discourse within the mass consumed media product. These cartoon characters’ leadership, confidence, determination and savvies were delivered back a decade later as 1990s Girl Power in what Stuart Hall identifies as cultural ventriloquism (Hall 1981), where a subculture’s empowerment is absorbed by the culture industry, its dissidence removed, and delivered back, often to the group that originally created it. The constructed boundaries on girl’s empowerment in the 1990s Girl Power popular culture discourse is presented in the form of sexualized bodies and heteronormative concerns, characteristics not present in the 1980s television girl cartoons or their toys.

Little Lulu.

Little Lulu comic book.

Little Lulu – The First Girl Power Cartoon

Marjorie Henderson Buell, the first US woman cartoonist to achieve international fame, created Little Lulu as a single panel newspaper comic in 1935 for The Saturday Evening Post. With two previously successful syndicated strips under her belt, Marge, Buell’s pen name, was asked by the Post to create a successor to Henry, a Post cartoon strip about a little boy that had gone to national syndication. The Post was uncertain a girl character could be successful. When asked about creating Little Lulu, Buell explained to a reporter, “I wanted a girl because a girl could get away with more fresh stunts that in a small boy would seem boorish” (Jacob 2006).   Little Lulu became an instant success and the comic was soon made into a cartoon by Paramount.

While there were many lead cartoon boy characters in the Golden Era of theatrical cartoons, the first and only girl cartoon was Little Lulu 1943-1948 (Lenburg 2009). The Little Lulu cartoons were created for cinematic showings by Paramount’s animation production house from 1943-1948, and began syndicated television broadcast in the early 1950s (Woolery 1983, Erickson 2005). A master of deadpan delivery, Lulu displayed a willful resilience in the face of adversity. She was undaunted and unafraid, mischievous yet well-intentioned, and she was wildly successful.

Little Lulu toys.

Little Lulu toys.

 

 

Due to the character’s overwhelming popularity, Buell found herself presiding over a Little Lulu merchandising empire, including product endorsements; proving that Lulu was not just for girls.

Lulu was a hit. In 1944, she began a fifteen-year run as the star of advertisements for Kleenex tissues. By 1950, [creator] Margaret Buell was presiding over a merchandising empire that included Little Lulu dolls, lunch boxes, magic slates, coin purses, bubble bath, pajamas, and candy (Jacob 2006:1).

When her film contract license was up in 1948, Paramount studios tried to use the character’s theatrical publicity as leverage to cut Buell’s profits and claim part ownership of the character in exchange for the cartoon’s continued production; Buell refused to sell out her creation (Evanier 2007). Due to this licensing disagreement, Paramount stopped producing Little Lulu and in the 1950s sold the existing cartoons as syndicated children’s television programming (Erickson 2005). They aired sporadically in that decade and then left television.

Misogynistic Boys

A theme that runs through Little Lulu is the boy vs. girl rivalry that occurs with the secondary character Tubby, a neighborhood friend who often puts the sign “No Girls Allowed” on his clubhouse door, locking Lulu out of the boys’ activity inside. Tubby berates Lulu as a girl and revels in the superiority of his boyness; that is of course, until Lulu repeatedly outsmarts him and makes him appear foolish, disproving his supposed gender superiority.

I found that this gender-based rivalry ran through girl cartoons in later eras as well, where a boy character reacts in disgust to representations of the feminine or uses diminutive gender-based comments against the lead girl, referring to the girl as weak or frivolous. I refer to these misogynistic boys as an anti-feminine foil. Perhaps this anti-feminine foil cartoon character corresponds to Adorno’s similar reflections on Disney’s popular cartoon character Donald Duck, whose slapstick violence and mishaps were viewed by Adorno as examples of mass man’s willingness to accept the inequalities of capitalism. He writes, “Donald Duck, like the unfortunate in real life, gets a thrashing so that the viewer can get used to the same treatment” (Adorno and Horkheimer 1997:138). In girl cartoons, the anti-feminine foil is a girl’s reminder of the sexism that she faces in daily life, and also a reminder of how she can outsmart it.

Truly deserving the title of girl power, Lulu, in several cartoons, is tricked by scoundrel men who ply her with false promises, offers of lollipops from a golfer who hires her as his caddy in “Cad and Caddy” or the photographer offering to take her photograph once she pays twenty-five cents in “Snap Happy”. She rectifies the matter with a fecund imagination full of cartoon scenarios worthy of any avant-garde expressionist as she proceeds to torment the men in simple pursuit of said promises. “Will you take my picture now mister?” she exclaims, posing in front of all his shots until he fulfills his promise. “Where’s my lollipop?” precedes a series of cunning pranks preventing the golfer’s ball from reaching the hole. Throughout these scenes, though she is intentionally upsetting these men, delivering her punishments with deadpan authority, her acts of mischief are depicted more as innovative creativity than rebellion.

Much like the consideration towards mass culture as a mass manipulator intended on indoctrinating the masses into subservience to the system of consumer capitalism (Adorno 1972, Clark 1990), girls are generally presented as fragile and innocent, willing usurpers of dominate cultural works (Walkerdine 1997, Fritzsche 2004). Cartoon character Little Lulu is a direct challenge to these socially constructed gender norms. As stated in key audience studies, media consumption cannot be seen as an isolated process of encoding, but should be examined as a phenomenon embedded in daily life (Ang 1996, Morely 2000). The traditional feminist critique of girl cartoons is that girl characters are represented as dependent on boy characters or portrayed in hyper-feminized settings (Albiniak 2001, Thompson and Zebrinos 1997, 1995, Signorielli 1993, 1990); because of her “fresh stunts” Little Lulu demonstrates a girl cartoon as a popular culture media product that indeed does subvert normative gender codes; a girl in power, sans sexualization.

However, Little Lulu’s empowered presentation was not an emphatic statement of girl power, in fact it wasn’t a statement at all. Buell’s son reported in an interview:

[My mother] didn’t think of Lulu as a part of politics. She drew a line between entertainment and didacticism.” Nor did Marge welcome the idea of introducing feminist themes into the cartoon. She preferred to let the character’s actions speak for themselves. “She created this feisty little girl character who held her own against the guys and frequently outwitted them, but she didn’t want to turn the cartoon into a message. She agreed with Samuel Goldwyn’s slogan, ‘If you want to send a message, try Western Union’ (Gewertz 2006:2).

Lulu’s mischief involves a sense of self-confidence and wit. This self-motivated mischief is generally associated as a boy characteristic, as in “boys will be boys.” However Lulu is not a boy, she is very much a girl, willful and confident, a good role model for girl cartoons and, Buell thought, for young girls (Gewertz 2006). The Little Lulu cartoon was playfully transgressing the normative codes created to define little girls. It would be almost thirty years before another girl was presented as a lead character in a television cartoon.

Toys, Cartoons and the FCC

In 1969, under the FCC guidelines of network self-regulation, the ABC network broadcast Hot Wheels 1969-1971; a cartoon program named after a Mattel brand of toy cars (Owen 1988). This was the first example of product-based cartoon programming, a show developed around a line of preexisting children’s toy product.Public concerns were promptly raised to the FCC against Mattel’s “half-hour commercial” Hot Wheels and the overcommercialization in children’s television. The concerns fell on deaf ears.

Mattel's Hot Wheels cars.

Mattel’s Hot Wheels cars.

While activist groups like the parent-run Action for Children’s Television were trivialized, the FCC did respond, however, to a financial claim made by a rival toy manufacturer who asserted that Mattel’s Hot Wheels show be recognized as an advertisement, not programming, and be financially coded by the network as such. Motivated by the competitor’s claims, the FCC mandated the ABC network to code the Hot Wheels program as advertising time for Mattel, far more expensive airtime than regular programming. Rendering Hot Wheels airtime too costly, it was no longer profitable for Mattel and the show was quickly cancelled (Owen 1988, Mittell 2003). Promoting industry self-regulation, the FCC issued a vague warning advising networks against further product-based cartoon programming (Schneider 1989)

The Hot Wheels television show (1979-80).

The Hot Wheels television show (1979-80).

Feeling that the broadcasters lacked compliance in self-regulation, Action for Children’s Television continued to petitioned Congress and eventually got the FCC to issue a Report and Policy Statement in 1974 suggesting that broadcasters have a special obligation to serve children (Kunkel 1998). As a result, the amount of advertisement time allowed during children’s programming was limited, slashing their budgets and new cartoon programming with it (Lisosky 2001).

The 1970s were a transitional period for children’s television cartoons, and much more so for girl cartoon characters. Though the socio/cultural era was ripe for cartoon programming to move away from recycled theatrical cartoons and produce new stylistic cartoons specifically for television, budget constraints restricted the development of original ideas or new animation techniques; there would be no girl cartoons during this era.

Girl cartoons would have been a risk for the networks, compounded by their fear that any new cartoons, particularly a girl cartoon, may not be commercially successful with the viewers. Cartoon producers and networks played it safe by imitating past successes, cartoons where the girl characters were secondary to the boy leads; the networks did not experiment with the new concept of a lead girl character. This aspect of self-censorship, in the form of playing it safe by using boy characters as the default setting, is used to support the claims that television is a hegemonic replicator because it is producing mediocre programming so as to please the majority (Bourdieu 1998, Friske 1987). The cartoon industry’s practice of using boy characters as the default setting was their way of playing it safe.

 Television animation producer, Herb Klynn (Alvin and the Chipmunks), lamented the networks’ reluctance towards testing new concepts: “We can create so much through animation, but try to show the networks! Most people I brings ideas to have no creative insight at all” (Erickson 2005). Linda Symensky, director of children’s programming and various animation media, commented on the nature of cartoon programming production, “risk taking, scary as it is, is crucial to the advancement of the animated medium on television. The more risks you take, the more often you will end up with unusable material. But there is also a greater chance for success” (Simensky 2004:101). Where Klynn and Simensky’s laments were in reaction to the networks’ resistance towards general animation innovation, a more direct blockade was set against the development of girl characters.

Producer Cy Schneider was considered an authority on children’s television after his financial success with producing Mattel’s Hot Wheels programming. His positions on gender and racial diversity in children’s television were representative of the pervasive sentiment in the male dominated industry. In his book on children’s television, he writes about programming selection with an argument that demonstrates both a racial and gender bias,

The temptation is always to show the latest in styles, music, and dancing. Inexperienced young creative people…often forget that rapping and break dancing might go over well in Los Angeles and New York, but in Iowa the freckle-faced kids are still down at the soda fountain getting a sundae or out playing Little League baseball (Schneider 1989:108).

More overtly in regards to gender, he asserts:

Don’t show an eight year-old boy playing with an eight year-old girl. For boys, that’s an unreal situation. Girls will emulate boys, but boys will not emulate girls. When in doubt, use boys (Schneider 1989:107).

In cartoon programming, and children’s television in general, the industry’s standard belief was that girls would watch boys’ shows but boys would not watch girls’ shows, therefore investing exclusively in the programming of boy-dominated cartoons (Seiter and Mayor 2004).

In the interest of obtaining advertising sponsors, the industry created the gender biased belief of children’s viewing habits. Arguments that boys watched television programming more than girls were not taking into account that there were no programs for the girls to watch because boy characters were always ensured the lead role. Girls watched boys’ cartoons because that was all that was available (Seiter 1993).

Media scholar Ien Ang has argued against the pre-constituted audience body that can be defined or measured, partly because it does not take into account how the viewer interprets programming. According to Ang the audience is “an abstraction constructed from the vantage point of the institutions, in the interest of the institutions” (Ang 2:1991). Boy cartoon programming was designated for children programming specifically because its airtime was believed to be profitable for advertising children’s products resulting in the creation of a market by and for the interests of the market itself. Advertisers concentrated their dollars onto boy-centered cartoon programming because that was what existed.

1980s Reagan Era FCC Deregulation

‘If you can’t self-regulate, then de-regulate’ could have been the catch phrase of the pro-business Reagan-era FCC chairman Mark Fowler who ushered in a laissez-faire climate towards policy enforcement. He stated that television was a “toaster with pictures” (Engelhart 1986:76); an entertainment business with no obligation towards public service.  Television broadcasters were deregulated and allowed to rely on the marketplace to decide which children’s shows would be aired. Opponents argued that the deregulation that occurred in the 1980s violated key parts of the Communications Act of 1934, especially the requirement to operate in the public interest, and allowed broadcasters to seek profits with little public service programming required in return. The main deregulations critiqued were the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine, the extension of television licenses, (the number of years the license is granted), and the expansion of the number of television stations any single entity could own (Hendershot 1998). The concentration of media ownership nationwide went from 50 owners in 1984 to 26 major owners in 1987[7] (Bagdikian 2004). Two specific deregulatory initiatives affecting children’s television emerged: abolishing guidelines for minimal amounts of educational programming on networks, and dropping FCC license guidelines for how much advertising could be carried during children’s programming (Hendershot 1998).

The lack of educational programming on commercial networks in the early 1980s was defended by the FCC on the basis that public television was sufficient to serve children’s educational television needs. Public television had been a primary provider of children’s educational programming since the late 1960s, and the FCC sought a way to codify public television broadcasting as a supplement to commercial television, thus relieving commercial broadcasters of their responsibility to serve the educational needs of their young audience through commercial educational programming (Lisosky 2001).

The Reagan-era FCC’s emphasis on commercialization let networks determine the amount of advertisement presented during programming. This opened up the airwaves to the rebirth of the product-based cartoon, taken off the air after Mattel’s Hot Wheels in the early 1970s. Deregulation ushered in a new era in children’s programming, the toy-based genre and with it the introduction of girl cartoons.

Toy-Based Cartoons, A New Era for Girls’ Media

In 1977, Bernard Loomis, president of toy manufacturer Kenner, signed a licensing contract with Twentieth-Century Fox to produce the toy line for its upcoming movie Star Wars (Owen 1988, Hendershot 1998); Kenner had unknowingly landed the number one selling toys for 1978 and years to come. Hoping lightning would strike twice, Loomis began looking for a toy line Kenner could own from inception, not merely as licensing contractors. Loomis also wanted Kenner to focus on creating an entire line of toys rather than individual products. He soon found his next star; created by artist Muriel Fahrion, an illustrator in American Greeting Cards’ juvenile department, a little girl character named Strawberry Shortcake would soon air in her own syndicated television special[8] The World of Strawberry Shortcake 1980 (Woolery 1983, Lenburg 2009).

The World of Strawberry Shortcake, cartoon.

The World of Strawberry Shortcake, cartoon.

The World of Strawberry Shortcake produced by Kenner, aired once as a syndicated special in March-April of 1980 across different television stations. It told the adventure of six year-old girl, Strawberry Shortcake, and friends with similar fruit-based names like Apple Dumplin’ and Raspberry Tart, who live in the very colorful Strawberry Land. “Who sleeps all night in a cake made of strawberries, lives and plays in a cake made of strawberries… It’s Strawberry Shortcake, wouldn’t you know” (“The World of Strawberry Shortcake”). The dialogue was as simple as the plot; the kids laugh and play in the garden until their fun is spoiled by the villainous Purple Pie Man, an adult who wants to steal their fruit to make his pies. In the end, the kids of Strawberry Land win out over his conniving (Lenburg 2009).

The airing of the special was shortly followed by the release of a wide range of Kenner toy products. Within its first year the Strawberry Shortcake line had grossed over $100 million in profits (Engelhart 1986), prompting subsequent yearly specials, airing one night a year from 1981-1985 (Woolery 1989). Strawberry Shortcake’s financial success secured that there was profit in producing cartoons featuring a girl lead character. It was this drive for profit that created the opportunity for girl cartoons to exist.

Rainbow Brite toys.

Rainbow Brite toys.

Toy-based cartoons were about to make a new entrance into regular children’s television programming. After the success of the Strawberry Shortcake television specials, NBC became the first network to directly violate the previous regulation against product-based programming with the appearance of a hit NBC Saturday morning cartoon by Hanna-Barbera, The Smurfs 1981-1990. Under the new FCC regulation these toy-based cartoons were acceptable because there was no direct product endorsement (Hendershot 1998). In essence a half-hour cartoon program based on a pre-existing toy, in this case The Smurfs, was permissible within the regulations provided that there were no Smurfs toy advertisements during its broadcast airtime (Erickson 2005, Kunkel 1988). It was perfectly acceptable if the Smurfs toys were advertised at a different timeslot promoting their toys bearing the same name. What the toy manufacturers hoped for and soon discovered to be correct, was that there would be no need to spend on advertisement at all; the shows, essentially program-length commercials, were promotional on their own.  When The Smurfs and deregulation went unchallenged, toy-based cartoons began proliferating nationwide not just as television specials but as regularly scheduled, daily cartoon programming.

A successful toy product meant exposure for the show, which in turn created desirable advertisement time slots; it was a win situation for the programmers. Because the amount of advertising time per show no longer had limitations in the deregulated environment of the 1980s, television stations reaped the advertising dollars of extended, multiple commercials. In addition to that financial gain, the television stations acquired the cartoons at little to no cost.  Since most of these cartoons were aired in syndication, they were not produced in-house by the networks’ own animation studio. Instead, they were produced by outside independent studios financed by the manufacturer of the toy that the cartoon was based on. The entire program series was sold as a complete set to individual stations for cash and/or advertising time. The station in turn received inexpensive or free programming and, due to the licensing success of the toy, sold its advertising timeslots at higher rates (Erickson 2005).

With the intention of promoting sales, rather than artistic production, entire program series were made quickly and cheaply with weak dialogue, poor animation quality and little or no character development (Lenburg 2009); quantity over quality was the new cartoon production value. Artist-driven cartoons, created by individual artists who concentrated on their animation, such as Bugs Bunny or Pink Panther, were viewed as expensive to produce. In the effort to continuously shave production costs, networks began broadcasting toy-based cartoon series that had been produced all at once. These cartoon productions were eagerly financed by toy manufacturers because they gave them something they wanted, the elusive year-round toy sales (Owen 1988). The manufacturers’ goal of promoting toys through cartoons succeeded with millions of dollars in merchandise sales for all the individual shows (Engelhart 1986).

Product Positioning Fantasy Play: The New Cartoon

While The World of Strawberry Shortcake was aimed at a girl audience, it was a television special, meaning it only aired once a year. Though Little Lulu cartoons were televised in the 1950s, they were created as theatrical cartoons which were then recycled into syndicated television. The very first made-for-television, regularly broadcasted girl cartoon program appeared in 1984, the toy-based Rainbow Brite - many would soon follow.

The Rainbow Brite tv series.

The Rainbow Brite tv series.

Since toy manufacturers marketed toys according to binary gender coding, the toy-based cartoons were then also marketed according to the binary gender code as ‘girl cartoons’ and ‘boy cartoons’; Mattel’s Rainbow Brite 1984, Kenner’s CareBears 1985 and Hasbro’s My Little Pony 1986 were examples of girl cartoons, while Hasbro’s GI Joe 1985, Mattel’s HeMan and the Masters of the Universe 1983 and Hasbro’s Transformers 1984 were examples of boy cartoons (Lenburg 2009).

HeMan and Skeletor toys.

HeMan and Skeletor toys.

These toy-based cartoons were produced to create product positioning fantasy play. In essence, the cartoon program would create the fantasy world in which a toy lived. Boys’ action cartoons had warriors, soldiers or authority figures equipped with gadgetry and weapons to fight villains with the aid of strong allies, vehicles and occasional beasts. They were premised on good vs. evil, and while the evil never wins, they often escape to fight another day. Each boy cartoons hero had a cartoon villain: Mattel’s He-Man battled Skeletor, Hasbro’s G.I. Joe battled Cobra and Hasbro’s Transformer Autobots battled the Transformer Decepticons. Each villain had their own force of allies, adventure equipment and arsenals. The profit for the boys’ toy industry derived from these extensive armed forces of gadgets and weapons referenced in the cartoon’s world.

Following the successful model of Strawberry Shortcake and The Smurfs[9] friendship communities, the girl cartoons were centered around adventures laden with lessons of friendship and caring, self-doubt overcome with pep talks and challenges resolved with teamwork. These toy-based girl cartoons were created and written almost exclusively by men whose notions of gender were translated into the programming. They established the television industry parameters of what determined a girl cartoon and with it, the cultural indicators of the new girl media genre. These definitions relied on, as much as they created, gender normative coding, such as excessive use of rainbows, ponies and the color pink as well as didactic storylines laden with self-deprecating dialogue. Characters remarking that they are not strong enough or brave enough would receive encouragement like My Little Pony‘s “You can do it if you try” (“Escape from Catrina”) or Rainbow Brite‘s “I know you can, I believe in you” (“Invasion of Rainbowland”). All 1980s girl cartoons emphasized these self-conscious critiques countered by their peers’ emotional and motivational support.

The World of Rainbow Unicorns and Motivational Leaders

The industry term for the pink worlds the girl cartoons were centered on was “cooperation villages” (Hendershot 2004); self-conscious characters living together and helping one another learn life lessons. The magical ponies of Hasbro’s My Little Pony lived in the colorful Paradise Estates located in Ponyland, Mattel’s Rainbow Brite and friends lived in Rainbow Land and Kenner’s Care Bears lived in the clouds in the Kingdom of Care-a-Lot; all lands were complete with smiling stars and cheerful rainbows. Cultural scholar Esther Leslie points out in her analysis of animation that “animals are children’s willing helpers in the cartoon world, just as they are in the fairy-tales” (Leslie 2002:24). These magical lands were often inhabited by little creature friends who performed basic labor jobs ranging from gathering color stars or harvesting the gardens; the little ponies played with the bushwoolies, the Color Kids teamed with the sprites. The little friends were as helpless as they were helpful. Quite often the critters fell into peril and needed to be rescued by one of the girl characters, providing the girl characters a set role of protective caretaking and guidance.

Heartthrob the cartoon character.

Heartthrob the My Little Pony cartoon character.

Hearthrob the toy.

Hasbro’s ‘Hearthrob’ the My Little Pony toy.

Lacking the arsenal of toys created by the use of weaponry and gadgetry accessible in the boy cartoon programs, the cooperation villages setting created a context that required the purchase of multiple dolls to interact and replicate the stories in the product-placement fantasy of girl cartoon programming, and it did so quite successfully; 150 million little ponies and over 40 million Care Bears were sold between 1983 and 1987 (Erickson 2005). Each of the pastel-colored Care Bears was named to correspond to a feeling, such as Grumpy Bear, Tenderheart Bear or Wishing Bear. The pastel-colored ponies had rainbow-colored manes and icons on their hind quarters demonstrating if they were flying pegasus ponies like Heart Throb, Paradise and Lofty, horned unicorn ponies like Ribbons, Buttons and Fizzy, mermaid sea ponies like Sunshower and Water Lily or earth ponies like Posey, Magic Star and Lickety-Split, all with their own magical power. The dolls relied on communication and teamwork. Upon market introduction in 1983 Hasbro sold $25 million worth of pony toys; with the media release of My Little Pony cartoons, that figure rose to over $100 million in 1985 (Engelhart 1986). In terms of commercialism, exchanging feelings along with accessories and the occasional magical charms made for a very profitable girls’ toy market.

When a villain confronted a character, the boy cartoons’ plot often revolved around combative battle and violent conquest; G.I. Joe soldiers used advanced weaponry to fight Cobra agents, the Autobots would pound and slice metal on metal against the Decepticons while He-Man would often physically pick up his villains and throw them. The girl cartoons’ villains were more often captured than attacked, and the characters used teamwork and encouragement instead of weapons or violence (Woolery 1983, Hendershot 1998). In a My Little Pony episode, a newly allied worker bee says to Meagan, “You can’t talk to the queen, she’s too mean to listen.” Meagan replies, “I have to. We have to try to find the good in everyone” (“The End of Flutter Valley”). Girl toons were generally a violence-free rescue adventure with conflict-resolution scenarios involving kind words for a tearful character that had caused trouble. If a member of the cooperation village traveled outside the safe boundaries of their home there were usually unpleasant or dangerous circumstances that required rescuing and then an apology from the misguided member for wandering alone. Little Pony Shady says, “Maybe if I hadn’t been so overly sensitive I could have helped the other ponies get away [from the kidnappers]. Now not only am I useless, I’m a deserter besides.” This self-deprecation is followed by tears and crying that naturally leads to song, “I’m all wrong, all wrong, I’m a klutz and I don’t belong.”  Five year-old Molly, the human friend of the ponies, is there to comfort Shady, in song of course, “No one in the world is perfect, you are not all wrong, you are all right” (“The Glass Princess”). By the end of the episode, Shady’s mea culpa is resolved with Molly’s emotional-support and the kidnapping conflicts are resolved with a moralistic lesson of friendship and sharing from lead pony Magic Star.

Whereas boy cartoons offered action battles and explorations, cooperation village girl cartoons centered on personal dynamics within the community and keeping the home safe and happy. Children’s culture critic Cathleen Schine considered them to be an antithesis of adventure, “instead of being about journeys into the world, they are, by definition, conservative: they are about keeping the world at bay, about limits and defending those limits.” (Schine 1988:6).

In Sold Separately, her book on children in consumer culture, Ellen Seiter writes about how her local video store stopped carrying Rainbow Brite because even though kids loved it, too many parents were complaining about it.  She mused that perhaps middle-class parents were offended by the excessive use of pink and the kitschiness of the cartoon’s design perhaps because of their own distaste for the leanings that mass-marketed media represents working-class aesthetics and gendered sensibilities (Seiter 1993). These toy-based girl cartoons were widely critiqued by pundits and parents alike (Owen 1988, Signorielli 1990), and with good reason since the plots were formulaic with equally bad animation and dialogue.  No one seemed to like them except the children viewers who responded enthusiastically with millions of dollars in product purchases (Engelhart 1986, Seiter 1993).

This direct relationship between toy and cartoon not only increased the toy’s sales, it also increased the social coding of cartoons as children’s programming. Perhaps because of the simplified dialogue and storylines or the unlikelihood of adults playing with children’s toys, these cartoons were watched predominantly by children. Unlike cartoons in the past era, like Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse, which had been enjoyed and even targeted at adult audiences as well as children, the cheaply animated and poorly written toy-based cartoons were really just for kids- and some were really just for the girls.

A Room of One’s Own, On Television

As these girl cartoons were being criticized by adults for their hyper-feminine appearance, girl viewers were making their own interpretations (Walkerdine 1997). Within these standard gendered parameters the girl protagonists in these cartoons were strong, responsible and leaders. These toy-based girl cartoons created an empowered space for little girl viewers that previously had not existed, albeit a heavily commercialized and gendered one (Seiter 1993).

As stated in key audience studies, media consumption cannot be seen as an isolated process of encoding, but should be examined as a phenomenon embedded in daily life (Ang 1996 Morely 2000).  Different studies show that the relationship girls have with the cultural products they consume is an active one (Inness 1998, Weeks 2004). Girls are just as capable as other fans to take from pop culture what relates to them and discard what appears to be irrelevant or derogatory (Walkerdine 1997). They can select material from the main discourse and find strength in it; they can find its ‘girl power’. Exemplified physically through their play with the cartoon toys, the vast range of potential interpretation and application of the ‘girl power’ message in shows like Rainbow Brite or My Little Pony allowed girls to use the cartoons’ media image as they saw fit in pursuing their own empowerment goals.

Though the creation of these cartoons was to increase toy consumption by little girls, it inadvertently and without intention created an empowering space for little girls to see themselves as heroes. This new space to television, girl cartoons, was a representation of the non-violent, communicative, pink world of what girl aesthetics should be, and what this world provided was a “room of one’s own” for little girls on network television. In the spirit of Virginia Woolf’s identification of a space for women to retain a sense of their own identity, “a room of one’s own” was created with the girl cartoons of the 1980s.

These cartoon girl protagonists represented girl characters that displayed a strength that had not traditionally been attributed to girls. The traditional gender presentation, as well as the traditional feminist critique, was that girl characters were secondary and represented as dependent on a boy character (Albiniak 2001, Thompson and Zebrinos 1997, 1995, Signorielli 1993, 1990). In contrast, the representation of feminine strength in the girl characters of the 1980s cartoons countered the traditional gendered traits associated with little girls. The protagonist were empowered girls with determination and leadership skills, something that had been missing in cartoon television since Little Lulu. The excessive use of pink stars and rainbow skies meant designated girl leaders.

Aged eleven and under, these cartoon girls were represented in ways that subvert traditional norms of who little girls are and what they do. Within the heavily gendered normative message, the feature of lead girl characters created a counter-hegemonic message of gender independence alongside its creation of a successful girls market. Shows like Rainbow Brite provided a space for girls to have as their own, with no boy prince to rescue them, no boy hero to be a sidekick for, and where the protagonist, and consequently the hero, was a girl. These girl cartoons did, however, have boy characters; Huckleberry Pie lived in Strawberry Land, Red Butler and Buddy Blue were part of the Color Kids who lived in Rainbow Land, and there were boy Care Bears in Care-A-Lot as well as boy ponies in Ponyland. Perhaps because of the industry party line that cartoons with girl leads could not be successful, boy characters were included in all the girl shows, though the same was not true in reverse. The boy cartoons at times had a woman character, but a girl in the boy cartoons was rarely seen. The exception to this was the cartoon Inspector Gadget 1983-1986 and the detective’s precocious niece and lead character, Penny.

Created by DIC Entertainment, Inspector Gadget 1983-1986 was about a bumbling, simple-witted detective who fights crime using his cyborg-like gadgets. There were no genre demarcations of a girls’ cartoon, no rainbows, no cute animals, no magic; stylistically, Inspector Gadget was a boy’s cartoon. The plot line usually follows the same format; Gadget is given a top-secret assignment and proceeds to either mistake villains for allies or simply go on an unrelated trail. Since clever Penny is always skeptical of these so-called allies, suspecting them to be villainous agents, she sends Brain, her dog and crime-fighting partner, to follow and protect her Uncle Gadget while she formulates a way to prevent disaster and solve the crime. Years before the proliferation of laptops or cell phones, Penny uses her computer book to break codes, conduct surveillance and keep tabs on Gadget. She also uses her wristwatch as a communicator, laser beam and occasional remote control over menacing vehicles or destructive machines. These tech-savvy characteristics, paired with her resourceful detective skills are a playful transgression to normative gender coding since they are more commonly attributed to boy characters, or nerdy teenage girls, like Selma on Scooby-Doo, who often need to be rescued. On the Inspector Gadget cartoon, it was Penny who did the rescuing.

Penny with Inspector Gadget.

Penny with Inspector Gadget.

While the show is named after Gadget, he is the program’s comic relief, while Penny is the serious character, always aware of peril and taking risks to solve the crimes and capture the culprits. In his absentminded adventures, Gadget fails to recognize the far superior intellectual abilities of his niece. In each episode Penny is the one who solves the crimes while Gadget is distracted and detained by the M.A.D. agents of the villainous Dr. Claw and his pet cat[10]. At the end of each episode, police chief Quimby gives Gadget the recognition for solving the case. One could muse that Penny is the classic representation of the cliché “behind every great man is a great woman”, whereby the woman toils and does the work while the man gets the credit. In Penny’s case, even Gadget himself is unaware that she is actually the great detective. She works tirelessly and puts herself at risk, all unknown to Gadget, while in the end Gadget clumsily stumbles upon a solved crime and is given credit for its resolve as Penny looks on in amusement. As a strong girl character, both in identity and plot importance, Penny, effectively demonstrated that boys would easily watch an empowered girl character.

Inspector Gadget was DIC Entertainment’s first television cartoon and an artist-driven program, preceding DIC’s eventual turn to cheap, mechanical cartoons. DIC soon followed Inspector Gadget with thirty-two different cartoon programs in the 1980s that had their entire series produced at once, some with over one hundred episodes made in a single year. One of these mass produced programs was girl cartoon Rainbow Brite 1984-1986.

The introduction of girl cartoons into children’s television media culture spurred an unprecedented commercial movement of merchandise. Rainbow Brite, was originally a greeting card icon created by Hallmark. With the advantage of deregulated children’s television, toy manufacturer Mattel contracted DIC Entertainment to animate the Hallmark character and create a cartoon series they could sell in syndication, what followed was an explosion of rainbow success. The Rainbow Brite franchise generated $1 billion in retail sales of dolls, toys, cereal and other licensed products throughout the 1980s.[11] Much like her girl cartoon predecessor Little Lulu, Rainbow Brite spurred a merchandising empire that is still viable today.

Rainbow Brite’s bias for heroic and direct action was a characteristic also attributed to Little Lulu, they both would act to ensure the safety of smaller children or animals in need of rescue. However, unlike Little Lulu, Rainbow Brite was neither cunning nor mischievous; the serendipitous Rainbow Brite was the new girl cartoon role model. Rainbow Brite looks like a cartoon version of a child beauty pageant contestant. Her rosy cheeks are accentuated by long blond hair in a high bouffant. She wears rainbow colored moon boots and a miniskirt with a fluffy white trim. Yet contrary to the expectations associated with this sweet, hyper-feminine appearance, she is a fearless little girl who is also a well-respected, resourceful leader, battling evil, unafraid and triumphant; she is the 1980s power girl.

The Rainbow Brite series begins with her arrival to a dark land, an unseen benevolent woman spirit brings her there by magic. We know magic is at work here because of the visual and audio cues of star sparkles and a harp glissando. Both of these cues had been used extensively by Looney Tunes yet they were demarcations of violence, such as being hit on the head with an anvil. Rainbow Brite effectively appropriated these audio and visual cues as the new girl cartoon signifiers of magic and happiness, a trend that continues today. In the pilot episode, a shooting blue star magically transforms into Rainbow Brite as she arrives to the dark, thunderous land. An omnipotent woman’s voice asks, “Still want to save this world?” “Yes!” Rainbow Brite emphatically replies, “It’s even worse close up.”  The women the says, “Find the spear of light and the color of this land and set it free, and the darkness will disappear.” (“Beginning of Rainbowland”) In this introductory episode, not only is this feminine girl a heroic leader, the all-knowing guardian entity responsible for bringing her there is a woman. Strawberry Shortcake, Rainbow Brite and Meagan in the My Little Pony cartoons make no mention of their parents. They simply arrive in these magical lands to help the residents battle villains and reclaim their homes. “What [Rainbow’s] mom and dad thought of her mysterious disappearance…weren’t mentioned. But the story was aimed at very young children, who tend not to ascribe much weight to such consideration” (Markstein 2003:1). Walkerdine points out in her analysis of young girls in 1980s popular culture texts that “it was amazing just how many of the stories presented the heroines as either not having parents, or not living with them” (Walkerdine 1997:47). This lack of adults was more present in the girl cartoons than in the boy cartoons, and as a result meant that girls were the defacto leaders.

In the Rainbow Brite cartoon, the cooperation village of Rainbowland is full of multi-colored homes and sparkling paths. Equally vibrant are the inhabitants, little fuzzy multihued Sprite and the Color Kids, each represented in a corresponding color with the boys, Red Butler and Buddy Blue, taking the traditional primary boy colors. Together they harvest and produce color stars which power up the magic color belt Rainbow Brite uses to awaken the dismal, colorless areas overtaken by their grey nemesis named Murkel. Riding upon Starlight, her large white stallion with a rainbow mane, Rainbow Brite travels to bring color and rainbows to all lands of the universe. You will not find any guns or swords in these brigades. Under Rainbow Brite’s motivational guidance the Color Kids and Sprites use teamwork to fight battles.

The color kids and the sprites look to Rainbow for help in resolving their conflicts. Rainbow Brite offers her friends emotional support while also engaging in the defense of Color Land. “I have to save them, you don’t have to come if you don’t want to.” (“Rainbow Land”). She offers advice and is sought out for advice, she performs as leader and is recognized as leader, by others and self-actualized. She uses her magical powers and challenges her enemies with the same serenity she displays when rescuing her friends from danger (“Peril in the Pits”), or helping a stranger find his way home (“Invasion of Rainbowland”). She offers her friends emotional support while also engaging in combative battle. “We have to go to [to the dark castle] and look for the magic color belt. We have to try, this world is awful, don’t you want it to be beautiful?” When attempting a rescue, Rainbow says to her fearful sprite companion, Twink, “You can make it if you believe you can. Try to believe” (“Beginning of Rainbowland”).

Mean Girls

Much like the teasing Lulu faced from misogynistic boy, feminine-foil Tubby, Rainbow also has to face challenges from boy characters who doubt her leadership capabilities based on her gender. In the Rainbow Brite episode “Star Stealers” Rainbow is beckoned by Onyx, the robot horse, to travel to the Crystal Diamond planet and help his owner Cris save it from the evil princess. After narrowly escaping the giant robots, Onyx informs Cris that he has returned with help, Rainbow Brite. In one sentence, Cris emasculates himself and puts down girls, “The [evil princess and her] gliterbots have everyone hypnotized but me, and that’s only because I run faster than anybody; …this is what you call help? A girl!” (“Star Stealers”).  Cris later makes fun of Starlight, Rainbow’s horse, because he can’t fly like the mechanical Onyx, he says, “That dumb horse of yours can’t help rescue us. He can’t even fly without your color belt.” Rainbow replies, “He can think, which is more than your horse can do” (“Star Stealers”), it is indicative of the struggle that girls and women face when devalued due to physical strength prowess, yet proving themselves through intellectual accomplishments. Cris’ remarks, are intended as the expected routine, to play the sexist game, the “thrashing” Adorno referred to that is expected of boys against girls; yet in the girl cartoon it is the girl that always wins.

Along with the anti-feminine foil boy character that emasculates himself by devaluing feminine gender, this research also found another gender-normative rivalry persistently present in girl cartoons, the mean girl, which I refer to as the feminine-foil. The feminine foil girls are bossy, snobby, bratty and have rivalries with the lead girl character. The feminine foil girl character actively embodies the antithesis of the empowered protagonist. Both foils are used as a representation of gender normativity for which the lead girl character can be comparatively identified as other. In Rainbow Brite “Star Stealers” the evil princess is the feminine foil. The feminine foil was also repeatedly found in episodes of My Little Pony such as the queen bee in “The End of Flutter Valley” and the queen cat in “Escape from Catrina”. As a challenge to normative gender coding, Rainbow represents a girl warrior, unafraid and ready to take heroic action.  The gendered behavior of the feminine foil princess in “Star Stealers” as well as the feminine-foils in My Little Pony, are representational of the diminutive critiques delivered earlier by Cris against Rainbow Brite. These characters are rude, selfish and freely insult those around them. The feminine foil represents a constructed, normative aspect of femininity that can be used to challenge the feminine power of girl characters like Rainbow Brite, who, though incredibly feminine and in a feminized world, is a strong and heroic leader. The feminine foil is the proverbial thorn in the girl’s side; though Rainbow Brite is strong and defies stereotypes, the feminine foil reinforces that those stereotypes are correct. However, like her challenge against Cris’ sexist remarks, Rainbow Brite proves triumphant over the bratty princess, displaying where the feminine strength truly lies- in smiling animals, rainbow sparkles and friendship.

Conclusion

Television cartoons are a uniquely interpretive form. They are a complex combination of social reproduction and conflict and, because as popular culture they are used as material resources in everyday life, may serve simultaneously dominant and marginal interests. They have been a widely misunderstood art form precisely because of their categorization as children’s entertainment; as cultural forms associated with children are commonly marginalized. Girl cartoons present an example of three-dimensional social marginalization: as children’s television, girl’s programming, and as animated cartoons, all under-valued categories of social placement and study. This positioning as a subordinate cultural form may grant girl cartoons the ability to express different viewpoints and ideas from that of the dominant framework. Gender normativity is part of this synthesis of social structure and personal agency.

The 1980s girl cartoon characters displayed leadership, confidence, determination and savvies, creating a new genre of girl empowerment.  The adventures of Rainbow Brite or the Little Ponies were inspiring young girl viewers to be empowered, sans sexualization. This representation of strength in a girl character serves to counter the themes historically used to construct little girls’ identity, such as romance, peer rivalry, and gendered self-deprecation. Walter Benjamin attributes to animation “the creation of alternative oppositional cultures” (Durham and Kellner 2006:35); by presenting little girls as leaders, the unique medium of girl cartoons challenges gender normativity, not as an emphatic expression of non-conformity, but by playfully transgressing popular culture’s compulsory gender coding.

 

Notes:


[1] Inspector Gadget is culturally coded as a boy cartoon but is included in this set because of the main character, Penny. Strawberry Shortcake, while being a girl cartoon, was a television special, not a regularly scheduled program, and therefore is not included.

[2]Originating in 1991 in the punk-rock music scene of the Pacific Northwest, the young women fan base of the Riot Grrrl movement quickly spread throughout the US and parts of Europe (France 1993) proliferating the underground feminist publications of zines addressing issues of sexuality, rape, body image and gender inequality within a larger anti-establishment identity (Malkin 1993, Garrison 2000, Fritzsche 2004). The reappropriation of the word girl as grrrl was part of their dismissal of how the mainstream media depicted what a girl should be like. Part of this reappropriation was the reclaiming of a sexual self without abusive objectification. They were reclaiming what it meant to be a girl, and they kicked ass.

[3]The Third Wave Feminist movement intended to deconstruct and question Second Wave Feminism’s dearth of representation outside of white middle-class heterosexuality, focusing on gender oppression’s intersections with the power regimes of race, sexuality and class.

[4] Wonder Woman was on the cartoon “Superfriends”, She-Ra was He-Man’s sister and had her own cartoon “She-Ra, Princess of Power” and Daphne was the girlfriend of Fred on the cartoon “Scooby-Doo”.

[5] Author’s term for the sexual objectification of girls’ bodies.

[6] …and friendship is magic.

[7] The 26 owners from 1987 went down to 10 in 1996 and down to 6 major owners in 2004. They were: Time Warner, Disney, Murdoch’s News Corporation, Bertelsmann AG, Viacom and U.S. General Electric. (Bagdikian 2004)

[8] A television special airs once, making it different from a regularly scheduled television program. A syndicated program is purchased and aired individually by stations rather than televised nationally by a network.

[9] The Smurfs was a rare cartoon intended both for the boy and girl audience. While it had the formulaic girl cartoon plot, it had a token girl character in a gang of boys.

[10] Dr. Claw and his pet cat are a parody of the James Bond 007 films’ evil genius character, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, also known as Number 1, whose SPECTRE agents are the basis for the M.A.D. agents. Inspector Gadget himself is a parody of live-action TV program Get Smart and voiced by the same actor.

[11] http://unitedmedialicensing.typepad.com, accessed May 19, 2008.

 

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BIO:  Prof. Katia Perea has a PhD in Sociology from the New School for Social Research specialized in television girl cartoons and popular culture theory. She is a Sociology professor for CUNY- City University New York and spends her spare time placing small toys in odd public locations throughout Brooklyn; a form of 3D graffiti. She is currently working on her book “Girl Cartoons” and an ethnography project on The Bronies.

 

 

In the Eye of the Beholder: Bishounen as Fantasy and Reality – Christy Gibbs

Abstract: Since the international popularisation of anime and manga, the bishounen has been one of Japan’s best recognised archetypal figures. But where did this stereotypical look come from, and is it a purely fictional representation? This paper examines the bishounen not just as he appears on the page or screen, but also how he appears in the international fashion and music scenes, as well as the way in which he influences, and is influenced by, Western versions of himself.

Figure 1: The manga Princess Princess (Mikiyo Tsuda, 2006-7)

In the aesthetically distinct universe of Japanese animation, cultural constructs of gender and sexuality can be complex and challenging to navigate. However, perhaps no archetypal anime figure is as curious to the non-Japanese viewer as much as the bishounen. Best known for his physical attributes – a slender and willowy body shape, artfully arranged hair, narrow and angular features, and often pale, delicate-looking skin – the bishounen is, as the literal translation informs us, a beautiful young man, or ‘pretty boy’. His gender is often ambiguous, his sexual orientation even more so; even for those who watch anime or read manga on a regular basis, it can be difficult to discern whether his relationships with other characters lean towards romance or are merely affectionately platonic.

To those unfamiliar with a wider scope of Japanese popular culture, it is only within this fictive context that the bishounen would appear to exist. From an Anglo-American perspective particularly, it is difficult to take a cartoon character seriously, much less one that wears flamboyant clothing, makes over-the-top arm gestures, and who strikes seemingly casual poses with one hand placed on hip. Cross-dressing is also a common theme for the bishounen-centric manga or anime, for any number of reasons – most of them more on the ridiculous or humorous side, as in the likes of Princess Princess (in which an elite boarding school who elects students to take on the role of Princess in order to in order to break up the monotony of living in an all-male environment) and Gravitation (involving a male pop star who dons a sailor uniform in a ludicrous attempt to appeal to his aloof boyfriend), are nothing if not intentionally absurd. Anime such as Hourou Musuko (Wandering Son), which depict male cross-dressing in relation to any realistic statement of self-identity, are relatively rare.

Moreover, if those same characters were to appear in just about any mainstream American film or cartoon, most would associate their various mannerisms with gay, or at least extremely camp, stereotypes. Western mainstream media is used to viewing stereotypically effeminate male characters through a homosexual lens, and this is certainly sometimes the case in anime, even when a title is not a yaoi or boys love one.[i] Given that Japan is a country where one’s sexual practices are generally understood to be a personal and therefore private matter, it would be perfectly logical to assume that the bishounen is a figure with little, if any, basis in reality.

In fact, such an assumption, however rational, would be a false one. The genre of boys love aside chances of an anime bishounen actually being gay are fairly slim. Anglo-American sexual and cultural limitations would seem to be ‘more threatened by depiction of intense same-sex friendships than does Japanese culture’, commentator Patrick Drazen notes. ‘The reason is that American pop culture often limits its options to “sex” and “not sex.” Japanese culture makes room for a much wider range of relationships’ (Drazen, 2003, p. 103).

Perhaps a more accurate way of approaching the bishounen is to look not at what messages he is (or is not) attempting to convey in terms of sexual orientation within the narrative, but rather to discuss what type of role he fulfils as far as the audience is concerned. In doing so, it appears evident that the bishounen’s job is not to make any sort of explicit statement about his sexuality, but rather to exist as a specific form of eye candy for his largely female demographic; a physical representation of one of the Japanese woman’s ideals of the perfect guy. The bishounen is by his very nature androgynous, and therefore an iconic symbol that has the potential to encompass the strength of traditional masculinity, as well as the grace and beauty of the stereotypically feminine. Regardless of whether anime bishounen are based on real historic figures (Hakuouki Shinsengumi Kitan), re-imaginings of Western stories (Romeo x Juliet), or entirely original characters (The Vision of Escaflowne), they are all therefore given the same intense beautifying treatment.

In contrast, the conventional image of what constitutes an attractive male in much of the West has often been muscular and assertively powerful, evoking perceptions of physical dominance, authority and control, while the attribute of ‘prettiness’ is considered a feminine trait – the opposite of being masculine or ‘manly’. In Japan, however, being pretty does not necessarily mean sacrificing masculinity, and more recently, the West has also seen a growth in this new image of what constitutes male attractiveness. It could be argued that this new masculinity has been influenced since the mid-1990s by the increasing availability of popular and mainstream anime titles such as Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, Pokemon, One Piece, Naruto, and Bleach.

In order to explore how modern conceptions of the bishounen character arose, it is first necessary to pinpoint when and how he came into being within the mainstream culture of his birthplace. The term itself is first found in the Meiji period (1868-1912), where it was used to describe especially beautiful pre-adolescent boys, who were often involved in homosexual relationships (Pflugfelder,  1999, pp. 221–234). Although the word was not in usage prior to this, we might also be reminded of the popularity of Japanese theatre over the previous two centuries, where gender reversal was commonplace.

After women were banned from the kabuki theatre stage in the mid-1600s due primarily to problems arising from prostitution, physically effeminate male performers took on the role of women in their place (Bullough, 1993, p. 242).[ii] Such actors often maintained their dress outside the theatre, compelled to experience first-hand the everyday life, customs, and etiquette of the women they played, many from early childhood. At its height of popularity, some kabuki actors became so sought-after that they became leaders of women’s fashion. While the actors who played women’s roles emulated the manners and dress of high-born ladies, the audience, largely made up of peasants and townspeople, created a space in which performers could potentially become trendsetters in bearing and clothing (Scott, 1999, p. 39).

The temptation to view men who cross-dressed as a part of their art outside the theatre as homosexual is a natural one for many in the West today, and that many of these performers were indeed engaging in male/male relationships is probable. However, Anglo-American culture lacks a common understanding of when and why labels of sexuality are applied in Japanese culture. Whilst alternative sexual practices in Japan today, including those with long historical traditions such as homosexuality, cross-dressing, and transvestism are not widely publicly accepted, there has consistently been a large gap between how one is expected to behave in the outside world, and how that same person may act while taking on the role of entertainer. In a country where standing out from the crowd in any way is usually thought of as socially undesirable, anything that occurs within a framework of fiction – from kabuki and opera to anime and mainstream television – is not considered to be an accurate reflection of either an individual or society as a whole. Consequently, a transvestite who appears in a film is seen as a performer rather than a demonstration of an individual’s real expression of sexuality, and a drag queen depicted on a show lives only in the land of television – a world from which most Japanese feel detached (Buckley, 2002, p. 94).

For example, whilst the televised portrayal of a character named Hard Gay, as played by comedian Masaki Sumitani, depicted a man dressed in a black PVC fetish outfit who ran around the streets of Japan performing acts of charity for unsuspecting bystanders, the show gained national attention and popularity, and was deemed suitable to air on a Saturday evening variety show. Of course, Hard Gay is an overt homosexual parody (in reality neither gay nor a fetishist), and not a bishounen by any stretch of the imagination; his television persona serves to illustrate the ambiguity between screen and reality. In contrast, Japanese stage and film actor Saotome Taichi is a modern example of a figure that embodies the bishounen aesthetic, yet is not spurned or ridiculed for how he dresses, speaks, or behaves during his performances. Well known for playing both beautiful young men and women, Saotome was trained from a young age in the field of female impersonation. An official fan club was established in 2006, and tickets to his kimono dance performance at the Taishokan theatre the following year sold out within a day.

Figure 2: Japanese stage and film actor Saotome Taichi

Nonetheless, the real-life depiction of the bishounen dates back much further than popular Japanese theatre, and can be traced to the tenth century where the Imperial Court of Heian-kyo (now the city of Kyoto) held sway. The Heian Court was the centre of aesthetic sensibilities of all varieties: Japanese music, poetry, calligraphy, and clothing fashions all found their deepest roots here, where aristocrats were obsessed with the pursuit of beauty. It was not simply that cultivating beauty meant a person was sophisticated or fashionable – it also implied a sense of morality. George Sansom, a pre-modern Japan historian, writes: ‘The most striking feature of the aristocratic society of the Heian capital was its aesthetic quality … even in its emptiest follies, it was moved by considerations of refinement and governed by a rule of taste’ (Sansom, 1958, p. 178).

Standards of aristocratic male beauty here were in many ways similar to those for female beauty. Both sexes whitened their skin with rice powder, blackened their teeth using a liquid made up of acetic acid and dissolved iron, and prized a rounded, plump figure in order to physically display the leisure and riches that the peasantry – those with leaner figures from less food intake and darker skin from labouring outdoors – could not afford to obtain. It was fashionable for men to have a thin moustache or tuft of beard at the chin, but large quantities of facial hair were considered especially unattractive (Topics in Japanese Cultural History).

Naturally, Heian beauty is interpreted in a more contemporary, bishounen-esque framework as far as anime and manga are concerned: The Tale of Genji, originally written by Murasaki Shikibu during the Heian period, has had several adaptations, the most recent of which was an 11-episode anime series in 2009. While most of the characters have the creamy white skin of the Heian-period principles of beauty, there is physically little else to tie the anime and Heian ideals of attractiveness together. Genji, with his slender silhouette and narrow features, has nothing that sets him visually apart from any other bishounen that might be seen in any other mainstream anime production, historically-themed or otherwise.

While the bishounen ideal may have been cemented in the Heian era, a quick survey of Japanese popular culture today, even disregarding the anime and manga industries, reveals that far from being a storytale figure, the bishounen also exists as a true world representation. Host club workers, although a far cry from what has been depicted in the extremely popular Ouran High School Host Club anime series, are perhaps the most obvious example to draw from, with many of these young men looking almost like a parody of anime bishounen caricatures. Similar to their hostess club counterparts, where male customers pay for the attentive company of beautiful young ladies, host clubs employ men who are paid to converse, pour drinks, light cigarettes, entertain by means of fun stage performances, and generally flirt with their female clientele. Upon a first visit to a host club, the customer is presented with a menu of each host on offer for her to decide which host she like to meet first. Once she has chosen the host she most prefers, she designates him her named host, with the employee then receiving a percentage of all future sales generated by that particular customer. Most clubs operate on a permanent nomination system, and a host cannot be changed once they have been nominated excepting under special circumstances. Regular payment is determined by a host’s commission on drink sales, and for this reason, the environment can be highly competitive, with tens of thousands of dollars sometimes offered to the host who can achieve the highest sales (pripix).

The typical host look, made up of an appropriately dishevelled dark suit and collared shirt, bleached hair, and expensive silver jewellery, is paired with a stage name often taken from a favourite film, manga, or historical figure that may describe their persona. The overall effect is usually one of an anime bishounen made flesh and blood. The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief (Jake Clennell, 2006), a documentary-film interviewing several hosts and their customers in a popular club in Osaka, paints a very pragmatic picture of the host club industry – one which survives by seducing customers without having to depend on the more overt sexual appeal of strip clubs or brothels. ‘For girls, we are products’, states one such worker. ‘If she wants a humble, cool guy, I can be like that. If she wants a funny guy, I can be like that too.’ ‘Let’s say I do fuck her. That girl will probably never come back’, another points out. ‘At that point, there won’t be anything else I can give her … Knowing how to give them satisfaction without sex – that’s the point.’ While hosts can and sometimes do have sex with their clients, this is clearly not the purpose of this institution’s existence.

Tajima Yoko, a professor of women’s studies at Hosei University in Tokyo, explains the host club phenomenon by the conventional Japanese male and his lack of true listening to the everyday concerns of his partner. ‘Men, married or not, in our culture do not listen to their female partners’ problems carefully … They only tell women what they want them to hear. Men don’t consider women equal partners’ (New York Times). Although there is no official count of the number of individual clubs, the host club industry employed an estimated twenty thousand men in total as of 2005 (Japan – Facts and Details). Some of the larger and more commercial clubs, such as New Ai (New Love) in Shinjuku, Tokyo, employ approximately eighty workers whose sole job it is to fulfil the emotional needs of the women who frequent the club, in part by existing as beautiful objects of fantasy (New York Times).

Such a concept is alien to most of the rest of the world, suggesting that outside of Japan, the majority of countries do not have the numbers of the right type of customer – that is, one willing to spend several hundred or thousand dollars per visit purely to be kept company by a score of pretty men – to support such an industry. While the idea of paying for sex is universally understood, the thought of paying an equal amount or more for the pleasure of someone’s company is simply baffling to many people. In turn, although some host workers are foreigners, host clubs are generally not known about, or else poorly understood, by overseas visitors, and very few customers are non-Japanese. As with the Japanese sex industry, there is a very distinct preference for both the customer and the host to be Japanese, and it is not uncommon for many bars and clubs to have signs outside saying “No foreigners admitted.”

Tellingly, a great deal of the reactions by foreigners to the business of host clubs has tended to be negative. ‘Even if they had equivalent in the UK I don’t think I’d go’, reads one response to an online article. ‘British guys (sorry to say this) don’t really seem to maintain their looks or interest in a womans [sic] needs for long enough.’ ‘I don’t find them attractive in any way, and I don’t want to pay for the “companionship”’, states another (UK Fashion, Lifestyle & Beauty Blog). Keywords commonly associated with host fashion outside of Japan include “tacky”, “fake”, “creepy”, and “sleazy”.

However, in other entertainment industries, the cultural crossover in terms of what women find attractive in a male is more evident. The music business is one such industry, and in Japan, the most extreme form of the bishounen can be found here. Visual kei – literally visual style – is a uniquely Japanese aesthetic music movement inspired by Western glam metal bands such as Kiss and Twisted Sister (High Music XRD). What these bands inspired in visual kei was, as the name of the movement implies, the importance of appearance as an essential part of the musical style, sometimes even above the music itself in terms of importance.

Bands including The Gazette, Versailles, and Alice Nine are today known less for their music and more for their eye-catching make-up and wardrobe in some circles. The visual kei look is ethereally dark, glamorously androgynous, and elaborately punk, often all at once. Many artists are particularly effeminate in appearance, and it is not uncommon for some to pose explicitly as females, wearing dresses reminiscent of Regency, Rococo, and Victorian fashion. Their ‘maleness’ as we might understand it comes across strongly in their vocals, which are usually anything but gender ambiguous.

Figure 3: Visual kei band Versailles

First emerging in the late 1980s, the visual kei movement was pioneered by acts such as X Japan, Buck-Tick, and D’erlanger. By the mid-1990s, a boost in popularity throughout Japan meant that the most notable of these bands were achieving high commercial success, with the likes of X Japan, Luna Sea, Glay, and Malice Mizer receiving large amounts of media attention. This last group became especially famous for their live performances, which featured lavish historical costumes and stage sets. Mana, co-founder of Malice Mizer, would go on to create his own clothing label, Moi-même-Moitié, in 1999, coining the terms “Elegant Gothic Lolita” and “Elegant Gothic Aristocrat” (Steele and Park, 2008, p. 54). He is regularly featured modelling his own designs in the quarterly Gothic & Lolita Bible, the top publication of the Lolita fashion scene, yet retains his mysterious persona by rarely speaking in public. In most interviews past and present, Mana is known for whispering his answers into the ear of a band member or confidante, using Yes/No cards, or expressing himself in mime.

Gackt, who abruptly left Malice Mizer at the height of the band’s success in 1999, began pursuing a career as an actor and solo artist, and is currently one of Japan’s best known pop idols. Since his time apart from Malice Mizer, Gackt has been making regular alterations to his style: his hair has morphed from straight, long, and jet-black to blonde and spiky in the blink of an eye, and he has experimented with nearly every shade of red and brown in between. His naturally brown eyes frequently change colour thanks to habitual use of green or blue contact lenses. Yet whether he plays a gang leader (Moon Child), samurai warrior (Bunraku), or feudal warlord (Fūrin Kazan), the main trademarks of Gackt’s appearance has remained the same – pale, slender, and virtually ageless.

It is therefore no surprise that Gackt has styled himself on, and even provided a model for many bishounen of the manga, anime, and video game industries. Characters from The Rose of Versailles, Rurouni Kenshin, and Final Fantasy VII, among other titles, have all been incorporated into his look at one stage or another, to Gackt’s rising popularity. Sentiments like those referenced by anthropologist Laura Miller in Beauty Up towards stars such as Gackt (‘He has a body so beautiful it’s like an art object … I’m filled with fantasies of the excitement that would happen if we were in bed’) are far from unusual among fans (Miller, 2006, p. 156). Strictly speaking, the cut-off age for bishounen-hood is eighteen, at which point one becomes a biseinen instead – a beautiful man, usually described as more handsome than pretty. Now in his forties, Gackt, still flaunting the cool delicacy of his features, is living proof that age is not necessarily a barrier to adhering to the bishounen style.

Neither are Gackt’s charms restricted to a female fanbase. In 2010, Gackt announced that his live performance at Club Citta in Kawasaki, Kanagawa, would be for men only, reportedly in an attempt to reverse the recent trend among Japanese males of shunning traditional male stereotypes to get in touch with their feminine side, and instead celebrate ‘the way of the man’ (Japan Today: Japan News and Discussion). Over one thousand men attended the sold-out show, while sixty women listened from the lobby and countless others from outside, cheering the men on as they entered (Ningin).

Other Japanese musical stars have found their fame through group collaboration. While the boy band fad in the West has died down somewhat since the 1990s, pop boy bands in Japan are among the most successful of all genres of Japanese music. J-pop found its way into major mainstream success during the same decade, gaining a commercial peak with individual female artists such as Hamasaki Ayumi and Utada Hikaru as well as with idol units (popular singing and dancing groups), many of them all-male. In particular, the talent agency Johnny & Associates, which exists exclusively to train and promote male idol groups, produced several extremely high-profile groups during this period such as SMAP, Tokio, and Arashi. American boy bands such as The Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync likewise debuted in the 1990s, only to peak and then either disband or sharply decline in popularity in the first years of the new millennium. In comparison, Japanese boy bands continued to grow in number and reputation, with huge acts like EXILE, NEWS, KAT-TUN, and Hey! Say! JUMP joining the idol unit craze.

Like the Western boy bands of the 1990s, aesthetic appeal continues to be a significant factor in the popularity and marketing of these all-boy Japanese groups, and it is easy to see the similarities between The Backstreets Boys and Hey! Say! JUMP, Westlife and KAT-TUN, or ‘N Sync and Arashi not only in terms of sound, but also in general style. Posters, album covers, and promotional photos depict these bands casually standing or lounging about dressed all in white, for example, as they gaze coolly at the camera. Other images show the band members in jeans and black leather jackets, long coats with scarves draped nonchalantly about their necks, or with the slightly ruffled suit-and-tie look.

Figure 4: Boy bands N Sync and Arashi

However, looking past some of these blinding similarities, there are also some significant differences. For instance, it is difficult to find members of any of these household-name Japanese boy bands with facial hair, while there usually seems to be at least one, and sometimes two or three Western boy band members sporting a well-groomed beard or goatee. The same contrast can be seen with regards to boy band members with piercings or tattoos; the resident ‘bad boy’ of the group is usually evident in a Western boy band, while that figure is conspicuous only by his absence in the Japanese version. Hair tends to be a little longer in Japanese male idol groups, with a particular emphasis on eye-covering fringes and painstakingly placed wisps, whereas only one or two boy band members out of any given group in America might be known for their longer locks.

Overall, Japan’s male groups are typically gentle in appearance, perhaps a little more friendly and accessible. Whilst not precisely androgynous, they are a less extreme version of the bishounen of the visual kei scene. Where The Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync took pains to keep from appearing too pretty by balancing out the more delicate-looking members of the group with a couple of tougher, more traditionally masculine individuals (and presumably thereby avoiding any gay slurs), the members of KAT-TUN and Hey! Say! JUMP make their living off being beautiful.

Furthermore, groups like this earn their idol status not only by singing, but also by acting in television dramas, appearing on variety shows, hosting charity events, and endorsing products such as Coca-Cola, KDDI Corporation mobile phones, Wii video games, and the Japan Tourism Agency. They are a constant, inescapable presence in nearly all aspects of Japanese daily life, and they take pains to form an image based on their individual talents or personality traits as being a part of a cohesive unit. Predictably, their female fans are both numerous and extremely passionate. In 2010, a Tokyo-based freelance journalist wrote:

Then there is Arashi who celebrate each other’s birthdays and vacation together. It seems incredible that Arashi is popular worldwide for simply being good buddies but this kind of interaction is so rarely seen in celebrities. In Japan, the interaction is rehearsed and simulated. Overseas, variety shows specialize in people openly feuding. With these types of entertainment, it is no wonder that the good-natured humor of Arashi, along with their sappy sweet pop songs, is healing the world’ (The Asahi Shimbun Digital).

The young men of Arashi may be a little too conventional to indulge in cosplay or model their looks after specific anime characters, but their style cannot help but be at least indirectly influenced by the bishounen aesthetic. Very few anime bishounen have any trace of facial hair, and as has been previously discussed, these types of characters are well-known for their slender frames, unblemished skin, glossy hair that falls just so over the eyes, and a coolly tantalizing aura. The similarities are not hard to overlook.

It is apparent that there has been some crossover of the appeal of the bishounen in today’s Western entertainment industries with newer boy bands such as British group One Direction, although the most notable increase with regards to the popularity of pretty boys has been seen in the film industry thanks to the widespread popularity of franchises like Twilight. Although most non-Japanese teenage girls may not know the meaning of the word bishounen or have any understanding of what anime or manga is, the traditional sex appeal of the rough, tough, rugby-player style body currently competes against the slim, milky-white skinned young male as so obviously embodied in the character of Edward Cullen.

The film versions of the Twilight novels chose to amplify the tension already seen in book format, where two young men compete for one girl’s romantic interests and the heroine constantly bounces between the two, who are physically complete opposites. Edward is exceptionally slim, pale to the point of being sickly-looking, and has an aura of cold intensity about him even after becoming romantically involved with Bella. The very name Edward, which roughly translates to ‘wealthy guard’, conjures images of English nobility and old world romanticism. Conversely, Jacob Black is of Native American descent, and has dark hair and eyes and russet skin. A tribal tattoo on his right arm completes the slightly roguish look. Although he is originally described as tall and lanky in the first book, the films portray him as relatively muscular; a fact that is only accentuated by his usual style of clothing – or lack thereof. Where Edward is cool, Jacob is passionate and adventurous, and where Edward turns into a sparkly, ostensibly prettier version of himself, Jacob quite literally transforms into a wild animal.

As was no doubt the intention, the competition between Edward and Jacob transcended the screen and became embedded in popular culture. Did main protagonist Bella – and by extension, the audience – lust after the beautiful, sharp-edged Edward, or did she prefer the brawny, more earthy charms of Jacob? Did fans desire pretty, or lust over handsome? Posters, shirts, and an array of other types of merchandise proudly display an allegiance of either Team Jacob or Team Edward, and have been snapped up by teens and tweens in their thousands.

Ultimately, however, it was Team Pretty who won the race, winning not only the girl but also, in overwhelming numbers, the most fans. In a poll carried out in 2008 by Novel Novice Twilight, a website dedicated to exploring the relationship between the Twilight series and its fans, Team Edward won by nearly double the score, earning over five thousand votes (Twilight Novel Novice). In 2009, Robert Pattinson was chased into traffic on a New York City street by a mob of frenzied fans, and the following year, People magazine listed Pattinson in their “World’s Most Beautiful” issue because of his ‘pale, otherworldly complexion’ (New York Daily News, People).

Unsurprisingly, the amount of anime bishounen who also fit the unearthly beautiful vampire mould are numerous: Zero, Kaname, and just about every other male vampire from Vampire Knight, Solomon Goldsmith and Hagi from Blood+, Shido and Cain from Nightwalker: Midnight Detective, and Trinity’s Blood’s Abel and Cain Nightroad, to name just a few. This is not to suggest that Stephanie Meyer was directly influenced by anime or the figure of the Japanese bishounen, but rather that due to the current influence of anime in international popular culture, non-Japanese audiences are becoming more receptive to the pretty boy as one ideal of male beauty.

Figure 5: Trunks from popular male-orientated anime Dragonball Z

However, although the sheer popularity of characters such as Edward Cullen would appear to indicate that the West is becoming more open to pretty young men being an acceptable form of heterosexual attractiveness, it also illustrates that we are far from being able to think of prettiness as a form of real masculinity. The hate that has been directed towards Patterson/Edward Cullen suggests that traditional notions of masculinity have not been eclipsed, and there is a substantial reaction against bishounen-type characters in the West despite the undoubted popularity of the figure amongst teenage girls. While we usually insist on polarising prettiness and masculinity, in Japan this does not seem to be an issue. Japanese studies Professor Kenneth G. Henshall points out that ‘deliberately enhanced “effeminate”, flower-like, graceful beauty has rarely been considered the antithesis of manliness in Japan, either by women or men themselves’ (Henshall, 1999, p. 4). Mainstream notions in Anglo-American society that correlate being pretty and being homosexual are gradually changing, yet slurs such as “pretty boy”, “queen”, and “fairy” are still commonly applied to men who are perceived as being too feminine in appearance, or who are especially fastidious about their physical presentation – regardless of whether this has any kind of connection to sexual orientation. In contrast, Miller has written, ‘I do not see current male beauty practices [in Japan] as a type of “feminization” of men … but rather as a shift to beautification as a component of masculinity’ (Miller, 2006, p. 126).

Given that manga, while rising in awareness and popularity in America and elsewhere, is nowhere near approaching the types of sales figures in Japan, this should not come as a surprise. Manga makes up nearly forty percent of total book sales in Japan, and to a large extent is responsible for normalising the bishounen aesthetic (Craig, 2000, p. 110). The bishounen has been a central figure for much of manga and anime’s modern history and is not limited to genre or demographic, even appearing in titles aimed at a primarily male audience such as Trunks from Dragonball Z, Sesshomaru from InuYasha, and Sasuke and Itachi from Naruto, as well as the conventional female-orientated fare. However, the influence of the young female consumer in Japan cannot be underestimated, and much of the entertainment industry caters to her tastes and desires. Whilst the stories depicted in anime and manga may not be a direct reflection of Japanese society, the prevalence of the bishounen has undeniably gone a long way in giving society the okay to emulate the look without being frowned upon or ridiculed for it.

Perceptions are gradually shifting in the West as well, and in many cases it appears that pretty is becoming the new brand of sexy for men. However, without the same sort of normalisation that Japan enjoys, it is doubtful whether the gap between male beauty and stereotypes of weakness and femininity will be bridged to the same extent in the near future. The bishounen outside of Asia is beginning to gain some currency, but ‘safe’ Western notions of duality – masculine and feminine, heterosexual and homosexual – may be too ingrained to ever be disregarded completely.

Notes


i Both yaoi and boys love are popular terms used to describe fictional media (usually referring specifically to anime and manga), that focuses on homoerotic male relationships. The genre is largely created by and for a heterosexual female audience, and is distinguishable from what is commonly known as gei comi, bara, or mens love, which caters to a gay male audience and tends to be created primarily by homosexual male artists.

ii Eventually, still finding similar problems, all male actors became required by the authorities to shave their hair in the style of mature men so that they would be less attractive to their audience.

 

References

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Bullough, Bonnie (1993). Cross Dressing, Sex, and Gender, University of Pennsylvania Press, Pennsylvania.

Craig, Timothy J. (2000). Japan Pop!: Inside the World of Japanese Popular Culture,  M. E. Sharpe, New York.

Henshall, Kenneth G. (1999). Dimensions of Japanese Society: Gender, Margins and Mainstream, Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Miller, Laura, (2006). Beauty Up: Exploring Contemporary Japanese Body Aesthetics, University of California Press, California.

Pflugfelder, Gregory M. (1999). Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse, 1600-1950, University of California Press, California.

Sansom, George Bailey (1958). A History of Japan to 1334, Stanford University Press, California).

Scott, Adolphe Clarence (1999). The Kabuki Theatre of Japan, Courier Dover Publications, New York.

Steele, Valerie and Park, Jennifer (2008). Gothic: Dark Glamour, Yale University Press, Connecticut.

The Great Happiness Space: Tale of an Osaka Love Thief. 2006. Directed by Jake Clennell. United Kingdom. Jake Clennell Productions.

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Ningin. Gackt’s men-only show SELLS OUT! http://blog.ningin.com/2010/03/22/gackts-men-only-show-sells-out/ (accessed 26 March 2012).

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Bio:

Christy Gibbs is a graduate from the University of Waikato in New Zealand, and has recently completed her doctoral thesis whose topic explores representations of sexuality in contemporary Japanese animation. She is currently working in rural Japan as an Assistant Language Teacher and is also a regular columnist for Forces of Geek, a blog focusing on a variety of pop and geek culture worldwide.

 

The Single Female Intruder – David Surman

Abstract: This essay examines a contemporary cultural icon that operates across distinct media boundaries, as a kind of transmedia archetype. Of interest is the visuality of what I call the ‘single female intruder’, which emerges as the intersection of a variety of low cultural forms, and has its origins in the Japanese visual and literary culture of the nineteenth century. What are the characteristics of the single female intruder? She wears closely fitted clothing, which describe the shape of her body, though she is tall, willowy and androgynous. She comes equipped with a variety of powerful weapons and technologies, that she keeps secreted away on her person, and combines this armoury with expert knowledge of a variety of relevant disciplines. She is always proficient in martial arts, though her willingness to fight is measured against the dramas of her past, tempering the speed of her sword-hand. Her movement is characterised by an impossible elegance, and she seems preternaturally adapted to exploit any space that she comes to occupy. The technologies she deploys are an extension of the physical body, and never encumber her.

Figure 1: Vanessa Z. Schneider in the videogame P.N.03 (2003)

Introduction

Within the generic realities of film, animation, games and comic books, there are many varied female archetypes. Indeed, the representation of women in the media inevitably segues into the active discussion of typologies. The distribution of such types fall within the predefined boundaries of high and low, popular and peripheral, men’s and women’s culture. The effect and ideology of certain types has been actively debated in the humanities, and in particular in feminist criticism. Tanya Krzywinska has outlined the way in which cultural analyses of action heroines has orientated toward the critique of such icons as role models, within the frame of identity politics (Krzywinska, 2005, p. 3). In her critique of action heroines within videogames, she suggests that the critique of representation is limited insofar as it fails to describe the dimensions of play and control that underpin the videogame experience.

This essay examines a contemporary cultural icon that operates across distinct media boundaries, as a kind of transmedia archetype. Of interest is the visuality of what I call the ‘single female intruder’, which emerges as the intersection of a variety of low cultural forms, and has its origins in the Japanese visual and literary culture of the nineteenth century. With the ‘recentering’ of globalised media from its traditional North American power-base toward new Asian counterparts (that has come as a consequence of sustained growth in Japan’s media and cultural industries), such icons have been disseminated to receptive western audiences. The characteristics of the single female intruder are defined as a consequence of the media that converge to form the transmedia space of contemporary popular culture. Their positioning as low cultural forms unifies the constituent fields that converge in the figure of the ‘single female intruder’.

What are the characteristics of the single female intruder? She wears closely fitted clothing, which describe the shape of her body, though she is tall, willowy and androgynous. She comes equipped with a variety of powerful weapons and technologies, that she keeps secreted away on her person, and combines this armoury with expert knowledge of a variety of relevant disciplines. These will usually include computer programming, reconnaissance, research and investigation. She is always proficient in martial arts, though her willingness to fight is measured against the dramas of her past, tempering the speed of her sword-hand. Her movement is characterised by an impossible elegance, and she seems preternaturally adapted to exploit any space that she comes to occupy. The technologies she deploys are an extension of the physical body, and never encumber her.

She is an amalgam of high trash clichés and narrative conceits; often orphaned, wracked by bereavement, seeking vengeance, driven by the urgency of an incurable illness. Such melodramatic tropes are buried beneath the sobriety and perfection of grey-white skin, expressionless and captivating. She is two people in one body; the face of an angel, the heart of a demon; but never duplicitous, her expressions of emotion are sincere and forthright, often taking place in secluded confessionals away from the song of carnage. She is never the homemaker, though the riddle of such happiness might emerge in moments of reprieve. She is a nomad, constantly on the move, often moving out of the frying pan and into the fire. She is more a heroine of generic reality than everyday life, a celebration of the seductive tropes of contemporary fiction and the intermingling of technology, imagination and desire.

The single female intruder is so ubiquitous in contemporary popular culture that an examination of her sophisticated rhetoric is necessary. In the course of this article, I want to show how such an internationalised, post-modern archetype, which seemingly operates outside of any clearly defined cultural boundaries, has origins in pre-modern Japanese culture. I shall argue that the history of this archetype can be seen as metonymic of the changing post-war relationship between American hegemony and the rise of Japanese popular culture as a new global centre. The proliferation of this archetype follows a very particular path, and its movement can be traced from aesthetic reforms in Japanese antiquity, subsequently retrieved in the 1970s by filmmakers and mangaka eager to revisit the culture of the Edo period. Hiroki Azuma has described how this internal appropriation of Edo period aesthetic and cultural values comes as a consequence of the cultural anxieties arising as a response to wartime defeat and American occupation. He writes,

Their preference toward the association between the 80s postmodern society and the premodern Edo can be easily explained once you recognize the abovementioned process of “domestication” of the postwar American culture. In the mid 80s, many Japanese were fascinated with their economical success and tried to erase or forget their traumatic memory of the defeat in World War Two. The re-evaluation of Edo culture is socially required in such an atmosphere (Azuma, 2001, np).

As I will explain, the tropes of ‘rikyu grey aesthetics’ and ‘the poison woman’ are retrieved and then celebrated within the generic reality of Japanese popular culture from the 1970s onwards. The ambiguous, seductive and controversial qualities of this historical figure consequently circulate within the growing international fandom for Japanese popular culture. From there, contemporary influences imbibe this peculiarly Japanese anti-heroine with a new agency, to embody principles of control and beauty in an age of technological anonymity and information terrorism. Influences that immediately spring to mind include videogames, action cinema, exploitation cinema, science fiction literature, in particular cyberpunk, fetish clothing and the goth, techno and electronic music scenes. Contemporary single female intruders reveal the traces of their Japanese antecedents in their sober demeanour, snow-white skin and mobile technologies. Like the massively successful franchises Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! The single female intruder is an ambassador for an alternative set of generic parameters in popular culture that assert the Japanese aesthetic, and is resolved in the interaction of multiple cultural centres.

In the first section of this paper, I will explore the Japanese antecedents to the single female intruder, with an emphasis on the relationship between simultaneous reforms in attitude to both colour and femininity. From there, I examine how Japanese film and literature of the mid-to-late twentieth century transformed this figure into a modern heroine first through exploitation, and then science fiction. I then want to examine briefly the transformation of this figure in the science fiction film and literature of 1980s America and Europe. The representations and descriptions generated by the likes of Ridley Scott and William Gibson play a central role in Japan’s imagining of itself and its iconography. To conclude, I examine how digital culture and convergence have effected the transformation of the single female intruder, and how her sophisticated rhetoric has been transformed to speak to our contemporary environment.

Poison Woman Dressed in Rikyu Grey

Figure 2: Hishikawa Moronobu “A Standing Woman”, c.1690.

The prehistory of the single female intruder archetype is much more culturally specific than it might first seem, since such characters nowadays enjoy an international audience. The archetype emerges from the changes in the construction of cultural attitudes to beauty and femininity around the time of the Meiji reformation of Japan. Single female intruders are invariably rebels, whether they are escaping societal reforms, in the case of Trinity in The Matrix trilogy (1999; 2003; 2003) or the eponymous Aeon Flux (2005), complex mercenaries like Vanessa Z. Schneider (fig.1) in the videogame P.N.03 (2003), or living technologies driven by existential angst like Major Makoto Kusanagi of Ghost in the Shell (1995).

Christine L. Marran has described the origins of what she has coined the ‘Poison Woman’, in stories made popular during the Meiji reformation (1868–1912) of the nineteenth century. They profile the lives of sensational women who had caused some sort of scandal, more often than not though the murder of her spouse, perhaps guilty of involvement in other high profile vices. She writes,

The long and changing tradition of writing about female criminals began with the rise of the newspaper serial. With such colourful nicknames as Demon Oden, Night Storm Okinu, Viper Omasa, and Lightning Oshin, to name only a few, the first poison women appeared as anti-heroes in Japan’s earliest serialized newspaper stories. These serials were based on the lives and crimes of real women. (Marran, 2007, p. xv)

The media furor around the activities of female criminals far exceeded the number and frequency of their activities, such was the public appetite for this new sensational fiction. Fiction and reality intermingled from the outset. As Marran asks ‘What national obsessions are articulated through this interest in the female convicts?’ (Ibid.). The rise of the poison woman archetype in Meiji period culture coincides with substantial changes in the representation of women in the woodblock prints of ukiyo-e artists. These changes would complicate the rhetoric surrounding such controversial women. In the Genroku era (1688–1704) the artist Hishikawa Moronobu,(1618–1694) was one of the pioneers of the ukiyo-e printmaking craft, and was known for his portraits of women and lifestyle scenes. In his imagery the women are voluptuous and feminine, shown in brightly coloured, voluminous robes (fig.2). In the later An’ei-Tenmei era (1772–1781; 1781–1789) the work of artist Suzuki Harunobu (1724–1770) departs from this archetypal, highly feminised aesthetic, and instead portrays women with long, slender bodies, demure faces and a spiritual intensity (fig.3). Kisho Kurokawa writes that,

This trend is of particular interest because it suggests the progressive denial of the generous voluptuousness that symbolized the prosperity and material abundance of pre-modern Japan up until Genroku. The An’ei/Tenmei aesthetic, on the other hand, was characterised by a nonsensual, eccentric, and non-physical beauty, expressing the spirit of an age of more refined ambiguity and a sophisticated rhetoric. (Kurokawa, 1997, p. 161)

Figure 3: Suzuki Harunobu “Crow and Heron, or Young Lovers Walking Together under an Umbrella in a Snowstorm”, c. 1769

 

This new aesthetic of ambiguity, which pervades Harunobu’s prints, becomes the face of the poison woman. Her crimes and misdemeanours are complicated and intensified by the aesthetic coding of this new feminine rhetoric. Marius B. Jensen writes of these ukiyo-e prints that, ‘The ladies they portray are not full faced, something the carver could not provide, but minimalist sketches; they return our stares unblinking and uninvolved. We admire them but do not relate to them, somewhat the way Saikaku’s readers regarded his characters’ (Jensen, 2002, 180). Earlier trends in popular aesthetics inform the recurrent representation of the poison woman in ukiyo-e printworks and in newspaper stories of the period. In the period preceding the Genroku era, a sudden fashion for the colour grey emerged in Japanese society, as a result of the cultural reforms to the tea ceremony introduced by Sen no Rikyu (1522–1591). Jensen writes, ‘Sen no Rikyu, who served as chief tea master to both Nobunaga and Hideyoshi […] was a figure who combined considerable personal wealth with a cult of simplicity and modesty that he codified in the tea ceremony of his day’ (Jensen, 2002, 117). Part of this revision of the ceremony was the advocation of the colour grey in clothing and décor. Kurokawa confirms the connection between tea ceremony reforms and the emerging taste for minimalism and grey,

Whereas until this time grey had been considered a vile colour conjuring up the image of rats and ashes, upon becoming known as Rikyu grey it was better appreciated. In the mid-Edo era it gained tremendous popularity—along with brown and indigo—as the embodiment of the aesthetic ideal of iki. Iki in this period is a complex concept but may be conveniently described as “richness in sobriety.” As the cult of tea spread beyond the upper classes to be practiced in the homes of ordinary people, so did the taste for grey. (Kurokawa, 1997, p. 160)

In his rehabilitation of Rikyu grey as an aesthetic category in its own right, Kurokawa emphasises the colour’s essential ambiguity, at times sinister, charming and charismatic. He describes how, ‘In contrast to the grey in the West, which is a combination of black and white, Rikyu grey was a combination of four opposing colours: red, blue, yellow and white’ (Kurokawa, 1991, p. 70). And so, the construction of the ‘poison woman’ in Meiji period mass culture intersects with two crucial aesthetic reforms, the adoption of Harunobu’s slender, ambiguous figure in the representation of women, and the rise of the widespread fashion for Rikyu grey, which emerged from reforms to the tea ceremony which emphasised simplicity, austerity and sobriety.

The Blizzard from the Netherworld

Figure 4: Yuki in Lady Snowblood (Shurayukihime, Toshiya Fujita, 1973)

I want to make a leap now to postwar Japan, where the domestic influence of American occupation was having an effect on popular culture. Tensions arising from wartime defeat, aggressive industrialisation and urbanisation and a sense of cultural dissipation motivated media producers to rehabilitate narratives and character archetypes from the Edo period, as a means of cultural recovery and national reflection. The three tropes of the poison woman archetype, Harunobu’s willowy bodies, and the aesthetic sobriety of Rikyu grey are consolidated in Yuki Kashima (fig.4), heroine of the Japanese exploitation film Lady Snowblood (Shurayukihime, Toshiya Fujita, 1973). Fujita’s film, based on the manga by Kazuo Koike, follows the journey of Yuki, played by Meiko Kaji, who seeks bloody vengeance for the rape and murder of her mother and father at the hand of a gang of bandits. She is the quintessential poison woman, and her exploits are publicised in the course of the film by newspaper reporter Ashio Ryuhei. The sophisticated and ambivalent quality of Yuki, and also the actress Meiko Kaji, is captured by Rikke Schubart, who writes,

The star persona of Meiko Kaji is located between the extraordinary powers of a castrating gaze and the existential malaise of a female killer. Kaji’s characters are haunted, if not by the past, but by a sense of not belonging, of being out of place and out of time. In this, they resemble the mythic hero. They are exceptionally beautiful, yet out of reach emotionally. Their weapon skills are at the expense of inner balance. They move faster than any opponent but lose track of life. (Schubert, 2007, p. 119)

The cult appeal of Asian exploitation heroines such as Yuki had the effect of reenergizing the antiquated archetype of the poison woman, along with the sensibility of Rikyu and the aesthetics of Harunobu. Poison women exist in every age, but the sword wielding she- demon of the Edo period had a romantic appeal all of its own. The unsettling and arresting beauty of her skin, and the ghostly perfection of Yuki’s ‘whitewashed-wall weave’ kabe shijira kimono, dominate the mise-en-scène. Suddenly, she breaks her repose to flip into action and attack; fountains of blood arc across the frame, her kimono drips wet, marking her as victorious in auspicious red and white.

Lady Snowblood marks the overlap between the icon of poison woman and what I call the ‘single female intruder’. Concealed within her umbrella, her secret sword is idiosyncratic, and operates within a sophisticated rhetoric that emphasises not only martial power, but also skills in deception, persuasion and elegance. The attraction of the character arises from repeated emphases on sharp contrasts, and this is continuous with the expanded principle of Rikyu offered by Kurokawa. Her subordinate shuffle is broken by sudden and supernatural agility; her sword strikes are unwavering, and land with the spirit of hissho (absolute victory). The vacillation between opposites characterise the single female intruder; she has brutality and elegance, bloodlust and sobriety, movement and stillness in equal measure. Kurokawa connects this principle to the baroque, he writes, ‘In his book on the baroque, Eugenio D’ors states that when conflicting intentions are bound together in a single motion, the resulting style is by definition baroque’ (Kurokawa, 1997, p. 170). Later he adds that, ‘The “baroque” essence to which I refer is represented by the mutual resistance and harmony of weight and drift, stillness and movement, straight and curves lines’ (p. 175).

American Idols

Post-war industrialisation and the rise of commodity culture have placed technology at the centre of the Japanese popular imagination. At the same time as filmmakers like Fujita withdrew into the images of Edo Japan to draw sustenance, others, like manga and anime artist Osamu Tezuka, were thinking forward into imaginary futures, populated by the dream of robot, cyborg and alien life. The ‘single female intruder’ is the recombination of these two sensibilities, at once strongly reminiscent of her Edo counterparts, and also situated within film or gameworlds that are nonetheless ostensibly works of science fiction. She emerges as a coherent iconic figure in the 1980s. The transformation of the poison woman in to the single female intruder takes place in the figure of Molly Millions in William Gibson’s short story Johnny Mnemonic (1981), and in the character of Pris in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). Gibson’s lifelong obsession with Japanese culture is evident throughout his literature to date, and traces of the influences of the multifaceted concept of the poison woman are evident. Taken for granted, moreover, is the place of Rikyu grey, both literally as a colour sense, and as a philosophy of ambiguity and contrasts, and the idealism of Harunobu’s slender courtesans. The entrance of Molly Millions echoes that of Yuki in Lady Snowblood. The same emphasis on concealed technology, and a lethal capability, shroud the character in a mist of ambiguity and tightly wound sexuality.

‘Hey,’ said a low voice, feminine, from somewhere behind my right shoulder, ‘you cowboys sure aren’t having too lively a time.’

‘Pack it, bitch,’ Lewis said, his tanned face very still.

Ralfi looked blank.

‘Lighten up. You want to buy some good free base?’

She pulled up a chair and quickly sat before either of them could stop her. She was barely inside my fixed field of vision, a thin girl with mirrored glasses, her dark hair cut in a rough shag. She wore black leather, open over a T-shirt slashed diagonally with stripes of red and black.

‘Eight thou a gram weight.’

Lewis snorted his exasperation and tried to slap her out of the chair. Somehow he didn’t quite connect, and her hand came up and seemed to brush his wrist as it passed. Bright blood sprayed the table. He was clutching his wrist white-knuckle tight, blood trickling from between his fingers.

But hadn’t her hand been empty? (Gibson, 1981, p. 18)

The description of Molly emphasises her stature and costume, and the scene is characterised by an anxious stillness, which breaks into sudden action. Like Yuki’s hidden sword, Molly’s ‘weapons’ aren’t disclosed, but their effect enjoys a glorious description, again reminiscent of the exploitation film aesthetic of bloody carnage found in Lady Snowblood. Later, the secrets of Molly’s fatal frame are laid bare:

‘Chiba. Yeah. See, Molly’s been Chiba, too.’ And she showed me her hands, fingers slightly spread. Her fingers were slender, tapered, very white against the polished burgundy nails. Ten blades snicked straight out from their recesses beneath her nails, each one a narrow, double-edged scalpel in pale blue steel. (p. 21)

Molly’s finger blades are like Yuki’s concealed sword, in that they form a highly personalised accessory crucial to their survival in a world that is largely hostile to them. Through them their bodies become ‘trick machines’ designed to entrap, confuse, and terrorise their opponents. The complex rhetoric of hidden capability runs through the single female intruder, and is most apparent in the gynoid half-machine characters that have appeared since Molly first took to the streets of Chiba.

Transnational Assassins

Figure 5: Beatrix in Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003)

Within the generic reality of convergent media culture, the tropes of the single female intruder have folded in on themselves, and, while the poison woman was penned in direct relation to the changes in society, the single female intruder of recent film and game texts is not so motivated to comment on changes in culture. She operates, like Beatrix in Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, within the “movie-world”, that is, within the circular distribution of generic styles, codes and conventions.

While the single female intruder certainly develops, in contemporary digital culture, the aesthetic, form and rhetoric of the femme fatale and other types of female killer (see Schubert, 2007), my interest lies with the long history that underpins her making, and the politics of globalisation she traverses. Her seductive deadly methods evoke fear outside of the textual worlds she inhabits, since she, like the ninja kids of Naruto, is an iconic player in the global media game, and is metonymic of the massive changes taking place in the landscape of media power. Koichi Iwabuchi writes that,

Japan’s hitherto odourless cultural presence in the world has become more recognizably ”Japanese” as computer games and animation from Japan have grabbed large shares of overseas markets. Japan’s success in exporting cultural products that are unmistakably perceived as “Japanese” have evoked a sense of yearning and threat overseas, including fear of cultural invasion (Iwabuchi, 2004, p. 59).

The single female intruder has emerged as the most prominent action heroine type in recent years, with films released that seek to comment on our technologically driven, information culture. Her independent agency, computer expertise and athletic finesse position the single female intruder as a dominant fantasy of control for our time. Connecting body politics, privacy issues, technology and gender relations in the actions of this subtly orientalized superhero, contemporary media producers have created a figure as pertinent to our time as the muscle-bound action hero was to the 1980s. While the ‘high trash’ of summer blockbusters, videogames and exploitation films might suggest that the single female intruder is nothing more and techno-fetish and titillation, I hope to have shown, through an emphasis on her origins in Japanese aesthetics, that such characters are playing an instrumental role in the reorganisation of gendered heroism within transmedial representation.

 

Games

Bullet Witch (Cavia, Inc./Atari, AQ Interactive, 2007)

Final Fantasy 12 (SquareEnix, 2006)

Ghost in the Shell (Exact/THQ, 1998)

Gun Valkyrie (Smilebit/BigBen Interactive, 2002)

Ico (Team Ico/SCE, 2002)

Oni (Bungie Studios/Rockstar Games, 2001)

P.N.03 [Product Number Three] (Capcom Production Studio 4/Capcom, 2003)

Panzer Dragoon Orta (Smilebit/Sega, 2003)

Panzer Dragoon Saga (Team Andromeda/Sega, 1998)

Perfect Dark (Rare/Rare, 2000)

Perfect Dark Zero (Rare/Rare, 2005)

Rez (United Game Artists/Sega, 2001)

Space Channel 5 (United Game Artists/Sega, 2000)

Space Channel 5: Part 2 (United Game Artists/Sega, 2003)

Tenchu: Fatal Shadows [Tenchu: Kurenai] (K2 LLC/Sega, 2005)

Tomb Raider (Core Design/EIDOS, 1996)

Films and Anime

Aeon Flux (Karyn Kusama, 2005)

Aeon Flux [Animated Series] (Peter Chung, 1995)

Bladerunner (Ridley Scott, 1982)

Ghost in the Shell (Mamoru Oshii, 1995)

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (Mamoru Oshii, 2004)

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (Kenji Kamiyama, 2002-2003)

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex 2nd Gig (Kenji Kamiyama, 2004-2005)

Shurayukihime [Lady Snowblood: Blizzard from the Netherworld] (Toshiya Fujita, 1973)

Shurayukihime: Urami Renga [Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance] (Toshiya Fujita, 1974)

Sympathy for Lady Vengance [Chinjeolhan Geumjassi] (Chan-wook Park, 2005)

The Matrix (The Wachowski Brothers, 1999)

The Matrix: Reloaded (The Wachowski Brothers, 2003)

The Matrix: Revolutions (The Wachowski Brothers, 2003)

Manga

Kurata, H. Yamada, S. (2000 – present) Read or Die. Tokyo: Shueisha.

Shirow, M. (1989 – 1991) Ghost in the Shell. Tokyo: Kodansha.

References

Azuma, H. (2001). Superflat Japanese modernity, Retrieved [August, 01, 2007] from<http://www.hirokiazuma.com/en/texts/superflat_en1.html>

Gibson, W. (1981) Burning Chrome. London: Voyager.

Iwabuchi, K. (2002). Recentring globalisation: Popular culture and Japanese transnationalism. London: Duke University Press.

Iwabuchi, K. (2004). How Japanese is Pokémon?. In J. Tobin (Ed.), Pikachu’s global adventure: The rise and fall of Pokemon. London: Duke University Press. pp. 53-79.

Jensen, M. B. (2000) The Making of Modern Japan. London: Harvard.

Krzywinska, T. (2005) ‘Demon Girl Power: Regimes of Form and Force in videogames Primal and Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, New Femininities Seminar Series, London, 9th

December.

Kurokawa, K. (1991) Intercultural Architecture: The Philosophy of Symbiosis. Aia Press.

Kurokawa, K. (1997) Each One A Hero: The Philosophy of Symbiosis. London: Kodansha International.

Schubart, R. (2007) Super Bitches and Action Babes. London: MacFarland & Company, Inc.

 

Bio:

David Surman is an artist and designer, based in Melbourne, Australia after migrating from the UK. Over the past 10 years he has worked in many different creative environments, and he is currently creative director and co-founder of Pachinko Pictures, an award-winning boutique design studio based in Melbourne. David has also pursued a career as a scholar and teacher, which has given him many more opportunities and challenges. He developed a pioneering degree programme in games design at Newport School of Art (University of Wales), which focused on the principles and processes of art and design for games; and was Lecturer in Multimedia Design at Swinburne University of Technology. David is currently completing a PhD in videogame aesthetics at Brunel University, and holds a Masters in Film and Television from Warwick University and a Bachelors in Animation from the Newport School of Art, Media and Design.

Digital Intervention: Remixes, Mash Ups and Pixel Pirates – Amanda Trevisanut

The art of remix and mash-ups is a contemporary cultural phenomenon that has been facilitated by the mass availability of digital software. Remix effectively describes the process of taking samples of existing media – for example audio tracks, film and television images – and knitting these samples into a new text. The active and creative use of cultural products by individuals challenges the paradigm of the passive spectator that is the corner-stone of traditional film theory. For instance, in the psychoanalytically based theories of Jean-Louis Baudry (1975), Laura Mulvey (1975) and Christian Metz (1983), the cinematic apparatus has been conceptualized as hegemonic instrument of ideology that interpolates the viewer into the world of the diegesis. The characterization of the spectator as a passive site of cultural and ideological reproduction is mirrored by the legalities of copyright that seek to indemnify the economic rights of the authors and producers of audio-visual media. In Digital Copyright and the Consumer Revolution: Hands off My iPod, legal scholar Matthew Rimmer asserts that, in copyright jurisprudence, the users of audio-visual media are decidedly absent, and that with the advent of digital technology there is an imperative to recognize:

consumers are not just mere ‘culture vultures’, engaged in the mindless, passive, bovine consumption of new artistic forms and technologies. The users of copyright works are engaged in a multitude of activities, including political expression, cultural transformation and technological tinkering. Moreover, the relationship of consumers to the dictates of copyright law is also a complex one, ranging from obedience to resistance and opposition to indifference and ignorance (2007, 13).

Consumers/users/spectators use of digital software to remediate – meaning that they “adopt aspects of prior, established media” (Ruston 2006) – copyright works draws attention to the failure of traditional theoretical and legal paradigms to recognize spectatorship and/or consumption, as a dynamic site of cultural (re)production. The use of digital technology to remix, remediate, re-master, re-imagine and re-member media artifacts into alternative configurations testifies to the interactive engagement of individuals with cultural artifacts by “blurring the boundaries between the real world of the reader/participant and the crafted world of the narrative” (Ruston 2006). The operations and aesthetics of digital technology, of “archives and databases”, ultimately “offer artists a vehicle for commenting on cultural and institutional practices through direct intervention” (Vesna 2000, 155). This essay does not presuppose that the advent of digital technologies have fundamentally altered the ways in which individuals engage with media. Rather, through an examination of Soda_Jerk and Sam Smith’s 2002-2006 film Pixel Pirate II: Attack of the Astro Elvis Video Clone this essay will aim to show how the specific use of digital software to sample and remix audio-visual images testifies to an existing (if largely theoretically neglected) dynamic relationship between individuals, society and media artifacts.

Between 2002 and 2006, Sydney artists Soda_Jerk – aka Dominique and Dan Angeloro – collaborated with video, sound and installation artist Sam Smith to produce Pixel Pirate II: Attack of the Astro Elvis Video Clone. This sixty minute “sci-fi / biblical epic/ action movie with a subplot of troubled romance” (sodajerk.com.au/sj/ppii.html) is entirely – and illegally – constructed of samples from Hollywood film, television, popular music, audio tracks, studio trademarks, DVD menus, copyright advertisements, games and online software. Using widely available digital software such as After Affects and Photoshop, Soda_Jerk together with Smith have “remixed” these samples into a narrative that challenges the economic and theoretical paradigm of the passive spectator. The film is set in the year 3001, where a team of Pixel Pirates formulate a plan to combat the evil tyrant Moses and his oppressive Copyright Commandments. In order to continue practicing the ancient art of remix they abduct Elvis Presley from 1955, create his video clone, who is then sent back to the year 2015 to assassinate Moses. By transforming into the Incredible Hulk, and later into the resurrected Jesus Christ, Elvis completes his mission, but only after he has overcome the Copyright Cops, and an assortment of action heroes including Indiana Jones from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), the Ghostbusters from the 1984 film of the same name and its 1989 sequel, Daniel-san of the Karate Kid (1984), Luke Skywalker of Star Wars (1977) and Lara Croft of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001).

Trevisaunt_1

Figure 1: Courtesy of the Artists

The process of remix or “mash-ups” is thematically rendered as well as formally employed in Pixel Pirate to narrativise the ways in which digital technologies are being utilised by “consumers” to “engage in self-expression and creative play” (Rimmer 2007, 8). The form and content of the film ultimately challenges the delineation of cultural production and consumption by highlighting the dynamic nature of media, and situates the spectator/consumer/citizen as an agent of narrative meaning.

Soda_Jerk’s sample and remix of filmic icons into an anti-establishment narrative in Pixel Pirate is indicative of how the relationship between cultural production and consumption is being affected by widely available digital technologies. In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich asserts that: “As we work with software and use the operations embedded in it, these operations become part of how we understand ourselves, and others, in the world. Strategies of working with computer data become our general cognitive strategies” (2001, 118). Manovich’s uses the term selection instead of sample to indicate how “in computer culture, authentic creation has been replaced by the selection from a menu” or a database of ready-made parts (2001, 124). He uses the term compositing, whereby the selections made are blended to “create continuous spaces out of disparate elements” to show how remix is influenced by the advent of digital culture (Manovich 2001, 155). This process of selection and compositing is explicated in the companion booklet to the Pixel Pirate DVD. In the chapter entitled “Shot Breakdowns: #2 The Final Showdown” a single frame from the film’s sequence in which Elvis as the Incredible Hulk is being vanquished by the Ghostbusters is shown to be a composite of six images – or parts thereof (see figure 1).

Trevisaunt_2

Figure.2: Courtesy of the artists

The setting is a mash-up of the Paramount Studio’s logo, the ominous skyline from the conclusion of Donnie Darko (2001) and the desert from The Ten Commandments (1956). The crowd of debaucherous spectators and Moses are also from The Ten Commandments, whilst the Ghostbusters are taken from the 1984 film Ghostbusters, and the Incredible Hulk from the Hollywood incarnation of the comic book character in the 2003 film Hulk. The process of selection and compositing inherent to remix is shown by Soda_Jerk to be “transformative”, it remediates artistic forms authored by others in order to create a new product with a different – though related – set of cultural meanings (Rimmer 2007, 140). For instance, by including the Paramount logo in the composition of the film’s final showdown between champions of copyright law and its adversaries, Soda_Jerk manufacture a meta-narrative space (Manovich 2005) that articulates how Hollywood studios are a site of cultural production inhabited by their creations as well as spectators. Consequently, digital media “become simultaneously technical analogs and social expressions of our identity, we become simultaneously both the subject and object of contemporary media” (Bolter and Grusin 2000, 243). The Paramount logo ordinarily appears as an extra-diegetic element at the commencement of a given film to signify authorship and ownership, however in Pixel Pirate Paramount is shown to be only one component of the cultural landscape. Soda_Jerk utilise the operations of digital culture to understand the legacy of copyright law, who it protects, and how this affects the ability of individuals to engage with cultural artifacts.

Although the operations specific to digital software offer new methods and techniques for engaging with and producing filmic narratives, terms such as selection and compositing are not dissimilar to the techniques of postmodernism such as bricolage and parody. Manovich’s statement that “authentic creation has been replaced by the selection from a menu” echoes the argument forwarded by Frederic Jameson in his 1985 essay “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”. Here Jameson argues that the remediation of popular images annihilates the original referent which both jeopardizes historicity through over-mediation and retards the development of an aesthetic that is able to represent “our own current experience” (1985, 117). Following Jameson, Manovich posits that the process of selection naturalises “the flow of a different logic” which displaces the practice of “creating from scratch” (2001, 129). Although I agree with Manovich’s argument that the operations of selection and compositing have become a part of how we understand ourselves and others in the world, his assertion that an “authentic” form of authorship has been displaced is ultimately a utopian myth that he has inherited from the postmodern theory of Jameson. In Hot Spots, Avatars, and Narrative Fields Forever – Bunuel’s Legacy for New Digital Media and Interactive Database Narrative, Marsha Kinder refers to the operations of digital software as a “database aesthetic”, and articulates that this aesthetic does not alter communicative practices in any fundamental way, but rather “exposes or thematises the duel processes of selection and combination that lie at the heart of all stories and that are crucial to language” (2002, 6). In other words, selection and combination/ compositing/remix is an inherent component of both language and authorship. However, what has changed is how “new digital media and their critical discourse encourage us to rethink the distinctive interactive potential of earlier narrative forms” (Kinder 2002, 6). The ability to replicate, fragment and dismember cultural artifacts, and then remix, re-master, re-imagine, remediate and re-member that media in multifarious combinations not only generates alternative narratives, histories and memories, but also indicates the dynamic quality of media that has already entered the public consciousness.

The process of remix, particularly the operation of selection, used to construct Pixel Pirate elucidates the interactive and experiential nature of film spectatorship. That is to say that the remix reflects the ways that “film [already] circulates in fragmented form throughout not only the exterior landscape of popular culture, but also the interior landscape of the mind” (Columpar 2006). In order to vanquish Moses, Elvis is transformed into the Incredible Hulk.

Trevisaunt_3

Figure 3: Courtesy of the Artists

However, before he is able to complete his mandate, he is annihilated by the Ghostbusters. Here Soda Jerk attribute fragments of disparate films to a single body, collapsing the distinction between screen and spectator, product and consumer. Having foreseen this sticky end, the Pixel Pirates have programmed the Elvis clone so that he will resurrect in three days in the guise of Jesus Christ. The resurrection of Elvis plays upon the cultural myths and conspiracy theories that claim that Elvis did not die on the 16th August 1977. The manifestation of Elvis as a Christ figure parodies his mythical status as “The King”, and the religious dedication of his fans which has kept his image alive for the thirty-one years since his death. In the DVD booklet, Soda_Jerk explain that “[o]ur hero is not the ‘original’ Elvis; it is the Elvis phenomenon – the figure multiplied, mashed and endlessly imitated.” Soda_Jerk utilise the image of Elvis as a symbol of the “ancient art of remix”, which illustrates Kinder’s assertion that the process of selection and combination precedes digital technologies. Although digital technology enables the reproduction, selection and compositing of canonic images and texts, the selection of Elvis as the protagonist of Pixel Pirate signals these operations as a legacy of pre-existing forms of parody, fandom and spectatorship; interactive practices that belie the seemingly hermetic narrative structure of traditional cinema.

Pixel Pirate exemplifies the ways in which artists and consumers challenge the binary relationship of authorship and spectatorship by drawing attention to the character, function and possibilities of imaging and audio technologies in the digital age. In the DVD booklet, Soda_Jerk define remixing as a “conceptual frontier that collapses the archaeology of contemporary commodity culture with the science of time travel”, one which reassembles the fragments of a bygone era to recognise “the hidden forces contained within the outmoded artifacts and myth-systems of the recent past”. Soda_Jerk echoes archaeologist Juan Antonio Barcelo’s assertion that archaeologists and historians are “not looking for objects, but actions which produced objects with special features” (2007, 437). Like archaeologists of a more traditional ilk who use archaeological data “to understand the dynamic nature of present society” (Barcelo 2007, 437), Soda_Jerk understands that the legacy of film history bears upon the ideological conditions and embodied experience of individuals in the present. As Paul Arthur asserts, discussion of history in relation to digital technology is “generally dominated by the very practical aspects of information preservation and retrieval” (2006). Soda_Jerk’s narrativisation and act of copyright infringement treats media samples as found cultural artifacts and reassembles them to illustrate the tension that exists between practices of production and consumption, and history and memory in the digital era. In the DVD booklet Soda_Jerk qualify their practice of remix:

To clear the vast number of samples involved in this project would not only have been astronomically time consuming but also financially impossible. The present cost of sample licensing is notoriously prohibitive…This situation places the art of remix squarely in the hands of those with money – branded artists and corporate advertising. A depressing fate which owes its evolution to fan communities, the avant-garde and Afro-diasporic audio cultures…copyright is not just about cash, it’s also about control. Money doesn’t buy you sample rights unless you’re using those samples in a way that is pleasing to the proprietor (i.e. not mashing Elvis with Jesus). The battle over copyright then is also the battle over history – what is at stake is the very relationship of the past to the present.

Soda_Jerk’s characterisation of copyright as a battle over history reflects the positions of cultural theorists Alison Landsberg (2004) and Marita Sturken (1997), who characterize the immediacy of the moving and photographic image in contemporary culture as inextricable from personal memory, cultural memory and official history. Sturken offers the example of veterans of World War II whose experience of battle have been subsumed “into a more general script” as a result of watching Hollywood movies that dramatise the war (1997, 6). This example exemplifies how personal experience of media is inextricable from lived experiences, and how a relationship to personal history is compromised by laws that prohibit an active engagement with and use of culturally produced audio-visual technologies. By remixing samples from discreet and disparate media texts into the body of a single text, Soda_Jerk illustrate how “texts decreasingly take the material form of durable marks inscribed on paper and increasingly manifest themselves as electronic polarities, the bodies within (and without) electronic documents undergo correlated transformations in embodiment” (Hayles 2004, 257). Like bodies that remember the disparate temporalities of viewing this or that film – memories which are formative of individual experience and identity – Pixel Piratelike other remixes and mash-ups come to represent this postmodern experience of being in a world mediated by audio-visual technology.

Despite this philosophical affinity with archaeological practices, Soda_Jerk exceed the archaeological mandate and employ digital technology to creatively fragment and reassemble popular cultural media and propel the past and present “into a new constellation”, a process that they describe as “retro-futurism”. This new constellation reveals how the new technological frontiers of cinema depend upon the “reflexivity of embodied spectatorship” and not “fantasies of disembodiment and absorption into virtual worlds” (Rabinovitz 2004, 100). Landsberg contends that the affective traces left by experiences of spectatorship facilitate the “conditions for ethical thinking precisely by encouraging people to feel connected to, while recognizing the alterity of the ‘other’” (2004, 9). Landsberg here situates herself in opposition to Jameson by arguing that it is the age of consumerism, of technological reproducibility, that enables the cinema to facilitate a political action because the experiential nature of spectatorship dissolves the differences between authentic and mass-mediated memories (2004, 15). Although Landsberg’s own focus is the potential of cinema to form political alliances between marginalized communities, her recourse to embodied experience to argue that mass reproduction in late-capitalist culture is precisely what enables a political cinema is coextensive with the position articulated by Soda_Jerk. However, Soda_Jerk claim mass-produced visual and aural images as a personal and cultural history, and utilise these images to render a database narrative that subverts the dominant narrative of the passive spectator. By remediating cultural images, Soda_Jerk adhere to Walter Benjamin’s characterization of history which states that to “articulate the past historically… means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger…which unexpectedly appears to a man singled out by history” (1968, 255). Benjamin regards the subjective and inter-subjective nature of memory as a potent political weapon for affecting “both the content of tradition and its receivers” (1968, 255). The database aesthetic and digital software are utilised in Pixel Pirate to open up narrative possibilities: the act of remix triggers personal memory, cultural memory and official film histories to claim media as a dynamic cultural experience.

As illustrated by Kinder, the rhetoric of digital software operations has offered a new language of interactivity that is able to re-imagine the spectator as a site of cultural production. Furthermore, as was elucidated through an analysis of Pixel Pirates, digital software has offered a new means of expressing the interactive relationship shared between individuals, society and various media. By illegally sampling copyright works using widely available digital software, Soda_Jerk and Smith also exemplify the political potential of contemporary media, directly challenging the status quo. In the DVD booklet, Soda_Jerk conclude by stating:
“The remix is nothing less than a politics of time, and one worth the battle. We believe that we have used each of the samples fairly. But whether our sampling constitutes an act of “fair use” is a matter we can discuss with your lawyers”. What emerges in the stated politics of Soda_Jerk is a tension between the individual and cultural experience of media, and economic and histrionic power structures that rely upon a strict delineation of production and consumption. Pixel Pirate illustrates how access to, and expression through cultural artifacts is an essential means of understanding contemporary conditions of existence. This is due to the immediacy of audio-visual media in consumer culture, and its affective nature. Remixes and mash-ups utilise digital technologies in a manner that elucidates the ways that bodies are transformed by, and in turn transform, media.

Bibliography

Arthur, P. 2006. “Multimedia and the Narrative Frame: Narrating Digital Histories”. Refractory: A Journal of Entertainment Media 9 (July), http://blogs.arts.unimelb.edu.au/refractory/2006/07/04/multimedia-and-the-narrative-frame-navigating-digital-histories-paul-arthur/

Barcelo, J. A. 2007. “Automatic Archaeology: Bridging the Gap Between Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, and Archaeology.” Theorizing Digital Culture: A Critical Discourse, edited by Fiona Cameron and Sarah Kenderdine, 438-454. Cambridge, MA, USA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Baudry, J. 1986. The Apparatus: Metapsychological Approaches to the Impression of Reality. In Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader, edited by Phillip Rosen, 299-318. Originally published in 1975 in Communications (23) and translated in 1976 Camera Obscura (Fall), (1):104-28.

Benjamin, W. 1968. “Theses on the Philosophy of History”. In Illuminations, 253-264. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovsnovich Inc.

Bolter, J. D. and R. Grusin. 1999. “The Remediated Self”. In Remediation, 230-241. MIT University Press.

Columpar, C. 2006. “Re-Membering the Time-Travel Film: From La Jetee to Primer”. Refractory: A Journal of Entertainment Media 9 (July),
http://blogs.arts.unimelb.edu.au/refractory/2006/07/04/re-membering-the-time-travel-film-from-la-jetee-to-primer-corinn-columpar/

Hayles, K.N. 2004. “Bodies of Texts, Bodies of Subjects: Metaphoric Networks in New Media”. Memory Bites: History, Technology and Digital Culture, edited by L. Rabinovitz and A. Geil, 257-282. Duke University Press.

Jameson, F. 1985. “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”. Post-Modern Culture, edited by Hal Foster, 111-125. Pluto Press.

Kinder, M. 2002. “Hot Spots, Avatars, and Narrative Fields Forever – Bunuel’s Legacy for New Digital Media and Interactive Database Narrative”. Film Quarterly (55): 2-15.

Landsberg, A. 2004. “Introduction: Memory, Modernity, Mass Culture”. Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture, 1-24. New York: Columbia University Press.

Manovich, L. 2001. “The Operations”. The Language of the New Media, 116-175. Boston & New York: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Manovich, L. 2005. “Understanding Meta-Media”. 1000 Days of Theory (October), www.ctheory.net/articlaes.aspx?id=493

Metz, C. 1983. “The Imaginary Signifier”. Psychoanalysis and Cinema: The Imaginary Signifier. The MacMillan Press: London.

Mulvey, L. 1977 [1975]. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. In Women and the Cinema: A Critical Anthology, edited by K. Kay and G. Peary, 412-428. New York: Dutton.

Rabinovitz, L. 2004. “More Than Movies: A History of Somatic Visual Culture through Hale’s Tours, Imax, and Motion Simulation Rides”. Memory Bites: History, Technology and Digital Culture, edited by L. Rabinovitz and A. Geil, 99-125. Duke University Press.

Ruston, S. 2006. “Blending the Virtual and the Physical: Narrative’s Mobile Future?” Refractory: A Journal of Entertainment Media 9 (July), http://blogs.arts.unimelb.edu.au/refractory/2006/07/04/blending-the-virtual-and-physicalnarratives-mobile-future-scott-ruston/

Rimmer, M. 2007. Digital Copyright and the Consumer Revolution: Hands Off My iPod. Cheltenham, UK, Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Edgar.

Sturken, M. 1997. “Introduction”. Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering, 1-18. Berkley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.

Vesna, V. 2000. “Database Aesthetics”. AI & Society (14):155-156.

Filmography

Donnie Darko. Directed by Richard Kelly. 2001.
Ghostbusters. Directed by Ivan Reitman. 1984.
Hulk. Directed by Ang Lee. 2003.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Directed by Steven Spielberg. 1989.
Karate Kid, The. Directed by John G. Avildsen. 1984.
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Directed by Simon West. 2001.
Pixel Pirate II: Attack of the Astro Elvis Video Clone, Soda_Jerk and Sam Smith, 2002-2006.
Soda_Jerk. (Cited 7 November 2008). Available from http://sodajerk.com.au
Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. Directed by George Lucas. 1977.
Ten Commandments, The. Directed by Cecille B. DeMille. 1956.

Notes

[1] Copyright is a pertinent issue in relation to new digital technologies; however it is a concern that is tangendental to the focus of this essay. For a detailed analysis of how copyright laws in Australia and the United States impacts upon remix culture see Rimmer, (2007).

[2]“Fair use” is a grey area in copyright law in both Australia and the United States. At present it covers transformative uses such as parody, however its extension to cover mash-ups is still a largely contested area. See Rimmer (2007).

Author Bio

Amanda Trevisanut is a PhD candidate in the Department of Culture and Communication at The University of Melbourne. She is currently working on her thesis entitled ‘Multi-Cultural Identity and SBS Commissioned Content’.

Contact Email: a.trevisanut@pgrad.unimelb.edu.au

Volume 14, 2008

Double Trouble – Special Issue on Split and Double Screens 

Guest Editors: Tessa Dwyer & Mehmet Mehmet

Contents

1. Double Trouble: Editorial – Tessa Dwyer & Mehmet Mehmet

2. The Mosaic-Screen: Exploration and Definition – Sergio Dias Branco

3. Sound and Space in the Split-Screen Movie – Ian Garwood

4. The Embedded Screen and the State of Exception: Counterterrorist Narratives and the “War on Terror” – Cormac Deane

5. “What Am I… Beloved or Bewitched?” Split Screens, Gender Confusion, and Psychiatric Solutions in The Dark Mirror – Tim Snelson

6. Medusa in the Mirror: The Split World of Brian De Palma’s Carrie – David Greven

7. The Double Side of Delay: Sutapa Biswas’ film installation Birdsong and Gilles Deleuze’s Actual/Virtual Couplet – Maria Walsh

8. Missed Encounters: Film Theory and Expanded Cinema – Bruno Lessard

9. Four Cameras are Better than One: Division as Excess in Mike Figgis’ Timecode – Nadia Bozak

10. The Aesthetics of Displays: How the Split Screen Remediates Other Media – Malte Hagener

11. Double Take: Rotoscoping and the Processing of Performance – Kim Louise Walden

 

Double Take: Rotoscoping and the Processing of Performance – Kim Louise Walden

Abstract: In 1915 the Fleischer brothers, Max and Dave, developed a device known as the “rotoscope” which allowed the artist to trace over the original film footage frame by frame to make a more life-like rendition for animation. Rotoscoping’s digital descendent, known as “Rotoshop” was used to style Richard Linklater’s animations Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, but whilst rotoscoping may originally have been developed to help animators achieve a greater sense of realism, it has never just been about verisimilitude. Drawing on the theories of such diverse commentators as Bertolt Brecht, Roland Barthes and Robert Bresson, the paper will consider two central questions: What have been the consequences of this digital animation technique for screen performance, and what spectatorial pleasures does this means of storytelling afford its audience? Continue reading