Volume 22, 2013


1. Passing Time and Ruin:  Michael Richards and the Afterlife of Performance in  Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee – Elliott Logan

2. Asian Extreme, Tokyo Gore, and Sushi Typhoon: Selling Eastern Violence to Western Audiences –  Jessica Hughes

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

4. Hyperreality with Tentacles: David Cronenberg, Memes, and Mutations – David Faust

5. Off-screen: the liminal dimension of the cinematic image – Cristiano Dalpozzo



Asian Extreme, Tokyo Gore, and Sushi Typhoon: Selling Eastern Violence to Western Audiences – Jessica Hughes

Machine Girl, 2008.

Machine Girl, 2008.

This article considers a recent group of Japanese films and filmmakers that use Asian Extreme style to signal an awareness of international audiences, and it will argue for a set of central features typifying this category of film, which is referred to as ‘Tokyo Gore.’ Though not widely used, this label was first implemented by Michael Bonedigger on horrornews.net,[1] and references an early film of this style, Tokyo Gore Police (Yoshihiro Nishimura, 2008); it has also been applied retroactively to films released prior to 2008 using the same style. Central features defining this category include targeting Western audiences with exaggerations that address

Western perceptions of Asianness and Japaneseness, and deliberately exploiting conventions of female representation, particularly through schoolgirl fetishisation. These features contribute to Tokyo Gore’s undermining of dominant ideologies and assert exotic otherness and extreme violence as major contributors to their reputation in the stream of Tokyo Gore. Asian and, more specifically, Japanese Extreme is becoming a more commonly recognised style of filmmaking, having emerged in the late 1980s with the Japanese body horror, Tetsuo: The Iron Man (Shin’ya Tsukamoto, 1989), and been exemplified by Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999) with its portrayals of graphic violence and moral extremes. However, Tokyo Gore offers an alternative approach to the representations of excess made familiar in these influential films. These films, with the most popular examples including Machine Girl (Noboru Iguchi, 2008) and Tokyo Gore Police, typically focus on the highly sexualised, heroic fighting skills of troubled teenage schoolgirls. Between 2008 and 2013 alone, over a dozen of these horror-action-comedies were brought to the screens of both mainstream and niche (fantastic, Asian) film festivals around the world, and this article argues that the cult appeal of these films and their filmmakers is characterised by audiences drawn to the extreme content, predominantly involving social taboos such as bodily harm and mutilation. Focusing on two Tokyo Gore exemplars, Noboru Iguchi and Yoshihiro Nishimura, I will consider the international reputation of their films and how content and style reflects their ability to attract predominantly Western audiences.

The release of schoolgirl fetish parody Sukeban Boy in 2006 marked the beginning of Iguchi’s international recognition as a Tokyo Gore filmmaker. The film had limited theatrical release through King Records in Japan in February 2006 and an international premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia International Fantastic Film Festival in July 2006. DVD release followed in Germany and Hong Kong in 2007 and the US (through Discotek’s Eastern Star label) in 2008. Although Noboru Iguchi had already worked on more than two dozen other films, his prior work was mostly part of an extensive career in the Japanese adult video (JAV) industry, directing films including The Neighbour’s Sister Has F-Cup (1999) and HyperTrophy Genitals Girl (2009). Japan’s pinku eiga (a range of films featuring adult content, mainly in the form of soft-core pornography) have been popular since the 1960s, hailing Japanese and foreign viewers alike, and have been made available on adult cinema screens, video and DVD around the world.[2] Despite rumours that the pink industry is on the decline since internet availability, Jasper Sharp’s Behind the Pink Curtain suggests otherwise: in 2003, “89 out of the 287 domestically-produced films that screens in Japanese cinemas fell into this category.”[3] In many ways appealing to both pinku eiga and Tokyo Gore fans, due to its explicit sexuality and violence, Sukeban Boy marked a successful shift for Iguchi from JAV to Tokyo Gore, especially with adult video star Asami starring in Sukeban Boy. Asami is also featured in subsequent Iguchi films Machine Girl (2008), RoboGeisha (2009), Karate-Robo Zaborgar (2010), Zombie Ass (2011), and Dead Sushi (2011).

Sukeban Boy, 2006.

Sukeban Boy, 2006.

Based on the manga serial Oira Sukeban (Go Nagai, 1974-1976), Sukeban Boy follows Asami’s character Sukeban, a teenaged boy who looks like a girl and, after endless bullying, is forced by his father to transfer to an all-girls high school. Through Sukeban’s complicated attempts to fit in, due to the endless foreign cliques involved with being a high school girl (in this case including: the Pantyhose League, the No-Bra League, and the Full-Strip League), the film introduces the recurring Tokyo Gore theme of schoolgirl fetishisation.

A common character within both manga and adult videos, the Japanese schoolgirl is an adolescent girl in middle school or high school, commonly expressing naivety and anxiety, which are qualities that have proved to be notoriously appealing to Japanese men.  The schoolgirl is a titillating double signifier of innocence and licentiousness, with ‘image clubs’ in Tokyo offering Japanese men the opportunity to “live out their fantasies about schoolgirls… [Choosing] from 11 rooms, including classrooms, a school gym changing room, and a couple of imitation railroad cars where to the recorded roar of a commuter train, men can molest straphangers [standing passengers] in school uniforms.”[4] In his New York Times article on the schoolgirl uniform functioning as an aphrodisiac, Kristof examines this major issue, which he describes as: “a disturbing national obsession with schoolgirls as sexual objects.”[5] This has led teenaged girls to become involved in a practice called enjo kosai, which is explained by Michael Fitzpatrick of The Guardian as a “transaction between clients and women who barter sexual favours for financial support in the shape of rent, dinner, and presents.”[6] While young schoolgirls are rarely responsible for paying for rent or meals, Japanese society has become increasingly obsessed with possessing imported name-brand goods and, in order to support this passion, getting paid between $300 and $800 to have sex with older men is seen as a small sacrifice for teenaged girls to fit in.[7]

Not only has this Japanese schoolgirl fetish been publicised through major American and British newspapers, but the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) has also capitalised on the innocence of the schoolgirl image by incorporating it into their “Ambassadors of Cute” tourism campaign.[8] [9] Selected in February 2009, the Ambassadors (who, in addition to the schoolgirl, included girls representing Lolita and Harajuku fashions) are mostly 20-somethings playing the role of teenagers, thus highlighting a blurring of the line between reality and fiction that encompasses the entire notion of the Japanese schoolgirl. But with schoolgirl fetishism dating back to wartime, and having been marketed to foreigners as a part of Japan’s ‘cute’ culture for much longer than the MOFA campaign, there is little wonder why Iguchi chose to parody this in a film intended to attract Western audiences. In fact, in 1992, Japanese women’s lifestyle magazine, CREA, considered kawaii (cute) to be “the most widely used, widely loved, habitual word in modern living Japanese.”[10] While Sukeban Boy mostly uses cuteness in contrast to the sex and violence portrayed by the majority of the girls in the film (for example, when Sukeban joins the girls’ school and is trying to cover up his masculine characteristics), the sexuality of teenaged schoolgirls never fails to be the focus of the action, with great emphasis on both breasts and blood in nearly every scene.

Two years after Sukeban Boy’s release, Western audiences were drawn to another portrayal of the fetishised Japanese schoolgirl in Iguchi’s 2008 feature Machine Girl. With her skirt rolled high and socks extra-baggy (a technique believed to make their legs look longer and more slender, apparently to match the appearance of Western models), schoolgirl protagonist Ami (Minase Yashiro) looks much like the girls of Iguchi’s prior film, except for the machine gun attached to her arm. Seeking to avenge the murder of her brother Yu, as well as the loss of her left arm, Ami hunts down various members of a yakuza clan who she traces back to Yu’s death through scribbles about bullying in his diary. Ami’s new friends and partners in crime, the parents of Yu’s friend who was also murdered, design a machine gun to replace Ami’s arm, which is cut off during a graphic yakuza torture scene. Wearing a schoolgirl uniform throughout all of her violent acts of revenge, Ami’s white top is constantly saturated in blood, contrasting noticeably with the prim and proper, innocent expectations of girls typically wearing this outfit. Unlike Sukeban Boy, however, Ami is one of only two schoolgirls in the film, and they are set up in contrast to each other, with Ami being more of a tomboy, often in sports clothes and playing basketball, foreshadowing the strength she will display later in the film. Ami’s friend, Miki (Asami), on the other hand, is a perfect example of kawaii, with her high-pitched, childish voice, and a constantly dreamy look on her face.

Princess Mononoke, 1997.

Princess Mononoke, 1997.

This characterisation of Ami is not dissimilar to that of the shōjo, a pre-teen or teenaged girl character, typically between the ages of 8 and 18, often portrayed in manga and anime, who is on the cusp of adulthood and finds a proactive sense of agency throughout the course of the story, whether through deploying her femininity, gaining knowledge or power, or discovering other ways to make choices and act independently in the world. This character has been set up by Susan Napier as having one of two expressions: the classic shōjo, representing “ultrafeminity that is often passive or dreamy”; and the shōjo typically depicted by Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke [1997]; Spirited Away [2001]), who is notably more “independent and active, courageously confronting the variety of obstacles before them in a manner that might be described as stereotypically masculine.”[11] Alternatively, Tokyo Gore films portray what I will call the ‘mutant shōjo’: a teenage schoolgirl who tends to be very feminine in appearance but not action, offering distinctly different values than Miyazaki’s heroines. While Miyazaki’s films downplay violence in favour of representations of a powerful heroine who avoids killing, Machine Girl and other Tokyo Gore films exaggerate the killing by depicting mutilated forms of the human body through elements of body horror (which will be discussed in more detail later in this essay). In all three senses of the term, the shōjo is a liminal figure that seems to have a strong appeal to Western audiences through the grrrl power discourse of postfeminist empowerment, however it is the mutant shōjo in particular that plays an important role for Tokyo Gore filmmakers. Acting as a strategic device for simultaneously critiquing Japanese culture and Western perceptions of it, the mutant shōjo character combines stereotypes of internationally recognised Japanese female figures (schoolgirl, geisha) and personality traits (naïve but sexy; sensitive but bold). It is not surprising, then, that Machine Girl was co-produced by New York-based production company Fever Dreams. After its initial release to the European film market in February 2008, Machine Girl toured fantastic film festivals and other genre festivals around the world, beginning at Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival in Japan for its theatrical premiere in March 2008 and finishing at the Munich Asia Filmfest in November 2008, with screenings throughout Europe, North America and South America in between.

Fever Dreams also asked Machine Girl’s special effects and make-up artist, Yoshihiro Nishimura, to make another film for them: Tokyo Gore Police was Nishimura’s first commercial film as a director, having previously worked predominantly in special effects and makeup. No doubt finding it suited the mutant shōjo theme that had attracted Western producers to Machine Girl, he remade his earlier film Anatomia Extinction (1995), which had won the Special Jury Award at the Yubari International Film Festival, but had received little attention otherwise, particularly outside Japan. Much like Machine Girl, Tokyo Gore Police is about a young girl avenging the death of her loved one – in this case, her father. While, unlike most Tokyo Gore protagonists, Ruka is not a schoolgirl, she is still very much a mutant shōjo in her role as a young police officer seeking revenge. Despite her lack of physical mutations, Ruka’s emotional state (seeking revenge; wrist-cutting) provokes her battle for change, much like her other Tokyo Gore counterparts. Furthermore, Ruka’s challenging of the Tokyo Police Corporation for which she works is ultimately a fight to defeat practices like enjo kosai and fetish sex clubs, which are portrayed explicitly within the film, with both women and young girls being depicted as tremendously mistreated.

Ruka’s role as a mutant shōjo is also exemplified by her contrast with various portrayals of kawaii throughout the film. In spite of her drastic forms of crime prevention (typically in the form of explicitly violent methods of exterminating criminals), Ruka is depicted as quiet and down-to-earth. On the other hand, the only other woman seen in a police uniform is portrayed as excessively kawaii: rather than ever showing her in action, Tokyo Gore Police presents this character as some sort of dispatcher, giving the male officers and Ruka excessively cheerful support and encouragement in assigning their next tasks. Donald Richie describes Japanese cuteness as being, often manically, happy, particularly within the family setting.[12] He uses an example from a noodle advertisement to illustrate this, with a family sitting around the dinner table, mum “triumphantly pour[ing] hot water into the Styrofoam cup,” and dad “smacking his lips and beaming.”[13] Much like Ritchie’s description of the kawaii noodle ad, flashbacks of Ruka’s now-deceased family portray an initially happy and peaceful setting, but also hint at Ruka’s distinct role as a powerful female officer. Not long after the film opens, we see schoolgirl Ruka ready to blow the candles on her birthday cake, while dad is watching proudly and mum is preparing dinner behind them. However, when she turns away from the kitchen counter, we see she has actually been crying and, rather than slicing the vegetables, we see it was actually her arm, which is now covered in cuts and blood. With this sudden change of atmosphere, Ruka’s position as an aggressive and disturbed police officer becomes clearer, as does her contrasting role with the kawaii officer.

In some ways offering the potential for a postfeminist reading, Tokyo Gore Police fits with Lisa Coulthard’s list of recent films that have “foregrounded the presence of violent women in genres usually associated with male characters, actors, and audiences.”[14] Coulthard uses Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003) as a particularly violent example, highlighting its use of young female characters as both victims and perpetrators of violence.[15] Similarly, Tokyo Gore Police presents Ruka as both a victim and a perpetrator as we are often reminded of her brutal childhood while at the same time watching her violently attack the film’s destructive, and often perverted, criminals. The decision to use Eihi Shiina in this role was that of the American production company, Fever Dreams, no doubt in an attempt to appeal to Western audiences already familiar with Shiina from her previous Japanese Extreme role in Audition.   

Tokyo Gore Police, 2008.

Tokyo Gore Police, 2008.

Following the success of Tokyo Gore Police at various niche film festivals around the globe, including an award for Best Asian Film at Montreal’s Fantasia, Nishimura collaborated with Naoyuki Tomomatsu to create Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl (2009). Yet another gorefest surrounding the conflict of two schoolgirls (one already a vampire and the other turned into a Frankenstein monster) fighting for the same boy, Vampire Girl maintains the appeal to Western audiences with its adoption of two popular supernatural figures. It is also significant to note that the film is the third part in what is referred to as the Gaijinsploitation (foreigner exploitation) series.

In his 2011 IMDb post on “New Japanese Gore films,” Mighty_Emperor points out: “there are no foreigners in the films being exploited, so are the films themselves exploiting us, the foreigner viewer, giving us what we think we want to see in a crazy Japanese film?”[16] Traditionally, however, an exploitation film is considered to be one that exploits the success of other films, and we might alternatively question whether these films (the other three in the series are: Geisha vs. Ninjas [Go Ohara, 2008], Samurai Princess [Kengo Kaji, 2009], and RoboGeisha [Noboru Iguchi, 2009]) could be classified as such due to foreign viewers exploiting what they perceive to be ‘crazy’ Japanese culture. In this sense, the awareness of such Japanese practices as schoolgirl fetishism and enjo kosai leads to their exploitation in films like Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl and RoboGeisha.

Furthermore, Pam Cook points out: exploitation films “are made with specific markets in mind, hence the development of ‘sexploitation’ and ‘blaxploitation’ categories referring to the capture of the soft-core pornography film audience and black youth audience respectively.”[17] Similarly, gaijinsploitation is designed to capture gaijin audiences. Playing with what Leon Hunt refers to as ‘Asiaphilia’ in various essays,[18] [19] which works as an alternative to the term ‘Orientalism,’ these films target audiences who are known or thought to fetishise Asian culture. Though both ‘Orientalism’ and ‘Asiaphilia’ refer to the East’s exotic appeal to the West, Orientalism focuses predominantly on Western depictions of Eastern culture, while Asiaphilia more commonly relates to the Western fetishisation of it. In their discussion of Asian films and cult cinema, Mathijs and Sexton point out: “Often, the qualities that Western audiences find so attractive in Asian cinema are a result of Western viewers’ curiosity for and confrontation with systems of representation they have difficulty understanding (and that therefore violate practices, routines, habits).”[20] As a result, ‘exotic’ aspects like Japanese schoolgirls, all things kawaii, and women dressed as geisha tend to be even more appealing to Western audiences than domestic ones.

RoboGeisha, 2009.

RoboGeisha, 2009.

Iguchi and Nishimura’s inclusion of these stereotypically Japanese characteristics in their films is likely related to their classification of them as ‘gaijinsploitation.’ In an interview with Twitch, Iguchi suggests why they have a bigger international following than domestic: “Things like ninja and geisha are actually not that popular in Japan. It’s mostly foreigners who really go for that.”[21] In Vampire Girl vs Frankenstein Girl, the Japanese traditions of Valentine’s Day and White Day are explained with an English subtitle in the opening of the film – the first indication of many that the film has been made with a Western audience in mind. Similarly, one of the ‘monsters’ of RoboGeisha introduces herself at the beginning of the film: “Don’t you know what a Tengu is? Tengu are traditional Japanese goblins whom are a phallic symbol.” While it is likely that Japanese audiences would already be familiar with the Tengu folklore, the anticipation of foreign spectators requires this explanation to be incorporated into the dialogue.

This portrayal of the Tengu figures, with their phallic noses and nipples, as well as Yoshie, and the other geisha-turned-robots, allows for an explicit connection between these women’s mutations and violence. While Yoshie, the protagonist, is focused on defeating the egotistical, perverted businessmen who intend to destroy all of Japan, most of the battles involve the Tengu warriors attempting to prevent Yoshie from taking control. Between the hell-milk the Tengu shoot from their breasts (which look like goblin faces with elongated noses) and the implied sexuality associated with geishas, RoboGeisha has no shortage of sexual references, all corresponding to the girls’ differences or mutations. This style of horror, based on the destruction of the body and reminiscent of the films of David Cronenberg (Videodrome, 1983; The Fly, 1986) and Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo 1&2, 1989, 1992), exploits the mutations of all Tokyo Gore characters (from Sukeban Boy to Yoshie in RoboGeisha), to offer maximum violence and gore in every scene.

In The Horror Sensorium, Angela Ndalianis relays the different ways body horror can trigger our senses. Noting how, in what she calls ‘New Horror,’ spectators are “ruthlessly confronted by violence, intense gore and, often, a social critique that refuses to hold back the punches,”[22] she later adds that this would have little impact without the “sensory and emotional experiences that are at the core of these films.”[23] Ndalianis lists several ways we might be ‘touched’ by these films, from “laughing at or recoiling from the over-the-top displays of gore and body desecration” to “recognizing the social critique embedded in the narrative.”[24] While she uses specific examples of this ‘ping pong’ effect from The Hills Have Eyes (Wes Craven, 1997; Alexandre Aja, 2006), much of this also holds true in Tokyo Gore films. Following RoboGeisha, Iguchi’s next feature film was a collaboration with Nishimura and Tokyo Gore actor-turned-director, Tak Sakaguchi. Much like Ndalianis’ description of The Hills Have Eyes, Mutant Girls Squad offers a constant sensory overload as the focus shifts back and forth between the gory action sequences and the implicit social commentary.

The film depicts a war between two distinct groups of Japanese: the ‘new race,’ defended by the Japanese army, and the Hiruku clan, a ‘mutant race.’ While the mutants, or rather a select group of teenaged mutant girls (with Rin, the protagonist, discovering early on that she is a half-breed), are the focus of the film, the climactic battle sequence is a cry for peace, for both races to live as one, rather than a championing of the underdog. Instead, the film is more interested in going over the top to play with stereotypes of women as benign or submissive (such as juxtaposed shots of the opening credits on flowers and teenaged girls slaughtering the Japanese military); it is not necessarily about the mutants winning, but the girls taking control of a dire situation. Rin is set up as the ‘other’ from the beginning of the film due to the loss of control of her right hand, but one particular early scene emphasizes this with the juxtaposition between a television news reporter’s kawaii characteristics and Rin’s mutant shōjo characteristics. While both kawaii and shōjo figures are common across Japanese media, Mutant Girls Squad depicts Rin as the ‘other’ to emphasize the prevalent ‘normal vs. outcast’ binary within Japanese society.

Mutant Girls Squad was the first release from Sushi Typhoon, a subsidiary of Japan’s oldest film studio, Nikkatsu Corporation. With Nikkatsu’s reputation for the extreme, having a history of producing violent gangster films and Japan’s 1970s ‘Roman Porno’ line, it is no surprise that producer Yoshinori Chiba teamed up with them to create Sushi Typhoon, which sought to “satisfy audiences who crave the good taste of bad taste, and for whom too much is never enough” (Chiba).[25] Chiba has an equally extreme history as a producer, working with influential Asian Extreme filmmaker Takashi Miike on Fudoh: The New Generation (1996), and Iguchi and Nishimura on Machine Girl and Tokyo Gore Police. Chiba’s main goal in creating Sushi Typhoon was to be able to continue creating a platform for this type of film by making and distributing them “on a level for the fans abroad,” even if they have a limited audience in Japan.[26] While these films rarely get multiplex screenings, they have proven popular at festivals, selling out at Montreal’s Fantasia and San Francisco’s Comic-Con. As one online Fantasia reviewer notes: “Mutant Girls Squad is exactly the movie you’d expect three ‘extreme cinema’ guys from Japan to make after seeing Americans eat the likes of Tokyo Gore Police, Be a Man! Samurai School and Vampire Girl Versus Frankenstein Girl up.”[27]

Just missing the Summer 2010 New York Asian Film Festival and Fantasia run, Nishimura’s next project, Helldriver, premiered at Austin’s FantasticFest and then made its international genre festival rounds in Europe, North America, and Asia through most of 2011 before DVD release in September of that year. The third of eight Sushi Typhoon releases in 2010 and 2011, Helldriver was already being recognised as part of a cult series. WeLoveCult.com refers to the film as “ultra-violent” and “ultra-cheesy,” and claims: “ if [the synopsis] doesn’t make you add the film to your queue, then I don’t know what will.”[28] Furthermore, the DVD Verdict review for Helldriver notes: “With Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl, Mutant Girls Squad, and the unforgettable Tokyo Gore Police already under his belt, Nishimura has built up a cult following, with his effects work gaining him a reputation as the Japanese answer to Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead).”[29]

Citing Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932) as an example of cult films offering “extreme spectacles of … difference,” Bruce Kawin argues that films that glory in such otherness (additional types of ‘otherness’ in his list include rebellion, “wacko power,” and “wacko banality”) present “unifying visions for an alienated audience, uncompromised celebrations of another integrity.”[30] Thus, the glorified difference of the mutant shōjos presented in Nishimura and Iguchi’s Tokyo Gore films is a starting point for defining it as a cult text. Equally important to the film’s content in determining cult status, however, is the audience’s relationship with the text.

Matt Hills’ discussion of horror and the “monstrous fascination” in The Pleasures of Horror uses, and frequently contradicts, Noel Carroll’s philosophy on ‘art-horror’ audiences (as opposed to ‘natural horror,’ which refers to real-life events).[31] While Carroll suggests that our attraction to horror has much to do with the curiosity of non-human and almost-human characters, Hills argues that this is a weak connection because we have come to expect monster characters in horror films, so there must be something stronger drawing our attention.[32] Hills suggests that rather than a curiosity of the monstrous, it is the omnipotence of these characters that attracts horror fans. In films like Mutant Girls Squad and The Machine Girl, the intent seems to be to attract viewers to the spectacle of the human body metamorphosing into something more powerful. Also, emphasizing the importance of audience interaction in defining cult, Hills adds that pleasure taken from a horror film may not always be about the content, but rather appreciation of a star’s performance.[33] With Tokyo Gore, there is no doubt that most fans are drawn to the over-the-top extremities presented on-screen but, for some fans, there is surely an appeal to seeing Audition led Eihi Shiina to perform another extreme role in Tokyo Gore Police, for example. Furthermore, by using the label Sushi Typhoon, audiences are more likely to be drawn to Tokyo Gore films and, more specifically, those directed by Iguchi and Nishimura, because they know they can expect a certain type of horror.

Zombie Ass, 2012.

Zombie Ass, 2012.

It is no surprise, then, that Iguchi released four more feature films that were officially selected for Fantasia festival and that subsequently made the rounds on the international festival circuit in 2011 and 2012. While only two of the four films, Karate-Robo Zaborgor (2011) and Zombie Ass (2012), were made under the Sushi Typhoon label, all four were collaborations with Nishimura who, as usual, was responsible for the special effects. Sushi Typhoon’s film festival success is not surprising due to the niche nature of festivals like Fantasia, and the Canadian premieres of Tokyo Gore Police and Zombie Ass as midnight movies is not insignificant. In her Cult Film Experience contribution, “Midnight S/Excess,” Gaylyn Studlar begins: “Excess defines the midnight movie, a cult phenomenon that seems to catalogue perverse acts with the same enthusiasm as nineteenth-century sexologists.”[34] Fetishism and transvestitism are amongst Studlar’s list of sexual ‘abnormalities’ sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing cited in his Psychopathia Sexualis, which, not coincidentally, have a recurring presence in Tokyo Gore films. While Tokyo Gore Police’s representation of this is explicit in its portrayal of a fetish club with grotesquely mutilated female bodies, films such as Sukeban Boy and Machine Girl include a more implicit reflection of the Japanese schoolgirl fetish, as outlined above. Studlar goes on to discuss how midnight movies “crystallize… the s/excess of perversity in a feminine though not always female figure,” citing such examples as Pink Flamingos (John Waters, 1972) and Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975).[35] However, while there’s no doubt about Tokyo Gore’s ‘s/excess’ (Sukeban Boy and Kisaragi in Mutant Girls Squad are both examples of the feminine characters outlined above), a more explicit form of excess is found within the films’ violence and gore.

Both Iguchi and Nishimura’s involvement with the American anthology film The ABCs of Death (2012) further solidifies their reputation for portrayals of excess, with their contributions including “F is for Fart” (Iguchi) and “Z is for Zetsumetsu” (Nishimura) (zetsumetsu is the Japanese word for ‘extinction’). The silliness of Iguchi’s narrative comes as no surprise, considering the title, as well as his reputation and history with JAV. The short film portrays a teenaged schoolgirl faced with two potential problems: she’s too embarrassed to fart in public, and she’s in love with her teacher, Yumi sensei. However, the arrival of a grey cloud of smoke that appears to be taking over Tokyo, allows her to overcome both of these dilemmas as she is faced with the life-or-death situation of seeking refuge. In a dream sequence that spans the remainder of the short film, the young girl winds up alone with her teacher in an empty corridor of their school, where Yumi sensei agrees to fart on her as protection from the other gases threatening to kill them. The fart scene climaxes as we see images of the teacher and student sharing the sensual experience of passing and inhaling Yumi sensei’s gas (further sexualised with moaning and, later on, kissing), juxtaposed with students in other parts of the school inhaling the black cloud and crumbling to ash. Similarly, Nishimura’s film offers another connection between death and sexuality with the different characters in his film representing destruction (extinction?), including a swastika hat, a tattoo of the twin towers and an airplane, several bombs labelled ‘Little Boy,’ and an outline of Japan with ‘3/11’ written above it. The film ends with all of these characters exploding as the madman, who is assumed to be at the root of all this evil, points to his erection and shouts: “It is standing!”

The anthology premiered as part of the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival’s Midnight Madness series and, with later releases through iTunes and Video On Demand (VOD), as well as a short US theatrical release following the festival rounds, was set up to be more mainstream than Iguchi and Nishimura’s prior projects. Furthermore, aligning their names with 24 other genre filmmakers from around the world, including Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes [2007]) and Ben Wheatley (Kill List [2011]), The ABCs of Death brought positive attention to Iguchi and Nishimura and showed that they were not exclusive to Sushi Typhoon productions. Despite some negative response from viewers who were there to see the more serious pieces from Vigalando (“A is for Apocalypse”), and thought “F” and “Z” were too silly, other reviewers offered fan appreciation, such as Jason Gorber from Twitch, who found the Japanese contributions to be exactly what he had expected, referring to “F is for Fart” as “one of the more charming of the lot, silly and stupid in a way that these J-pop, school girls-in-uniform fetish pieces often are, but without any pretense of seriousness.”[36] When asked, in an interview with MovieWeb.com, about the connotations of farting in Japanese culture, Iguchi explained:

[In Japan] farts are perceived as one of the origins of humor… For Japanese people, that’s the number one basis for humor, I think. Japan has a lot of particular fetishes, and there’s a huge amount of eroticism that doesn’t involve anything sexual. For instance, scatology has a firm popularity among some people, and there’s even a sub-genre in AV (Japanese pornography) that specializes in farts.[37]

Further questioned about his awareness of the current “Fart renaissance” happening in America, Iguchi responded: “I’m always interested in the subject!”[38]

The Japanese attraction to silliness that Iguchi describes is not unlike that in America, which is discussed by Michelle Ann Abate in her essay “Taking Silliness Seriously: Jim Henson’s The Muppet Show, the Anglo-American Tradition of Nonsense, and Cultural Critique.” Much like the silliness that Abate outlines, which appeals to American viewers of The Muppet Show, Tokyo Gore films can also be “seen as containing innocuous comedic content [as well as encoding] sharp cultural critiques and, at times, even subversive social commentary.”[39] For example, in both cases, the “general chaos, mayhem, and disorder” portrayed invokes questioning of notions of power and control.[40] This holds true in the teaser for Iguchi’s upcoming film, Gothic Lolita Battle Bear (2014), which suggests a similar mixture of nonsense and social commentary, with the return of the kawaii character, this time simultaneously representing the shōjo character, rather than working in contradiction to it. Such representations of cuteness is a reflection of Kinsella’s suggestion that cute is a form of anti-social behaviour: “By immersion in the pre-social world, otherwise known as childhood, cute fashion blithely ignores or outrightly contradicts values central to the organization of Japanese society and the maintenance of the work ethic.”[41] With this in mind, it is no surprise that Iguchi has combined his two prevailing female characters to offer yet another portrayal of a Japanese society that is too hung up on feigning normality.

Similarly, the trailer for Nishimura’s latest, Zombie TV (2013), co-directed with Naoya Tashino and Maelie Makuno, suggests the film offers a typical questioning of societal norms through the zombie metaphor by returning to the recurring Tokyo Gore theme of ‘normal vs. outcast.’ However, in a unique twist, the trailer’s subheadings such as ‘Pink Zombies,’ (the quintessential kawaii characters), and ‘Zombie God,’ imply a new sort of zombie hierarchy without necessarily placing the ‘uninfected’ at the top. Tokyo Gore consistently offers this binary between at least two opposing groups, in most cases it is ‘authority vs. other,’ but in other films, like Sukeban Boy or Zombie TV, it tends to be ‘other vs. other,’ where two (or more) outcast or ‘abnormal’ groups battle against each other. Ryan Turek from ShockTillYouDrop.com describes Zombie TV as: “A Monty Python-esque collection of shorts, animation, sketch comedy, instructional videos and more,” explaining that the film “showcases the natural evolution of zombies in the 21st century.”[42] The Monty Python comparison here is an apt one, particularly considering the way both types of films approach comedy through the grotesque. In Janis Udris’ PhD dissertation “Grotesque and Excremental Humour: Monty Python’s Meaning of Life,” she quotes Terry Gilliam on his use of shocking material: “We’ve got to maintain a certain level of offense; otherwise we’re just entertainers. It’s one way of proving to ourselves that we’re not just in it for the money.”[43] Similarly, both Iguchi[44] and Nishimura[45] have commented on the importance of working on a low budget to maintain the freedom to make unique films with the goal of turning shocking images that would normally only been seen in manga and anime into live action (examples of this include geisha shooting bullets from their breasts, schoolgirls farting yellow gas, and mutant girls with ‘butt saws’).

Fantasia’s 2013 festival program markets Bushido Man (Takanori Tsujimoto, 2013) to those with a taste for “out-there Asian action film,” referring to the “Sushi Typhoon wave” to attract viewers looking for a type of film containing “over-the-top absurdities.”[46] While Bushido Man was not actually released under the Sushi Typhoon label (with the last update on their blog being over two years ago, it can be assumed the label is currently inactive[47]), it is significant that the name is now being used to define a specific ‘wave’ of films, rather than simply as a production and marketing label. This is reflective of the evolution of Tartan’s ‘Asia Extreme’ label, which is now distinctive as a style of Asian filmmaking, and suggests the future of Sushi Typhoon, as no longer a production label, but instead a recognizable type of film offering over-the-top violence and nonsensical humour. This recognition allows for the cult fandom that is becoming a part of Tokyo Gore’s reputation through screenings at festivals like Fantasia, where audiences are more likely to interact with the absurdities of these films.

In closing, if we are to define Tokyo Gore films like Machine Girl and Tokyo Gore Police as cult texts, it is necessary to consider the different implications of the term, as these films are in the process of building a cult-like fan base, rather than having verifiably established a cult following. While, compared to established Asian Extreme cult filmmakers Takashi Miike and Park Chan-wook, Iguchi and Nishimura are still emerging as such, there is no denying the implications of the types of audiences they are attracting to niche film festivals around the world. A Fantasia review of Dead Sushi (2012), observes that it: “serves up a particular brand of silliness that [is] hard to resist, especially when sitting among the sold-out enthusiastic throng that is the Fantasia audience as they chanted ‘SUSHI’ again and again.”[48] With Iguchi and Nishimura’s names now so closely associated with Tokyo Gore and Sushi Typhoon, they signify a very distinct style of over-the-top, gruesomely violent filmmaking, setting up audience expectations before they go into their films, and ultimately drawing a particular kind of (predominantly Western) audience to their screenings.



Abate, Michelle Ann. “Taking Silliness Seriously: Jim Henson’s The Muppet Show, the Anglo-American Tradition of Nonsense, and Cultural Critique.” The Journal of Popular Culture, 42, no. 4 (2009): 589-613.

Bottenberg, Rupert. “Bushido Man” Fantasia Festival, http://www.fantasiafestival.com/2013/en/films-schedule/10/bushido-man

Brown, Todd. “Yoshihiro Nishimura Talks TOKYO GORE POLICE!” Twitch Film,  http://twitchfilm.com/2008/06/yoshihiro-nishimura-talks-tokyo-gore-police.html

Cook, Pam. “Film Culture: ‘Exploitation’ Films and Feminism.” Screen 17, no. 2 (1976):122-127.

Coulthard, Lisa. “Killing Bill: Rethinking Feminism and Film Violence.” In Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture, edited by Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra, 153-75. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.

DiGiovanna, Alex. “Fantasia 2012: Interview with ‘Dead Sushi’ Director Noboru Iguchi and Star Rina Takeda.” Movie Buzzers, http://moviebuzzers.com/film-festival-coverage/fantasia-2012-interview-dead-sushi-director-noboru-iguchi-star-rina-takeda

Fitzpatrick, Michael. “From Schoolgirl to Sex Object: White Socks and Prim Navy Suits Unleash Male Libidos in Japan.” The Guardian, July 8, 1999.

Gay, Elliot. “Interview: Sushi Typhoon Founder Yoshinori Chiba.” SciFi Japan, http://www.scifijapan.com/articles/2010/11/18/interview-sushi-typhoon-founder-yoshinori-chiba/

Gorber, Jason. “Review: THE ABCS OF DEATH Encourages Letter Skipping.” Twitch, http://twitchfilm.com/2013/03/review-the-abcs-of-death.html

Hamm, Sarah. “The Japanese Schoolgirl Figure: Renegotiation of Power Through Societal Construction, Masking a Crisis of Masculinity.” Diss. University of Washington, 2012.

Hills, Matt. The Pleasures of Horror. London: Continuum, 2005.

Hunt, Leon. “Asiaphilia, Asianisation and the Gatekeeper Auteur: Quentin Tarantino and Luc Besson”. In East Asian Cinemas: Exploring Transnational Connections on Film, edited by Leon Hunt and Leung Wing-Fai, 220-36. London: I.B. Tauris, 2008.

Kung Fu Cult Masters. London: Wallflower, 2003.

Kawin, Bruce. “After Midnight.” In The Cult Film Experience, edited by JP Telotte, 18-25. Austin: UTP, 1991.

Kinsella, Sharon. “Cuties in Japan.” In Women, Media and Consumption in Japan, edited by Lise Skov and Brian Moeran, 220-254. Surrey: Curzon Press, 1995.

Kristof, Nicholas D. “A Plain School Uniform as the Latest Aphrodisiac.” New York Times April 2, 1997.

Lammle, Rob. “What to Watch – 12/23/2011.” We Love Cult, http://www.welovecult.com/2011/review/watch-12232011/

Mathijs, Ernest and Jamie Sexton. Cult Cinema. Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2011.

Mighty_Emperor. “New Japanese Gore Films.” IMDb. October 5, 2011. http://www.imdb.com/list/IRI4DX5uI2o/

Miller, Laura. “Cute Masquerade and the Pimping of Japan.” International Journal of Japanese Sociology 20 (2011): 18-29.

Napier, Susan J. Anime: From Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.

Ndalianis, Angela. The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012.

Orange, B. Alan. “F is for Fart: Exclusive The ABCs of Death Interview with Noboru Iguchi.” Movie Web, http://www.movieweb.com/news/f-is-for-fart-exclusive-the-abcs-of-death-interview-with-noboru-iguchi

Peter K., “Fantasia 2012 Review: DEAD SUSHI.” Twitch Film, http://twitchfilm.com/2012/07/fantasia-2012-dead-sushi.html

Pritchard, Judge Paul. “DVD Verdict Review – Helldriver.” DVD Verdict, http://www.dvdverdict.com/reviews/helldriverr2.php

Richie, Donald. The Image Factor: Fads & Fashions in Japan. London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2003

Seaver, Jay. “Mutant Girls Squad.” eFilm Critic, http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=20849&reviewer=371

Sharp, Jasper. Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema. Surrey: FAB Press, Ltd., 2008.

Studlar, Gaylyn. “Midnight S/Excess: Cult Configurations of ‘Femininity’ and the Perverse.” In The Cult Film Experience, edited by JP Telotte, 138-55. Austin: UTP, 1991.

Turek, Ryan. “Tune in to Yoshihiro Nishimura’s Zombie TV.” Shock Till You Drop, http://www.shocktillyoudrop.com/news/340665-tune-in-to-yoshihiro-nushimuras-zombie-tv/

Udris, Janis. “Grotesque and Excremental Humour: Monty Python’s Meaning of Life.” Diss. University of Warwick, 1988.

Vijn, Ard. “IFFR 2011: An Interview with NOBORU IGUCHI.” Twitch Film, http://twitchfilm.com/2011/02/iffr-2011-an-interview-with-noboru-iguchi.html

Walkow, Marc. “The Sushi Typhoon.” http://sushityphoon.blogspot.com.au/



[1]Michael Bonedigger, “Tokyo Gore Style: A Retrospective on the Films and Trends,” Horrornews.net, posted July 19, 2011, http://horrornews.net/37084/tokyo-gore-style-a-retrospective-on-the-films-and-trends-tokyo-extreme/ (accessed November 13, 2013).

[2]Jasper Sharp, Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, (Surrey: FAB Press, Ltd., 2008), 9.

[3] Ibid.

[4]Nicholas D. Kristof, “A Plain School Uniform as the Latest Aphrodisiac,” New York Times April 2, 1997, http://www.nytimes.com/1997/04/02/world/a-plain-school-uniform-as-the-latest-aphrodisiac.html (accessed Nov 11, 2013).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Michael Fitzpatrick, “From Schoolgirl to Sex Object: White Socks and Prim Navy Suits Unleash Male Libidos in Japan,” The Guardian July 8, 1999, http://www.theguardian.com/world/1999/jul/08/gender.uk (accessed Nov 11, 2013).

[7] Ibid.

[8]Laura Miller, “Cute Masquerade and the Pimping of Japan,” International Journal of Japanese Sociology  20 (2011): 18-29.

[9]Sarah Hamm, “The Japanese Schoolgirl Figure: Renegotiation of Power Through Societal Construction, Masking a Crisis of Masculinity,” (PhD diss., University of Washington, 2012).

[10] Sharon Kinsella, “Cuties in Japan,” in Women, Media and Consumption in Japan, ed. Lise Skov and Brian Moeran (Surrey: Curzon Press, 1995), 221.

[11]Susan J. Napier, Anime: From Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle, (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005), 154.

[12]Donald Richie, The Image Factor: Fads & Fashions in Japan (London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2003), 58.

[13] Ibid.

[14]Lisa Coulthard, “Killing Bill: Rethinking Feminism and Film Violence,” in Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture, ed. Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007), 163.

[15] Ibid.

[16]Mighty_Emperor, “New Japanese Gore Films,” IMDb.com, created on October 5, 2011, http://www.imdb.com/list/IRI4DX5uI2o/ (accessed Nov 15, 2013).

[17]Pam Cook, “Film Culture: ‘Exploitation’ Films and Feminism,” Screen 17, no. 2 (1976): 122.

[18]Leon Hunt, “Asiaphilia, Asianisation and the Gatekeeper Auteur: Quentin Tarantino and Luc Besson,” in East Asian Cinemas: Exploring Transnational Connections on Film, ed. Leon Hunt and Leung Wing-Fai (London: I.B. Tauris, 2008), 220-36.

[19]Leon Hunt, Kung Fu Cult Masters (London: Wallflower, 2003). 

[20]Ernest Mathijs and Jamie Sexton, Cult Cinema (Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2011), 121.

[21]Ard Vijn, “IFFR 2011: An Interview with NOBORU IGUCHI,” Twitchfilm.com, posted February 7, 2011. http://twitchfilm.com/2011/02/iffr-2011-an-interview-with-noboru-iguchi.html (accessed November 26, 2013).

[22]Angela Ndalianis, The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2012), 15.

[23]Ibid., 28-9

[24] Ibid., 30.

[25]Elliot Gay, “Interview: Sushi Typhoon Founder Yoshinori Chiba,” Scifijapan.com, posted November 18, 2010, http://www.scifijapan.com/articles/2010/11/18/interview-sushi-typhoon-founder-yoshinori-chiba/(accessed September 30, 2013).

[26] Ibid.

[27]Jay Seaver, “Mutant Girls Squad,” Efilmcritic.com, originally posted August 21, 2010, http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=20849&reviewer=371 (accessed October 1, 2013).

[28]Rob Lammle, “What to Watch – 12/23/2011,” WeLoveCult.com, posted December 23, 2011, http://www.welovecult.com/2011/review/watch-12232011/ (accessed November 26, 2013).

[29]Judge Paul Pritchard, “DVD Verdict Review – Helldriver,” DVDVerdict.com, posted November 22, 2011, http://www.dvdverdict.com/reviews/helldriverr2.php (accessed November 26, 2013).

[30]Bruce Kawin, “After Midnight,” in The Cult Film Experience, ed. JP Telotte (Austin: UTP, 1991), 19.

[31]Matt Hills, The Pleasures of Horror, (London: Continuum, 2005), 14.

[32] Ibid., 16.

[33] Ibid., 17.

[34]Gaylyn Studlar, “Midnight S/Excess: Cult Configurations of ‘Femininity’ and the Perverse,” in The Cult Film Experience, ed. JP Telotte (Austin: UTP, 1991), 139.

[35] Ibid.

[36]Jason Gorber, “Review: THE ABCS OF DEATH Encourages Letter Skipping,” Twitch.com, posted March 13, 2013, http://twitchfilm.com/2013/03/review-the-abcs-of-death.html (accessed November 26, 2013).

[37]B. Alan Orange, “F is for Fart: Exclusive The ABCs of Death Interview with Noboru Iguchi,” MovieWeb.com, posted January 13, 2013, http://www.movieweb.com/news/f-is-for-fart-exclusive-the-abcs-of-death-interview-with-noboru-iguchi (accessed November 22, 2013).

[38] Ibid.

[39]Michelle Ann Abate, “Taking Silliness Seriously: Jim Henson’s The Muppet Show, the Anglo-American Tradition of Nonsense, and Cultural Critique,” The Journal of Popular Culture, 42, no. 4 (2009): 601-2.

[40] Ibid., 602.

[41]Kinsella, 251.

[42]Ryan Turek, “Tune in to Yoshihiro Nishimura’s Zombie TV,” ShockTillYouDrop.com, posted November 25, 2013. http://www.shocktillyoudrop.com/news/340665-tune-in-to-yoshihiro-nushimuras-zombie-tv/ (accessed November 27, 2013).

[43]Janis Udris, “Grotesque and Excremental Humour: Monty Python’s Meaning of Life,” (PhD diss., University of Warwick, 1988), 168.

[44]Alex DiGiovanna, “Fantasia 2012: Interview with ‘Dead Sushi’ Director Noboru Iguchi and Star Rina Takeda,” MovieBuzzers.com, posted on July 31, 2012, http://moviebuzzers.com/film-festival-coverage/fantasia-2012-interview-dead-sushi-director-noboru-iguchi-star-rina-takeda (accessed November 22, 2013).

[45]Todd Brown, “Yoshihiro Nishimura Talks TOKYO GORE POLICE!,” Twitchfilm.com, posted June 25, 2008, http://twitchfilm.com/2008/06/yoshihiro-nishimura-talks-tokyo-gore-police.html (accessed November 22, 2013).

[46]Rupert Bottenberg, “Bushido Man,” Fantasiafestival.com, http://www.fantasiafestival.com/2013/en/films-schedule/10/bushido-man (accessed October 1, 2013).

[47]Walkow, Marc. “The Sushi Typhoon.” http://sushityphoon.blogspot.com.au/ (accessed January 14, 2014).

[48]Peter K., “Fantasia 2012 Review: DEAD SUSHI,” Twitchfilm.com, posted July 24, 2012, http://twitchfilm.com/2012/07/fantasia-2012-dead-sushi.html (accessed October 10, 2013).


Bio: Jessica Hughes is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. Her dissertation focuses on Western perceptions of graphic violence and otherness in Asian Extreme cinema. She received her MA in Film Studies from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. Her article “In the Bathhouse” was published in The University of British Columbia’s Cinephile (“The Scene,” 5.2) and articles on the ‘postmodern vampire’ have appeared in Image & Text and Cross-Cultural Studies journal. She was also editor-in-chief for Cinephile (“Sound on Screen,” 6.1) in 2010.

Passing Time and Ruin: Michael Richards and the Afterlife of Performance in Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee – Elliott Logan

Seinfeld with Larry David in Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

Seinfeld with Larry David in Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

This article appreciates the Michael Richards episode of Jerry Seinfeld’s online video series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (Crackle, 2012-).[1] I claim the episode is distinguished among the series by its unexpectedly poignant images of Richards giving performances, and of people watching them. The episode achieves this distinction and poignancy by treating Richards’s onscreen presence, both within the episode’s limits and beyond, as a ruin. This treatment stems from the history of Richards’s image built-up through his decade-long role as Kramer in the sitcom Seinfeld (NBC, 1989-1998), and of the shattering of that image by the footage of his racist tirade during a 2006 stand-up routine at a Los Angeles comedy club. It will also been seen to rely upon the way long-running television representations are related to the concepts of fragment and ruin developed in Romantic criticism.

Jason Jacobs has pointed to this relationship as a way of thinking about how television serials develop as a series of fragments, of individual episodes and seasons formed as discrete works with their own borders, which are at once clearly demarcated “yet also blurred” by their relationship to the show’s past history, and to its future history that will yet unfold. Under the pressure of time, Jacobs writes, “[c]haracters and their shows become ruins” (2001, 444, 445). Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee treat Michael Richards as a ruin in order to excavate the long history of his image as a television performer. This excavation does more than show Richards’s current inhabitation of self to be a palimpsest of past performances. Rather, our continued witness to his singular performative presence in the here and now evokes his past talent and reveals its continuing present vitality, as a force seemingly able to overcome Richards’s fractious personal history to restore, from its tarnished, time-worn condition, an earlier sense of his comic persona. Does television’s deep bank of history (such as that accumulated by Seinfeld’s decade-long run), and its capacious future histories, make its performers peculiarly susceptible to ruinous degradation over time? But does it also allow them a special capacity for the gradual restoration or recovery of that ruined presence and self?

Before investigating these claims and questions about Michael Richards in Comedians in Cars, it should be acknowledged they might be seen as a bit grand for what could appear to be a fairly ephemeral piece of online curiosity, one intended to do no more than while away fifteen minutes of cheap time. Indeed, it seems right to greet the altitude of my claims with some scepticism, and so therefore necessary to more strongly justify my treatment of the series in the terms above. The scepticism feels appropriate because my claims to poignancy and profundity appear substantially at odds with the initial appeal of the series itself. As noted, the series is distributed online, through both a stand-alone website and YouTube. So it already courts insignificance by being placed on the Internet, a media flow that, in my experience at least, strongly lends itself to a fickle mood conducive to only momentary fragments of absorption, flotsam quickly lost amidst a sea of distraction. Another important aspect of this is Seinfeld’s heritage as a “show about nothing”. The style of Comedians in Cars does little to upset these assumptions about the demands it will make on our attention, yet, if closely considered, reveals time and its pressures to be a central concern. The opening moments of the first episode, which features Seinfeld co-creator Larry David, give us a good lesson in these aspects of the show. “Larry Eats a Pancake”, the title already framing events as inconsequential in the extreme, begins simply with a series of close-up and long shots of a well-kept blue Volkswagen Beetle. These are relatively banal images that quietly invite our gentle admiration of the vehicle’s endearing design, and of the owner’s obvious appreciation and care for it, registered in the perfect sheen of the paintwork and the beaming chrome inside the engine bay. The sense that not very much is being asked of us is encouraged by the music, a generic jazz-funk muzak number, the kind of thing you’ve heard a dozen times while being kept on hold; music to wait patiently to. This interest in evoking an experience of time develops as the episode gets past its first segment, in which the vehicle and guest are introduced. As Seinfeld and Larry meet up, the music moves into a related but changed mood, from being on hold to waiting in the cocktail lounge of a hotel lobby; it’s all light and jangly piano keys with lots of space in-between, space in which to wait for friends to arrive, to share in the leisure of passing time, together. Just prior to the announcement and introduction of the guest, the title design of each episode also inducts us into a world of undemanding simplicity. The background is an image of milk being poured into black coffee, over which the straightforward, right-to-the-point title appears, word by obvious word.

Figure 1. Announcing a world of undemanding simplicity.

Figure 1. Announcing a world of undemanding simplicity.

But what especially ushers in a sense of homespun, nostalgic innocence is the font. Each word is rendered in a hand-drawn white outline, hastily crosshatched, as if sketched in a hurry on an easel-mounted chalkboard. This evokes the elementary, returning us to a childhood time in which our materials were more straightforward, the stuff of play insulated from a world of adult dilemmas, which are difficult to straighten out and put right. But by evoking the classroom, the font also suggests we are entering a world concerned with something like education, that a kind of learning might be at stake. However, this more serious suggestion is for the moment only a slight undercurrent. It is soon after submerged by the more immediate sense that we are in for a day of leisurely time wasting and the avoidance of serious obligation. This is declared in the voice-over recording of Seinfeld telephoning Larry and inviting him to coffee, the first instance of what will become a structural motif given varied repetition across each of the episodes. Seinfeld asks Larry if he wants “to do something”, a proposition about which Larry is enthusiastic, prompting Jerry to be amazed that he even has the time: “Really, you’re free?” Larry gives a painful groan of uncertainty, but then eventually buckles: “Yeah, I can be free.” Variations on this exchange are repeated each episode. One of my favourites is the one with Alec Baldwin, who features in the fourth episode of season one. Baldwin responds to the invitation with a sharp fit of disbelief (“Right now?”), but almost immediately recognises the appeal of an unexpected excursion, and puts away his other plans: “Uh, I’ll be downstairs in what, thirty minutes?” Or consider Sarah Silverman, excited in episode one of season two: “Come pick me up! What am I, busy?”

At this point it has to be acknowledged that, of course, the outings are organised ahead of time, and the participants are possibly renumerated for that time. (Don Rickles, at the very beginning of season two’s fourth episode, concedes this in a crusty wisecrack: “Okay, listen, hurry up, ‘cause for the money you’re payin’ me, this should be over.”) However, these factors only amplify my claims, because they mean these exchanges early in each episode take on the character of deliberate performative choices, further licensing us to ask: Why are they here, like this? The matter of the intention behind them becomes both legitimate and urgent. It is urgent because these exchanges are something like bedrock for one of the series’ central attractions, a crucial component of what makes it so pleasurable to watch. They evoke a world in which there are no impediments to unplanned propositions to hang out and chat, or at least one in which there are such obstacles, but they are not so serious that they can’t be overcome.

So Comedians in Cars declares itself as a strange species of talk show, which Stanley Cavell, in his essay “The Fact of Television”, understands as the format that has “the most elaborate” of television’s “requirements or opportunities for improvisation”.[2] This elaborateness comes from the format’s “monologues, and hence the interruptions and accidents that expert monologues invite, and with their more or less extended interviews” (Cavell 1982, 87-88). These qualities of television talk are central to what Cavell sees television to be a medium for. Cavell claims that through television we “monitor” what we fear is “the growing uninhabitability of the world” (1982, 95), that it can “no longer be humanly responded to” (1982, 88). Important to my argument about Comedians in Cars, a talk show whose attraction is spontaneous conversation, is Cavell’s claim that the strongest sign of the continued existence and force of such human response is “improvisation” (1982, 88). In a brilliant recent essay that takes up Cavell’s under-utilised ideas, Alex Clayton writes that “[f]oregrounding the capacity for improvisation, aliveness to one another … is one way in which the medium pacifies this terrible thought” (2013, 91), the thought of the world’s “growing uninhabitability”. The implication of Cavell’s essay for my argument is that the time Seinfeld and his guest spend together becomes a measure of the continued availability and power of improvisation and conversation in a world otherwise pressurised against these forms of human response, a potential pressure registered by the initial (or implicit) uncertainty of each episode’s opening moments of talk.

What Seinfeld and his guests then go on to talk about, and the way the show handles this talking, links the series’ ambient interest in time and improvisation to its other major concern: performance. The wonderful Alec Baldwin episode gives a good example. In an early segment the pair drives around New York City, discussing their respective lives and careers in terms of effort expended and reward gained over many years. Shortly after Baldwin mockingly characterises Seinfeld’s life as “one unbroken boulevard of green lights”, Seinfeld asks Baldwin “Who do you think has worked harder to get where they are: you, or me?” Then, once Baldwin has had a chance to do an amazing bit of impression about the petty professional rivalry between Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, he and Seinfeld get lunch. Among other things, the two talk about whether Seinfeld ever wished to pursue a career as, in Baldwin’s words, a “straight” actor, and whether or not he possesses that ineffable quality that earns brilliant screen actors the right to so powerfully compel our attention and imagination; “You can look in my eyes, you can see it’s not there,” Seinfeld says. (Baldwin notes it might be more a matter of whether or not Seinfeld has the psychological wherewithal to realise those qualities more fully.)

After many digressions that allow Baldwin to demonstrate his skill at improvisation and impression, not only to Seinfeld as his audience but also to the camera, their conversation leads Seinfeld to observe that Baldwin’s misfortune (albeit an enviable one) is to be a “gifted, gifted actor who is cursed with the mind of a writer.” (The rhythm and alliteration of “unbroken boulevard of green lights”, the spilling tumble of which evokes an accidental but miraculously graceful roll downhill, is one display of Baldwin’s talent for writing, even if that talent is realised through improvised performance of mock outrage: acting as writing on the spot.) So the free-ranging attention of their restless conversation, which seemingly alights on whatever will throw up some laughs at lunchtime, has a consistent and strong undercurrent about the individual capacities of body, voice, and mind that these two actors each possess, and about the gifts and torments and rewards and regrets that attend the exercise (or waste) of those capacities before a wide public over time.

The Alec Baldwin episode is a useful illustration of Comedians in Cars because it clearly reveals how one of the show’s central interests is worrying about performance. Indeed, in each episode, Seinfeld and his guests can be said to reflect on what George Kouvaros, in his astonishing study of the Magnum photographs taken of Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Misfits (Huston, 1961), identifies as a central subject of the changing postwar image of acting: “acting as labor” (2010, 88). In these photographs, “the emphasis is on the backstage business of being a star: the moments of preparation and waiting that are normally out of public view” (Kouvaros 2010, 84). Kouvaros traces how these images form part of an emerging postwar tradition or subgenre of photojournalism oriented around, and exerting influence upon, Hollywood star image and the related image of acting during the period.

The argument Kouvaros patiently elaborates is a deeply rich exploration of traditions of absorption and theatricality in eighteenth century painting and twentieth century photography in relation to changing historical understandings of the private self in public life.[3] Important to my purposes is his summary of the how these changing ways of photographing film stars like Monroe impacted the image of acting in the postwar period. For Kouvaros, these photographs reveal how “the glamour and ease once associated with playing to the camera has been transformed into something tentative and fundamentally uncertain” (2010, 101). That Comedians in Cars also understands acting and performance as tentative and uncertain can be seen in the way it treats them as professional activities that need to be obsessively turned-over and worried about through talk. The conversation between Seinfeld and Baldwin is evidence of this: it shows two highly successful actors focussing on how the demanding effort to pursue excellence and recognition through their craft over time produces not only the rewards of success, but also regret, weariness, and rivalry. This is crystallised in their attempts to measure their respective reservoirs of confidence and energy, which they acknowledge to have diminished in comparison to the over-brimming vitalities of youth. As Baldwin puts it in one of the episode’s final lines: “Only young people can keep those flames burning, those pots boiling all that time.”

Kouvaros’s writing helps to illuminate one way acting is talked about in Comedians in Cars in general: as a form of labour. Beyond this, he suggests a richly generative framework within which to consider the special poignancy of the Michael Richards episode in particular, and the way it handles the history and ruin of Richards’s image as an actor. Kouvaros provides this framework when he goes on to describe what thinking about acting as labour implies, which is “an understanding of acting untethered to action or to any clear outcome: acting as bearing witness to time” (2010, 143-144). The phrase is useful to the extent that it resists static definition in order to be powerfully evocative. This being said, it runs the risk of falling prey to the kind of fuzzy incoherence that often attends this sort of high-altitude abstraction. So to bring things more down to earth, what might “acting as bearing witness to time” look like onscreen? Kouvaros gives the example of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films, in particular L’Eclisse (1962). He writes that the movie’s “sense of tiredness indicates that L’Eclisse begins at the point after something has ended. Although we don’t know what caused the breakdown, its reverberations are evident in the way time weighs heavily on the actors’ gestures and actions” (2010, 144). Kouvaros sees this tone as a product of Antonioni’s “temporal elongations”, the way he tends to allow shots and moments to linger longer than seems necessary, choices which “give rise to a form of acting based on qualities of observation and attention … to events and people that, for all intents and purposes, are incidental” (2010, 144-145).

We can understand Comedians in Cars as being generally linked to Kouvaros’s idea of “acting as bearing witness to time” through its own mode of apparently drifting, seemingly aimless attention. This is a kind of attention that, as I pointed out above, is mainly anchored by an interest in capturing objects, places, moods, gestures, and spoken words that cleave in various ways to the inexorable passing of time. Within this general tendency of the series, the Michael Richards episode especially resonates with “acting as bearing witness to time” through its particular connection to Kouvaros’s description of L’Eclisse. This connection is established through the scenes of Michael Richards performing in the episode, which gradually evoke and work-over the history of his image as a performer: the image sedimented through his nearly decade-long television role as Kramer, the shameful public shattering of that image by the footage of his racist tirade during the 2006 stand-up meltdown, and his subsequent appearance alongside Seinfeld on David Letterman’s Late Show. Even this broad summary should make apparent the episode’s parallel with Kouvaros’s account of “acting as bearing witness to time” in L’Eclisse: that it “begins after the point something has ended”, and that even if “we don’t know what caused the breakdown, its reverberations are evident in the way time weighs heavily” (2010, 144).

This connection is useful because through it the Michael Richards episode gives us an opportunity to consider the opportunities television provides for “acting as bearing witness to time”. As mentioned above, television series like Seinfeld are long-running works that rely for their force on a particular sense of time and the building-up of histories: histories of fictional worlds and characters, and histories of our relationships to those fictions. Serial television, in other words, has a particular “ability to generate a shared history with us”, and partly relies for its force on “our willingness to meet its challenges, to work with it in mutual inhabitancy” (Jacobs and Peacock 2013, 12). So serial television, as a medium of “mutual inhabitancy” over time, is one that produces works that—like cities built atop ruins—continually accrete layers of history as both they and we live into our shared, indeterminate futures. Might these attributes of television—what Horace Newcomb called its qualities of “intimacy, continuity, and history” (Newcomb 1974, 245)—allow for not only the close, long-range tracking of corrosion upon the features and presence of Richards, but also for the gathering, from that same history of collapse, some form of resource for recovering and reviving our earlier sense of his talent and gift?

These issues are quite difficult to clearly make out, but a way to consider how the episode presents them will emerge if we precisely note how, in the segment when Seinfeld introduces the vehicle, a sense of “time weighing heavily” first becomes apparent in the episode. As mentioned in my description of the Larry David episode and the blue Volkswagen Beetle, the series’ cars might at first seem to function as objects photographed merely for our appreciation of their autonomous formal qualities, whether for their elegant ease of line (a 1967 Austin-Healey roadster), or jolly oddity of angle and temperament (a run-down 1950 Citroën). The sense of pleasure for its own sake also stems from the connection between these vehicles and Seinfeld’s image as a wealthy collector of Porsche 911s, a mark of opulently pointless eccentricity. However, the Michael Richards episode finds a particular expressive relationship between Seinfeld’s chosen vehicle and his guest. The car is a 1962 Volkswagen van with a flatbed tray. As we watch the beaten-up oddity trundle about the streets of Los Angeles, Seinfeld informs us, in a voiceover that strikes the distanced appreciation of a car salesman on his shop floor, that the coat is “Dove Blue, Primer Grey, and Rust. The interior is grey vinyl, and duct tape.” Seinfeld tells us he was attracted to the weathered van because it was used as a service truck for a Porsche repair shop, but his voice betrays a stronger note of satisfaction in revealing that, in addition to the flatbed and two rows of seats, it has “an extra door on one side!” The shots of the car, and Seinfeld’s description spoken over them, immediately evoke and demand attention to the sedimentation of built-up exterior layers, and to their gradual erosion, revelation, and disintegration over time.

Figure 2. A sedimentation of layers.

Figure 2. A sedimentation of layers.

As well, Seinfeld’s enjoyment of the strange asymmetrical design (“an extra door on one side!”) raises eccentricity as a nicely surprising refusal of conventionally reassuring balance. So the car in this instance functions as more than just a pleasurable excursion into the lives of the well-off. With its visible layers of built-up and peeled-back paint, its wounded, barely held-together interior, and its off-kilter design, the Volkswagen is put to work as an emblem of Richards himself. In doing so, it instructs us about the episode’s interest in Richards: as a shifting palimpsest of character and persona that has been dynamically built-up and ground-down over time, his fictional exterior as ‘Kramer’ rudely ripped apart one night in a Los Angeles comedy club, our superficial idea of him stripped away to reveal a more pathologically eccentric and manic psychology than we ever imagined was contained within the oddball onscreen.

The metaphorical resonance between this vehicle and Richards is important because it asks us to revise our consideration of the role that the bodies of cars, and their surfaces, play in relation to the presence of performers in the show. What this means is that, despite the apparently undemanding simplicity of its style, Comedians in Cars requires consideration of a complex synthesis of the human presence of performers onscreen with other aspects of film style, such as camera position, mise-en-scène, and sound. Andrew Klevan describes well this relationship of mutual integration when he appreciates V.F. Perkins’s writing on coherence of performance and film apparatus in The Magnificent Ambersons (Welles, 1942): “The actor’s and the camera’s behaviour are mutually considerate; each trusts the other to enhance understanding and to relieve them of the sole burden of making themselves known” (2005, 14).[4] There is of course at least one important difference between the kind of work Perkins and Klevan admire in Welles, and that being undertaken by Seinfeld and his collaborators in Comedians in Cars. This point of difference is that the comedian’s talk show series is also a documentary and so does not display the type of intentional mastery and control of mise-en-scène that Welles engineered and enjoyed.[5] Nevertheless, the Michael Richards episode of Comedians in Cars uses its documentary attention to details as they pass by to find, in the world, a real-life mise-en-scène of significant relationships between setting, space, gesture, voice, and history.

Attending to these relationships reveals the episode’s testament to the effects of time’s passage on Richards’s image as a performer, and the way his presence as a performer can be seen to somewhat reverse this passage. It does so by calling forth memories of his earlier image that are able to in some way transcend the marks left by time. What I evoke is  a process that works upon the relationship between memory and physical aging that Walter Benjamin describes in his account of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. For Benjamin, the passage of time “in its most real—that is, space-bound—form … nowhere holds sway more openly than in remembrance within and ageing without” (quoted in Kouvaros 2010, 109).[6] In the Comedians in Cars episode, Richards’s long history of performance is the basis for memories that are shown to in some way overcome, if only for moments, aging without. I want to call this the afterlife of performance. It is a continued force of compelling human presence that is here accrued by our long history of intimate acquaintance with Richards’s inhabitation of Kramer. An objection could be that I am just describing something like ‘star presence’ or charisma, the capacity of some individuals famous for screen acting to continue compelling our attention and admiration beyond any single onscreen appearance. But here I think the word ‘afterlife’ captures something peculiar to the connection between Richards’s long, marbled history as Kramer, and his appearance in Comedians in Cars. It is to do with the episode’s negotiation of the potentially fatal damage caused to his image as Kramer by his catastrophic outburst on the Laugh Factory stage in 2006, and how certain moments of performance in the episode show him able to overcome this ruin.

Figures 3. The Getty Villa as a ruin.

Figure 3. The Getty Villa as a ruin.

The first instance of such performance occurs during an early segment of the episode, which also works to frame the history of Richards’s persona and star image in terms of ruin. As the pair drive north along the California coast towards Malibu, Richards points out to Seinfeld the monumental Getty Villa perched atop the cliff above them, and the camera’s views of the mansion make clear its dilapidation. The once-proud stone walls are marred by threatening structural cracks, and the swimming pool has already collapsed down the cliff face, exposing an empty void that was once a place of spirited frolicking and enjoyment, but is now only a testament to the inevitability of ruin as the world gives way beneath us.

Figure 4. The Getty Villa as a ruin.

Figure 4. The Getty Villa as a ruin.

For Richards, this becomes the topic of a sprightly comic ‘bit’, improvised to the incredible delight of Seinfeld, clearly enraptured by the company and performance of his long-time friend. Basking in the afterglow of his hysterical laughter, Seinfeld says to Richards: “You gave me the experience of my lifetime, getting to play with you.” Seinfeld recalls in particular a moment from their show’s eighth season, the Kenny Rogers chicken episode (“The Chicken Roaster”, 8.18), in which Kramer opens Jerry’s door to the hallway and is snapped over backwards by the red light shining into Jerry’s apartment from across the corridor.

Figure 5. The Kenny Rogers chicken light.

Figure 5. The Kenny Rogers chicken light.

Despite not remembering the moment, Richards seems quietly pleased, and tells Seinfeld he gets the sense that being around his old friend will cause him to slowly become “that crazy character” again.

Across this segment, the episode quietly seizes and works upon the documentary detail of the day’s events so that the minutiae of two men’s ordinary words and gestures, as they pass, meet the grand scale of a monument of cultural achievements, collapsing as the earth subsides beneath it. The camera shows the villa as a fragile housing of riches, which attempts to recover a history that has in one sense passed, but that still presses on the present. One way the collapsing building and cliff connect with Richards is through their ambient resonance with how his face is also marked by time, not only by the fact of biological aging, but surely also by the inner travail of his terrible public shame and exile. Richards was of course not a young man by the time he was starring on Seinfeld, but his presence on the show was characterised by a seemingly irrepressible inner brightness that shone through a face able to always carry a mood youthful in spirit if not in flesh. What we saw of Richards in the wake of his meltdown, an image that ghosts his presence here, is something like what confronts Kouvaros in Richard Avedon’s portrait of Humphrey Bogart: “His bow tie and sportcoat link him to his screen roles. But, positioned inches from the lens, the iconic stature of Bogart’s face has crumbled. We are still looking at the face of Bogart, but what we also see is a face whose age and mortality compete on equal terms with its iconic status” (2010, 109).

This sense of competition between ageing and iconicity is heightened when Seinfeld evokes Richards’s bit of sprightly slapstick on their sitcom. This implicit juxtaposition of bodies reminds me of the way Sunset Boulevard (Wilder, 1950) harnesses the moving image’s powerful testament to ageing by giving Gloria Swanson a dual presence onscreen, through her role as a former silent film star, and through the screening within the film of those earlier starring roles. As Stanley Cavell writes, “when we watch her watching her young films, the juxtaposition of the phases of her appearance cuts the knowledge into us, of the movie’s aging and ours, with every frame” (1979, 74). Wilder’s movie is a tragedy at least in part because the yawning gulf between images, personas, and times cannot be bridged, and so the Gloria Swanson character is attended by a sense of irrecoverable loss. By comparison, Comedians in Cars displays Richards as a man who still possesses his earlier performative capacities, and can find spaces and audiences hospitable to their exercise. The Getty Villa segment suggests these might overcome the ‘crumbling’ of his image and persona. This suggestion is in the effect of Richards’s bit about the villa’s disintegration, which sees Seinfeld given over to intense laughter, through which he remembers their wonderful work together so many years ago.

Figure 6. Seinfeld enlivened by Richards.

Figure 6. Seinfeld enlivened by Richards.

So the moment not only evokes past joy, but reveals also the ongoing availability of Richards’s vital companionship as a fellow comic performer, his continuing capacity to enliven Seinfeld despite what has fallen apart in the years in-between. Indeed, it is to Jerry’s reaction as a witness to performance that Richards responds with his promise he might become Kramer once more, recognising in Jerry’s hilarity the continued, present force of his own past, supposedly ruined comic persona.


Indeed, the episode’s views of Richards reveal how Kramer’s mannerisms of speech and gesture live on as a substrate of Richards himself, that ‘Kramer’ is still available for him to assume, an availability surely in part opened up by the deep intimacy between performer, character, and audience accrued over Richards’s decade inhabiting the role on television. This can be seen in intermittent shots of the pair making their way along the footpath, in which Richards unselfconsciously ambles in Kramer’s trademark gait, balancing between an elegant dignity and an ungainly lack of self-possession and awareness. A key moment that points to Richards’s boundary-blurring capacity to conjure an idea of his own ‘self’ while also being a conduit for the image of ‘Kramer’ is when, interrupting his meal with Seinfeld in the Malibu café, Richards acts-out his dramatic encounter with a homeless, chess-playing savant on a street in Hollywood, a man who seemed like a bum but beat Richards twice in quick succession and refused to play him again. Richards handles this story in a way that makes it a piece with one of Kramer’s more memorable moments of one-man performance in Seinfeld. This is the scene from “The Fire” (5.19) in which Kramer re-enacts for Jerry and George his experience frantically commandeering a city bus to drive an amputated toe to hospital while fighting off a mugger and making scheduled stops (“Well, people kept ringin’ the bell!”).

As in that scene, in the Malibu café we are again reminded of Richards’s wonderful capacity to not only craft a performance of himself as he narrates his own past, but also to turn, in an instant, his own typical manic gestures in ways that allow him to convincingly and generously bring to life the individuality and essence of other people, and to inhabit them before us. But the scene Richards conjures here, as he turns a café floor into a temporary stage, is more compelling than the Seinfeld moment precisely because of the way Richards uses his body to deftly manage our point of view, incrementally reversing our early view of his standing in relation to the homeless man. Clayton notes how moments of slapstick “metamorphosis” can “externalize[e] a dialectical negotiation between two potential selves” (2007, 188). Here we see that slapstick negotiation of an embodied ‘split’ take particular form in Richards’s enactment of a wish to transcend the limitations of past and body, and the boundaries they each erect around the future. This can be found in the way the scene serves as a microcosm of the ruination of Richards’s own image, and a wished-for rehabilitation of his self. Across the short skit, Richards’s initial superiority is slowly degraded moment-by-moment, until at the end he is left charging desperately after the homeless player, Richards now the beggar, pleading for another chance to re-set the game and begin again on an equal footing. Richards embodies the savant challenger and victor, on the other hand, so that what at first looks like clueless disconnection from the world shifts into a peculiar expression of dignified self-possession, a distinct elevation from his starting position down in the gutter, the lowly subject of Richards’s curious and superior gaze from above. The performance pivots on Richards’s fluent balance between his competing qualities of ungainliness and dignity, the sliding of one state of being into the other tipping him between duelling comportments that each compete for hard-won respect, and that pursue the chance for past failures to be set aside in order for Richards’s central appeal to be found afresh.

So there is not only a transformative quality to Richards’s capacity to slip his usual self and inhabit, within the same skin, an alternative but overlapping identity, but also in this slippage a desire for transformation, a wish that something in the past, or about the self, could be overcome or evaded. In this respect it is telling that the episode explicitly mentions only one moment of Richards’s long performance on Seinfeld: Kramer’s reaction to the red Kenny Rogers Chicken light. The brilliance of that gesture, described above, is to imbue the light with a physical power and force its appearance onscreen would otherwise not carry, indeed to transform what we can see of it. Through Richards, light onscreen is less an ethereal presence we see, and more a physical force we feel. Similarly, in Seinfeld’s enraptured fixation on Richards’s story of the former television superstar’s run-in with the homeless chess savant, we see that Richards’s talent is still to make the world become more present and alive to us. The juxtaposition of star image in Sunset Boulevard is attended by the irrecoverable loss of an unbridgeable gap between an image then and its ruins now. For Jodi Brooks, aging female film star characters like Swanson’s are connected to “forgotten moments of cinema”, and that, as “sole witnesses to their own disappearance, they have, it would seem, only one option—to reproduce and direct that disappearance, now with an audience, through performing an excessive visibility” (2001, n. pag.). Unlike Gloria Swanson’s film presence in Sunset Boulevard, Richards conjures his past television role as Kramer in ways that acknowledge it has passed, but is not lost, not “forgotten”. It is as if Richards’s long inhabitation of Kramer has, in our imagination of the two figures, fused them in such a way that Richards’s return from exile does not purely restage that exile, but seems able to recover from collapse the transformative force of his earlier image and comic persona. They persist not as mere remains of the past, but by remaining present, and powerful. What does the episode say about the source, nature, and limits of this continued presence and power?

The source, nature, and limits of this presence, call it Richards’s talent, are plumbed by the episode’s final segments and closing moments, which hinge around a matter raised when Seinfeld and Richards first arrive in Malibu: the weight of public performance. This weight can be understood as one cost of the labour of acting. Kouvaros describes how, in the images of Monroe on the set of The Misfits, this labour is attended by external and internal pressures of visibility that produce expressions of exhaustion, alienation, and anxious uncertainty.[7] The Comedians in Cars episode is first touched by such moods when Richards and Seinfeld step out of their car to walk across the coffee shop parking lot. Richards appears genuinely anxious about appearing in such an ordinary public place, and goes to the extent of wearing a wig and dark glasses in a comical attempt to disguise himself.

Figure 7. Seinfeld and Richards greet passers-by.

Figure 7. Seinfeld and Richards greet passers-by.

At this point the as-yet unspoken memory of Richards’s last, so infamous public appearance pushes-in on the episode to the point of discomfort, although its seriousness soon dissolves when his awful disguise almost exactly matches the real haircut of a man nearby.[8] By the episode’s end, this weight lifts in silent images of Richards pleasantly interacting with groups of people as he and Seinfeld make their way back to the truck.

Crucial to the point of these images in relation to the weight of public performance is the way Richards’s 2006 Laugh Factory disaster is raised following the chess savant routine. Richards’s controversial history comes up when he and Seinfeld reminisce about their nine years of sitcom work together, from which Richards takes the lesson that the ideal mode in which to perform is one of “selflessness”, and that his failure on the Laugh Factory stage was a mark of his more typical “selfishness”. The catalyst for this conversation is Richards’s comment that performing “was always a struggle”, a remark accompanied by hand gestures that conjure a broiling inner tempest, ceaselessly churning over-and-over within. Richards’s effort to perform his easy-going role as Kramer is captured in Seinfeld’s observation that Richards would rehearse his lines with his face pressed up against the set’s walls. This is an image of an actor struggling to eke out whatever privacy he can from the publicity of the set, forcing his otherwise private self into a mode of being that could support appearing in public as someone else. The image is relevant to the weight of performance because its evocation of a face pressed into a surface expresses as a flattening burden the pressure that attends such highly public visibility. Seinfeld’s story of the way Richards would prepare on-set, and Richards’s tempestuous hand gestures, are important because each suggests why Richards might be invested in the perpetuation of his image and persona as Kramer, in the continued vitality of that presence. This is because the story and the gestures convey the mood of troubled despair to which Richards seems vulnerable when he is left without a marked-out context in which to perform some version of himself to a receptive audience, such as in those anxious moments of waiting and preparation before taking the stage. Richards’s collapse into violent, racist profanity on the Laugh Factory stage can be thought of as another moment in which he troublingly slipped the reassuring boundaries of his typical self-performance.[9] On David Letterman’s Late Show, Richards’s own, disturbing account of his experience that night legitimates this claim. Defending himself as “not a racist”, Richards nonetheless conceded: “And yet it’s said. It comes through. It fires out of me.” These acknowledgments frame the event as one beyond the control of deliberate performance, an unrestrained expression of unmediated interior ferment, one hinted at by the anxieties that marked his daily effort to perform in Seinfeld.

Yet, although the pressure of performing on the long-running sitcom was something of a torment for Richards, it is evident his performance on the show, one that drew heavily on his own personal qualities, also provided him some relief from torment. This can be seen in a YouTube video, “Michael Richards (Kramer) Doesn’t Like [sic] When his Co-Stars Mess Up”, a compilation of Seinfeld out-takes in which other cast members ‘break’, accidentally shedding their act in fits of hilarity.

In one exemplary moment, Jason Alexander as George cannot help but slowly break into laughter during a scene. Richards stays frozen in place as if to preserve the fictional moment before its interruption, and, barely even prepared to move his mouth, quietly says “George, please … You don’t know how hard this is for me, please.” That Richards refers to his fellow actor by character name betrays the strength of his need to sustain the performative space of the fiction around him; he understands this need to be greater than that of his fellow actors, who seem to more breezily enjoy the breakdowns.

In the context of Seinfeld’s anecdote about Richards’s habitual preparation on the sitcom set, the YouTube compilation helps us understand the importance of the long-running television series to one dimension of the continued afterlife of Richards’s performance. It suggests the nine-year sitcom provided an ongoing space in which Richards could continue to sustain a performance of self that might stave-off the inner uncertainty and anxiety that evidently haunted him to some degree outside of that space. That Richards desired this sort of continuity is revealed in the initial moments of his reflection on the Seinfeld days and the Kramer character. “I could have played Kramer for the rest of my life,” Richards says. “That character would have fit into any situation, there was a great universality to the soul of that character.” These words carry a wish for some form of unity and acceptance: to become a person who can keep alive a state of being in which he can stand to inhabit the world. The ongoing improvisation within sitcom scenarios and characters on Seinfeld provided just this.

What they also provided was a deep history of shared public witness to, and memory of, Richards’s wonderful performances. This is what Jacobs and Peacock, quoted earlier, describe as the long-running television series’ “ability to generate a shared history with us, and our willingness to meet its challenges, to work with it in mutual inhabitancy” (2013, 12). This history and mutual inhabitancy explains another dimension of the continued force of Richards’s talent that is so movingly on display in Comedians in Cars: his ongoing capacity to enliven and transform the experience of those who bear witness to him. To borrow Benjamin’s words once more, Richards’s presence allows his audience’s memories within to overcome ageing without. This is best displayed in the episode’s closing moments, the montage of Seinfeld and Richards leaving the café and moving to the car. The fragmentary images are silent but for the underscore of slow piano jazz, which evokes a mood of retirement to a comfortable chair, to sit out the evening on one’s own in contemplative stillness and quiet. As they pay, a man recognises Richards as the actor reaches his beanpole arm across the counter, and a wonderful, child-like smile of pleasure spreads over the man’s elderly face, surely in welcome and gratitude for this unexpected visit from his memories of Kramer.

Figure 8. Revitalised by memory and gratitude.

Figure 8. Revitalised by memory and gratitude.

As Seinfeld and Richards walk to the car, we see them greeted and enjoyed by passers-by. One group pose for photos with the pair, and Richards takes their camera, clowning for them, snapping his own close-ups, imprinting his personal stamp on these mementoes of that time they met Jerry and Kramer. If the episode announced its interests in the place of Kramer the character within Richards the performer by considering the ruins of a once-monumental villa crumbling into the sea, then the ending of the episode is telling about that place. This is because the image of an elderly man’s face enlivened with a child-like smile reveals the power of Kramer still alive inside Richards, still able to compel the attraction and enjoyment of everyone he is shown to meet, able to withstand the marks of age, to tap a youthfulness within himself and others that shines through the reminders of history and mortality without. The memory of all those episodes and moments of comic brilliance live inside Richards’s body, not entirely snuffed out by the darkness of that rageful night at the Laugh Factory and the melancholy despair of the Letterman appearance, although those past moments continue to haunt his present image with their shadow.

Richards’s talent for improvised performance is to make the world more alive to us, and it provides him a mode of response to the world that keeps at bay a pressing sense of, in Cavell’s words, that world’s uninhabitability. Yet the closing moments of the episode ask us to consider that this talent is not his gift, as its exercise is presented as a difficult form of labour, not without risk, loss, or pain. It is instead revealed as a gift to the world as Richards passes through it, one that allows the personal ruins left by time to be momentarily overcome by the afterlife of brilliant human performance, and by our witness to it. Our intimate ‘mutual inhabitancy’ of his sedimented role as Kramer allows Richards to recover in public view from the ruin of the Laugh Factory catastrophe. But the very final moments of the episode suggest these intertwined histories carry a considerable weight, the deforming pressures of which defy the possibility of erasing the marks of time’s passage on the memory and image of Richards. As he and Seinfeld drive back down the coast, the final words of the episode are these of their lasting friendship:

Seinfeld: I do hope you consider using your instrument again, because it’s the most beautiful one I’ve ever seen.

Richards: Oh, Jerry— thanks, buddy.

As these words are spoken, the last image we see is their van driving into a tunnel, a row of guiding lights running down each of its sides.

Figure 9. Entering the tunnel.

Figure 9. Entering the tunnel.

This is an apt way to close the episode because tunnel imagery provides opportunities for evoking moments of balanced suspension between past and future. This instance in particular contains the striking details of the twinned rows of lights stretching into the darkness, figuring benign guidance into an unknown future, towards a new light and view of the world. Yet in a final acknowledgment that Richards’s future is unlikely to fully shed the burden of his past, perhaps destined to become an irrecoverable ruin, a finally mute instrument, the choice is made to keep that light from view, ensuring it remains out of sight around a corner yet to come. As we absorb the silent wake of Richards’s thanks, the tunnel’s darkness engulfs the small truck.


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Brooks, Jodi. 2001. “Performing Aging/Performing Crisis (for Norma Desmond, Baby Jane, Margo Channing, Sister George, and Myrtle).” Senses of Cinema 16.

Cavell, Stanley. 1979. The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film. Enlarged ed. Cambridge: Harvard UP.

Cavell, Stanley. 1982. “The Fact of Television.” Daedalus 111 (4): 75-96.

Clayton, Alex. 2013. “Why Comedy is at Home on Television.” In Television Aesthetics and Style, edited by Jason Jacobs and Steven Peacock, 79-102. London: Bloomsbury.

Clayton, Alex. 2007. The Body in Hollywood Slapstick. Jefferson: McFarland.

Fried, Michael. 1980. Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and the Beholder in the Age of Diderot. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fried, Michael. 2008. Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Jacobs, Jason. 2001. “Issues of Judgement and Value in Television Studies.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 4 (4): 427-447.

Jacobs, Jason, and Steven Peacock. 2013. “Introduction.” In Television Aesthetics and Style, edited by Jason Jacobs and Steven Peacock, 1-20. London: Bloomsbury.

Klevan, Andrew. 2005. Film Performance: From Achievement to Appreciation, Short Cuts. London: Wallflower.

Kouvaros, George. 2010. Famous Faces Yet Not Themselves: “The Misfits” and Icons of Postwar America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Newcomb, Horace. 1974. TV: The Most Popular Art. Garden City: Anchor Books.

Perkins, V. F. 1999. The Magnificent Ambersons. BFI Film Classics. London: BFI.

Perkins, V. F. 2006. “Moments of Choice.” Rouge 9. h

Sennett, Richard. 1977. The Fall of Public Man. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Yancy, George. 2012. Look, a White! Philosophical Essays on Whiteness. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Moving Image Works Cited

Antonioni, Michaelengelo. 1962. L’Eclisse. Italy: Cineriz.

David, Larry, and Jerry Seinfeld. 1989-1998. Seinfeld. USA: NBC.

Huston, John. 1961. The Misfits. USA: United Artists.

“Michael Richards (Kramer) Doesn’t Like when His Co-Star Mess Up.” YouTube video. Posted by “Ryan Evans”, December 8, 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fge0sIjrNps.

Seinfeld, Jerry. 2012-. Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. USA: Crackle. www.comediansincarsgettingcoffee.com.

Welles, Orson. 1942. The Magnificent Ambersons. USA: RKO.

Wilder, Billy. 1950. Sunset Boulevard. USA: Paramount.


[2] My interest in Comedians in Cars as a talk show is not to relate the show to its genre more broadly. I instead aim to use Cavell’s ideas about talk shows within his broader account of television to think about performance and improvisation in the Michael Richards episode.

[3] In making these arguments, Kouvaros draws on Michael Fried’s art history on traditions of theatricality and absorption in eighteenth century painting, and Richard Sennett’s sociological history of transformations to public society since the same period. See: Fried (1980), Sennett (1977). For Fried’s later exploration of absorption and theatricality in photography, see: Fried (2008).

[4] Internal citation: Perkins (1999, 58-9).

[5] For a clear illustration of Welles’s mastery of his workspace and mise-en-scène on The Magnificent Ambersons, see Perkins’s account of Welles’s requirement that the sets for the movie’s outdoor scenes be built inside a refrigeration plant: Perkins (2006).

[6] Internal citation: Benjamin (1992, 207)

[7] These moods are given expression in photographs described throughout Kouvaros’s book. For exemplary instances, see: Kouvaros (2010, 99-101, 114-15, 125, 136-37).

[8] Early on, the episode is explicit to declare all events in the episode a coincidence, with the grave onscreen title: “Some events in this episode appear set up. They were not.” I think we should take the episode’s more outlandish events (such as the visit to Sugar Ray Leonard’s house that interrupts the visit of Seinfeld’s acquaintance to the house of Jay Mohr, a stand-up) as mere coincidence and chance, if only because the scenarios’ mildly amusing comic pay-offs hardly seem worth the effort that would have been required to orchestrate them. More than this, the episode’s need to declare their happenstance nature betrays the importance it places on improvisation.

[9] George Yancy reads Richards’s Laugh Factory outrage and his subsequence appearance on the Late Show in terms of an “opaque white racist self” that resists conscious self-knowledge and examination, “one that is alien to itself” (2012, 168-69). (Thanks to Fiona Nicoll for bringing this to my attention.) If Richards’s slapstick metamorphosis, in Clayton’s terms, hopes to overcome his alienation from some aspect of himself, it makes sense that the breakdown of such performance might result in the expression of an “alien” aspect of the self. The frightening exposure of this unmediated anger is perhaps what is most deeply unsettling about the footage of Richards’s tirade, as it tears down the more reassuring channelling of mania through so many years of performances.


Author bio:  Elliott Logan is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland. His work covers a range of topics related to film and television aesthetics, particularly issues concerning film style, meaning, and evaluative criticism. His current project is an appreciation of acting and performance in recent US serial television fiction.




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.


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.


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.



[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.



Off-screen: the liminal dimension of the cinematic image – Cristiano Dalpozzo

This essay problematizes, from a theoretical standpoint, the concepts of off-screen and the cinematic image. Taking into account both Deleuze’s definition of time-image and the concept of limit, it’s possible to compare the filmic image to that of a threshold. Such a threshold is to be experienced by establishing a parallelism with the condition of the spectator. This image has a memory of itself and, at the same time, contains traces of what it is going to become thanks (also) to the off-screen space. It is thus both visible and invisible: indeed, it provides two faces of the same coin in a relationship of mutual implication. The filmic image will then be understood as something provisional, a path, not the final destination;  a mediation in a perpetual dialogue conjured up between the visible and the invisible, between the represented and the representable — a medium that exceeds its own limits, figuring and reconfiguring itself between  excess and  absence. An image that hints to an invisible or, rather, to a not (yet) visible, whose traces have been already placed in it (thanks, for example, to the looks exchanged between the actors, and their movements within the frame). An image that never stops to question us, and to act as a mediator becomes,  simultaneously, both an “instigator” and a figure of our mind. An image which is ambiguous, allusive, hybrid, metamorphic, simultaneous, sometimes conciliatory, as in a given idea of classic cinema, but more often than not, conscious of an absence; conscious of the fact that it ‘tolerates the absence of unity” in a perpetual (and paradoxical) process that, as it posits boundaries, simultaneously overcome them.

A boute de souffle (1960)

A boute de souffle (1960)

As is well known, Deleuze maintains that the cinema can offer both a direct or an indirect image of time, depending on the fact that it is bound to time-image or to movement-image. The time-image, inaugurated by Neorealism, further employed by the Nouvelle Vague and still used today, replaces the sensomotoric situations of movement-image with purely optical images and sounds. Thus, reality and imagination blend so as to create a new dimension of the mind. Actions that are linked to each other by a cause and effect relationship, are replaced by dead time and silence. What easily comes to mind is the loafing of many characters in Godard’s movies (Belmondo in À bout de souffle [1] and in Pierrot le fou [2]) or the temporal loss of so many of Resnais films (Hiroshima mon amour [3],  L’année dernière à Marienbad [4] and Muriel, ou le temps d’un retour  [5])

dalpozzo 2

Hiroshima mon amour (1959)

One can maintain that the film is a false movement resulting from a (love and death) relationship between frames and snapshots, and an abstract and mechanical movement of the camera or of the projector that unrolls those frames. The cinema  reconstructs movement through the motionless sections (frames) and recreates time by giving us an average image which is the resultant of the sum of all the frames. Basically, the picture frame cuts out a portion of an open space, a movable section of the time-duration which it opposes to a whole– at once figure of an eternal time and denial of the process of becoming. It is then through the time-image of a certain examples of modern cinema that time comes to be expressed directly, perhaps through the use of the sequence shot (and its ability to express both continuity and duration) and the depth of field (and its ability to express the simultaneous presence of more than just one actor on the scene).

Professione Reporter / The Passenger (1975)

Professione Reporter / The Passenger (1975)

The finale of Professione Reporter/The Passenger (1975) by Michelangelo Antonioni evolves, in fact, in this direction (it entails continuity and duration of a criminal action, and the presence of several characters and events on the same scene) imprisoning ideally, what’s more, the look (at the same time source and object) in a self reflective mise en abyme. In the meantime there is a kind of cinema that through editing and decoupage (both elements preferring a chain of cause and effect relationships) of classic cinema, favors (besides plane sequences and depth of field) the voids and the scraps of the editing process, thus enhancing the intervals that come into place between one image and the other. Voices and images, unpredictably, slip through in a fragmented style, that declares the final break between the world and the characters represented within.  This is the case, for example, in Le Mépris/Contempt (1963) by Godard, a film in which some of the characters listen to a singer in a club: every time one of them starts talking the song stops abruptly.

From such a viewpoint, then, the concept of off-screen seems to take on a different meaning. How can the time-images be chained to one other, when they do not extend into an action? If, previously, the off-screen communicated “on the one hand to an external world which was actualizable in other images, on the other hand to a changing whole which was expressed in the set of associated images” [6], now the images are no longer linked by rational cuts and continuity, but are relinked by means of false continuity and irrational cuts” [7]. We then achieve a re-assemblage of dis-assembled images through which “there are no longer grounds for talking about a real or possible extension capable of constituting an external world: we have ceased to believe in it, and the image is cut off from the external world” [8]. Think, for instance, to the scene of Pierrot le fou in which Belmondo and Karina are conversing. Suddenly, from off-screen we hear a burp, though the two main characters are absolutely alone on stage. Where does that sound, autonomous and without reference, come from? In the direct time-image,  therefore, an absolute contact between an inside and an outside, which are independent, asymmetric, come to completion.

We move with ease from one to the other, because the outside and the inside are the two sides of the limit as irrational cut, and because the latter, no longer forming part of any sequence, itself appears as an autonomous outside which necessarily provides itself with an inside [9].

The limit and the interstitium–Deleuze tells us–now passes between the visual and the sound image. It is necessary that the latter becomes image in and of itself, thus releasing the status of being merely a component of the visual. So, even though the off-screen remains de facto present even in the time-image, it will be necessary that it

lose all power by right because the visual image ceases to extend beyond its own frame, in order to enter into a specific relation with the sound image which is itself framed (the interstice between the two framings replaces the out-of-field); the voice-off must also disappear, because there is no more out-of-field to inhabit, but two heautonomous images to be confronted […] It is possible for the two kinds of images to touch and join up, but this is clearly not through flashback, as if a voice, more or less off, was evoking what the visual image was going to give back to us [10].

Le Mepris / Contempt (1963)

Le Mepris / Contempt (1963)

Where does the voice of Brigitte Bardot come from when evoked in the finale of Le Mépris when Piccoli reads the letter that anticipates that she will leave him? From the mind of the protagonist? From the past? From the future?

From this point to Deleuze’s assumptions there is a short run. The French philosopher  declares in fact that: “modern cinema has killed flashback, like the voice-off and the out-of-field”. [11] But perhaps not all is lost; moreover, the cinema is not all made up of time-images. Let’s take a step back and confront the concept of limit itself. Peras, limit (in Greek) means “point that delimits something.” The limit defines a form, whatever it might be, and, what happens within it, is not finally that important. It will always stay that precise form. Thus in, De Gaetano’s quote about Deleuze’s thought, he explains:

The limit defines a shape, abstract or sensitive as it might be. All what happens within the line sketching the perimeter of a shape does not matter; whether we fill it with sand or with intelligible matter, the perimeter of a cube or for what matters, that of a circle, it is nevertheless bound to remain always a cube, or a circle [12].

According to De Gaetano, the concept of framing as frame, that is to say as something that is capable of separating an interior from an exterior–a seen from a not seen– represents a static idea of limit. The problem, says the scholar, is that this seen, isolated from the frame, is not identifiable statically and logically. Eisenstein, in fact, basing his theory of editing on the idea of framing as cell, literally “blasts” the limits of the frame; he turns the seen into a force, an inner tension “that leads to the overcoming of its unity and ‘self-sufficiency'”.

Both editing inside the frame, and editing as a conflict/relationship between shots and sounds, just lead to overcoming a static limit in order to offer as a “tension towards to”, a force that allows to pass: “from the shot-framing, from the edges of the frame, that though mobile, nevertheless always remain edges, to the frame-force, tension, power, that goes beyond the edges of the frame; its very perimeter”. The example of the famous scene of the “Odessa steps” in Battleship Potemkin is a good example [13]. The limit becomes a dynamic term; “term of a force endowed with degrees of growth and decrease. And then the force is distinguished from the form, not because it has a limit, but because its limit coincides with its power: “the problem is no longer in the definition the terminal point of a shape. To posit such a question means already to fall into an abstraction, into an artifice. The real question, at this point, is: where  does the action end [14]?

The Latin word limen/limes [15] means threshold, boundary, target, and refers to an idea of demarcation between inside and outside. Basically, whenever we are faced with a threshold, we have three possibilities: to overcome it, not to overcome it, or to stand in the threshold. And, if we were willing to make general assumptions, we could say that these three options could well represent the three ages of cinema itself: classic cinema (not overcome), modern cinema (stand on the threshold), digital cinema (overcome). The idea of limit also refers to the frontier between two worlds, between order and disorder. But frontier also means openness, a possibility of inter-penetration;  it evokes an idea of border-filter or border-membrane, thus allowing us to introduce elements external to the system, after they have been made compatible with what is inside. In the end it corresponds to the dynamic that rules the field/off-screen dialectic: not everything is off-screen, but only what is consistent with what is being shown in the picture. The movie image promises to be an image filter or image membrane that can be gone through, but –at the same time– discriminates, by delimiting what is different from itself. Basically, the edges of the framework resemble the skin: at the same time an epidermal and an identity border too.

Identity, of course, because, talking about the border, one can not avoid to mention the erratic condition implied by this type of image: intermittent, migrant and always on the move (escape or exile as it might be), temporary and precarious by nature. But we should not forget that it is thanks to this very liminality, that it is possible to establish an audiovisual conversation with the viewer. It is precisely such an uncertainty that compels the viewer to fill in the gaps, to explore different possibilities and to become an active counterpart of the game [16]. To inhabit, therefore, this unstable space, is the condition of the viewer, or according to Massimo Dona’s formula [17], to inhabit the threshold, of a cinema experienced, precisely, liminally. The idea of threshold applies to the fruition of the spectator too. Dona, in fact, compares the spectator’s position, to what Odysseus experienced in the famous episode of the sirens. Here the omeric hero is basically put to the test, tempted  with a chance of infinity, the ultimate promise of an “other” dimension.  A temptation to which Odysseus would have succumbed, had it not been for Circe. Only by being on the threshold, therefore, only by making himself bound to the mast of the ship could he really enjoy the melody.

One and only one could therefore be the way forward: to remain within one’s own “limit”, or rather, to keep to pro-ceed from limit to limit, knowing that, if we had been promised that we would experience something as an “infinite”, the latter would have not shown itself, if only as essentially inappropriable […] That is to say, we should know how to find peace in a finitness lived as a “threshold” between something which is finished, and an in-finishdness open to deny in actu signato its own distinction. And this happens, once again, only at the movies. […] that is why, at the movies, each one of us becomes “threshold” rather than “finding” himself, simply, “on” the threshold. Thanks to this, at the movies, each of us experiences, quite simply, his-no- longer-being-the-finite-that-he-is. And he enjoys such a perception [18].

The quote points out a situation parallel to that experienced by the viewer, who sits  motionless in the darkness of the movie theatre, while attending at the unfolding of the world, at the breaking down of the frames. Paraphrasing Donà when he compares this type of threshold to the one described by Kafka in his short story Before the Law we could say that, the filmic image is, for us, in and of itself, a threshold  that makes evident its being other from what it (no longer) is. A type of image that has memory of itself [19], of what it has been and, at the same time, contains the traces of what it is going to be, thanks (also) to off-screen space. A two-faced image exactly like the Roman goddess Janus: placed to watch over the entry and the exit –the way in and the way out– thereby hinting to its characteristic of linking by separating and the vice versa. Paraphrasing Deleuze, when he speaks of the crystal-image, we could say the same of the threshold-image, considering it as a two-faced image, actual and virtual at the same time, so that there would no longer be a chaining of the real to the imaginary, but an indiscernibility of the two in a perpetual exchange. Always about the visible and the invisible, Merleau-Ponty, states:

No thing, no side of a thing, shows itself except by actively hiding the others, denouncing them in the act of concealing them. To see is as a matter of principle to see further than one sees, to reach a being in latency. […] The invisible is the outline and the depth of the visible. The visible does not admit of pure positivity any more than the invisible does [20].

“Reach a being in latency”: how to find better words to describe the “openings” that happen thanks to the exchange between on- and off-screen in the cinematic images? Two sides of the same coin: no radical distinction neither capital opposition, rather, a relationship of mutual implication, A “chiasm” as the French philosopher would name it. As stated in the introduction to the posthumous work of Merleau-Ponty, edited by Mauro Carbone

in the experience of vision, then, together with the visible and the invisible, even the “here” and the “elsewhere”, presence and absence, reality and imagination, up to the very space and time, lose their mutual distinction―a distinction that freezes them in opposites, or, at the most, in juxtaposed and, behind such a distinction, reveal themselves implicated in one another exactly as the invisible is impicated in the visible [21].

One needs only to recall, once again, Hiroshima mon amour and L’année dernière à Marienbad by Resnais, already mentioned at the beginning of this paper. The filmic image will have to be understood as something provisional, a path, not the goal; a mediation. But provisional does not mean empty, if anything “fillable”, in continuous tension, in a perpetual dialogue between the visible and the invisible, between the represented and the representable; a medium that exceeds its own limits, continually figuring and reconfiguring  a surplus and an absence. Or, to use the terms analyzed by Franzini in his Fenomenologia dell’immagine [22] between memory and imagination, perception and fantasy. A means for a viewer who is both, and at the same time, receptive and productive. An image that entails the possibility of mistakes, that sometimes induces them, especially because, if in one’s fantasy it is not possible to make mistakes (“if nothing is true, everything is possible,”  William Burroughs said), in the workings of one’s memory, this is possible: “mistake that arise from the reproduction as such, and, on this ground, plays the filmic image”. Memory and imagination: these are the open terms of the filmic image. To quote a few examples close to us, just think of works like Memento (C. Nolan), Fight Club (D. Fincher) or Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind (M. Gondry).

Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind (2004)

Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind (2004)

An image that alludes to an invisible or not (yet) visible, whose traces it has already placed  whithin itself (through, for instance, the looks and the movements of the actors within the frame). An image that never stops to question us, and to mediate, thus becoming,  simultaneously, “instigator” and figure of our mind. Ambiguous, allusive, hybrid, metamorphic, simultaneous at times conciliatory as in a given idea of classic cinema, but more often (than not) aware of an absence, aware of “tolerating the absence of unity ” (as pointed out by the same Franzini, when he quotes Lyotard about the symbolic function of the artist). And here the references to psychoanalysis could be far too many but, perhaps, they would risk to take us astray. Suffice it to bring underline the analogy between the off-screen image and the unconscious; between the visible and the invisible part, between the exposed part and the dark one: ambiguous and yet capable to interact with, and force, that visible. An image, in any case, forced to be contaminated, syncretic, hybrid and in constant transition. Threshold-image, then, as a transition that entails the coexistence of opposites and, therefore, capable of positing itself as the very limit of meaning. In some ways aesthetic limit as, to a certain extent, it is able to set up a category other than that of a binary logic, “potential mechanism of escape from the grids imposed by meaning”.

Blue (1993)

Blue (1993)

This is the case with images that are able to become autonomous; images that lose their contours, to cross the threshold and  to dissolve, transfiguring themselves in color as in the case with Blue (Blue Film, Derek Jarman, 1993). What are the relationships between on- and off-screen in such a work? Everything happens off-screen or, rather, is it a case of  off-screen re-configuration? Evidently, we are dealing with threshold-images where everything, according to the words of the director, is “a fragment of a work without limits.” But if, beyond the limit, there is often only a void or a threat, in the limit there is also  complexity, exchange, richness. [23].
To experience such a threshold (movie-image or life as it might be ) means, finally, to perceive this space as a continuum, which is in perennial transformation. The idea of limit, finally, can not help but bringing us back to that of the limits inherent in representation itself.

If, as Bazin stated, love and death can not be represented as if not off-screen, Julio Bressane, the Brazilian director, in an interview published on Fata Morgana, recalled that this is not clearly an ethical limit but, rather, a difficulty of method and of time:

the cinema must show, must find pictures to show, the problem is that it is hard to do it […] it is impossible to show the images […] The time of observation, of representation […]  is no longer. […] It is difficult to represent images, not so much to represent with images [24]

Such a limit becomes almost an establishing one, thus reminiscent of the limit analyzed by Wittgenstein in his studies on language, therefore seen as a constitutive limit of man (“man can not get out of language as he himself inasmuch as a linguistic being, constitutes a  limit to himself”):

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world […] What we can not think, that we cannot think: we cannot therefore say what we cannot think [25].

So man himself lives in “liminality” and in liminality he finds his meaning (and his own his limitations). Wittgenstein talks of images as models of reality i.e.,  not as copies but as models mean to reproduce reality as structure, relationship of the parts. Basically between the image and that of which it is the image,  there should be a substantial correspondence (a logical form of correspondence):

That the elements of the picture are combined with one another in a definite way, represents that the things are so combined with one another. […] It is like a scale applied to reality [26].

Wittgenstein was not talking about movies, when he was thinking about images. He was talking of images of the facts: of a language to be applied to the world. It seems to me though, that the fact that these images might either be originated by the mind, or  reproduced through a device (as is the case with film) and in movement, does not change Wittgengstein’s concept.

By the end, every filmic image has a mental origin, and such origin lingers and extends through the device, so as to reproduce itself in the mind of the viewer, in the time of his own fruition, up to the point in which it crosses over to turn into memory (thus returning to be alive in the minds of those who experienced it and, perhaps, producing new images and so on). Although the philosopher claimed that rhetorical states such as tautology and contradiction are not pictures of reality inasmuch as meaningless, the fact that they have no meaning does not signify that they are meaningless (as Odifreddi rightly points out, in his commentary on the Tractatus).

Odifreddi’s statement authorizes us, to some extent, to maintain our parallelism, inasmuch as, if the threshold-image could be a model of logical contradiction (“p and not p”, that is to say, the image is both –at once– what we see and what we do not see) it will be equally acceptable to think of it as the model of the liminality of man. By the end, it does not matter if the image is true or false, it has meaning in and of itself,  as structure, logical concatenation of elements. It is a “demonstration” of meaning (it show a sense, it shows a logical form): the subject exhibits itself, does no say itself, Wittgenstein admits. What the filmic image shows, then, is its structure and its own limits. But, this is the paradox, if it is true that, by definition, it has, constitutionally an open structure, it cannot but overcome its limits. Threshold-images are then tools/models that thematize man and his limitations, in a perpetual self-reflective game and in a perpetual mise en abyme. Threshold-images as model-images to capture the correspondences and the limits of a research, which is,  at the very bottom, truly  tautological. To show, then, is tantamount to grasping this limit and, simultaneously, fathoming its possibilities. This is partially similar to what J.L. Godard did in his Histoire(s) du Cinema (1988-1998), where, through the implications of resemblance and approximation, he shows images as thresholds, through which to penetrate an osmotic space. But the same could be said of Vertov’s Chelovek’s kino-apparatom [27].

The Truman Show (1998)

The Truman Show (1998)

From what I argue above, it seems, therefore, that it is plausible to give a reading of off-screen space as a mimetic model in comparison with the experience of the senses (in effect it does not amount to a merely cinematic procedure). We indeed, see a portion of space, but hear sounds that come from outside of what we see (the passing of cars on the roads, the chirping of birds, etc.). We establish the boundaries and, at the very same time overcome them, and such a procedure is also the one generally followed by thought. The establishment of boundaries and their trespassing: this is art, this is  thought. This is man, this is cinema.


This article is an excerpt  from:
Dalpozzo, C. Fuori campo. Dentro e oltre l’immagine cinematografica, Libreriauniversitaria.it Edizioni, Padova, 2012.

[1] J.-L. Godard, 1960.
[2] J.-L. Godard, 1965.
[3] A. Resnais, 1959.
[4] A. Resnais, 1961.
[5] A. Resnais, 1963
[6] Deleuze, G. Cinema 2. The Time-Image, University of Minnseosta Press, Minneapolis, 1989, p. 179.
[7] Ibidem, p. XI
[8] Ibidem, p. 277.
[9] Ibidem, p. 292.
[10] Ibidem, p. 278.
[11] Ibid.
[12] De Gaetano, R. “Tre idee di limite, tre stati del cinema”, in Fata Morgana, n.5, 2008. My translation.
[13] S.M. Ejzenstejn, 1925.
[14] Deleuze, G. Cosa può fare un corpo? Lezioni su Spinoza, Verona, Ombre Corte, 2007, p. 130. In De Gaetano, R, cit. My translation.
[15] For this short survey on the concept of limit reference to the acts of the project Margin, threshold, boundary, limit, institutions, practices, theories (University of Siena) and published at: http://solima.media.unisi.it/presupposti_teorici. htm.
[16] Known the criticism formula that “every film is a thriller.”
[17] Donà, M. Abitare la soglia. Cinema e filosofia, Milano-Udine,Mimesis, 2010.
[18] Ivi, pp. 39-42. My translation.
[19] Not surprisingly, the memory has been defined by many as its prototype of the “threshold” as pointed out by the same Dona.
[20] Merleau-Ponty, M. Signs, Northwestern University Press, Illinois, 1964, pp. 20-21.
[21] Merleau-Ponty, Segni, Il Saggiatore, Milano, 2003, p. 14. My translation.
[22] Franzini, E. Fenomenologia dell’immagine. Al di là dell’immagine, Milano, Raffaello Cortina Editore, 2001. My translation. On the subject of the visible and the invisible, see, among others, the essay quoted Merleau-Ponty The Visible and the Invisible, Northwestern University Press, Illinois, 1968. For a cinematic perspective refer to De Gaetano, R. Il visibile cinematografico, Roma, Bulzoni, 2002. On the subject of transcendent, see, among others, to the study of Paul Schrader, Trascendental Style in Film, University of California Press, 1972.
[23] In biology these liminal spaces are called ecotones, dynamic spaces and essential to the production of life.
[24] Roberti, B.- Canadè, A. (a cura di) “Il limite come intervallo. Conversazione con Julio Bressane”, in Fata Morgana, n.5, 2008. My translation.
[25] Wittgenstein, L. Tractatus logico-philosophicus, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co, London, 1922, 5.6; 5.61.
[26] Ibidem, 2.15; 2.1512.
[27] D. Vertov, 1929.

AA.VV. Margine, soglia, confine, limite: istituzioni, pratiche, teorie.
De Gaetano, R. “Tre idee di limite, tre stati del cinema”, in Fata Morgana, n.5, 2008.
De Gaetano, R. Il visibile cinematografico, Roma, Bulzoni, 2002.
Deleuze, G. Cinema 2. The Time-Image, University of Minnseosta Press, Minneapolis, 1989.
Deleuze, G. Cosa può fare un corpo? Lezioni su Spinoza, Verona, Ombre Corte, 2007.
Donà, M. Abitare la soglia. Cinema e filosofia, Milano-Udine, Mimesis, 2010.
Franzini, E. Fenomenologia dell’immagine. Al di là dell’immagine, Milano, Raffaello Cortina Editore, 2001.
Merleau-Ponty, M. Signs, Northwestern University Press, Illinois, 1964.
Merleau-Ponty The Visible and the Invisible, Northwestern University Press, Illinois, 1968.
Roberti, B.- Canadè, A. (a cura di) “Il limite come intervallo. Conversazione con Julio Bressane”, in Fata Morgana, n.5, 2008.
Schrader, P. Trascendental Style in Film, University of California Press, 1972.
Wittgenstein, L. Tractatus logico-philosophicus, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co, London, 1922,

À bout de souffle, (1960, J. – L. Godard)
Pierrot le fou, (1965, J. – L. Godard)
Hiroshima mon amour (1959, A. Resnais)
L’année dernière à Marienbad (1961, A. Resnais)
Muriel, ou le temps d’un retour (1963, A. Resnais)
Professione Reporter (1975, M. Antonioni)
Le Mépris, (1963, J. – L. Godard)
Bronenosec Potëmkin, (1925, S. M. Ejzenstejn)
Memento (2000, C. Nolan)
Fight Club (1999, D. Fincher)
Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind (2004, M. Gondry)
Blue (1993, Derek Jarman)
The Truman Show (1998, P. Weir)
Histoire(s) du cinema (1988-1998, J. – L. Godard)
Chelovek s kino-apparatom, (1929, D. Vertov)

Cristiano Dalpozzo teaches “Media History” and “Film History and Criticism” at the Salesian University of Venice (IUSVE). He works with “Osservatorio tv” (independent research project about contemporary tv series) and he is a member of the Scientific Committee of the journal studies “IUSVEducando.” Among his publications in volume include Introduzione al linguaggio cinematografico (2013), Fuori campo. Dentro e oltre l’immagine cinematografica (2012), Michel Gondry. Il gioco e la vertigine (2011).

Hyperreality with Tentacles: David Cronenberg, Memes, and Mutations – David Faust

Abstract: This paper attempts to examine three films by director David Cronenberg, Videodrome, Naked Lunch, and  eXistenZ in an effort to understand his ideas regarding the transformative nature of information on the body and mind. As a filmmaker, Cronenberg is unique in that his major influences are writers, in particular transgressive writers like William S. Burroughs and Vladamir Nabokov rather than other filmmakers. This perspective imbues his films, especially his earlier horror and science fiction films with  ideas befitting his inspirations. In Videodrome, information passes from person to person in the form of pirated video cassettes and transmissions which results in (possible) physical deformities while raising the mind to a higher level of perception. Cronenberg’s adaptation of Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch discards most of the novel’s (non) narrative and instead focuses on the protagonist, William Lee trapped in a world that might only exist because of a combination of language and a drug derived from centipede carcases. His 1999 film eXistenZ is a capstone that combines ideas from Videodrome and Naked Lunch where bio-mechanical video game systems interface with people’s spines and transports them into a hyperreal existence.


The Brood (1979)

The Brood (1979)

Jorge Luis Borges, in his story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, first published in 1940, tells of a fictional world, Tlön, created by a group of intellectuals who disseminate bits of information about it in various books, magazines, encyclopedias, and dictionaries throughout the world so that as people begin to learn about this fictional reality, it gradually imprints itself on the real world, re-writing reality with its own paradigm. What began as a minor entry in an obscure encyclopedia becomes more and more ubiquitous, the more that people read and learn about it. The fictional world of Tlön  spreads over the earth like a virus, a virus composed of information, mutating reality (Borges 1962, 3-18). David Cronenberg has been exploring similar themes in his films since the late 1970s, beginning briefly with The Brood (1979), and then fully with Videodrome (1983), his adaptation of William Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch (1991) and eXistenZ (1999). Cronenberg’s films show a fascination with media, information, and their power over the human body and mind. 

Cronenberg began making films in the late 1960s in his hometown of Toronto, Canada. Toronto did not have much at all in the way of a film industry, so he and other filmmakers had to create everything from scratch:

There wasn’t a film industry here, so there wasn’t even a film industry where you could plug in and say, ‘OK, if I work my way up from assistant director or third assistant director, eventually I’ll be directing.’ There wasn’t that opportunity, and so I don’t know what would have happened if it hadn’t been for the 60s and the underground film movement. I might not have become a director at all.(Cronenberg 2006, 14)

This ‘do it yourself’ approach to film making was influenced largely by underground art film directors working in New York at the time. Cronenberg says our inspiration really was more from the New York underground filmmakers: Kenneth Anger and Ed Eschwiller and Jonas Mekas and the Kuchar Brothers (Cronenberg 2006, 14). Author J.G. Ballard, whose novel Crash would later be adapted into a film by Cronenberg in 1996, says that in the 1960s, [t]here was a major change in the way the mass media began reshaping reality (Ballard 2005, 177). This change that Ballard speaks of seems to relate to the ubiquitousness of television in the homes of people all over the world and the effects that rapidly disseminating information, like the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald and nightly reports about the war in Vietnam, had on people who were largely unaccustomed to seeing such violent images at all, and then suddenly to have these images beamed into their homes: a saturation of information. It seems as though this saturation of media influenced a lot of Cronenberg’s own ideas on film making and storytelling.

Cronenberg’s inspirations, however,  come largely from writers rather than other filmmakers. Browning says [t]he kind of literature towards which Cronenberg seems to be drawn is best known to academic or cultish circles rather than populist best-sellers (Browning 2007, 27). In fact, Cronenberg initially wanted to be a writer, but as Beard says Nabokov and Burroughs initially inspired Cronenberg to be a writer, but it was a sense that he could not escape their influence which led to a rejection of that particular ambition (Beard 1996, 827). Browning adds that although he changed mediums from the page to the screen, the influence of his literary mentors did not disappear altogether (Browning 2007, 109). Cronenberg’s films are first and foremost about ideas. Like the authors Jorge Luis Borges, Vladamir Nabokov, Philip K. Dick, William S. Burroughs, and J.G. Ballard, Cronenberg uses his chosen medium of film to explore concepts. Character development often takes a back seat to the philosophical concerns he presents in his films. Cronenberg seems to be particularly fascinated with exploring the spread of information through media and the effect this spread of information has on the human mind and body. In Cronenberg’s films, information in the form of memes has a mutating effect on the body as well as the mind. This effect in turn often causes a kind of paradigm shift regarding perceptual distortions of reality. The mutations of the body lead to a perceptual awakening to  the nature of reality.   This paper will examine in detail three films by Cronenberg, Videodrome, Naked Lunch, and eXistenZ  in an attempt to understand Cronenberg’s ideas on the impact information has on the body and how these information viruses or memes mutate the body and move the mind to a higher state of perception or consciousness.

What are Memes?

The Brood (1979)

The Brood (1979)

To begin with, it is important to understand what exactly memes are and how they work. The term meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 in his book The Selfish Gene:

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense canbe called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, in can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.(Dawkins 1976, 192)

Additionally, Blackmore says, regarding memes that: [t]he human language faculty primarily provided a selective advantage to memes, not genes. The memes then changed the environment where genes were selected, and so forced them to build better and better meme spreading apparatus. In other words, the function of language is to spread memes (Blackmore 1999, 99). Memes are ideas that spread like a virus from person to person. The fictional universe in the Borges story mentioned earlier functions like a meme that re-writes the rules of reality. Regarding the psychological aspects of memes, Brodie says: the memes in your head cause behavioral effects. Likening your mind to a computer, memes are the software part of your programming; the brain and the central nervous system. Produced by your genes is the hardware part (Brodie 1996, 7).

Cronenberg first began to touch upon this concept of viral ideas in his film The Brood from 1979. In The Brood, a psychiatrist, Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) has developed a method whereby a patients’ fears and psychological traumas are, upon discovery, manifested physically in the form of lesions or tumors. The patients convert this information into illnesses, sores, lesions.  Nola Carveth (Samantha Eggar)’s trauma manifests itself in an ever-increasing brood of mutant children who kill. In The Brood, information becomes an agent of mutation: [m]emes are to a human’s behavior what genes are to our bodies: internal representations of knowledge that result in outward effects on the world (Brodie 1996, 7).

Videodrome: The Video Word Made Flesh

Videodrome (1983)

Videodrome (1983)

Videodrome, released in 1983, is where Cronenberg truly begins to explore the idea of information as an agent of mutation. The story concerns the owner of a cable TV station, Max Renn (James Woods) who discovers (or as we find out later, is led to) an underground TV show called Videodrome. From the moment Max sees Videodrome, his reality begins to shift, subtly at first  with Max’s bedroom changing into a kind of temple while having sex with Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry) and then gradually increasing in intensity and frequency until Max (and we, the viewer) has no idea what is ‘real.’ The character Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley), a so-called media prophet  provides most of the exposition regarding the nature of Videodrome and its purpose. In the film, O’Blivion appears only on television screens, his daughter Bianca (Sonja Smits) says the monologue is his preferred method of discourse.  That O’Blivion prefers monologues is significant, not because he has been dead for some years and only appears via videotape, but because he is primarily interested in the transference of information, specifically the Videodrome meme.  The origin of Videodrome is somewhat unclear. O’Blivion, in a taped message tells Max,  I had a brain tumor. And I had visions. I believe the visions caused the tumor and not the reverse. I could feel the visions coalesce and become flesh, uncontrollable flesh. But when they removed the tumor, it was called Videodrome. As for what caused Videodrome to manifest in the first place or the reasons behind it, Cronenberg does not say. That it exists is all that is important.

But what is Videodrome? Masha (Lynne Gorman), a producer and dealer of underground and soft core porn videos tells max that, it [Videodrome] has a philosophy. That’s what makes it dangerous.  Later, Max learns that Videodrome is not a show, as he first believes, but rather it is a subliminal signal, the Videodrome signal, transmitted subliminally through any television broadcast begins to alter the brain of anyone from the first moment they see it. Sperb notes that [t]he tumor [like effect] is what emanates from the Videodrome broadcasts and which then pre-personally constitutes perception [hallucination] for Max (Sperb 2006). The Videodrome meme closely resembles William Burroughs’ conception of an electronic virus, in the electronic revolution a virus is a very small unit of word and image…such units can be biologically activated to act as communicable virus strains (Burroughs 1974, 14). O’Blivion tells Max that massive doses of the Videodrome signal will ultimately create a new outgrowth of the human brain which will produce and control hallucination to the point that it will change human reality.  O’Blivion sees Videodrome as a means of altering the perceptions of humanity, of evolving human consciousness. After all, O’Blivion says, there is nothing real outside of our perception of reality.  Concerning the film itself, Harkness states that [t]he inexorable logic of Videodrome is that the illusion is the reality, and when dealing with a medium as insidious as television, it doesn’t make any difference which is which (Harkness 1983, 25). O’Blivion’s goal seems to be for everyone to eventually evolve beyond flesh and bone into a kind of electronic soul, becoming pure information, he speaks of Total Transformation. Kill the old, become the new.

Regardless of what O’Blivion’s intentions are, there is another group who seeks to co-opt Videodrome for their own purposes. This group, Spectacular Optical, is a conglomerate that makes  inexpensive glasses for the third world and missile guidance systems for NATO. Spectacular Optical seeks to use Videodrome to kill off a certain segment of the population of North America, specifically the segment who enjoys the kind of sex and violence programming Max broadcasts through his network. It is Harlan, Max’s friend, technician, secret agent for spectacular Optical, and the man who introduced Max to the Videodrome meme who explains it, saying North America is getting soft, patron. And the rest of the world is getting tough…we’re entering savage new times, and we’re gonna have to be pure and direct and strong if we’re going to survive them. Spectacular Optical uses the Videodrome signal to reprogram Max, like a computer or robot to become an assassin. He kills the other executives at his network, so that Spectacular Optical can take over and begin broadcasting the Videodrome signal, and then attempts to kill Bianca O’Blivion, but she reprograms Max again to murder Harlan and Barry Convex, the chief of special programs at Spectacular Optical. What was once a tool intended for enlightenment and evolution has now been turned into a weapon, bringing to mind military experiments with psychoactive substances like LSD.

Videodrome (1983)

Videodrome (1983)

Videodrome (1983)

Videodrome (1983)


The hallucinations that Max experiences throughout the film are bio-mechanical in nature. Max sees Videodrome mutating his body, which is exactly what it’s doing, except it’s also mutating his mind. The first time Max gets exposed to the Videodrome signal for an extended period of time, he sees and feels a large vaginal opening appear on his chest. Into this opening he inserts a gun, which he will use later to kill the executives. Later, when he is reprogrammed by Barry Convex, this scene is presented visually as convex inserting a videotape into Max, which is how Max perceives it. When Max attempts to kill Bianca O’Blivion, Max perceives a gun coming through a television screen, shooting him, the wounds in his chest manifesting themselves on the screen. Max is then reprogrammed, reborn as the video word made flesh. Concerning these bio-mechanical hallucinations, Cronenberg says we absorb it [technology] into our nervous systems  and into our concepts of reality and into our bodies (Porton 1999, 8). The blending of the mechanical with the biological is a theme that runs through many of Cronenberg’s films, particularly The Fly (1986) Naked Lunch, Crash (1996) and eXistenZ. In Videodrome, the hallucinations of cyberneticism seem to presage a move toward a new and higher level of consciousness. In the end, Max watches on a television screen an image of him committing suicide, the final act before becoming (perhaps) pure information, like Brian O’Blivion and Nicki Brand before him, living forever as part of Videodrome.

Naked Lunch: Exterminate all Rational Thought

Naked Lunch (1991)

Naked Lunch (1991)

In 1991, Cronenberg released his adaptation of  William S. Burroughs’ controversial novel Naked Lunch. Published in 1959, Naked Lunch is a surreal and nightmarish collection of hallucinatory  routines mostly centered around a place called Interzone, which is modeled on the city of Tangier, where Burroughs lived for a few years in the 1950s. According to Beard in the book The Artist as Monster, Cronenberg as early as 1981 expressed the desire to make a film version of Naked Lunch (277). However, as an adaptation, Naked Lunch is, to say the least, a very challenging book:

Naked Lunch has no coherent narrative or even narrative line. It is a disparate series of sketches or ‘routines’ (as Burroughs referred to them) populated by flat, stylized characters regularly modulating into modernist poetic diction, and suffused with with cruel humor and a savage satirical edge. In effect it is a collection of separate fragments…giving the impression of having been individually composed and throw together in a collage-like mannerwhich indeed was the manner of the book’s initial writing and later assembly. (Beard 2006, 277)

Because of the challenges presented by the nature of the book, as well as the amount of sex and violence within it, Cronenberg, a lifelong Burroughs fan, chose not to film Naked Lunch as an adaptation. Instead, he combined elements from the bookmostly creatures like the Mugwump and giant insects and characters like Dr. Benway and Bill Lee along with biographical elements from Burroughs’ own lifethe shooting of his wife, his friends Jack Kerouac and Allan Ginsberginto a film that blurs the line between fantasy and reality and deals with the creative and destructive power of language and information. Thus, Naked Lunch is a film about Burroughs as well as Cronenberg’s interpretation of Burroughs, in making Naked Lunch, Cronenberg rejected any notion of a direct translation and instead attempted to get himself in aesthetic sync with Burroughs (Browning 2007, 127).

Naked Lunch, the film, is the story of William Lee (Peter Weller), a failed writer who is working as an exterminator. He and his wife both become addicted to the powder used to kill insects. In an attempt to get clean from the bug powder Lee consults with the mysterious Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider) who introduces him to The Black Meat— the dried flesh of the aquatic Brazilian Centipede, which Benway mixes with the bug powder as a means of weaning the addict off the powder. Benway describes the Black Meat, saying that it will disappear completely. There’ll be no smell, no discoloration. It’s like an agent, an agent who has come to believe his own cover story, but who is in there, hiding, in a larval state just waiting for a time to hatch out. It is while under the influence of the Black Meat that Lee shoots his wife Joan (Judy Davis). Lee then hides out in a bar where he meets a reptilian creature called a Mugwump who tells him to buy a typewriter and go to a place called Interzone. There, Lee will write reports on the shooting of his wife as well as the activities he sees and the people he meets in Interzone.

Most of the film takes place in Interzone, a city modeled on Tangier where Burroughs lived and where he wrote most of the material that would become Naked Lunch. Although Interzone may be modeled on a real place, in the film, Cronenberg seems to suggest that Interzone is a hallucination or an alternate reality, not unlike the fictional country Uqbar in the Borges story. When Lee’s friends Martin and Hank come to visit him, Lee says I must be hallucinating, to which Hank replies: this is probably the first time you haven’t been hallucinating in a long time. Interzone is a kind of simulacrum, or a hyperreality, constructed by Lee. According to John Tiffin, a hyperreality creates virtual reality to be an experience in the physical reality, so that virtual reality and physical reality react with one another. Virtual reality provides virtual worlds that seem more ‘convincing’ to those who experience it. However, hyperreality, provides ‘HyperWorlds’ that blurs the line between what is ‘real’ and what is virtual and make it appear ‘natural’ (Tiffin 2001, 31). Jean Baudrillard, in his essay The Precession of Simulacra says that:

The real is produced from miniaturized units, from matrices memory banks and command modelsand with these it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times. It no longer has to be rational, since it is no longer measured against some ideal or negative instance. It is nothing more than operational. In fact, since it is no longer enveloped by an imaginary, it is no longer real at all. It is a hyperreal, the product of an irradiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere. (Baudrillard 1983, 3)

Interzone is a pastiche of memories, nightmares, fiction genres, and people both known and unknown, and to Lee it is very much a real place. But how was it created? In Videodrome, Max’s reality gets altered by the Videodrome meme, which is embedded within a television transmission, in other words: through media. In his book Understanding Media: The extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan describes media as being of two types: hot and cool. The distinction between the two is one of participation, a hot medium is one where  hot media do not leave so much to be filled in or completed by the audience. Hot media are therefore, low in participation and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience (McLuhan 1964, 23). Relevant examples of hot media that McLuhan gives are books and printing.  The typewriters in Naked Lunch could be seen as a hot medium, since throughout the film, Lee is seen writing what the Clark Nova typewriter dictates. However, McLuhan goes on to say that no medium has its meaning or existence alone, but only in constant interplay with other media (McLuhan 1964, 26). In Naked Lunch, that other medium is the Black Meat. The Black Meat is a very cool medium, very open to participation and completion by an audience,  in the case of Naked Lunch, the audience is William Lee. The combination of the hot medium of the typewriter and the cool medium of the Black Meat produces Interzone, the simulacra within which Lee finds himself trapped. Trapped, but also protected. Lee remarks that the zone takes care of its own.

Interzone acts as a kind of protective shell for Lee that both shields him from the outside world and also keeps him from confronting the truth about the murder of his wifethat he alone was responsible for her death.

Naked Lunch (1991)

Naked Lunch (1991)

The Clark Nova typewriter tells Lee that  you were programmed to shoot your wife Joan Lee, it wasn’t an act of free will on your part. Ultimately for Lee, in order to break out of the  Interzone simulacrum, he must accept responsibility for killing his wife. In attempting to escape, Lee tries to save Joan Frost (Judy Davis) who is the exact image of his late wife. But before he can cross the border into Annexia, Lee must kill Joan Frost, and he does so in the exact way that he killed his wife. Thus, Lee accepts responsibility for his actions and is able to leave Interzone.

Cronenberg uses Burroughs’ novel as a starting point for exploring his own ideas about media, reality and control. William Lee lives in a simulated reality that he has inadvertently created. Within this reality is a scenario revolving around secret agents, double agents, reports made to shadowy organizations, and seductions and assassinations. Like Max in Videodrome, Lee sees himself as an agent of Interzone. This espionage fantasy exists as a means of controlling Lee and keeping him bound to the simulacrum he has created. Like Max in Videodrome, information has altered Lee’s mind and it has created a prison.

eXistenZ: Death to Realism


eXistenZ (1999)

In 1999, Cronenberg released eXistenZ, a film that, as de Laurentis says is a reflection on the new technologies of postmodernityinformation, communication, and biotechnologies and new interactive mediaa reflection in the twofold sense of speculation (theory) and specularization (techne) of the effects they produce in human reality, the social imagery, and individual fantasies (de Laurentis 2003, 547). eXistenZ is the story of a game designer, Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) whose games are so lifelike that and addictive that underground organizations (called Realists) have targeted her for assassination. During a test run of her newest game, eXistenZ, Geller and her security guard Ted Pikul (Jude Law) find themselves on the run and surrounded by people they cannot trust. While hiding out, Geller and Pikul both port into the eXistenZ game to see if it has been damaged in all of the chaos, and find themselves enmeshed in another reality, again surrounded by people they cannot trust and on the run, unsure as to whether they are agents working for or against the Realists. A series of twists and turns in the storyline follow that threaten to spiral out of control, with the film descending into chaos until the end, when it is shown that the world of eXistenZ is itself, a game and Pikul, Geller and all of the other people encountered throughout the film are players testing out a new game called TransCendenZ, which, unlike eXistenZ does not plug into the body, but instead rests upon the head and is spider-like in appearance.

eXistenZ presents three distinct levels of reality: the story world (level 1), the world inside TransCendenZ inside that story world (level 2), and the world of eXistenZ inside TransCendenZ (level 3) (Mathijs 206). These levels bleed into each other, producing a kind of hyperreality,  much the same way that the Black Meat together with the typewriters create the simulacrum of Interzone in Naked Lunch.  The world of TransCendenZ has within it a whole other level of reality, the world of eXistenZ. Much of the film takes place within in the world of eXistenZ, yet a significant portion of the film takes place within the world that exists within the eXistenZ game. With eXistenZ, Cronenberg presents a simulacrum within a simulacrum and a complete distortion of reality. The last words spoken in the film by the man who played the character of the Chinese waiter, are we still in the game? reflect this distortion. At one point in the film, Pikul wants to pause the game and go back to his ‘real’ life. Once out of the game, Geller asks How does it feel, your real life? To which Pikul replies, it feels completely unreal. Of course Pikul’s ‘real’ life is not real at all, it is his life in the TransCendenZ game. With eXistenZ, Cronenberg presents an idea very similar to the idea of eternal life separate from the body, the mind becoming in a sense, pure information, existing within machines.

For Videodrome, the machines are televisions and video equipment. In eXistenZ, the machines are game pods. One of the players comments at the end that if you could stay your whole life in the game world, you could live for about 500 years. Regardless of the kind of machine, the idea is still the same: the mind becomes pure information, a meme that can be transmitted through mechanical devices and spread to anyone who watches a video or plays a game. When Allegra is trying to coax Pikul into playing the eXistenZ game, she says, referring to his physical form, this is the cage of your own making which keeps you trapped and pacing about in the smallest possible space forever.

Like the simulacrum of Interzone in Naked Lunch, the world of  eXistenZ, or rather TransCendenZ,  is one of paranoia, espionage, and duplicitousness.  Everyone is an agent, either with the Realiststhose who see the hyperreality escape provided by the games as a detriment to society, or the competing game companies Antenna Research and Cortical Systematics, who have a vested interest in developing newer and better escapes from reality.  The espionage elements in Naked Lunch seem reminiscent of Cold War-era thrillers befitting both the years in which the original novel was written as well as the setting of the film. In eXistenZ, the paranoia comes from elements of both corporate espionage and religious fundamentalism, which reflects the events like the ongoing turmoil in the Middle-East as well as the Dot-Com bubble, all taking place in the years leading up to the film’s release. Similar themes are also present in Videodrome as well. Although Videodrome was released in 1983eight years before Naked Lunch and sixteen years before eXistenZit has within it the elements of both cold war and corporate paranoia. Unlike Naked Lunch, where the spy scenarios function as a kind of trap for Lee, the espionage elements in eXistenZ exist simply as part of the game, but at the same time, they point to real concerns outside of the game.

At the climax of the film, when it is revealed that everyone has been playing the TransCendenZ game, the game’s designer,  Yevgeny Nourish (Don McKellar) remarks that the game they all just played was very disturbing, that it had a very strong, very real anti-game theme. It began with the attempted assassination of a designer. Nourish’s assistant Merle (Sarah Polley) asks, do you think this must’ve come from one of our game players? At the end it is revealed that both Pikul and Geller are agents for the Realist movement, and assassinate Nourish, with guns that they have concealed on their dog. This is hinted at, earlier in the game where several times a dog is seen carrying one of the bone guns used in the eXistenZ world to get around metal detection devices.  The game takes information from the people playing and weaves it into their collective hyperreality, creating what Tiffin refers to as a HyperWorld.  A HyperWorld, according to Tiffin, is not only one where what is real and what is virtual interact, it is where human intelligence meets artificial intelligence (Tiffin 2001, 33). Within the reality that exists inside of eXistenZ, there is a plot by the Realists to infect all game pods with black spores, killing them. The game pods in the eXistenZ world are bio-mechanical in nature and the spores work like a virus on them. When the spores are released, Geller and Pikul port out of the game, only to discover that the spores followed them back into the next level of reality, infecting and killing Allegra’s game pod. Cronenberg says, regarding this bleed into realities that,  I had an idea…of doing a movie…that would connect somewhat to Naked Lunch and the Burroughsian concept of the things that you create becoming living things that can come back to hurt you, or haunt you, or things you have to deal with (Cronenberg 2006, 163). Concerning the realist movement, not very much is known. At the climax of the film, when Pikul and Allegra confront  Yevgeny Nourish and reveal themselves to be Realists, Pikul says,  don’t you think the world’s greatest game artist ought to be punished for the most effective deforming of reality? Earlier, when Pikul and Allegra are in the TransCendenZ game, they take refuge in a ski lodge where some game-developer friends of Allegra live and work. Pikul, whose character has supposedly never played games and seems oblivious to their impact asks, what happens if someone comes here and really wants to ski? to which Allegra replies, nobody actually physically skis anymore. It appears that the games have become so life-like, indeed much more than life-like to the point that people prefer to do traditionally physical activities through the games. Baudrillard says that [i]t is always a question of proving the real by the imaginary (Baudrillard 1983, 36), and if that is the case then in the world of TransCendenZ, reality is being tossed-out in favor of hyperreality.

eXistenZ (1999)

eXistenZ (1999)

Like Videodrome, eXistenZ examines the use of memes by corporations as a means of control. The opening scenes of eXistenZ show a group of people gathered together as a kind of focus group or test audience for a new game system. Throughout the presentation, the group leader (Christopher Eccleston) constantly pairs the name of the game, eXistenZ with the name of the company that makes it, Antenna Research. This same pairing of product with company also occurs at the end of the film, once it has been revealed that eXistenZ was actually part of another game called TransCendenZ, the seminar leader, Merle always carefully pairs the name of the game with its company, PilgrImage. This using the rhetoric of advertising with carefully weighted repetition, according to Browning, emphasizes the commercialization of language and the commodification of the spiritual (Browning 2007, 168).  Brodie goes on to say, concerning repetition that, [r]epeating a meme until it becomes familiar and  part of your programming is one method of mind-virus penetration (Brodie 1996, 143). Whether machine code housed in a bio-mechanical game pod or an advertising slogan, Cronenberg uses eXistenZ as a means of  exploring the impact of information upon the human psyche. The information from the games creates a separate and often preferable reality in the minds of the players while the near-constant pairing of product with company inspires loyalty among the people who have become addicted to these hyperrealities.


Considering the character-driven nature of the films Cronenberg has released since 1999, it seems that Cronenberg has, for the time being, decided to shift his focus away from technology and its impact on the human body and mind. Perhaps this is because with Videodrome, Naked Lunch, and eXistenZ, Cronenberg feels that he has taken the subject as far as it can go. After all, it is a subject he has worked on since 1979, when he first began exploring the impact of information, in the form of psychotherapy, on the body with The Brood. In the subsequent films, Cronenberg focuses his attentions on technology through media and its impact on humanity. With Videodrome he examines television and video, with Naked Lunch it is a combination of the written word and drugs, and with eXistenZ it is the world of immersive electronic games. In each of these films, Cronenberg metaphorically shows that information can cause change in the human body and mind, with the physical mutations that lead to alterations in perceptions of reality. Yet, with the way that technology is growing and the way that media is becoming more immersive, and more a part of daily (and sometimes hourly ) life, it is possible that the metaphorical worlds presented in these films by Cronenberg might soon become real. As O’Blivion says in Videodrome, you’ll have to learn to live in a very strange new world.


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Bio: David Faust is an assistant professor in the Liberal Arts Department of Dongguk University in Gyeongju, Republic of Korea. He is originally from Alabama and has lived and worked in South Korea since 1999. His primary research interests include comics, science fiction and horror films, and pop culture in general.