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The Problem of the Gendered Narrative

Buzzfeed got the animation world talking quite a bit with its recent article “Inside the Persistent Boys Club of Animation.” And while it fits perfectly within the contemporary, aggressive call for more women (and PoC) creatives in the entertainment business – a call I agree with one hundred percent – it’s Lange’s exploration of how certain genders depict certain types of narratives that has my interest piqued. She writes:

And that difference shows up on our screens. According to a 2012 study from the Geena Davis Institute, female characters made up 31% of speaking characters in primetime children’s shows — less than a third. Only 19% of children’s TV shows had an approximately equal number of male and female characters.

Later:

And this mentality is drilled into women studying animation. In a class at CalArts, Cotugno recalled, an instructor lectured on the difference between “feminine” and “masculine” story elements — “which is a little hard to describe, mostly because it’s fucking bullshit,” she said. Elements such as linear storytelling and big external stakes were “for men,” while relationships and emotional storylines were “for women.”

The whole thing is a must-read, but those two paragraphs struck me because it clarified a lot of thoughts I had about how women characters function in cartoons. As you can tell, I watch a lot of animated “stuff,” and what’s weird is how, overall, male characters are fairly developed from the start while women characters tend to fluctuate. This is in extremely broad terms, but part of me wonders if the kinds of stakes that we’ve inadvertently gendered is a bigger issue than just poor, outdated teaching ideas. It’s a top-down problem worth exploring in deeper detail.


Flushed-away

A few weeks ago, I watched Flushed Away, an Aardman/Dreamworks collaboration that did mediocre at the box office, so as to assure that Aardman and Dreamworks would never work together again. It was a film that garnered mixed to poor reviews, but with my current run to catch up on animated films, I thought I’d give it a go, with the requisite that I would Twitter rant about its flaws. And while it was flawed, I was struck by how fascinating the “secondary” character, Rita, was. Rita was an extremely strong, well-developed presence, much more than Roddy, the titular main character. She was voiced by an extremely game Kate Winslet, and had the tenacity of Lara Croft with a warm, engaging emotional appeal like Pearl from the early episodes of Steven Universe. With a few tweaks, Flushed Away could’ve been an precursor to Mad Max: Fury Road – a generic film masking a strong, almost-feminist bent, in which Rita was the real star and Roddy, at best, an annoying sidekick. I can’t tell if it was Dreamworks or Aardman who missed that narrative, but it goes to how we perceive certain narratives and gendered character roles within a piece of entertainment.

I’m not sure how anyone, within the pre-production period of a film, not look at the development of Rita and recognize that she is the star, full stop. She possesses the “big external stakes” and the main thrust of the film is built upon her goals. Yet placing Roddy as the film’s lead is just part of the overall trend with large-stake narratives (he’s front and center on the DVD cover). There are plenty of great female characters, but they feel isolated, the lone feminine figure in weirdly, excessively male-driven worlds. Yet there’s a little bit more going on here, because opening up certain types of characters to the feminine sphere might cause a bit of hand-wringing. In the past 35 years, how many villains, or even antagonists, in films have been female who aren’t mothers? And what about the henchmen?

(The role of henchmen is worthy of a talk of its own. From second-in-commands to the lowly grunts, being a henchmen is a seriously male-driven occupation. How much of this is Standard and Practices, though? How much of this is the overall fear of placing female characters in positions that is primarily set up for bumbling and red-shirting? Because animation has become a medium driven to appeal to kids, the fear is that placing women in roles that usually get abused would be disrespectful and cause kids to follow suit, but that’s damaging to both boys and girls, since it ignore girls completely as well as encourages that kind of disrespect among boys. But I digress.)

One of the most important aspects of the early Disney Afternoon cartoons was its general focus on appealing to a broad, mixed fanbase. Both The Wuzzles and Gummi Bears clearly were looking to appeal to both boys and girls, but the focus shifted as Ducktales hit the airwaves. The shows that came after – Rescue Rangers, TaleSpin, Darwking Duck – had enough content to keep young women hooked, but they were mostly the fare of boys. In addition, the grouping dynamics of the primary cast of cartoons shifted. Girl-to-boy ratios went from 2:3 to 1:3; if a show present a group of mixed-gendered characters as the show’s leads, it has never provided more girls characters than boys. Mostly all kids networks mimicked this, despite hit shows like The Powerpuff Girls showing the potential of female character-driven shows. And really, not since Hey Arnold! have a show really explored a rich, varied group dynamic.

It’s clear that gendering narratives is both harmful and lazy. But what is insidious is how ingrained this idea has become. Not only are certain “types” of stories have to be told from the perspective of boy characters, but the minute details of those stories have to fit certain parameters. There’s very little focus on emotions or vulnerability, although that is getting better: Wander (Wander Over Yonder), Steven (Steven Universe), and Gumball (The Amazing World of Gumball) are much more prone to wearing their emotions on their sleeves, and acknowledging that those explicit feelings are valid.

Female characters are getting better as well. From the Mane6 of My Little Pony to the spunky silliness of Star from Star Vs. The Forces of Evil, TV animators are not only allowing women characters to star as leads, but to engage in their audacious adventures while also letting their emotions out for all to see. The wall limiting what types of stories one can tell with gendered characters is changing, albeit slowly, without necessarily falling into the kind of traps that hurt other narrative forms – restructuring the “Strong Female Character” as “Masculinized Female,” for example.

The biggest problem seems to be that in our attempts to push down gendered limits in entertainment, we’re pushing more and more into segregated content. Strong, singular leads are great, but shows that demand broad, mixed casts struggle intermixing gendered characters, from the testosterone-driven brotherhood that is the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to the female-coded Gems of Steven Universe. Which, inherently, is fine, but it hinders creative insight into how a full group of boys and girls can manage a situation and keep true to themselves. It’s a top-down problem, again – there’s an upcoming all-female Ghostbusters and an all-male one coming soon. There’s an all-female Transformers on the way, along with an all female DC-superheroes series coming as well. Genevieve Koski over the (sadly now-defunct) wrote about the problem with the “distaff counterpart,” but at the level of younger viewers, it implies that not only are the two genders markedly different, but that they can’t even interact without some kind of problematic “Mars/Venus” dilemma, as if two different genders thrive in two different parallel universes.

These ideas, taught to us as kids, have become de facto lessons, that the decision of creating a certain character male of female automatically define the basic beats of a story – beats that cannot embrace multiple genders in any narrative way. An evil force that wants to destroy the world has no ties to male or female characteristics, but more often than not, male characters are the heroes, thematically linked to paternal-leadership-protector themes. For the few women heroes that save the day, they’re linked to more emotional-maternal-caregiver themes. And it’s that core, basic thinking is more troubling than we realize. Thematic resonance is important to all narratives, but not when they’re built on vague stereotypes and gendered segregation.

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CHILDHOOD REVISITED – Aladdin: The TV Series

In an unexpected way, Aladdin may possibly be the Disney Afternoon’s best work. Better than Ducktales? Better than Darkwing Duck? Even better than Gargoyles? That’s a deeper question than you’d might think.

Aladdin_TV

The animation bubble was just starting to test its limits by 1994. At this point Disney sought to control pretty much every direction that animation could go. It snatched up the compilation Saturday morning theme with Raw Toonage and Marsupilami, it gobbled up the action genre with Gargoyles, and it began exploiting its hit films by pushing a TV-adaptation agenda with Aladdin and Timon & Pumbaa (not to mention continuing with original afterschool programming with the problematic Bonkers show). It’s easy to roll one’s eyes at the very concept of television adaptations – particularly now, with everything being adapted or given a sequel – but people forget that it was done pretty regularly in the late 90s as well. But if given a solid handle on the material, along with minimal interference with executives, an adapted work can be incredible.

I definitely had my doubts when coming into the Aladdin TV show. The original movie is fun if slight, its Bonkers contemporary is full of problems, and I remember distinctly not being particularly enamored by the show as a kid. I’d certainly watched it, but it lacked the lunacy or wackiness of earlier Disney Afternoon works (this is a significant point which I’ll get into later). I had reservations when starting this re-watch, as anyone would when attempting to dive in into a show that’s clearly a knockoff cash-grab. What I found was something fascinating: an highly entertaining, exciting 86-episode run that was way better than it should’ve been. In fact, it might be the Disney Afternoon’s best show.

What I wrote on Facebook: “It’s not the best objective cartoon of them all, per se, but the Aladdin TV feels like the purest distillation of the Disney Afternoon aesthetic, culling the best aspects of its previous shows and placing them here. I sort of had low expectations, being an adaptation of a film, but it’s so organic and entertaining, and the storytelling is almost perfect, rarely wasting its 22 minutes with obvious animated padding. It takes the core storytelling engine of Ducktales, the great character work of TaleSpin, the sharp cartoon lunacy of Darkwing Duck, the tight group dynamics of Rescue Rangers, the adventurous spirit of Gargoyles – hell, even the grounded-wacky ratio of Bonkers – and reworks them into a solid bit of animated entertainment. I’ll get into more detail when the official review comes, but basically I love it.”

It’s true, and it’s tricky to get into exactly why the show works so well, but I’m going to try. It primary has to do with its storytelling. Aladdin just tells really good stories really, really well. Animated shows often get caught up in their visuals (as they should), using the medium to mess around with the form a lot, with extended wacky scenes or song cues or elongated chase sequences, all centered around comedic attempts. These are not inherently bad things, but they’re most effective when they prop up a fun, tight story. Often they’re used as bridges between scenes or excuses to prolong a moment, and not quite used to buffer the actual plot. Aladdin is different. Aladdin builds its stories through all 22 minutes, with significant plot shifts before act breaks, complex narratives, and a willingness to keep the mystery of a story hidden up until the climax.

A perfect example is “Strike Up the Sand.” It’s just a fully complete episode, in which newcomer Sadira, a female analogue of Aladdin, falls head over heels in love with the show’s lead. But after his rejection, she falls into a mysterious hole and discovers the power to control sand-based magic. This sounds forced, but the episode handles it extremely well, taking the time to establish the discovery of the hole and Sadira’s exploration of her new-found ability. It gives her and the magic itself a sense of depth and history (and imbues it with a comic aside in the form of a talking worm who’s “so done”), building up the events to the point that she creates what seems to be a typical one-note henchman. And yet, in a shocking bit of cleverness, that one-note henchman is revealed to be Sadira’s (and the cast’s) main antagonist, turning the “smash-first” brainless badguy into the episode’s true villain. It’s such a brilliant switch-up that I’m shocked this hasn’t been done before:

That thin layer of self-awareness, that basic understanding of its storytelling tropes and expectations is one of the many things that keep Aladdin on point. It doesn’t lean on that self-awareness as a driving factor for its comedy or narratives – unlike a lot of today’s current films – but there’s a very keen understanding of how classic cartoon narratives work, and the show plays into them without them being overbearing. It focuses one hundred percent on the story, and the characters within it, using that self-awareness sparingly and to pointed effect – primarily through Iago and Genie.

In fact, how Aladdin uses Iago and Genie should be studied by animation writers everywhere. Iago and Genie are both primarily the comic relief and the outlet through which the writers mess around with meta-commentary, but the show never alienates them. Not only does Aladdin keep these two tightly engaged in the story (while calling out the generic tropes of the story), the other characters accept their antics, and sometimes even embrace them. Unlike Lucky from Bonkers, who spent all his time being utterly disgusted by his toon partner, Aladdin is comfortable with letting these two fuck around, and even encourages them. When Iago complains about Aladdin constantly rushing headlong into danger with a weary sigh, Aladdin chuckles at this, shrugs, and agrees (then rushes into danger). When Genie unloads a heap of anachronistic magic tricks and meta-verbiage, the show and the characters go along with it a casualness that’s both endearing and appealing. This allows for the team dynamics to stay in tact as well as keep the audience engaged. Watch how effortlessly Iago and Genie comically but eventually deduce where Aladdin and Jasmine disappeared to (by around 1:30) – note Iago’s passion towards Aladdin’s typical behavior and Genie’s not-so-subtle method of figuring it out via a winking plot hole:

It’s such a small thing but it’s incredible how often cartoons screw this up. Group dynamics are so, so important, the idea that a team of characters, despite distinct differences, are actively working together towards a common goal – and aren’t just a loose compilation of cliched personalities (I’m looking at you, Motorcity). Aladdin is having fun with itself, letting its characters loose within a tightly-controlled, often-clever plot, and that isn’t regulated to the good guys. The villains are also fun and diverse, and while they don’t quite match up to Darkwing Duck’s delightfully twisted rogue gallery, they do hold their own. They’re genuine threats (particularly the big guns like Mirage and Mozenrath) but have strong and/or goofy personalities to make them feel multi-dimensional.

Then there’s the setting itself. Agrabah and the surrounding locations, like Odiferous and Getzistan, feel like real places populated by real people with a real social structure in place.  While a place like Odiferous feels more like a joke (centered around smelly cheese), the show commits to that joke, making it real enough that they even go to war over it. Agrabah itself is vibrant and diverse, with good/bad areas, an economy that’s an actual source for a few storylines, and a class division that Aladdin isn’t shy about discussing. The writers certainly aren’t getting into a in-depth exploration of Middle Eastern socioeconomic issues but Aladdin does acknowledge the struggles of its poorer citizens and keeps Jasmine and the Sultan abreast of the plight of its lower-class people. Again, way too many shows, even today, ignore the people of its locales, making them into quick joke machines that somewhat lean a bit on the insulting side (I love Star Vs. but I do hope that show fixes that issue soon).

And as much as I love the show, I do have to bring up the inevitable weaker elements. The female characters, up until the appearance of Mirage, don’t really get their due. There’s a lot of talk about Jasmine being the cliched sweet-but-spunky adventurous princess, but the execution of that doesn’t quite gel – not until the third season (and even then, the third season is an unfortunate disappointment overall, as the clever storytelling falls prey to weird amounts of exposition and tedious executions). Sadira and Saleen are mostly driven by weak “pining for Aladdin” stories, but at least Sadira gets a pretty good redemption arc in her third appearance. Anything involving Odiferous is inherently off-kilter, as the village is portrayed too jokingly, despite the show being aware of it. And while the show tempers Genie most obnoxious behavior perfectly for 90% of the time, he does go overboard in a few episodes, making them particularly unbearable. “The Game” and “Night of the Living Mud” should be avoided.

Yet when Genie is tempered properly, especially tied to storylines and plots that rival the more complex and audacious plotting one gets from Doctor Who, Aladdin works in ways that surpasses every Disney Afternoon show before and after it. Most episodes are so fun and so involved that you’d find yourself failing to question the extent of Genie’s powers, or examining the minute details of the more intricate plotting (the episode “Lost and Founded” rips through a time-travel story so quickly and effortlessly that you don’t even have time to examine potential paradoxes!).

As such, the inevitable question will arise: “You thought this show was better than Gargoyles?” Which is a valid question, but also more complex than you’d think. As I tackle Timon & Pumbaa in the next few weeks, I am going to attempt to explore an overall view of the Disney Afternoon in general, its expectations and its limits, and why Disney seems so reluctant in re-introducing perhaps its greatest era in animation history. For the record, I do think Aladdin is a stronger show than Gargoyles; part of that is personal preference, but part of that is Disney’s ultimate visionary goal, which was more strongly realized in desert sands of Mesopotamia than it was in the urban sprawl of New York City.

 

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CHILDHOOD REVISITED – Brandy and Mr. Whiskers

Brandy and Mr. Whiskers had the drive but never could quite get a firm handle on its characters or its comedy. Why such a funny show never could translate into an appealing one.

The mid-2000s was not really a great era of animated television. The cartoon bubble had burst, which led to the slow dismantling of Saturday morning cartoons on the prime TV networks. Cartoon Network was humming along awkwardly, Disney’s animation department was a bit cluttered, searching for “stylistic” shows (read: cheaply produced), and while Nickelodeon was kicking ratings ass with Spongebob and The Fairly Oddparents, it was becoming clear that those shows were all they had. It wasn’t exactly a dead period for animation, but it seemed like a direction-less era for the medium. Disney, in particular, seemed keen on culling stylistically from the past and aiming for strict gendered demographics (hence the Kim Possible/Proud Family divide). In the middle of that came Brandy and Mr. Whiskers, a two-season outlier that seemed to have no real demo at all.

brandy-and-mr-whiskers

Every so often Disney tries to “do” wacky, its own take on Looney Toons-esque insanity, to mostly failed results: Bonkers, Schnookums and Meat, Fish Hooks. (Arguably the most successful one was Timon and Pumbaa, mainly because the characters were strong enough to carry the craziness, but I digress.) As I mentioned before, Disney thrives on strong characters and strong settings, but according to this take on the pre-production on the show, the execs at the network wanted to “push” things, visually, which 1) confirms a lot of what I’ve heard about this era and 2) suggests strongly how lost the animation division was at this point. It’s clear that they wanted to “copy” Cartoon Network’s unique-looking shows like Dexter’s Laboratory and PowerPuff Girls without exploring exactly why those styles worked. “Style” brought nothing new to Kim Possible or The Proud Family, and it didn’t bring anything new to this show either.

Not to say it’s a poorly animated show. It’s easy to dismiss it as another Ren & Stimpy knockoff, yet another Spumco-wannabe, but that would be lazy. In action, Brandy and Mr. Whiskers resembles more of the 1920s-1930s animated works of Fleischer studios. Hell, some of the designs resembles Disney’s own style from that time period! Sure, some Spumco sensibilities are there, but the “always to the side” facial expressions with the sideways mouth is pure Fleischer, especially when you compare it something like Popeye or Felix the Cat. Depending on the animation studio, the movements and expressions could be fluid, even adorable, with unique bounces and shapes with eye and head positions. But some animation studios struggled with the style, with minimal movements, lazy repetition, and flat expressions, particularly during crowded scenes.

Yet animation studios weren’t the only entities that struggled with the cartoon. Brandy and Mr. Whiskers is a show that required a certain level of commitment to its premise and its characters; some writers got it, and some just didn’t. It’s not a weak premise – in fact, it’s pretty progressive, which I’ll get to – but it is pretty outlandish, which basically means you got to love it or leave it. A pretty, snobbish canine and an insane, nutty rabbit fall out of a plane and land in the Amazon jungle, where they interact with the wacky locals while they try to learn how they can live with each other. There’s no real substance here, especially since Whiskers drives Brandy crazy, which requires the writers to just have fun with it and its loose tether to even its own animated hyperreality. It’s the kind of freedom that not a lot of creatives can work with, and its obvious to see certain scripts awkwardly stretch ideas with no structure in place, especially in the second season, when it drops arguably its sole rule of Brandy instigating the plot by mentioning some broad concept to Whiskers.

Not to say that Brandy and Mr. Whiskers isn’t funny – it frequently is! In fact, it’s cruelly funny, the kind of nasty, mean-spirited comedy that’s present in Seinfeld, Archer, or Arrested Development. Brandy is exaggeratedly conceited and self-centered, treating Whiskers (and everyone else, although less so) like utter crap. Whiskers is the obvious hyperactive/moronic type, although he is a lot smarter and determined then you’d think, quite often calling out Brandy for her shit. The cast around them – Ed, Lola, Gaspar, Meryl and Cheryl, Margo – are fun in their own unique ways, and the show really picks up when they’re thrown in the mix. Whiskers annoying Brandy, only for them to make up and be friends, is nonsensical (and the show expressly acknowledges this in “Dog Play Afternoon”), so the show is at its best when it brings in the rest of the cast, or when Brandy and Whiskers actually team up:

Despite Brandy and Mr. Whiskers’ overall unevenness, it’s… arguably one of the more progressive animated shows I’ve seen in a while. It feels like a broad response to the wave of girl-powered cartoons (PowerPuff Girls, Totally Spies, Life as a Teenage Robot, The Proud Family) that hit in the early 00s, and in particular it feels like a direct response to Kim Possible itself. I wrote about how monstrously disingenuous Kim is in that show, how that kind of “character” hurts its feminist aspirations more than it advocates them. And while Brandy and Mr. Whiskers certainly isn’t a bastion of feminist progress, it does contextualize a “Kim” type way better than Kim Possible ever did. Plus, it has more female characters in the mix, of different backgrounds. Margo is the Bonnie to Brandy’s Kim, Lola is Hispanic, and Meryl and Cheryl are (coded) black. Most importantly, they all get into the wackiness with aplomb and aren’t regulated to “safe” or “straight man” status. Just listening to the show and its mix of voices is a revelation; even cartoons today are driven by male (white) voices, give or take a Steven Universe.

Yet even with that cast, Brandy and Mr. Whiskers never can quite expand past its basic rhythms. Brandy and Mr. Whiskers has the verve and comic chops in place, but struggles to push beyond that. While something like, say, The Penguins of Madagascar (a show that the executive producers of Brandy and Mr. Whiskers, Bill Motz and Bob Roth, worked on extensively) could build upon the goofy and silly layers of its characters and comedy, Brandy and Mr. Whiskers never seems willing or comfortable to take that extra step. Sure, it smartly moves away from the formulaic nature (Brandy says something that Whiskers ought to do, in which things hilariously fall apart from there) of its first season in the midst of its second season, but doesn’t know what to do given that new-found freedom. It falls back on elaborate crushes, boyfriend chases and more nonsensical premises, with only a few episodes actually possessing what could be construed as a real purpose. The clearest sign there are struggles? Some episodes possess unfulfilling, unsatisfactory end tags that are obviously undercooked. It’s not a thing that the show builds up on; they’re clearly placed on to pad the final minutes of episodes so they can fill the full eleven minutes:

Brandy and Mr. Whiskers is an eager, hungry show, committed to its silliness with plenty of loony, physical gags, absurd characters, and enough self-awareness to make Animaniacs blush. It’s also hurt by some weird, poorly utilized edits that seem as if they were done to avoid animation mistakes, and lack luster endings that seem to 1) kill the little dramatic momentum that the show actively possesses, or 2) double-down on its cruel nature. Cute families of animals are killed off; characters in which Brandy and Mr. Whiskers treat terribly are never given their proper due; hell, “The Tortoise and the Hare-Brain,” one of the funniest and most inspired episode of the show, ends with a wildly tone-deaf joke that implies interracial relationships as problematic.

Yet that’s the core issue with Brandy and Mr. Whiskers. It’s a hilarious show that is also often dark and brutal, a black comedy that often borders on exposing misguided values with little about it that was appealing. It’s smarter and more in-tuned with itself then you’d think, but it’d also hurt by uninspired scripts and thinly-pointed gags about the callous destruction of the rainforest with little to no insight. It utilizes some of current comedy’s most potent set-ups: cutaways, smarm, self-awareness, irony (particularly about how lame forced heart-warming moments are), but never offers anything new to take its place. At its core was the bizarre, tricky interplay between Brandy and Mr. Whiskers themselves, two characters who never clicked as friends nor enemies nor teammates – and with the core leads purposely “unconnectable,” so to is the show as a whole, despite its laughs and moments of cleverness.

Perhaps there’s a deeper meaning with Brandy and Mr. Whiskers: a show about two American figures – one arrogant, brash, and selfish, the other moronic and chaotic – literally dropping into a new, established culture that is forced to kowtow and submit to their behavior with begrudging reluctance. Sure, they may introduce Western concepts to this culture, such as fashion and currency (undercut, somewhat, with the introduction of the mall in the second season), but that introduction is portrayed as not at all wanted, a corrupting influence that’s more trouble than its worth. Brandy and Mr. Whiskers exemplifies that concept, a show that has the right ideas and attitude, but lacks the kind of heart needed to sustain itself. Like the show’s titular characters, Brandy and Mr. Whiskers is trapped in a comically nonsensical jungle with no real desire to escape.

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