Here is the introduction I penned for the London International Animation Festival catalogue about the Female Figures screening and discussion event I produced and hosted at the Barbican on Wednesday 6 December.
As an antidote to the misogyny and male sexual fantasy rife in animation, here is Female Figures. In this programme you won’t find any silent women being relentlessly pursued, no women being violently assaulted, no fragmented female bodies, all of which is rampant still in contemporary animation.
Symptomatic of the residual sexism in the animation sector was Annecy Festival’s 2017 branding, which represented the festival’s theme of animated erotica with an illustration of a woman in a swim suit holding a dripping ice cream. This objectification was heightened in the festival’s animated ident, which placed the viewer in the role of a heavy breathing voyeur, stalking the woman. Unseen by her, we stare intently through binoculars at her legs, her breasts, her ice cream, and her lips.
In online discussions, many male and female animation professionals have decried this branding outdated and problematic, particularly as Annecy also presented the first Women in Animation World Summit this edition. (What with recent sexual harassment and abuse allegations, and the continuing gender pay gap, it would seem that women still have a long way to go to be taken seriously).
I’m not just pointing the finger at Annecy – there are other festivals, events and online platforms that could encourage a more enlightened approach to representation by including more women in selecting, programming, and on juries. Critical discussion about sexism and gender stereotyping on screen seems to be much needed.
Yes, there are naked female bodies in this programme, but these are bodies that have been reclaimed by women animators, to present a more authentic version of the female form and character, putting the female perspective centre stage. These films explore and represent the female figure in diverse, humorous, and often tender ways, celebrating an unfetishised version of female beauty, devoid of shame and guilt. Tales of the desire of women for women, of women for men, of women for their own bodies, are all gathered here.
We enter domestic spaces, where female characters are often found, but instead of performing expected chores, these women are able to be themselves in their own secluded spaces. In Moms on Fire, the heavily pregnant women confined to their disheveled apartments, amuse themselves by indulging in bad behavior whilst their children perceptively comment on their state of mind. In Cipka, the female protagonist is trying to enjoy some ‘sweet solo pleasure’ at home, whilst being stalked by a guy who, in the fantasy world of animation, gets his just desserts as he is attacked by her anthropomorphised vagina that has detached itself from her body on its search for pleasure.
The dark, cautionary tale of Before & After, considers how gendered bodies conform, following a woman’s quest to assimilate to unrealistic standards of beauty in South Korea, the plastic surgery capital of the world. Here the animator’s hand visibly controls the character’s body on screen, in a mix of the hand drawn and pixilation, reminding us of the omnipotent power of both the animator and the surgeon to sculpt bodies into idealised versions. Similarly in Pink the woman’s body is assaulted by cancer, portrayed as a marauding shark inside the otherwise tranquil seas of her body, and then by invasive surgical tools.
Works in this programme challenge the expected traditional male and female roles, giving female characters agency beyond a beautiful thing to gaze on or a perfect doting mother. In Superbia we see a subversion of roles where the female tribe are the wild, fleshy warriors, who spy on the antics of the more refined and civilised male tribe, in a separated and malfunctioning society that reflects back on our own. In Toutes Nuancées, Alliez’s witty love letter to womankind, the female characters, made from a variety of household objects, are celebrated for their shortcomings as much as their charm.
We see explorations of desire not only in terms of sexual instinct, but also of biological urge in Lying Belly and Love-in-idleness, (and those whose sexual desire seem to outweigh their maternal instincts in the case of Moms on Fire). Also, the desire to connect with others, with the complexities of female friendships explored in Beneath the Surface, Moms on Fire, and in blossoming sexual attraction between friends in the charming animated documentary I Like Girls.
Notably, the majority of the films do not contain voiceovers, but the animator leaves it to vibrant images and sounds to transport the viewer into the intimate world of her characters. The shorts that do feature dialogue let us in on personal stories of first love, heartfelt frustrations, the awkwardness of real relationships, and unrequited passions. In Beneath the Surface two young women are shown navigating everyday casual racism over several years, whilst learning to embrace their differing identities.
The artists’ hand is felt in the mark making, the texture, and the tactility of many of the works. The dreamy images fluidly metamorphosise in the charcoal drawings of Love-in-idleness, as the lovers entwine and transform in this visceral conception, inspired by the madness of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Lying Belly the imagined emptiness of a woman yearning for a child is presented in raw hand drawn images combined with stop motion abstraction of viscous material and a piercing vocal track by a female voice seemingly embodying the woman’s sorrowful uterus.
Animation has always been a perfect medium to represent personal experience and unconscious desire in inventive ways. It is heartening to see more women are making self-portraits that present their authentic sense of self, and imaginative shorts filled with sensuality and fantasy. (Though some times erotic depictions can be met with hostility or lewdness from those who seem to struggle with the concept that not everything is made to satisfy male fantasy).
The animators in this programme follow on from many great women who explore dark desires in their work: Ruth Lingford, Alison de Vere, Michaela Pavlátová, Signe Baume, Michèle Cournoyer, Vera Neubauer, Marie Paccou, Joanna Quinn and many more… all inspiring figures who lecturers must share with their students to enthuse them to be confident, and to make work that reflects on their own experience of the world.
There are many support networks to get involved with – Animated Women UK, Women in Film & TV, Underwire Festival, to name a few. For inspiration it is worth listening to Skwigly’s podcasts, including interviews with Diane Obomsawin and Kim Noce. There’s also greatwomenanimators.com, an evolving archive of historical and contemporary female animators to explore.
We need women animators and their stories to be more visible. More women need to be screening at festivals, speaking on panels, and writing for magazines, so the female perspective is more broadly presented and problematic material can be called out.
Review of the event here on Patate Bollenti.
Image: Moms on fire, Joanna Rytel, photo by Tim Maarse.