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Saturday, March 10, 2007

Geena Davis on Animation: No Girls Allowed?

Wow. Two posts in one day. I'm going to need to rest up after this...

As some of you more fanatical toon devotees may already know, there was a post in Jerry Beck's Cartoon Brew blog a couple of days ago about actress Geena Davis' speech to an organization known as the National Conference For Media Reform. In it she complains about what she sees as an appalling shortage of positive, well-written female characters in animated cartoons, both now and in the past. To put it mildly, her speech couldn't have set off a bigger explosion if she'd borrowed ammunition from Wile E. Coyote, judging from the comments following the post, the majority of which range from mild disagreement to towering rage.

Now, I have to say that while I agree with Ms. Davis in spirit (you can sense a "but" coming, I'm sure. Well, you're right) I respectfully suggest she study her toon history a bit. While there might not have been as many strong, dimensional female characters in animation as there ought to have been, historically the world of animated cartoons hasn't exactly been as much of a boys' club as Ms. Davis seems to think. Kevin and I discussed this in our recent correspondence, which I've included here, His comments, as always, are in italics:

Kevin says:


Hmmm, ya got me thinkin’.

What about Little Lulu? She seems to outwit some truly surly adult males who, rightfully, should get their comeuppance for treating others like lesser beings, merely by just being a kid. She has remained a favorite female character of mine and she *STILL* has not received her due on good quality DVD collections as yet, but I don’t want to go off on a rant as to how I feel that most or all of Famous Studios’ output just never receives recognition with full restoration. But Little Lulu obviously gets her name from not only a nickname given to silent film star, Louise Brooks, but also from an adult perspective of her as a brat who gets in the way of the adult world, she often takes the same tactic as Bugs Bunny in the sense that she’ll only get under your skin if you’ve tried to cheat or disrespect her in any way.

Hi Kevin,

"What about Little Lulu?," indeed. Good point, Kevin--I should have mentioned Lulu myself. Yes, she was a 'lulu" in more ways than one, which is what I think Marge Buell intended. You could say she was a female template for the later Dennis The Menace--not so much deliberately putting authority figures in their place like a miniature Bugs as, through her well-intentioned actions, exposing some of their bluster. (Much the same way that Bugs Bunny deflated the goonlike drill sergeant, albeit with the best of intentions, in FORWARD MARCH HARE.) Adults can be horribly condescending toward kids (I've even been guilty of this myself) and often view them as little more than objects: "children should be seen and not heard," and the like. The adults' downfall inevitably comes when the kids prove to be smarter and a little feistier than they figured.

The grouchy middle-aged man who was Little Lulu's foil had such a condescending attitude--remember when he tried to use her to get some free caddying help, figuring she could be bought off with some candy? He figured she'd stand by passively and leave him alone--but dedicated little thing that she was, she actually intended to do the job she was being "paid" for, whether she knew how to do it or not. In other words, he grossly underestimated her, and paid dearly for it. You might say he was her "Mr. Wilson", who also had some rather old-fashioned ideas about how kids should behave--and Dennis never conformed to his expectations. (Though Mr. Wilson, in truth, secretly admired Dennis for it).

Kevin says:

Comedienne Tracy Ullman ran with this premise and made her a feminist, failing to notice that Lulu’s fight for right embraced every vulnerable living thing, whether male or female. She was a kid who cared, and that is why I sometimes feel that Hollywood so often blew such a grand chance to give us a Lulu live action movie. The lyrics to the Famous Studios’ song that accompanies every LULU cartoon explains that, although some might think that she’s in the way, she’s there to prove that perhaps some adults need to be put in their place…and we ultimately love her for it!

Well, Ullman drew from the Lulu of the Dell/Gold Key comic books to a large extent. Lulu did take a strong proto-feminist stance even in the early stories, usually putting one over on the extremely sexist boys. She would devise rather clever ways of getting even with lummoxes like Tubby. [In one storyline] she, while the boys are swimming, takes their clothes, then instructs another little girl to go home and get some of her little brother's diapers and safety pins. When the panicky boys find their clothes missing and are confronted with the choice of wearing diapers home or going bare, Lulu innocently explains it was all she could find. They put on the diapers when Lulu agrees to take them home in a wagon, under a blanket, so no one would see them. Of course, Lulu sends the wagon down a hill, and the kids unintentionally draw a crowd of people. Who, of course, remove the blanket to reveal the diapered boys, much to their mortification.

The discussion about Lulu has caused me to realize that what few strong female characters there are in cartoons are, more often than not, little girls. Even the examples Geena Davis provides, such as Dora The Explorer (though I'd question that choice) and Lilo from LILO AND STITCH. I'd add to the list Lucy from "Peanuts"--she was clearly smarter than Charlie Brown and knew how to "push his buttons", so to speak, playing off his insecurities. She was the cold water of reality in contrast to Charlie Brown's hopes of eventual success, be it at kicking a football or winning a baseball game. From the same strip is, of course, Peppermint Patty (though, being a tomboy, she's probably not the best example).

Even Davis' other cited example, Kim Possible, is a teenager.

Or how about the Baby Snooks quail in the Warner Bros. cartoon QUENTIN QUAIL? Here's another case of a girl character who, like Lulu, makes blustery adults look stupid--in this case her father.

Honey, in both her incarnations, is pretty much a given. Even though in her earliest form she was presumably an adult character, she was nonetheless very little girl-like (with the exception of the oft-mentioned BOSKO IN PERSON).

I could, I suppose, even add my own aborted cartoon character ("Aimee") to the list, as she's a sarcastic, feisty little-girl character in the Lucy mold.

Why is this, I wonder? Is it more acceptable for little girls to have some guts, as they're young and as yet, sexless (and therefore unthreatening)? An aggressive female character who can vanquish opponents with the finesse of a Bugs Bunny might have been a little too frightening for the male animators of the Golden Age to contemplate. (The sexual implications of such a character aside).

The few dimensional adult female characters one can think of were the other extreme, little old ladies like Granny and Witch Hazel (also, it's presumed, sexless and unthreatening). Olive Oyl was a young adult female and certainly sexual (look at the way she drooled over Bluto!) but the sexuality is negated by her appearance.

We may have just hit on the reason here--give a young attractive adult female character power and you get a Betty Boop, or so the male animators think. Even today that makes the "boys' club" nervous. They can't make a female character funny without stripping her of all the sexual "baggage."

Though, to be fair, what template did they have to draw from? The humor in cartoons of the 1930s and '40s was drawn largely from two sources--vaudeville and comic strips. Besides Gracie Allen and maybe Fannie Brice, there weren't any prototypes from the stage on which to build funny, appealing, dimensional woman characters.

In the comics they were legion--Tillie The Toiler, Fritzi Ritz, Blondie--but generally didn't translate well to animation. So that left very little.

And does Ms. Davis not regard perhaps a slightly modernized version of Lulu, with a consciousness to boot, young Lisa Simpson? Here’s a little girl who could make you weep as we sometimes watched the unfeeling world through her eyes and she ultimately had to compromise and lower her standards. You and I, personally, know that feeling well!!

You're really on the ball this morning--I should have mentioned Lisa Simpson as well. She's even taken over the spotlight from her brother Bart to a large extent, which I suppose could be considered poetic justice of a sort. But again, she's a little-girl character, and therefore safe.

Yeah, sometimes I do bemoan the fact that more wasn’t done with characters like Honey. Even when she was a little fully realized black stereotype, inspiration could have been drawn from jazz singers and performers and our little Honey could have produced for her animators some terrific production numbers that would have shown her to be a viable character into the 1940’s. I was disappointed that harmon didn’t retain her right up into the end of the series, but you’re talking, as you stated, about a good ol’ boy regime that had plagued cartoons and, perhaps, film throughout that period. Yet, understand that this did not stop females from coming to the forefront, even if they had to compromise certain standards that they would have rather put in the forefront of their careers, but they beat a system that would have often kept them out if they didn’t show themselves to be as strong.

Imagine the possibilities--say Vivian Dandridge doing a 1940's Honey. It's an intriguing prospect, with her as a little jazz/blues singer in the way Bosko imagined himself to be a little Cab Calloway in his final three cartoons. Even though women are coming to the forefront now, one can't help but be a little mournful of what might have been.

So rather than dismiss Gena Davis’s comments as misrepresentations, I’d rather challenge her viewpoint with any great toon festival showing the female characters in clear focus, even if they are vamping it up.

As for LOONEY TOONS, let’s not forget a cartoon called “WILD WIFE”. It’s title might seem to suggest that its lead character with her rants of having such a busy day and her husband not believing that she’s even intelligent enough to have such trials and tribulations is just whining once again, but listen to that husband and watch these kids as she tries to get them all out to where they are going so she can have some down time. And, even then, she meets the usual daily obstacles. I’d have ended the husband’s rant in the same fashion as she did since that seemed like the only way to get through to him!!

Yes, she was the rare funny adult female character, if ruined a bit by the usual stereotypes of the time (for example: she can't parallel park, she shops so much she has to open up a tiny "window" in the mile-high stack of packages she's carrying to see in front of her, the rolling-pin bit at the end) but it was the first Warner Bros. cartoon I could think of that was sympathetic to the plight of the housewife. It was also the only one I can think of that put a female character in slapstick situations (as when she runs out to feed the meter at the beauty parlor, curlers still in her hair and a mudpack on her face. She almost scares some poor passer-by to death).

An "all-girl" collection of reviews in the coming week might be appropos for the blog, if I can find the time, though as usual I make no guarantees.

To sum up, Kevin, I must congratulate you on your comment on Cartoon Brew, which made some points I failed to address, and made my post seem silly in comparison. Your ability to write amazes me at times.


To this I would only add the following--what Davis is doing is admirable. I do caution her not to be overly enthusiastic, however--in her zeal she may pressure animation studios to include female characters just for the sake of including them, and what good is that? Is a "token girl" what she wants? Should she work with studios to make the sort of cartoons her daughter would want to see, she ought to ask herself one question, "Will this be entertaining, both for me and for her?" That's the only thing that truly matters.

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