Louis Armstrong’s Flying Head, Clothing as Food, and Renegade Angels: Queering Animation through Fantasy

If a dragon were to suddenly swoop down from the clouds, spread its huge wings over London, and wrap its mighty body around Big Ben, it would certainly be strange. Unusual. Weird. Fantastic. Maybe even queer. Of course, such an incredible event is not about to happen. Dragons, faeries, wizards, elves, hobbits – all remain firmly in the realm of fantasy. As Katherine A. Fowkes notes, ‘one central aspect of fantasy stories is that they each feature a fundamental break with our sense of reality’ (2010: 2). She continues: ‘[i]t is generally agreed that fantasies tell stories that would be impossible in the real world. They frequently concern mythical creatures or involve events that circumvent physical laws. But looking more closely, we see that fantasy’s generic boundaries are rarely hard and fast’ (ibid.). In other words, fantasy bends, breaks, and questions our concept of the ‘real’. Taken in this light, fantasy has quite a bit in common with the queer, which aims to bend, break, and question our concept of what is ‘normal’. Jay Prosser demonstrates exactly how queerness operates in society when he writes, ‘queerness effects an opening of the borders between genders, disturbs the discrete categories of lesbian, gay, man, woman – undoing their identity narratives – and, as a result, enables the formation of new political, cultural, and social coalitions’ (1995: 486). Queer shoves us beyond calcified categories of gender and sexuality and forces us to explore what else is possible. Thus, if fantasy pushes us beyond reality and queer pushes us beyond normal, then one could argue that the two concepts go hand in hand.  After all, dragons flying over London certainly is not a normal experience. So, if fantasy queers our reality, then what does that mean for animation?

Animation is an inherently queer medium, as both Paul Wells and J. Halberstam have demonstrated as much in their work. According to Wells, ‘the animated film has the capacity to redefine the orthodoxies of live-action narratives and images, and address the human condition with as much authority and insight as any live action film’ (1998: 4). Wells expounds on this philosophy, noting, ‘animation can redefine the everyday, subvert our accepted notions of “reality”, and challenge the orthodox understanding and acceptance of our existence’ (ibid.: 11). Similarly, in Halberstam’s discussion of CGI animated films, they note, ‘queer is not represented as a singularity but as part of as assemblage of resistant technologies that include collectivity, imagination, and a kind of situationist commitment to surprise and shock’ (2011: 29). Taken together, Wells’ and Halberstam’s philosophies on animation make it clear that these films disrupt what we consider normal. ‘Normal’ can be useful in that we use it to determine a status quo, be it a social identity or a best practice in filmmaking. ‘Normal’ provides coherence among a collective. However, ‘normal’ is also an extremely narrow construct to which people are forced to conform. Queer is necessary because it demonstrates the limitations of ‘normal’, exploding the settled routines of society’s thinking and making space for what has previously been seen as the aberration.

If animation is an inherently queer medium, the objective is less about separating the ‘queer’ from the ‘not-queer’ and more about using the concept of queer to push animation’s limits. Such a project can be explored in myriad ways: through techniques (hand-drawn, computer generated, Claymation, stop-motion, etc.), through narrative, through meta- or para-texts (especially those created by fans), even through genre (fantasy, comedy, drama, etc.). True to queer theory – and fantasy – the possibilities are seemingly endless. For the sake of comprehensibility, the continuum below (Fig. 1) demonstrates how fantasy further might queer animation.  Although placing animated works on a neat continuum runs counter to queer theory’s very core, [1] the continuum still helps to visualise these works in relation to each other.

  Fig.1 - The Queer/Fantasy Continuum

Fig.1 - The Queer/Fantasy Continuum

Animated works that use few to no fantasy elements are placed further to the left – the ‘less queer’ side of the continuum. The more fantasy or fantastical elements an animated work employs, the further to the right it slides. Disney’s ‘Silly Symphony’ short about a storm buffeting an old windmill, The Old Mill (Wilfred Jackson, 1937), is on the far left. The nine-minute short largely mirrors our reality, and there is nothing particularly unusual or fantastic about the scenario it presents. However, Disney does still utilise a few fantasy elements that nevertheless queers a normally quotidian scene. The creatures living within the mill hoot and tweet and squeak, but in a way that is recognisably human. They also display very human emotions: a mother and a father bird ‘kiss’ when the father returns to their nest, mice tremble in fear when lighting strikes, and an owl becomes annoyed when water drips on its head. Yet even these elements are almost realistic by animation standards. The short’s most fantastical element is a single sight gag: a frog’s belly glows after it eats a firefly. Remove these elements – the animals’ ‘human’ characteristics and the frog’s glowing belly – from The Old Mill and it reads like an animated documentary. Disney’s Frozen (Jennifer Lee & Chris Buck, 2013) is to the right of The Old Mill. Multiple fantastical elements are employed to tell the story, which centres on Elsa and her sister, Anna. Elsa is born with powers over ice and snow. After she accidentally hurts Anna, the sisters’ parents, the king and queen of Arendelle, lock Elsa away. The film follows Elsa and Anna into adulthood as they struggle to deal with Elsa’s unique abilities and heal their wounded relationship. Elsa’s powers, snow elementals (Olaf and Marshmallow), trolls, and a sentient (albeit mute) reindeer all feature heavily in the film. These elements are more traditionally fantastic (see Fowkes above) and without them, the world of Arendelle and her neighbours still largely resemble our own. Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe (2014 – present) sits in the middle. Show creator Rebecca Sugar spun an entirely new, fantastic mythology that includes alien women with magical powers, gem-based monsters, and an entirely new society thousands of light years from our own. The show follows Steven, a half-human, half-alien boy who lives with his alien guardians, the Crystal Gems, as they fight to protect the Earth. Unlike Elsa’s snow powers, which are considered rare and unique, magic permeates Steven Universe. Steven alone queers both human and gem society exactly because he is half-gem and half-human. His powers allow him to do things neither race can do, including creating new forms of life. In "Watermelon Steven" (S1E34, 2014), Steven accidentally grows a race of watermelon clones after he eats a watermelon and spits the seeds everywhere. Unable to live alongside humans, the watermelons walk into the ocean to some unknown fate. "Super Watermelon Island" (S3E1, 2016) reveals that the melons have settled on a tropical island and created their own agrarian society. They grow their children on watermelon vines, raise watermelon livestock, and sacrifice their watermelon bodies to an enormous ocean monster/goddess. In short, Steven and his world are utterly transformed by magic and would be unrecognisable without it.

Hasbro’s My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic (Lauren Fautst, 2010 – present) falls slightly right of centre. The show is more fantastic – and thus more queer – in that it does away with humans, and any resemblance to our world, almost entirely. The ‘Mane Five’ ponies—Twilight Sparkle, Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy, Applejack, and Rarity—fight monsters, cast spells, and solve mysteries in a world built around the question, ‘What if, instead of humans, there were magical ponies?’ Dragons, unicorns, alicorns, pegasi, ogres, trolls, and talking horses all coexist. Nonetheless, humans could be easily dropped into this world as some of their towns and cultural traditions are familiar. Places like Canterlot (instead of Camelot), Manehattan (instead of Manhattan), and special events like the Equestria Games (instead of the Olympics), act as callbacks to our own reality. It is with the Fleischer Brothers and their Betty Boop shorts that fantasy begins to move into the absurd. Shorts like Minnie the Moocher (1932), Old Man of the Mountain (1933), and I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You (1932) all contain human characters in a relatively Earth-like world. However, these are placed to the right of My Little Pony because their fantastical elements do not adhere to the internal logic of more common fantasy tropes. While dragons, witches, and ghosts frequently appear in the Fleischers’ work, these characters are not key features. Betty Boop’s world absolutely ‘[features] a fundamental break with our sense of reality’ (Fowkes 2010: 2): inanimate objects come to life for a brief moment and once again go still, peoples’ faces transmute into objects, a rotoscoped ghost walrus sings ‘Minnie the Moocher’, and the characters bob in rhythm, regardless of whether music is present. I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You stands out because it uses live action film to disrupt – thus, queer [2] – its own reality. As Koko and Bimbo flee from becoming the island natives’ next meal, they are pursued by a giant, animated, flying head. This head then transforms into a live-action Louis Armstrong, who sings ‘I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You’. Eventually Armstrong’s head transforms back into the native’s head, which then shrinks down and grows a body, to complete the chase scene. Elsewhere in the short, Betty pulls on a native’s nose ring and transforms his face into a rolling blind, palm trees become stilts, and Koko and Bimbo use a porcupine like a pump to shoot quills at the natives. Unlike the previous animated works discussed, these fantastical elements appear and disappear at random. The only internal logic is that there is very little logic beyond the image’s or gag’s entertainment value.

Jan Švankmajer’s work sits to the right of the Fleischer Brothers. Blending live action film and stop motion animation, Švankmajer creates a world that is simultaneously uncanny and absurd, forcing us to question the mechanics of our own reality through the intrusion of fantasy. In his 1992 short, Food, humans take turns being cyborg food dispensers; two men consume the inorganic material around them (including their own clothes) before one attempts to eat the other; and people tuck into a feast of body parts, including hands, breasts, legs, and even a penis. Švankmajer’s shorts do not employ fantastical elements in a traditional dragons-faeries-wizards sense, but in a much queerer sense through its use of the utterly unreal. Švankmajer’s Food sits at the far end of the ‘more queer’ spectrum exactly because the short’s realm so closely resembles our own.  Whereas we expect the strange, odd, and transformative in a 2D or hand-drawn animated piece like the previous works discussed, we do not expect such elements in live action films – at least not without very clear signalling. Svanmajer subverts our expectations, constantly disorienting his audience with every new frame. Thus, he forces us beyond our comfortable notions of ‘real’ and ‘normal’. On the far end of ‘most queer’ sits Xavier: Renegade Angel (PFFR, 2007-2009). Airing on [adult swim] for only a few short seasons, Xavier has little to no logic. The show follows Xavier, a beast-like biped with brown fur, wings, heterochromia, a raptor’s beak for a nose, a snake for a forearm/hand, long blonde hair, and knees that bend backwards. Xavier wears nothing but trainers and a decorated loin cloth. His appearance is fantastical and unreal enough, but Xavier’s computer-generated world is stranger still. In "Damnesia Vu" (S2E6, 2009), a humanoid with a barcode for a head shoots a bird-headed humanoid execution style. Instead of blood, sheep leap from the bird-headed humanoid as it dies. As the shooter points the gun at Xavier, Xavier begins waxing philosophical and produces a pipe that emits nuclear mushroom clouds instead of smoke. By no means does any of this absurdity render Xavier good quality animation. In fact, its absurd style and often-offensive hot-takes (the previously mentioned assailant fires on his victims while asking if they believe in God, an allusion to the Columbine school massacre in the US) seem to be edgy for edginess’s sake. Nevertheless, Xavier’s use of the fantastic and the outright bizarre ruptures our ideas about animation’s limits, thus queering our understanding of what animation can and cannot be.

A dragon over London would be extraordinarily queer. Dragons are elements of fantasy and thus disrupt reality as we know it. Likewise, queer theory seeks to destroy what we consider ‘normal’, demanding that we push beyond our limits and into other possibilities. While imbricating fantasy and queer theory to discover animation’s queer potential may seem like a stretch, these intersections are, in fact, more fruitful that one may initially think.  Both fantasy and animation hold the potential to queer our reality, and it is in following these intertwining threads of argument to their almost infinite conclusions that we begin to unlock animation’s full potential. By analysing an animated work’s use of the fantastic, we can begin to understand animation’s limits, specifically the lack thereof. 

 

Notes

[1] Queer Theory suggested texts: Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (London: Routledge, 1990); Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter (London: Routledge, 1993); Judith Butler, "Critically Queer," GLQ 1, no. 1 (1993): 17-32; J. Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (London: Duke University Press, 2011); Bernice L. Hausman, "Recent Transgender Theory," Feminist Studies 27, no. 2 (Summer, 2001): 465-490; Cressida J. Heyes, "Feminist Solidarity after Queer Theory: The Case of Transgender," Signs 28, no. 4 (2003): 1093-1120. General queer theorists of note include: Judith Butler, J. Halberstam, Jay Prosser, Bernice L. Hausman, and Kate Bornstein.

[2] It is worth noting here that the academic concept of ‘queer’ and the social justice concept of ‘queer’ do not always agree. While the academic sense of queer is arguably more flexible, the social justice concept of queer is frequently demarcated along lines of community and identity. Besides Steven Universe, most of the works discussed do little to advance any social justice agenda. In fact, some, like the Fleischer Brothers’ works and Xavier: Renegade Angel, are outright racist. Such considerations must be kept in mind when applying queer theory to any text.

 

References

Fowkes, Katherine A. The Fantasy Film (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).

Halberstam, J. The Queer Art of Failure (London: Duke University Press, 2011).

Prosser, J. "No Place Like Home: The Transgendered Narrative of Leslie Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues," Modern Fiction Studies 41: nos. 3-4 (1995). Available online: www.jstor.org/stable/26285752 [Accessed 02 July 2018]. 

Wells, Paul. Understanding Animation (London: Routledge, 1998).

 

Biography

Mx. Kodi Maier is a PhD candidate at the University of Hull. Their doctoral thesis, “Dream Big, Little Princess: Interrogating the Disney Princess Franchise from 2000 to the Present Day”, investigates the evolution of the Disney Princess franchise and its impact on female gender roles in the United States. Their most recent publication, “Camping Outside the Magic Kingdom’s Gates: The Power of Femslash in the Disney Fandom”, published in Networking Knowledge: Journal of the MeCCSA Postgraduate Network, discusses how the Disney femslash fandom manipulates Disney animated texts to create their own queer fairy tales.