Monthly Archives: April 2010

One Hour Mark: Blowup

Understanding Antonioni has always been difficult for me. So maybe I can get some insights into his style by pondering this image from 1:00:00 into his 1966 masterpiece Blowup. As in most Antonioni films, the plot is incidental: an unnamed photographer (David Hemmings) goes about his life – spending the night with bums, buying a propeller, aggressively shooting models, etc. During a jaunt in the park with his camera, he snaps several photos of a couple enjoying themselves. However, the images he captures contain more than initially meets the eye. What, exactly, do they contain? It’s never made clear. Possibly a corpse, possibly nothing, and in the end the photographer metaphorically contents himself with illusions. [Ashley reminds me that, on the more literal side, he does go and see the corpse in the park. But soon after, it’s gone, and the questions resurface.]

This may all sound extremely self-referential, since it’s a film about the nature of images, and it is. As Wikipedia puts it, Antonioni was an “Italian modernist film director,” and you pretty much have to understand his work within the context of cinematic modernism. In his films, characters aren’t just uncertain of what the truth is; they’re also unsure whether there is truth in the first place. (And the kinds of truth he addresses are manifold: aesthetic, epistemological, social, religious, moral, sexual, etc.) For example, in his first real hit, L’avventura (1960), a woman goes missing on an island. Her family and friends look for her, can’t find her, and eventually give up. Her best friend and boyfriend have an affair out of nothing so much as uncertainty.

That’s the sort of structure Antonioni’s movies have. The surface questions most movies would go after – where’s the woman? Why is there a dead body? – are abandoned because answering them, Antonioni seems to say, won’t really solve anything. The real questions are much harder, and the films get at them not through dialogue or narrative but visual style. With that in mind, let’s turn to this image from Blowup, which is actually the photographer about to blow up an image. He’s just had an encounter with the woman from the photos (Vanessa Redgrave), who wanted the negatives, and now he’s driven to look closer at the photo’s he’s taken. This little action says so much when framed within the wider film.

The title, after all, is Blowup. It’s a curious phrase, especially since it can refer to an explosion or to the creation of something larger. There’s also an implication that, since the film is superficially a mystery, blowing up a photo is a method for reaching a deeper truth. Photographs are supposedly objective reproductions of the physical world, so to look closer is to gain new insight into the world itself. To solve the mystery. (Cf. Bazin’s “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.”) But scene after scene, Antonioni undermines all of these assumptions, throwing the photographer out into a modern wasteland of subjectivity.

A lot of the photographer’s artistic hubris is present in this particular image. He thinks that with his technology and his grid, he can master and map out reality. But Antonioni shows that reality is much more slippery than he thought. Ironically, with the way he’s framed here, the photographer himself is one who’s been mapped out. In a film that frequently equates the photographer’s camera with sexual power, this is possibly an indication that now he’s the one who’s been fucked. I’m still not sure how highly I personally regard Antonioni’s work, especially since it’s full of unlikeable, emotionally distant characters. But he was definitely a master at incorporating his ideas into every frame of his films, both in form and content.

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As seen on TV: the style and politics of infomercials

Prepare yourself to enter a strange world. A world where human hands are incapable of accomplishing everyday tasks without creating huge messes. A world where said hands and said messes are in black and white. A world that can only be converted into color by the arrival of some miracle product. This is the world of Direct Response Television, the form of advertising more colloquially known as infomercials. [Infomercials, according to Wikipedia, are specifically long-form ads roughly half an hour long, according to the advertising industry. However, I’ll be using the term in its more general sense here.] Inspired by this amazing video posted by Geekologie, Ashley and I have been studying dozens of informercials in an effort to understand what, exactly, is going on here.

Infomercials are fascinating. Despite offering a diverse array of products, most infomercials follow a surprisingly rigid formula. They have a number of tried-and-true methods that, I assume, have been found to lure in the most customers. But when you look at them outside of this context, they’re just absurd, logically and cinematically. For a good demonstration of these techniques in action, let’s take a look at the Better Burger Maker ad.

Here’s how the infomercial tells its story:

1) (0:00-0:04) We see this hapless, B&W sad sack trying, and failing, to eat a hamburger. His face shows a disappointment with the burger itself. “Burger toppings are tasty, but what a mess!” The mess is presented as a normal part of the burger topping experience, and not as a result of the bearded man’s incompetence.

2) (0:05-0:14) “But not anymore!” Suddenly, the world flashes into the color, the problem (which you didn’t even know you had) is dispelled, and a faceless woman can easily “stuff, stuff, stuff [her] way to the best-tasting burgers ever!” This is the moment of almost spiritual transfiguration, fundamental to the power of the infomercial. The music swells, and the world changes forever through the Better Burger Maker.

3) (0:15-0:35) The ad then explains at length how the Better Burger Maker does what it does, through a mix of industrial and pseudoscientific jargon that puts up a smoke screen of authority. Sensory overload is the infomercial’s main tool, so while the all-knowing narrator talks about the “unique patty press design,” we see a computer-generated schematic, alongside numbers and words like “Infuses” and “Patent-Pending,” all of which sound awful science-y.

4) (0:36-1:06) The next segment combines ideas from the previous three: we see an emphatically happy family enjoying burgers; endless recipe ideas including the curiously bourgeois “ultimate gourmet burger”; and reiterations of how flawed life was before the Better Burger Maker. The question of whether you should buy it is out the window – instead, you must ask yourself when.

5) (1:07-1:20) To strengthen the Better Burger Maker’s credibility, we get some vox populi testimonials from a the customers of a “popular cafe,” the Carousel Cafe, which looks eternally rooted in the late ’80s. White people of all genders and ages add to the consensus: “We love it!”

6) (1:21-1:47) This is it, the final push for the customer to buy now. The constant flow of voiceover and images becomes crucial, as they must overcome all doubts with their sheer repetition. Only $19.96, you’ll also receive, but wait, call now, free, order now – how can you resist that kind of salesmanship? Especially when it’s coupled with dozens of different hamburger variations. We conclude with a slant rhyme over a gleefully munching family: “No matter how you stuff ’em, you’re gonna love ’em.”

(The remaining 12 seconds, when broadcast on TV, would normally be filled with instructions involving what telephone number to call and what credit cards they accept.)

Granted, this isn’t the narrative structure for every infomercial (and be sure, this is a narrative), but it does contain the general style and motifs that underlie the construction of most infomercials. The contrast between the customer’s lives “before” and “after”; the excessive repetition of the offer; the establishment of the voiceover’s godlike authority; the excessive repetition of the offer; and the message that by not buying it, you’d basically be ripping yourself off. Infomercials are dependent on an appeal to schmuckery. But it goes beyond that, and here’s where I’d like to delve into my broader theory about the sociopolitical meanings of infomercials. To that end, I give you the Smart Spin.

Infomercials sell products for all kinds of needs, but I’ve noticed that they cluster in three gendered categories: kitchen (female), home improvement (male), and fitness (male and female). All three basically point to the infomercial vision of the American dream. The message is that right now, your life is imperfect. You spill things. You can’t crack eggs. Your tiny cookies are so lame. This dysfunction isn’t specific to your household – “we’ve all done this” – but it does mean that you’re as pathetic a homemaker as every other hassled, lower-middle-class mom. Incompetence is the norm. (The home improvement ads say the same thing to dads.)

The miracle product, however, transforms your drab, normal home and unhappy family into a full-color utopian ideal. To buy the product is to teach yourself and your family to smile again, to give your children the childhood they really deserve. There’s an enormous class angle to these ads: one of their central purposes is to let middle-class consumers with upward aspirations feel like they’re rich without spending much money. They talk about how low the price is, but remind viewers that the value is much greater, allowing customers to feel like they’re really taking advantage of something. (This is an old con artist trick: flattering the mark into thinking they’re so smart, even while you’re taking advantage of them.)

Infomercials play on your desires. Sure, we can see that these products are all just unnecessary junk when we’re viewing them critically, but when they’re watched passively amidst the stream of TV programming, they engage you on numerous levels. That junk is transformed into a fundamental lifestyle alteration – the one step for you to go from Willy Loman-like drudgery to household perfection, with a little extra added in FREE! Your life goes from ordinary to extraordinary, and only for the tiniest of investments. Marital discontent (possibly caused by dissatisfying burgers) and the pains of childhood are cast aside as the family unit is solidified through the miracle product. No more embarrassing nonconformists here: you’ll all wear matching tops (or Snuggies) as you find, at last, your common cultural ground.

Overall, I get pretty Stepford Wives vibe from the brave new world envisioned by infomercials. As evidenced by the Smart Spin ad, there’s this sense of regulation and normalization as positive forces. No more unusual or idiosyncratic containers; everything is Smart Spin now. It’s technology overcoming human imperfections – knock it over all you want, it never spills. Infomercials portray true happiness as this white suburban two-child nuclear family, where adult gender roles are strictly segregated, and it’s all contained snugly within the womb of consumerism. I would go so far as to call it fascist.

For me, this view of infomercials is strengthened by way we see these very generic actors modeling “happiness.” They give us a crude pantomime of what life with the miracle product is like, yet they never speak. They’re always spoken for by the absolute authorities: the narrator and the text. Infomercials gush out of the screen with one unanimous voice, often (and strangely) in Seussian rhyme, dictating to you the nature of your life, and how it could – nay, should – change. There’s no consideration that maybe I don’t want the product, or that maybe I’m capable of cracking my goddamn eggs on my own. Because there’s 1 dream on parade here, and it has no room for abnormal thoughts or behavior. All other activities or desires are subordinated to how our houses, our kitchens, and our selves look – what kind of facade we’ve put up.

Infomercials prescribe a single path, and it’s an appealing one: from boredom to fun, from sadness to happiness, to failure to dreams fulfilled. But they’re not just selling some wave-of-the-future with a $40 value, yours free. They’re selling all the meanings and values that the product is visually associated with. They’re selling superficial economic mobility, being a better mother, getting work done without doing any work, giving your kids a life that’s right out of the TV, and the American dream (at least, the dominant iteration of it). They’re selling everything you’ve always been taught to want, finally in a condensed version that even you can afford. Maybe you’ll have to give up all individuality, but won’t it be worth it? Just wait till you see the look on your husband’s face as he takes a bite of that burger.

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Sex-positivity FAIL.

The other night, Epiphora was tweeting some pretty crazy stuff from some crazy-ass website. I decided to have a gander at this website. Holy shit.

HealthyStrokes.com. It is a website that is trying to be sex positive. But failing so, so hard. There’s just so much warped advice being given. I am all for educating young people about masturbation instead of making it a taboo thing. I’m such a hardcore pro-masturbation advocate. I fucking <3 masturbation. But this website is fucking ridiculous. It makes me sad because it’s well intentioned but so poorly thought out, researched and executed. While it’s telling young people that masturbation is normal and healthy it’s also putting forth ridiculous statistics as truth, makes sweeping generalizations and seriously, at least once referred to dildos as ‘penis shaped objects’. FOR REAL? I have exactly one very vaguely realistic toy; it has a gently molded head. Other than that, the rest of my toys look nothing like a penis.  And on another occasion, when a girl asked if her father forcing her to sleep in his bed with him (even after she had expressed vocal desire to sleep on the couch because she was uncomfortable), even while the father’s girlfriend was present and THEY WOULD HAVE SEX ON THE BED WHILE THE DAUGHTER COULD HEAR AND FEEL THEM HAVING SEX NEXT TO HER, if it was abuse and was told no. WTF? But my biggest gripe with this site is its rampant, inexplicable hatred of all anal exploration:

I’ve read that stimulating the prostate will make me ejaculate a lot. How do I stimulate my prostate? (age 15)

I advise against this experiment. The prostate is stimulated through the rectum. Unless you know what you’re doing, you’re apt to hurt yourself, and unless you’re planning to make anal sex with males your main sexual outlet in life, you’re setting yourself up for a form of arousal that can’t be duplicated in ordinary sexual activity.

If I stimulate my prostate through my anus will this result in an orgasm? (age 14)

It’s possible. Distention of your rectum, bleeding, and excruciating pain are more likely results.

Oh. My. GOD. Like…seriously? So much epic fail! Let’s tackle this bit by bit, shall we:

First of all, you tell this young person that ‘unless they know what they’re doing’ they’re going to hurt themselves. Uh, how the fuck are they supposed to learn how to do it right if 1. you discourage experimentation and 2. YOU DON’T FUCKING GIVE THEM ANY REAL ADVICE OTHER THAN TELLING THEM NOT TO DO IT?!

Unless you’re planning to make anal sex with males your main sexual outlet in life… Sooooo, there’s no such thing as a strap-on? Men never get fucked by women wearing harnesses? Women never fuck other women with strap-ons? Dildos can’t go up asses? THERE AREN’T TOYS SPECIFICALLY FOR PROSTATE AND ANAL PLEASURE?! Nope. Only gay men have THE BUTT SECKS.

What is up with this irrational hatred of anal exploration? Distention of your rectum, bleeding, and excruciating pain are more likely results. Seriously, what kind of fucking bullshit is that. Uh, lubes? Proper toys (see above rant)? How about instead of shutting these kids down when they come for advice you do a little fucking research on anal sex/masturbation instead of throwing out stereotypes about it. Ya fucking douche.

My disappointment in this website knows no bounds. It is a very vast website and I couldn’t even begin to delve into its depths without going completely insane at the infuriating information therein. At times it seems to be giving sound advice (simply being a website that tells young people that masturbation is healthy and even good for you is a great thing) but then counters all of it with contradictory information (as in, giving the advice to one fifteen year old who has threesomes that she should use protection and telling another fifteen year old how to go about buying a vibrator but telling yet another fifteen year old that she ‘should wait a few years’ before using a dildo. What the fuck? I think this person is confused and thinks there’s some massive difference between a vibrator and a dildo), ineffectual information (there’s no mention of body-safe materials anywhere on the site) and flat-out sex-negative or overly traditional biases (like with the anti-anal bullshit or having weirdly puritanical views on group masturbation and an infuriating focus on ‘developing a healthy sexuality so you can have successful sex with a partner’). It saddens me to think that these young people, who are taking the initiative to try and learn are getting such unsatisfactory, unhelpful or even totally untrue answers.

Listen. If you are under 18 and have questions about sex, masturbation, toys, etc. please visit Scarleteen.com. I wish I had had a website like this at my disposal when I was younger. They have answers for all your questions and even answers to questions you might not even have. Don’t be afraid of your body, your sexuality, your anus or anything like that. There are answers out there, hard as they may be to find; Scarleteen can help you find them.

For more on this fucked up website, please read Carnivalesq’s and Epiphora’s epic post on it: MASTURBATION MANSPLATION!

And Epiphora’s epic post: Thanks for the mansplation, but I greatly prefer my vibrator.

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Pussy Goes “Happy Birthday!”

Andreas

This is it! One year ago today, after hours of discussion and contemplation, Ashley and I took our joint dive into the blogosphere, and have not looked back since. On April 22, 2009, we both made posts introducing ourselves, then started talking on & on about whatever the hell we wanted to. And my oh my, all the blog-related craziness we’ve experienced since then! At last glance, we’ve had over 20,000 views, and this is our 200th post. For two people, both of whom have jobs and one of whom has been attending school full-time, I’d say that’s pretty impressive. (Yeah, this is pretty much just a self-congratulatory “we are awesome” post.)

Starting Pussy Goes Grrr was a total experiment, and I think it’s succeeded beyond all expectations. This blog has helped us to grow as writers/people and in our understanding of, well, “culture, society and sexuality.” It’s also linked the two of us to vast online communities, mostly centered on sex and film, and that sense of community is something I hope to pursue further in the next year. The conversations we’ve participated in really show what’s great about blogging. It can bring together critically engaged minds from all over the world, tossing around new ideas and riffing on old ones, and making the Internet a place where academics and pop culture can collide. (Of course, blogging can also be tedious and self-involved, but I like to think we avoid that.)

In preparation for writing this, I’ve been poring through our well-archived blogging history. We’ve both come an extremely long way, from unfocused rants and accounts of our daily lives (though don’t get me wrong, those can have their perks too) to the relatively sophisticated writing we’re doing on a weekly basis. (Relatively.) And so, in commemoration of that progress, I’d like to have a little linkfest. Here are some of my “relatively sophisticated” posts that I’d suggest reading to get a general idea of what Pussy Goes Grrr is about:

Ashley

Wow, HOLY SHIT, one whole fucking year since we started this. The blog, and by extension the blogging community, has become so important to me over this past year. I’ve been able to connect and become friends with people who share the same interests and passions as I do (and when you live in a small, relatively small-minded town like I do, this is so, so important). The online communities that I’ve become part of have introduced me to some of the nicest, smartest, most impassioned people I’ve ever met. I’ve made great friends, like Epiphora and Britni and all the folks at Happy Bodies and read some really amazing blogs. One of the biggest things that has gone hand in hand with starting the blog is, obviously, my love of sex toys/my growth within the sex blogging community. Since I’ve always been a very sexual person, who loves to learn about, talk about and think about sex, it’s meant so much to me to meet people, women, who feel the same way. I bought my first dildo about a month after we started the blog, and wrote a post about it. I’m now the proud owner of a modest, but still growing collection of toys.

The blog, overall, has just been an excellent, safe place for me to come and write what I feel and about things that are important to me. I feel that it’s important to write endlessly about these things-art, society, culture, media-even to the relatively small audience we write to (we average around 50-100+ views per day now) because we have to keep thing stirring on a small scale. We have to remain active and alert and forever impassioned about the things that are important to us and we have to keep learning about all of these things, be it sexual assault and how women are treated in society, to film and animation, to everything in between. Now, to imitate Andreas in his veritable linkfest, here are a few posts of mine that I think will give new readers a feel for me as a writer and the blog as a whole:

  • The (on indefinite hiatus) AFP Fix entries-each week I would find something Amanda Palmer to write about; the most recent one is written by Andreas.
  • Fat Angry Bitch!– One of my first posts wherein I rant about fat-hatred and what it’s like to be a fat girl who likes herself in a society that practically demands fat people be sad about themselves. And Queer Feminist Genderfuck, which is kind of self-explanatory.
  • My post about the day I received my box of toys from Epiphora; it made my collection explode in size and I’ve been forever grateful.
  • We tend to write about Disney a fair amount here. But my personal favorite posts that I’ve written involving Disney are my analysis of the Disney Princess films from a feminist viewpoint and my post about how the sexual aspects of Hunchback of Notre Dame influenced me when I was younger.

Fun facts about Pussy Goes Grrr:

  • We once received a complaint from comics legend Mark Newgarden for infringing on his copyright.
  • Because we have the word “pussy” in our name, we’re constantly found using eerily pedophilic search terms, including 11 hits for “infant pussy” (and probably more now that I’ve used the phrase).
  • We were actually inspired (partly) to create this blog because of the Happy Bodies blog.
  • Just in case you don’t know: that’s Louise Brooks in our header.
  • ‘Mend this crack’ is actually a paraphrase from the movie Repulsion, where the sexually-repressed-and-going-crazy Carol looks at an imagined crack in the ceiling and mutters, “I must get this crack mended.”
  • Following in the footsteps of our beloved xkcd, we frequently hide additional – or even very important – information in the alt-text of images.

So, whether you are a first-time reader, lurker, or old friend, thank you for helping us through a whole year of Pussy Goes Grrr, and we look forward to the next 365 days of blogging! (Also, happy Earth Day.)

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One Hour Mark: Citizen Kane

Learn from the best, they say. Or, in this case, steal from the best. I’m ripping off an idea from two of my favorite film bloggers, Stacie Ponder of Final Girl and Nathaniel Rogers of The Film Experience, and taking screenshots from one chronological point in different movies – specifically, 1:00:00. (To see where I got it from, see Final Girl’s “23:45” and The Film Experience’s “20:07” and “Halfway House”.) I think it’s a fabulous concept, and I want to employ it to 1) force myself to think about a wide variety of movies, including ones I haven’t watched in a while, and 2) go back to what should always be our starting point when analyzing films – i.e., the text itself. I just get a thrill out of close viewing, and drawing my conclusions out of how the images are constructed. Hopefully this series can be an easy & accessible way for me to do just that.

That said, our first image comes from Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), which is always a good jumping-off point for projects like this. The general consensus “greatest film of all time” since the early ’60s, it’s a bombshell of modernist filmmaking that launched several careers and countless critical debates while announcing the arrival of Welles as a major force in Hollywood. (That announcement would be silenced by William Randolph Hearst’s immediate campaign of repression, as well as the wartime failure of Welles’ masterpiece #2, The Magnificent Ambersons.) With that broader context in place, let’s see what this single frame has to say about Kane‘s greatness.

This is Charles Foster Kane’s happenstance first tryst with “singer” Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), at least according to Jed Leland’s memory. It starts with a meet-cute (mud splashed on his clothes, she has a toothache) and rapidly becomes more intimate, largely due to Welles’ performance, which can shift in an instant from boyish charm to world-weariness. Kane has just asked Susan to sing for him, after they had this little exchange:

Susan: …I wanted to be a singer, I guess. That is, I didn’t. My mother did for me.

Kane: What happened to singing?

Susan: Well, mother always thought, she always talked about grand opera for me. Imagine. But my voice isn’t that kind. It’s just, well, you know what mothers are like.

Kane: Yes, I know… have you got a piano?

Kane leans back, pipe in mouth, as Susan sings/plays the aria “Una voce poco fa” (“A voice just now”) from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. This scene is at once reminiscent of Kane’s past, and his future. The comfort with which he reclines while watching Susan recalls his initial bliss with his wife Emily, and a dissolve shortly thereafter to a different angle recalls the famous breakfast scene illustrating their marriage’s collapse. This is Kane precariously located in the heights of infatuation; cynically, we can say that he’s just scoping out another project to feed his ambitions. The main difference, after all, between this scene and the earlier ones with Emily, is that Kane is now older and more authoritative. His boyishness is no longer his essence, but an attribute to be demonstrated and then set aside.

Instead, his affection for Susan is tainted by his implicit power over her, soon to be manifested in their day-to-day lives. The fact that this scene ends with Kane’s applause for Susan and segues into a crowd’s applause for Kane’s gubernatorial campaign further shows that their relationship is far from egalitarian, even in its innocent beginnings, and that Kane is fundamentally interested in giving her “love on his own terms” – the same offer he extends to the voters. By default, the complications of class, age, and gender trouble the balance of power between them. The cute domesticity of this scene is especially tragic, since this aria will soon be reprised during a tortuous singing lesson, as Kane’s domination leads Susan to hate him and herself. In that tiny verbal twist – “That is, I didn’t [want to be a singer]. My mother did for me,” – which Kane totally ignores, the couple plant the seeds of their eventual misery.

Visually, the scene is an overcrowded delight and an example of cinematographer Gregg Toland working subtly but brilliantly. All the light appears to flow from the three on-screen lamps, positioned to illuminate Kane and Susan’s faces in contrast with the rest of the room. Susan’s room is full of knickknacks, from pictures and statues to a snow globe visible in an earlier shot, and they give the room a feeling of depth and of homeliness. The warmth of Susan’s apartment, with its few clocks and figurines, will be ironically echoed in the cavernous expanse of Xanadu. Every time I watch Kane, I marvel at how tightly structured it is. Even in a shot that contains no action beyond singing, Welles is quietly paving the way for Kane’s downfall.

A quick note about the specific aria: I don’t want to read too deeply into this, but the purpose of “Una voce poco fa” within The Barber of Seville strikes me as having some nice parallels with Kane. Rosina sings about her desire for Lindoro, whom she has just met, and who is in fact the wealthy Count Almaviva in disguise. Susan sings the line, “Yes, Lindoro shall be mine, I swear it, I shall win.” Meanwhile, she’s singing to a newspaper tycoon, ignorant of his power and money, and will soon become his second wife. At the very least, it feels appropriate, and Kane is so cleverly put-together that it wouldn’t surprise me if this was a conscious decision.

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Seduction of the Innocent: cartoons and sex

I’ve often discussed on this blog the things that affected my sexuality as I grew up and a lot of those things are cartoons. Almost all kids watch cartoons. And lots and lots of cartoons have some kind of subtle sexual things going on, or some sexual or oversexualized character. I’m not here to discuss the worrying sexualization of things like Dora and Strawberry Shortcake. I’m not really talking about that kind of thing; it’s more of an inherent sexuality that, in its own gentle way, reflects that life is sexual, humans are sexual beings. It’s not pornographic or vulgar (most of the time). BUT there were many, many images of female characters, female characters with some kind of power, that impacted my sexuality greatly as a child. So this post is going to be dedicated to all those wonderful characters.

Jessica Rabbit

Ohhh, Jessica. Many a young person, of any gender, has swooned over your luscious, heavy-lidded, Veronica Lake-inspired visage, your impossibly, surreally curvy body and your mysterious, aloof disposition. Possibly the animated femme fatale to end all animated femme fatales, I had the HUGEST crush on Jessica Rabbit from about age 6 to…now. I watched Who Framed Roger Rabbit all the time as a child and was completely smitten with her. But she wasn’t just a sizzling sexpot or homage to noir femme fatales; she was pawn in a plot against her husband, one of the many people caught up in something they couldn’t control. Her motives become clearer as the story goes on and she transcends what she originally seems to be. I <3 Jessica Rabbit.

The Sailor Scouts

I’ve discussed at length the impact Sailor Moon had on my sexuality. I was attracted to practically every single scout; they were part of some of my earliest sexual fantasies. At 13, I had a very large clothe scroll image of the Inner Senshi…in swimsuits. There’s no denying the incredible affect this show had on me. Hot girls in short skirts kicking ass? Yes, please. Young me was totally excited about it. And young me also wasn’t stupid enough to buy that Haruka and Michiru were cousins. And thinking back on it, it’s very possible that Michiru and Haruka’s relationship, thinly veiled as it was by the censors, made me feel more comfortable with my own lesbian fantasies. All in all, this show was a fucking godsend for my sexuality, regardless of all the fucked up messages it sent out.

BulmaAfter Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z was the most important anime of my childhood. It was the “masculine” to Sailor Moon’s “feminine” and I liked the balance. And Bulma was the complete opposite of our ditzy lead Senshi, Usagi: she was an all around well-rounded character almost from the start. She felt very real to me: she had issues, she had a flawed love life, she was very, very intelligent (a scientific genius actually; it runs in the family) and kind-hearted but she was also temperamental and immature at times. She had believable progression as a character, as did all of the Dragon Ball characters (the series starts when Goku and Bulma are quite young). She goes from fifteen year old kid genius adventurer to believable young woman to mother of two children. Pretty intense character development for what was deemed ‘a kid’s show’. I was drawn to Bulma as a character, not just because she was attractive (very attractive) but because she seemed like someone I could know in real life.

Catwoman

Specifically the Batman: The Animated Series incarnation but really, any Catwoman will do. I loved Catwoman so much when I was younger that I would pretend to be her all the time. I had this hideous pair of leather boots that looked like elephant skin and went up to my shins that I called my Catwoman boots and I wore them EVERY WHERE. I would take black driving  gloves (that were my mom’s) and put needles, point out, carefully in the finger tips to give myself claws. Catwoman is another femme fatale archetype; a sleek, sensual pussy cat who sexually teases Batman while committing all kinds of crimes. And she has a whip; she’s into bondage and that’s awesome. While Catwoman may not be a supervillain and rather more of an anti-hero than anything else, she was still a very compelling character, especially once you delve into her history and all her different incarnations.

Esmeralda

This is another character that I’ve talked in depth about in the past so I won’t dwell on it here too long. Other than being in the film that first exposed me to the idea of repressed desires and tormented sexual psyches, Esmeralda the character was defiant, rebellious and concerned for the rights of her people. She represented a marginalized group and wouldn’t tolerate injustice. But during all this she maintains an air of good nature and flirtatious mischief. And something that I’ve only started to think about recently: Esmeralda expresses sexuality (through the power of pole dancing) and yet, she is not set up as an immoral character; rather it is the puritanical Frollo who is represented as the monster.

Ms. Sara Bellum and Sedusa

It’s no great surprise that Ms. Bellum from The Powerpuff Girls, what with her uncanny resemblance to Jessica Rabbit, should draw my attention (as I’m sure she did with many other viewers). The ironic humor of the character lies solely in the absence of her head: despite the fact that visually she is nothing more than a very sexy body she is the brains behind the mayoral office that runs Towsnville. The Mayor is nothing more than an incompetent manchild. The mix of quiet confident intelligence with that surreally curved body creates an overall delightful and incredibly attractive character.

Sedusa, on the other hand, is completely insane. She is all the negative feminine stereotypes people believe wrapped into one ball of wicked energy: maniacal, dangerous vanity (in the form of her killer locks); sexual teasing and coercion to turn men into idiots that will bend easily to her will (as demonstrated quite well in “Mommy Fearest” and “Something’s a Ms“; the latter of course is an awesome clash between Sedusa and Ms. Bellum); huge temper tantrums when she doesn’t get her way. She’s not quite the femme fatale that, say, Jessica Rabbit or Catwoman are. But she’s a great villain and honestly, sometimes there’s nothing more attractive than a great female villain in a tight suit.

Red Hot Riding Hood and the burlesque mouse from The Great Mouse Detective

Red Hot Riding Hood is a kind of unfortunate character: she exists solely to be looked at and drooled over (quite literally). There are a few different incarnations of her: Swing Shift Cinderella, Little Rural Riding Hood, Wild and Woolfy, and a few others but they are all basically the same character and all serve the same purpose.  This is one of the few characters that I was drawn to almost entirely because of the way she looked; she was very sexualized and the cartoons were so energetically sexual and suggestive that censors actually demanded that some of the scenes be cut! And I think that with the mix of oversexualization and fractured fairy tale, it was easy to get drawn into.

The burlesque mouse, as I call her, from The Great Mouse Detective serves a similar purpose. She’s a sexy little mouse who sings a suggestive song in a seedy bar. This was one of my favorite parts of the movie. But why do I consider these two characters, who aren’t really much of characters in terms of development, as something that impacted me? Because I found them really, really sexy and was attracted to the way they looked; THAT impacted me. And they were the first exposure I had to burlesque; both characters are something that you’d be hard pressed to get away with in children’s entertainment now. They’re overtly sexual and I responded to that in a big way when I was younger.

So there’s a short list of some of the cartoons that had an affect, big or small, on my sexuality. I can look at all of these characters and figure out how they fit into my progression as a sexual person. And you may be wondering, well, why are they all girls? Did these cartoons make you queer? Of course not; there are hundreds of girls out there who watched these same characters just as much as I did and are straight. I gravitated towards them because I was attracted to the female form before the male. These cartoons sparked some of the earliest sexual attractions I had; I was naturally drawn to these female characters and they helped me further understand myself sexually. I appreciate the willingness of some animators to NOT shy away from the fact that humans, and yes, children, are sexual. Including sexuality of some kind in a cartoon or cartoon character does not pervert it or make it pornographic. These are all subtle forms of sex and sexuality. But they speak volumes. I appreciate every one of these characters for helping me understand myself, for helping me recognize the beauty of the female body without demonizing it, and for making me feel like it was okay to touch myself while thinking of women. These cartoons are fucking amazing.

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Perfectly Cromulent Analysis: Treehouse of Horror V

So, I’m going to use the quasi-existence of “Aprilween” (i.e., a made-up horror-themed holiday halfway between each Halloween) as an excuse to continue my proposed series of Simpsons analyses. Every time I watch one of the show’s many, many great episodes, I just have an urge to talk about it – to figure out what the writers and animators did to make it so fucking brilliant. There’s so much going on in each 22-minute selection, such a talented collaborative balancing of social satire, emotional realism, and absurd animation. Single minutes of the show at its prime can unload so much comedy and pathos and subtle creative tricks you’re not entirely aware of that it makes your head spin.

And even while still fitting in all of this, the show occasionally took total departures from reality. Every October (or, more likely, early November) they would, and still do, put forward a Treehouse of Horror episode. They were continuity-free triptychs full of gore & violence, but still with the show’s usual abundance of verbal and visual jokes. But they went places (like hell and outer space) that normal episodes generally couldn’t. They allowed the show to disregard all pretenses of realism and dive into apocalyptic nightmares and carefree killing sprees, often within in a parody of a Twilight Zone episode or a classic horror movie. Anyone could die. Any institution could be dismantled. Basically, it was The Simpsons‘ horror-themed equivalent of DC’s non-canon Elseworlds series, or Marvel’s What If.

Plenty of full episodes or individual segments would’ve been worthy of closer inspection. (Although, as with the rest of the series, quality tends to drop off when you move past season 9-10.) “The Devil and Homer Simpson” from Treehouse of Horror IV, for example, has Homer trapped in his own ironic hell courtesy of an ironically satanic Ned Flanders. The legendary “Homer³” from VI uses then-revolutionary computer-generated imagery to produce an eerie, self-destructing dimension in which Homer gets trapped. (Homer being trapped in bad places was clearly a persistent theme in these episodes.) But beyond any doubt, the greatest of all 20 Halloween specials is Treehouse of Horror V.

Just as the Halloween episodes take place outside the series’ normal continuity, they also dispense with its conventions. V begins not with the familiar clouds over Springfield, but with Marge announcing that Congress has forbidden them from showing it – this cuts to an Outer Limits-style TV hijacking by Bart and Homer, which introduces the episode – and this segues into a morbid parody of the expected opening, which moves through a graveyard and toward the Simpsons’ house. Pattie and Selma are burnt as witches, Moe hangs himself, and Bart guillotines school employees (including a disturbingly happy Principal Skinner), all of which confirm this as a Springfield in which power structures have been overturned in favor of anarchic violence.

Every dark impulse boiling beneath the show’s day-to-day conflicts is let loose in shockingly literal form. The Treehouse of Horror episodes were not just a little ghoulish fun, but also a blood-spurting catharsis for the show’s whole cast. Secret fears or desires could be voiced without needing to worry about them affecting future episodes. This is especially visible in the episode’s first (and best) segment, a pitch-perfect parody of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining entitled “The Shinning.” (As Groundskeeper Willie says, “You want to get sued?”) Mr. Burns hires the Simpsons as winter caretakers for his lodge, but not before erasing their access to TV and beer, causing Homer to… “something something.” (“Go crazy?”)

In its imitation of Kubrick’s masterpiece, “The Shinning” brings to mind the infamous mirror routine in the Marx Bros.’ Duck Soup. Just as Harpo darts back and forth in a dead-on mockery of Groucho’s mannerisms, so does “The Shinning” invoke all of The Shining‘s most memorable set-pieces, only to deflate their terrifying grandeur and mystery. The gush of blood from the elevator, formerly an enigmatic omen of impending violence, is reduced to a quick joke, as Burns notes, “Usually the blood gets off at the second floor.” And the hedge maze is no longer a site of confusion and danger, as Bart merely chainsaws through it. All these nightmare images look ridiculous when viewed through the Simpsons’ all-American ignorance, just like the “Bad Dream House” from Treehouse of Horror I, which prefers suicide to a life with the insufferably self-absorbed family.

As Ashley and I were discussing earlier, “The Shinning” isn’t just parody for its own sake. It doesn’t even bother with many of The Shining‘s most iconic moments – the occupants of the rooms, Danny on his tricycle, the twin girls – and instead focuses on the analogy of Homer and Jack Torrance as frustrated men within the strictures of the nuclear family. Both become violent under the building’s malevolent influence, but whereas Jack is triggered by drinking, Homer goes crazy when he can’t drink. He’s so dependent on these creature comforts – TV and beer – as escapes from what he would later describe as “the drudgery of work and family” that we can plausibly imagine the Homer we know and love going ax crazy without them. It’s just thrilling how, even in the midst of a hilarious parody, the Simpsons writers are still furthering their vast thesis of Homer as the quintessential American father.

And even while developing Homer’s relationship with TV through parallels to Jack (culminating in the sublime line “Teacher, mother, secret lover…”), this 7-minute segment still finds time for Mr. Burns’ disregard for others’ lives, Marge’s maternal anxiety, Wiggum’s incompetence, the family’s apathy toward Grampa, and Moe’s interminable despair. (Plus a great gag involving assorted movie monsters.) It’s all full of subtle Kubrickian musical and visual cues and intimations of real horror, too. At the very least, it’s very, very high up in the pantheon of Treehouse of Horror segments. At most, it could be 7 of the most effective minutes in American animation. In any case, there’s a lot going on here, and the segment is both a great tribute to the original film, and a great addition to the show’s legacy.

So where to go from there? The next segment, “Time and Punishment,” may not surpass the early peak set by “The Shinning,” but it’s still imaginative and frightening in its own right. It starts out with the Simpson family around the kitchen table on a breathtakingly idyllic morning – when suddenly Lisa screams, “Dad! Your hand is jammed in the toaster!” After some quick effort, he gets it off. Bart screams, “Dad! It’s in there again!” It’s a jarring non sequitur, and a brief exemplar of what horror is all about: the perfect, conflict-free setting, with Homer overstating how happy he is, can turn on a dime into inexplicable, unstoppable chaos. Homer goes downstairs to fix the toaster, only to inadvertently build a time machine. In short, Halloween has let the show throw aside all rules of logic and physics for no good reason. It’s funny, it’s scary, and it’s beautiful.

Granted, I’m a sucker for a good altered timeline story, and “Time and Punishment” is up there with the best of them. Rather than dwell on any linear connection between time periods by having Homer do or undo a specific action, we instead see him fuck up the past through a variety of means – swatting a mosquito, sneezing, sitting on a fish, killing everything in sight – and have each one yield a seemingly random but progressively weirder outcome. One future, for example, has Flanders as Big Brother, giving us a creepy insight into what the friendliest neighborino would do with unquestioned power. Another appears utopian, until Homer fears the loss of another creature comfort (donut) and tragically flees in horror moments before donuts rain from the sky – an ironic Twilight Zone ending tucked inside a wider story.

And the future where Maggie axes Willie in the back before saying, in James Earl Jones’ voice, “This is indeed a disturbing universe”? Funny, yes, but uncanny and off-putting. It also elucidates on the segment’s earlier hints of madness erupting out of normality. Maggie may have been referring to her own alternative universe, or to the Treehouse universe in general, where these flagrant violations of the show’s basic tenets can run wild. After losing all self-control and smashing all the prehistoric flora and fauna he can, Homer is deposited in one last future. It looks and feels like the one he started in, but in the gruesome reveal, his family eats with forked tongues. He shrugs and sighs, “Eh, close enough.”

The tone of compromise in Homer’s voice feels so strange in this otherwise surreal situation. It’s a sign of exhaustion, a willingness to live with a flawed family, a resignation to the absurd that falls halfway between Charles Schulz and Albert Camus. This isn’t just flat-out comedy with the occasional bloody murder – the writers cross through an astonishing amount of emotional territory. While these first two segments are devoted largely to Homer’s alienation as a working father (OK, at least that’s my reading), the last is one for the kids. It’s probably the weakest of the three, but “Nightmare Cafeteria” has some images of unremitting ghoulishness that can still inspire terror in me.

Its storyline couldn’t be simpler: Springfield Elementary’s detentions are overcrowded. Therefore, Skinner schemes to grind students up and serve them for lunch. Eventually he goes so overboard that the vast majority of the student body are herded like cattle, with the last few students (naturally, Bart, Lisa, and Milhouse) strongly aware of what’s in store. It may have a far more traditional narrative and narrower focus than the others, but it also strikes harder at its lone target. From the first moments, the horror of public school begins, as students are crammed into detention rooms so tight that their faces are pressed against the doors.

And this is default from which the episode takes off. Lunch lady Doris’s gripe about “Grade F” meat could easily be a jab at food services in a normal episode, but here it leads into systematic mass murder and cannibalism. Much of the set-up strongly resembles The Simpsons as we know it; this time, it just goes much farther and gets much darker. Skinner and Krabappel’s usual disdain for the students leads them to whole-heartedly embrace this new solution, and we have to wonder: When it’s not Halloween, do they still bear this much hatred? As it is, we immediately believe this over-the-top faculty revenge fantasy. Skinner’s poor excuses, comical in any other setting, become unsettling when applied to Üter’s disappearance (and subsequent transformation into “Üterbraten”).

Marge, meanwhile, offers her children a lesson in self-reliance, simply telling them to “march right back to that school, look them straight in the eye, and say ‘Don’t eat me’!” With Milhouse, they attempt an escape, only for the drooling teachers and staff to corner them with their backs to a giant “Hamilton Beech Student Chopper.” Bart insists, with desperate self-awareness, that something will save them, but no deus ex machina comes. They all fall to their deaths. It’s a child’s bleakest nightmare, when every authority figure has become either useless or predatory, when the place they spend 7 hours each weekday has turned into a death trap. Across the three segments, three major pillars of modern life – family, home, and school – are shown to be insecure from inside or outside threats.

The ending even tops “Nightmare Cafeteria,” by having Bart wake up from his nightmare and be comforted by his family… all of whom are then assailed by fog that turns them inside-out. They dance to “One” from A Chorus Line (a song included earlier in a joke about the Tonys), are joined by an inside-out Groundskeeper Willie (whose repeated axings unify the segments), and sing “Happy Halloween!” as Santa’s Little Helper tears at Bart’s vulnerable organs. The Simpsons, in its lightest episodes, ridiculed the corruption and foolishness of America’s social and moral authorities. Here, at its darkest, it said that the real world was the nightmare – at least on Halloween – and that, as in Kubrick’s films, there is no real fail-safe button for life’s problems.

Whether those problems are addiction-based insanity, an unstable space-time continuum, or hungry school administrators, we may not be able to save ourselves. If possible, as in “Time and Punishment,” we should just cope with them as best we can. The false dream of a solution, as when Marge advises the kids on how not to be eaten, or realizing the lack of one, as when Homer shrugs and goes back to his breakfast, are what provide the episode’s delicious black comedy. Because no part of it really ends satisfactorily. Each segment leaves many unanswered questions, a “…?” hanging uneasily in the air even after the characters have moved on. For me, this gets at what the series, in its most surreal and absurd moments, sees at the bottom of modern existence. It’s “the horror,” as Colonel Kurtz would say.

Normally this vision of horror is sublimated into pure comedy, or into familial melodrama. The desperation each family member feels in their roles is pushed aside, and they continue doing the best they can, (dys)functioning as a single, loving unit within American society. But on Halloween, all these anxieties burst out like xenomorphs, pregnant with fantasies of mutilation and mass murder. These possibilities exist in the unconscious of the show’s normal episodes. Little signs of them are everywhere (and I might write about that sometime). But only in the Treehouse of Horror episodes can they receive their fullest expression, in parodies and nightmares and hypothetical scenarios that are, in the truest sense, horror.

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