Transformative desire in “Beyond the Mirror’s Gaze”

Explaining that gender identity is not evidence of any particular sexual orientation is a big part of Trans 101 style popular education, but trans theorists (Kate Bornstein and Jacob Hale come to mind) have also done a lot of work to explore how common assumptions about their connection affects the way individuals experience their own gender and the gender of others. I’ve recently read Gayle Salamon’s Assuming A Body, and (among other things) she shows how the work of phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty can illuminate the connection between sexuality and gender identity. Her argument is interesting in that it takes us beyond heteronormativity and the impact of sexual relations on how one’s gender is read:

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Race & Cartooning Nostalgia: Doris & Mary-Anne Are Breaking Out Of Prison

K and I were planning on doing a series of tweets back and forth about this series, about a white woman’s ridiculous schemes to break out of prison with her black cellmate. We wanted to have a kind of public dialogue, but that didn’t really work because we both got busy (this is probably more my fault than anything else). Also, it became apparent that even though we were going to do this online, it was still somewhat necessary for both of us to be around at the same time. I don’t think either of us are frequent enough twitter users to notice when the other person had responded or when they had started tweeting.

Anyway, we did at least get a chance to watch all the current episodes of Doris & Mary-Anne Are Breaking Out Of Prison together. They’re short, they’re funny, and I found them based on a Black History Month post about the animator, Ian Jones-Quartey. We both were really interested in the way linework was used to depict a thin white woman versus a fat black woman. I remember being really interested personally in the silent communication/non-communication of Mary-Anne, while K pointed out some interesting aspects of strategic anachronism.

I think this series would be a really good text to centre a class discussion about race and animation around because of a few factors:

  • the length (it would take under 10 minutes to watch the entire series)
  • the ability to focus on material created by POC
  • the tropeyness of the series invites opening up the conversation to conventions of animation/prison films/buddy films/period films (and the glorification of ‘retro’)

So what does this series do? It juxtaposes a cartoony ’40s blonde woman and an animated – but not cartoony – black woman. Mary-Anne doesn’t speak. After a few episodes, I became aware that she wasn’t going to speak. Although I imagined that, in the interest of thwarting expectations, Mary-Ann might finally speak in the last episode. At the same time, her lack of voice seemed to be a part of the show’s structure; as a minor production, the cartoon has a crew of less than five and it seemed to be staffed around the expectation that Mary-Ann needs to be drawn but not voiced.

When I watch the cartoon, it seems almost as if Doris and Mary-Anne are operating in different modes. Doris is more animated – literally and figuratively – than Mary-Anne. Mary-Anne barely moves; she seems to be completely still in most episodes but for some minor facial reactions to Doris. Doris speaks continually and expressively, gesticulating wildly – producing movements and objects that are clearly only possible in cartoon form. The realism of Mary-Anne is a productive contrast, but it is unclear what it produces.

As K pointed out, it might be unrealistic for a white woman and a black woman to be sharing a cell in the 1920s. The sharp divide in their depiction might draw attention to this, and to the difference in what prison means for black and white bodies, and in the contemporary black and white imaginations. According to the Sentencing Project, the chances of going to prison at some point in one’s life is 1 in 19 for American black women, as compared to 1 in 118 for white women. Furthermore, surely the fact that NAACP forecasts 1 in 3 black men going to prison in his life also shifts the meaning of prison for black women. Does ‘1920s prison scene’ conjure a more straightforward form of comedic nostalgia in the white imagination?

Although viewing the silent Mary-Anne makes me worry somewhat that she is existing as a straight man/background object hybrid whose only purpose is to draw attention to Doris, I think it is difficult to view these two bodies and not think a bit about how it makes sense for a black woman cartoon to appear to be approaching prison with an uncartoonish seriousness.

I’m pretty hesitant about the Stuff White People Like’s overall strategy (which seems to be of the white person hilariously pointing out racism and white privilege without any suggestion of how things should change), but I will never forget their post about Mad Men. This is connected to everything else, I promise. In discussing theme parties, the post comments on how much white people enjoy the aesthetics of the retro. It reminds people of colour that white people get uncomfortable, however, if they joke about the different meaning their presence would have had in that historical period. Even the hairstyles and clothing popularized on Mad Men are literally only made for white bodies. Similarly, K and I noted (look at the example below) that the period style of the cartoon seemed to fit Doris in a way it never does Mary-Anne.

[Screen capture from episode 4 via the series’ official youtube account:]
Although these two women have nearly identical clothing, shoes, and hairstyles, Mary-Anne resists the prison dress’s femininity by sitting hunched with her legs sprawled, while Doris’s raised heels, clenched knees, and upright posture seem to suggest that she carries herself in a more normatively feminine way. She also seems to be wearing lipstick, and her eyelashes double as an indication of eye makeup and the classic cartoon sign of binary gender identity. The overall effect of the cartooning seems to be that the period dress compliments Doris’s femininity, while it sits uneasily with Mary-Anne’s body. It is unclear whether this is intentional or unintentional on Mary-Anne’s part, although I would tend to read it as intentional. Furthermore, while it is certainly partly a matter of how black femininity is read (consider too, how Mary-Anne’s frown – a reasonable/realistic reaction to imprisonment – plays into ideas about the unfeminine-ness of black women’s anger), it also relates to Mary-Anne’s sexuality as we ultimately learn she is queer.

I’m updating this post now at a much later date, having seen the final episode that has been recently released (which is where we learn about Mary-Anne’s sexuality).

I love the final episode and think it is practically perfect in every way. It begins with Doris showing off an unlikely-looking device she has pieced together to break the two of them out. She is soon interrupted as a guard arrives to inform her that she is to be released. She says a short heartfelt reply, but before she can leave, we and Doris are surprised to hear Mary-Anne speak up and deliver an emotional soliloquy on how she has come to not “completely hate” Doris. We learn that she was imprisoned after her romantic advances were rejected by a homophobic female friend because Mary-Anne, “said she had butt breath [and] slammed the door in her face, and apparently slamming doors is a serious crime if you’re black.” This interrupts the show’s nostalgic affect by forcing us to remember the past and present reality of inequalities in the justice system. Explicitly evoking the homoeroticism of the prison setting also disrupts generic expectations of the absent or implied but unnamed sexual dynamics of pre-war comedies or contemporary animation.

What I think is the most important moment, however, is the last shot: in which we see Mary-Anne pick up the discarded fantastical jail-breaking device and then smirk at the camera. Mary-Ann’s role as straight man to Doris’s cartoonish plans throughout the series positions her as the voice of reason. So when she takes up this device it shows that she is finally committing to the medium and genre that she exists within, but it also suggests that this might be the plan that will work.

For me, this is what postcolonial rewriting is about. This series is not a direct remake of any particular text (that I know of) but it makes us face our expectations of genre and forces us to see the problems within them before allowing us to see what liberatory possibilities they might contain.