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: https://youtu.be/f4ua6g4MT5A]
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.

Fanfiction & Identity

I’ve just read Abigail Derecho’s essay “Archontic Literature” which attempts to theorize fanfiction using the concept of the archive. Derecho doesn’t like defining fanfiction as simply fiction which identifies itself as such, nor does she like the broad terms derivative or intertextual. She suggests that the concept of the archive has less of a hierarchical structure – “every addition to an archive modifies the entire archive” (70) moving the focus away from the concepts of the original and the modified copy.

I think this concept might be useful in thinking about postcolonial rewritings in general (are Shakespeare adaptations fanfiction/archontic?), but more specifically in terms of contemporary media and online fan cultures. Is fandom’s racebending/headcanoning of white characters a form of resistance to cultural hegemony, or does it reinforce the centrality of the very texts it is trying to reclaim (to the detriment of original works that more prominently feature minorities). I think it’s probably actually a little column A and a little column B. If we think about these texts as an archive, though, it might allow us to see more clearly the transformative power of fanon.

Even for people who aren’t fans of slash fiction, how often do discussions of Star Trek jump to Kirk/Spock? If it wasn’t for the work of fanfiction, would that be the case? Can’t we say that the hypothetical Star Trek “archive” has itself become a queer space, even for those that don’t interact directly with fanfiction? It’s hard to think of another example where fandom’s interpretation of race has had that level of impact on the archive as a whole, though. The recent examples I can think of where fan reimaginings might be reshaping the archive are cases where creators themselves publicly approve of them: the fancasting of Idris Elba as James Bond might be influencing producers, JK Rowling’s favouriting of black Hermione tweets, or Andrew Hussie’s* Homestuck merchandise shop producing stickers that reflect popular fan POC headcanons.

It seems that the dynamics at work are somewhat different when it comes to race. On a practical level, the experience of being a POC fan is simply not equivalent to being a queer fan. On a more theoretical level, I wonder if slashing doesn’t seem like less of a threat to the archive itself: sexuality might be understood as something that is less knowable in canon, and slashing an expression of private desire (aroused by canon but tied to fan subjectivity). Racebending might be understood (by those who oppose it) as introducing a more concrete contradiction to the archive, that of a fundamentally irreconcilable whiteness and non-whiteness, which can only be understood on a political rather than personal level.

The practice of headcanoning is certainly both political and personal – “Shame” by Pam Noles is my favourite ever essay on a fan’s affective response to racially diverse characters and is a great example of the damaging effects of presumed whiteness. I suspect that white fans might focus on the erotic aspect of queer headcanons and therefore allow for more imagination in that realm – no need to provide justification for what gets you off, right? Racial headcanons (assuming they are not motivated by fetishization) fulfill an appetite for representation that white fans probably don’t know they have – hence the demands for evidence of character race that don’t seem to be leveled at slash fiction. I’ve seen a similar thing happen with asexual headcanons, which might show how they tend to illuminate the separation between orientation and eroticism and thus become politicized.

This is the main problem I see with the archive model: actual archives are controlled by archivists. As much as the archive itself might theoretically invite new materials, not all people have equal access to it. On the (aptly named) fanfiction website, archiveofourown.org, anyone can join and post, and we can say that each individual work within a fandom modifies that fandom’s archive. However, as fandomshatepoc often points out, fans as a collective give greater weight to certain types of representation – meaning that if you search for fanfiction about a show that features a Latino lead and a secondary POC character who is canonically a gay male, you are most likely to find slash fiction focused on two white male characters. Henry Jenkins discusses a “collective intelligence” in fandom – a kind of hive mind that is prone to speculative interpretations and holds more knowledge than one person can know, but which also tends towards either consensus or deep rifts. Fandom seems to simultaneously invite postcolonial rewritings and to inevitably marginalize them, making it perhaps a simple mirror of all other forms of culture.

The question I’m stuck on is whether it makes a difference that archives which have a lot of cultural sway contain these radical yet marginal elements. Are the fans who get angry about the idea of a black Hermione Granger or Harry Potter being exposed to issues of representation that they would not otherwise? Does the liminal space occupied by fans of colour grant them some kind of (less un)happy medium between cultural capital and representation? Will postcolonial headcanons ever assume a position from which they can have the kind of leverage on the archive that some queer ones do?


* I can and probably will make an entire (much longer) post at some point about how Hussie deals with (or doesn’t deal with) race.