Sex Makes SenseAuthor: Olga Bobrowska | Date: 1/1/19, 7:43 PM
If you were born, raised and educated in a disturbingly conservative Central European country and you are just about to discuss sex, you might feel a strong pressure to assume Theresa May's facial expression and exclaim 'Oh, my Goodness, me?!'. 'Yeah, me too', your inner voice answers while Madam May's visage fades away. Recently you feel empowered by the crowds who keep standing up and cutting silence; strong with symbolic imagery that can be found in animated representations realized by female filmmakers; at the same time anxious - socially (the act of speaking up is priceless but will it be followed by action?) and artistically (is the current wave of feminine animation just a short-lived trend, a contemporary attraction welcomed by established patriarchs of animation world as a sort of 'freak show')? Perhaps a disputable kinship of new women's animation and infamous 'freak show' tradition can be sustained - deriving from the despised circles of artistic expression (optical and magic tricks, caricature, circus), in their times they draw huge attention of spectators eager to peep on mysteries of organism, scrutinize bodily differences, indulge into phantasmsatic sexual experiences. Oh, you can get that, the bodies are exposed, the price is known and it's an acknowledgement of the fact that 'you're one of us'. I don't know about the performers of 'freak show' (and honestly I think that the non-ethical inclinations of the act should be considered first) but I believe that contemporary women filmmakers embrace sexual and gender-oriented dimensions of expression highly consciously, exceeding individual intimacy and entering the realm of politics. Sex is political, shouted the feminists of the second wave at the naked emperor. He is still looking for his clothes while the feminist veterans listen how their granddaughters discuss the old lesson.
It would be interesting to know why, in the 2010s, so many young women decided to study animation filmmaking. Currently there are year groups at the Film School in Lodz without any single male student, and the impressive quantity of women's diploma films is visible in all recent European student competitions. It is clear that young female authors now have their time as they have clearly gained access to a professional film education, a means of production and a pathway to a career that requires festival circulation from the very early stage of an artistic involvement. In regard to capitalist film market, these somehow 'greenhouse conditions,' enable women to experiment, not only with a form (that is natural for the film students regardless their gender) but also with the content as if they realize that their quantitative dominance may breach the solid walls of the thematic ghetto associated with women's filmmaking so far (motherhood, intimacy and psychology, loneliness, traumatic childhood, human-nature relations...). The right for sexual liberation, one of the fundamental concerns of feminism, assumes acceptance of pleasure deriving from the acts of giving, receiving, and acknowledging one's own body and its organs. Aren't exactly these features displayed in Petra Zlonoga's Daniil Ivanovič, You're Free (Daniil Ivanoviču, slobodan si, 2012, ALU, Zagreb), Martina Scarpelli's Cosmoetico (2015, CSC, Torino), Renata Gąsiorowska's Pussy (Cipka, 2015, PWSFTviT, Lodz) or Lori Malépart-Traversy's Clitoris. Animated Documentary (2016, Concordia, Montreal)?
In a courageous and inventive pixilation, Zlonoga exposes her own naked body and the city park becomes the stage of a performance accompanied with an authorial piece of poetry/ confession addressed to the literary master, an artist's sensual soul-mate and a metaphorical lover (though she admits, she kissed the others). Scarpelli employs drawn animation to demonstrate the ambiguity of the process of make-up. Resembling a sort of cross-dressing ritual played between a woman and an external reality, a mundane make-up turns out to be a moment of full dedication to one's own materiality, a process that reveals all the bodily imperfections only to correct and mask them. Eventually Gąsiorowska and Malépart-Traversy seek full openness and liberation in thematizing female genitals. The Canadian author ridicules scientific jargon but in her film a cute, pinkish 'clito' is not going to surrender to power-knowledge structures ever again. The visual strategy of Pussy is based on raw and somewhat childish drawings made with the use of colourful felt-tips. In a scenery of an average apartment, between a bathtub and a sofa, a new heroine of Polish animated imagery appears. Vagina, an amiable, autonomous creature that resembles a cross of hairy caterpillar and limber weasel, leads the young girl to the heights of pleasure. The authors pay attention to the spoken language as if the representation of sexual fulfilment requires not only a depiction but also an utterance. Gąsiorowska's film lacks dialogues but the telling title bears social significance: traditionally a word 'cipka' is considered too offensive for public speech, yet Polish language does not offer any synonym that wouldn't be oppressively vulgar, embarrassingly infantile or creepily medical. Pussy appeared in a perfect time for affirmation of feminine sexuality. It was April 2016 when I watched it for the first time, and on the very same day Polish society witnessed a wide women's rights protest: a public profile of the Prime Minister (a woman herself) was flooded with all the kinds of menstruation stories shared by angry women. They were frustrated with already existing low equality standards but became truly furious when the right-wing government initiated attempts to control their sexual behaviours by the means of severe criminalization of abortion. Soon this spontaneous action developed into series of protests that led to a women's strike and Black Marches. Lesson to be learnt: if they (a universal figure for any kind of an oppressive authority) are willing to tell the women how and for what reasons we can get pleasure, we should not leave it unanswered, and to be sure, the women animators will not hesitate to depict it as well.
Obviously, an explicitly sexual imaginary in women's animation is not an invention of the youngest generation. Among several inspiring authors with a sharp feminist focus, one should recall the uncompromising works of Michaela Pavlátová and Signe Baumane. They both have mastered, accordingly to their own sensitivities, humour and desires, an art of exaggeration that balances between repulsive grotesque and brilliant social commentary. Mentally they could be patrons (matrons?) of Sawako Kabuki (Anal Juke/ Ketsujiru Juke, 2012, Summer's Puke Is Winter's Delight, 2016, Japan) or Joanna Rytel (Moms on Fire, 2016, Sweden). Kabuki's films are wild, in a way pornographic (as they force the viewer to imagine hardcore sexual scenarios) and profane. This is a surface that covers genuine understanding of medium and its crucial elements such as editing and associative nature of animation (hence the suggestive fast-pacing of images) or music (anal/puke/poop-centered phrases perfectly complement sound design). Mika Rottenberg, an interesting video artist, once said: 'When you think about the body you think about the sounds and movements (...) skin is just a protective layer, everything wants to burst out', and the films of Kabuki are just filled with strong tensions that simply have to explode. Similarly, in her naturalistic puppet film, Rytel employs the modes of disgust and absurd. Two women in advanced pregnancy are tasteless, bored and sexually frustrated. In this condition they have to confront with a perverse cat, two infants with the faces of the adult men and mutual attraction. Pregnancy does not appear as holy and enriching experience but rather as a biological sentence imposed on vigorous and passionate women caged in their bodies. Kabuki and Rytel have a tendency to exclude or ridicule male figures, reducing them to penises, infants or creatures with anuses instead of heads.
The ways of giving and receiving pleasure are unlimited in number. The deeper you go into the subject of representation of sexuality in animation the more daring films you will encounter. Affirmative lesbian declarations? You should give a try to Diane Obomsawin's I Like Girls (2016, Canada). BDSM with a grain of salt? Then watch Izabela Plucińska's Sexy Laundry (2015, Canada/Poland). Something about crystallization of the non-heteronormative identity? That's where Chintis Lundgren comes with Manivald (2017, Croatia/ Canada). Immersive bodily experiences? Yoriko Mizushiri's Futon (2014, Japan) should bring satisfaction. And there are films of Jeanette Bonds, Kirsten Lepore, Magda Guidi, Wiola Sowa, Laura Spark... And so forth. These filmmakers have neither declared common manifesto nor a will to do so. But they share passion for daring filmmaking, fascination with human body and animation material alike, and they do not restrain themselves from openly expressing issues that strongly resonate with women in contemporary society and power structures. In their films, sex naturally comes center-stage and animation turns into medium that transmits feminine perspective on sexual experiences and related identity concerns, lived practice so to say. A practice that is focused on gender subjectivity and defined by the momentum. Pussy Riot has not explored animation yet but Nadya Tolokonnikova managed to infuse her recent punk manifesto with the words that are perfectly suitable for this new phenomenon of 'non-aligned women movement' in animation: “Look for the truth that explodes existing boundaries and definitions. Follow your instincts and you'll get a chance to break existing rules so beautifully.” that you might even end up establishing a new norm, a new paradigm. Nothing frozen is perfect'.
Olga Bobrowska is a PhD Candidate in Film Studies (Jagiellonian University, Krakow, Poland.), Festival director of StopTrik IFF (Slovenia/Poland), Animation Studies and animation film culture activist (curator, writer, festival collaborator, juror).