Much has been written in recent years about the persistence of racist stereotypes and caricatures in studio era animation, especially as we are encountering fuller versions of cartoons which had been re-edited to match more contemporary sensibilities when they were aired on television. What might a performance studies approach to animation contribute to our understanding of this issue?
Well, again, the distribution of old cartoons was not that different from old mainstream movies that, when shown on TV or released on VHS, had minstrel, blackface, and race gags edited out. That such imagery and performances were racist is beyond doubt; the question revolves around whether its usage was “innocent” or hurtfully intended, which is complex. My thought is that racism is never benign, but may not have been instrumental, that is, intentionally hurtful. I also think that racism is a historical and cultural product and so must be contextualized.
In the book I discuss the racism in animation within the framework of the vaudeville aesthetic, which included acts, gags, and personae imported from minstrel shows. There are literal performances of race, as when Mickey “blacks up” to play a part in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (Mickey’s Mellerdrammer).
And there are aspects of films that are racially performative in the sense that being a toon is itself a figure of otherness with potentially racist dimensions. (I pointed this out about Felix the Cat in Before Mickey too.) Race stereotypes, along with national, ethnic, gender, and sexual stereotypes, are excellent examples of figurative performances because these roles depict nonindividualized characters who stand-in for the entire group.
Characters like Betty Boop are often discussed alongside Greta Garbo as “stars” and they often got represented side by side in studio era cartoons. In what ways is this an appropriate or inappropriate description of the kinds of functions they play in the studio era?
Trying to explain stardom has left many distinguished scholars scratching their heads. I add another dimension to the debates by insisting that toons have the same claim to stardom as human movie stars like Garbo, or stars from stage and athletics as well. The reason, as I mentioned earlier, is that all star personae are media constructions. While theorists like to point out the tension between the on- and off-screen lives of movie stars, in fact, this is specious because those alleged off-screen lives are fictions as much as the on-screen lives. The humanness of stars actually is irrelevant, since the public creates stardom, not the actor, studio, or publicity machine.
Lots of cartoons, from Mickey’s Gala Premier to What’s Up, Doc?, give us intelligent critiques of the animated character within the star system and show how it was rigged against toons.
Donald Graham turns out to be a recurring figure across the book. Who was he and what role did he play in shaping studio era American animation?
While the credit for defining the new approach to animation in the 1930s rightly goes to the directors and animators, the conceptual and visual artists who inspired and taught them have been forgotten. That’s the case with Don Graham at the Disney studio. In the late 1920s he was an art teacher at the Chouinard Institute of the Arts, the predecessor of Cal Arts. When Disney was beginning the process of retraining his animators in what would become the embodied approach, he brought in Graham and other instructors from Chouinard to set up art classes on the studio premises. Graham gave them the classical training that most had never had. There were lectures and classes on lighting, shadows, composing in space, perspective, and the relation of the character’s psychology to its environment. Graham was also a big advocate of embodied personalities, telling the animators to think of the motives, story functions, and outcomes of an action before beginning to animate it. He insisted that the characters must appear to be thinking. I believe that it was Graham who was primarily responsible for realizing Disney’s West Coast style, and since that was so influential, Graham became a major contributor, but unsung.
“Right Wing Talk Radio Duck” is a widely circulated remix of Walt Disney cartoon footage mashed up with Glenn Beck’s radio commentary, which re-opened debates about the kinds of “ideologies” at work within Disney animation. In the book, you use Three Little Pigs to explore the competing claims made about the political and social effects of cartoons in the 1930s. What roles have cartoons played in our ongoing debate about the politics of entertainment?
Thanks for alerting me to this brilliant piece. Hilarious! Actually, Beck’s response is also hilarious, since it basically confirms the satirical points made about his manic irrational outbursts in the cartoon. What fools these mortals be.
Cartoons have always been overtly or covertly produced to spread propaganda. Dziga Vertov wisely set up an animation unit in his Soviet film studio to produce propaganda cartoons, and all the American animation studios cranked out patriotic films for the war effort. WWII was truly Popeye and Donald Duck’s finest hour. Of course the Japanese had propaganda animation too, some of which we are just now seeing.
Disney, although the corporation resists it, has become “vernacular,” an element of our everyday lives. Therefore it’s also a target for all manner of parodies, satires, and counter-cultural attacks, as in the notorious “Air Pirates Funnies” comics that wound up in the courts for years. As vernacular texts the studio’s output is susceptible to counter-readings by fans or anyone else.
Social theorists tell us that everything happens for ideological reasons whether we recognize them or not, and the “culture industry” is where political motives are the most pervasive and the most pernicious because they’re readily disguised and misrecognized. Because they’re so popular, Disney cultural products have always been prime suspects as proponents of ideology. There’s the famous analysis of Disney’s alleged efforts to shape the consciousness of Latin American comic book consumers called How To Read Donald Duck. The authors argue convincingly that the Spanish language versions of Disney comics in the 50s and 60s were doctored to promote the US and capitalism and to paint Communism in a bad light. In more recent animated features there are many viewers who have seen the studio’s efforts to define female adolescents by the portrayals of Wendy, Alice and eventually the princesses. Various other groups (who usually are against these things) perceive pro-gay, pro-sex, pro-feminist critiques hidden within modern Disney films. Simply asking such questions, especially when they’re disseminated via the Internet, shows that consumers’ readings have the power to ignore or re-write the producers’ intended messages. It also reveals that ideology isn’t easy to read. I show how The Three Little Pigs‘ reception from 1933 to the present has moved all over the political spectrum. Even now, what that film “means” and what secret agendas, if any, were hidden inside it remain open questions. (A riff on Pigs, appropriately, was the first installment in the “Air Pirates” comics series.) It turns out that it’s hard to program ideology in mass cultural products because audiences can’t be relied on to decode the subliminal meanings “correctly,” and tend to do their own programming.
With the release of the UPA cartoons on DVD, and the publication of books such as Cartoon Modern, there has been a growing interest in the more stylized and abstracted cartoon spaces of the 1950s, which are often read in opposition to supposedly more “Classical” styles, especially that associated with Disney in the 1930s. What might your book contribute to our understanding of the relationship between studio-era animation and modernist movements in the art world?
Although the economic troubles associated with WWII usually are given as the cause of Disney’s troubles in the 1940s, I point out that the studio’s commitment to highly labor intensive and mechanically sophisticated apparatus succeeded in producing films that rivaled Hollywood, but the acting in these expensive ventures like Bambi didn’t please the public as in the old days. In fact, critics complained that the emotions were saccharine and over the top, especially the shooting of Bambi’s mother—which still sets my students weeping.
The embodied performances were becoming unsatisfying or even detrimental to the films’ popularity. At the same time, the simplified visual style of mid-century modern art is being picked up by art students and disseminated to the public through many outlets. Even in the Disney product, one sees infusions of “New York Style,” not only in Dumbo, but also in the compilation films released during and just after the war, starting with Saludos Amigos and Three Caballeros.
After the war, Disney films slowly start looking more like Warner Bros. cartoons and even UPA cartoons. I think that the studio realized that embodiment did not necessarily require massive engineering, and that visual minimalism could still generate emotional engagement and audience participation if the story was good.
The video game, Epic Mickey, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Kim Deitch’s Waldo the Cat comics are among a much wider array of recent popular narratives which mythologize the history of American animation. Each acts as if animated characters were, in some sense, real personalities who exerted a strong influence on the production process. What do these contemporary works owe to a much older history of attempts to portray what you describe as the “agency” of animated characters?
Yes, toying with who has the agency, that is, the ability to control themselves and others, including their creators, or to resist control, is one of the original animation themes. I describe agency as a power grid, with the currents flowing from various sources—producers, creators, consumers, and the toon characters themselves to the extent that their animators and viewers imagine them as having it. Waldo takes the trope to an extreme and I love the mind-boggling complexity in Deitch’s comics. Another example you’d like is McCay: La quatrième dimension, a graphic novel where Gertie the dinosaur is a living animal as well as Winsor McCay’s cartoon creation. There are lots of modern cartoons that play with the conflict between animator and animated, but one that’s especially wonderful is George Griffin’s Lineage (1980), an artistic autobiography that combines animation history, his animated character, and himself back to their common ancestry in the days when cinema was a vaudeville attraction.
I’m certain, Henry, that there’s a toon version of you out there, somewhere.
T-T-T-That’s All Folks!
 “The Veiled Genealogies of Animation and Cinema,” Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal 6:2 (July 2011), 93-110.
 Bob Levin, The Pirates and The Mouse: Disney’s War Against the Counterculture. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2003.
 Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart, How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic. Amsterdam: International General, 1984.
 Amid Amidi, Cartoon Modern: Style and Design in 1950s Animation. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2006.
 Thierry Smolderen and Jean-Philippe Bramanti, McCay Volume 4: La Quatrième Dimension. Paris: Guy Delcourt Productions, 2006.
A specialist in film history and visual culture, Donald Crafton earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, his master’s degree from the University of Iowa, and a master’s and doctorate from Yale University. He was the founding director of the Yale Film Study Center, and served as director of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. Crafton chaired the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre at Notre Dame from 1997 to 2002 and 2008-2010, and the Department of Music from 2004-2007.
Crafton’s research interests are in film history and visual culture. His most recent publications are Shadow of a Mouse: Performance, Belief, and World-Making in Animation (2013) and The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931 (California, 1999). He was named Academy Film Scholar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2000 and was the recipient of an NEH Fellowship for 2003-04. The World Festival of Animation presented him in 2004 with an award for his contributions to animation theory. He received the University of Notre Dame’s Presidential Award in 2007.