Friday, May 17, 2013

Robert Crumb, Chris Sanders & The Fine Art Of Genuine Desirability In A Disney Pin-Up

All links SFW, with one noted exception.

Some furor has been raised over Disney's manipulation of Pixar character Merida. The headstrong tomboy in Brave has been given a makeover, rendering her more Disney-feminine. The aesthetic formula at play seems to work something like this: Fancy Strapless Shoulder-Baring Gown + Shiny Buckle – One or Two Ribs – Signature Weaponry = Pretty Princess.

My first reaction was surprise at how deftly both Disney and Brenda Chapman, Brave's creator, capitalized on the moment. Brave was a fair-to-middling Pixar product that garnered fair-to-middling box office results (in league with How To Train Your Dragon and Dr. Seuss' The Lorax but nowhere close to Toy Story 3). As the parent of daughters I applauded the attempt at a female lead impelled by passions unrelated to Finding True Love, even if I (and my daughters) finally found the emotional content underwhelming.

But with regards to the controversy of Disney's Body Image Problem, I have to admit — it is a problem. That Disney attends to the aesthetics of sexual attraction* doesn't bother me: if their characters didn't have some sexual appeal, Disney's standard storyline would be entirely without interest. Still, as a hetero dad who's endured a parade of Disney cheesecake, I find it remarkable how aesthetically forgettable most Disney heroines are — forgettable because they're interchangeable. The Little Mermaid, Jasmine, Belle, Tiana — what's the difference, and who cares? If a straight fella (who enjoys a little lewd cartoonery (SFW, unless you scroll through the slideshow)) ain't piqued by the Disney figurine, I have to conclude the artists are banking on the age-old absurdity of fashioning heroines who are aesthetically attractive to girls.

That Disney apes Vogue in this regard is hardly a surprise: Disney has commodities galore it intends to sell, to as many children and parents as possible. Whether Disney has a larger interest in expanding its aesthetic is finally for the market to determine. The Merida Makeover is their canary in the coalmine.

Anyway, as I mused over the past decade-plus, I realized there is exactly one (1) Disney heroine whose desirability factor stands head-and-shoulders — or hips-thighs-calves-and-feet — above this parade: Lilo & Stitch's Nani Pelekai.

Nani, on right.

Here she stands in contrast to a “Pamela Lee Anderson” figure — another body-type we don't see much of in Disney movies:

I won't say I find the latter body-type unattractive, what with its sweeping hips, the supple shoulders supporting an ample, but not grotesque, decolletage, and of course those arms and the cut of the . . . uh . . .  where was I? Right: let's not replace one culturally predominant unrealistic body “ideal” with another. Perhaps it is best to note Nani's posture and facial expression, which indicate Our Hero is in a supplicant relationship to the curvier (white) woman. (The scene ends badly.)

Still, Nani, as drawn by Chris Sanders, is a figure of considerable power, thanks chiefly to her muscular, almost chunky, base — more than a little reminiscent of Robert Crumb's favoured proportions, on display here . . .

. . . and more explicitly here (NSFW, I suppose — there's none of Crumb's unhinged sexual hi-jinx, but, y'know, she is nude).

I Googled for more Chris Sanders, curious to see where Nani fit in with his overall aesthetic. When it comes to his pin-up art, Sanders does indeed have a fetish for sturdier bases . . .

"Where's Spring Breakers playing, again?"

. . . but after that the distinctives become subtle to the point of disappearing. Bruce Timm, Dean Yeagle and even Darwyn Cooke lean heavily on many of the same tropes: essentially wasp-waisted, pert-nosed, late adolescent girls in varying states of compromised (or soon-to-be-compromised) innocence. I understand the thematic predominance, but if you draw up a giant screen of these guys' pin-ups, the final effect is a blurred uniformity — 21st Century America's india ink version of the Venus of Willendorf.

It may be that Nani's singular appeal relies on her sharp aesthetic contrast to the Disney template. But as bold a departure as her curvature is, the power of her story also contributes — greatly — to her appeal. She is perhaps Disney's most fully-realized female character.

A single young woman who becomes the sole guardian of her little sister after their parents are killed in an accident, Nani finds she cannot manage the physical, never mind the complex emotional needs of the grief-struck child. She gets considerable support from David, with whom she seems to have had something going on, prior to the tragedy. You can see he's crazy about her, and that she cares deeply for him. But theirs is a relationship that has, understandably, been put on hold while Nani seeks to secure physical and emotional shelter for her sister.

Say, he's pretty hot too, isn't he?

Lilo and her “pet” Stitch form the nexus for the movie's action, but the deeper revelations all belong to, and are embodied by, Nani. One of the “lessons” a viewer innately gathers through Nani is how the terrible events that accrue in any life can either drive people into a larger concept of family — or into crippling isolation. This makes Lilo & Stitch Disney's most visceral movie since Dumbo, and it has certainly earned an emotional connection with me. I can't even write about it without choking up.

Weirdly enough, here, too, I'm reminded of Crumb. It ain't just the cross-hatching and stippling that sets his pin-ups and other work apart from the Timms and Yeagles and Sanderses of this world. For those who can stomach it, it's Crumb's candour and never-ending internal conflict being brought into play against hapless Others that make his work work. Self-knowledge is a dangerous thing — and absolutely necessary to the erotic imperative.

So, to Disney or anyone else out there in the business of crafting pin-ups: more of that, please, and I for one will buy it.

*Sexual desire is a motivation Pixar mines, if at all, as a very distant secondary concern — with one exception, which adroitly dodges the issue of body-image aesthetics altogether.


Joel said...

Tangentially related--Disney has a long history of sometimes working some not so subtle sex appeal into their female characters.

Darrell Reimer said...

Yeah, Tinker Bell is pretty obvious. I have to wonder if Disney's characterization isn't responsible for the whole "faerie smut" genre.

Years ago I heard an interview with a surviving animator from the Snow White days. He was pretty frank about what a rowdy crew they were -- Mad Men could have been inspired by this guy. I don't know if he was telling tales out of school, but he claimed Walt reassigned one animator to do "Prince" duty because his advances on the "Snow White" model were way out of line, even by these reprobates' standards. If true, that would have been Grim Natwick, the guy who gave us Betty Boop. The "Snow White" model was Marge Champion who was 14 at the time. She doesn't mention any of this in interviews (nor is she asked). It is curious to see, in that last link, that apparently someone wore the costume before she did, but didn't stick around for the long haul.

BTW, Carl Barks is one of the artists in that Clean Cartoonists' Dirty Drawings book. If you go through the slide-show you'll find a nude he drew in the '30s. She bears a striking resemblance to Garé, his third wife (the one that "took").

paul bowman said...

Provoked me to watch Zwigoff's movie. I've never been drawn to Crumb's work or interested in knowing about the man, and can't say my interest is much increased now for knowing what the film had to tell. (Greater, wholer concept of a family is hardly what we're tracking along toward with the characters in that story.) BUT — the thought of Crumb's being able more or less alone to anchor this contrary vocabulary of the girl-for-looking-at in the visual culture, against what was (and is, of course) strongly enforced in movies, advertising, comics, and all the rest, is pretty interesting. Disney's turning eventually to adapt & sanitize his model for their use is very interesting too. Certainly something I'll be thinking about.

Darrell Reimer said...

I'd be curious to hear from the sisters. Zwigoff's DVD commentary is somewhat interesting (Roger Ebert shepherds him along a bit -- hardly Ebert's best commentary, but I think he did it as a favour to Zwigoff). Zwigoff discloses at length his disappointments with the film. He despises the photo-shoot, for instance.