Gender, Sexuality and Race in Animation

In class we watched then discussed the use of documentary style within Surfs Up, it was interesting and quite an enjoyable film.



  • Produced by Sony Pictures Animation, Surf’s Up is the first feature-length animated mockumentary.
  • The animation employs a vast array of codes that are used in a documentary:
  • – the idea of unmediated reality, such as quick zooms, shaky handheld camerawork and abrupt camera movements
  • – talking-head interviews
  • – photographic stills
  • – news feeds of the surf contest
  • – mock-archival footage
  • However, the fabricated penguins with human-like features is overriding. The viewer will opt from the start for a “fictionalizing reading” of the text.
  • Production designer Paul Lasaine, “We didn’t want people to wonder if we used real penguins, but if the world of Surf’s Up is a documentary, getting the look of a documentary was very important”. It was decided to avoid adopting a photorealistic approach, aiming instead at creating the film’s universe only “near reality”.
  • The documentary aesthetics deployed are simply the form through which a traditional fictional story is told. In other words, it is a narrative style.
  • Surf’s Up narrates the tale of an outcast with dreams of glory who gives up his soon-to-be victory to the advantage of a friend. The movie clearly signals throughout who the heroes are and who the villains, and it ends with an edifying moral in the tradition of Fables. It conveys a message that “winning isn’t everything”.
  • The film was released in 2007, a year apart from Happy Feet (2006), and two years from March of the Penguins (2005) and Madagascar (2005), all penguin movies exactly as Surf’s Up.
  • The narrative form gives the film a lift and renders it surprisingly fresh.

Animated Film in Context 

  • In the 1990s, several major studios, Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, and Fox began producing animated features with the assistance of computer technologies that hailed not only children, but also adults, turning animated films into “family movies”. Since then the texts and contexts of animated films have changed.


  1. New languages for expressing difference:
  • The contexts of animated films in terms of interpreting and thinking of “difference” have changed. For example, appeals to biology have given way to culture and society; overt expressions of racism and (hetero) sexism have become taboo, replaced by covert and coded formulations…
  • In this context, animated films render the others through superficial features and essentialised qualities (distinctive fashion, pattern of speech, architecture, or relationship to nature), affirm universal humanity, erase power, and above all else accentuate the positive.
  • Disney spokesperson noted, “we would never dream of doing anything that would offend anyone… It’s going to be PC [politically correct], of course. It is a family picture,” which meant it would “sidestep the racial issue by not including blacks at all”

(Mayer, 2002, 63-64)

  1. New Mediations:
  • In a series of animated films made over the past two decades women appear as more active and empowered agents, often defying authority, making their own choices, and stepping beyond conventional gender roles.
  • However, these female portrayals continues to box women into dependent, sexualised, and supplemental positions, frequently reinscribed through heterosexual romance and racialization.

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  1. 3. Modes of production and consumption:
  • Commercial animated films were once exclusively hand-drawn. In 1995, Pixar introduced computer-generated animation. in its wake, almost every film in the genre has been rendered digitally.
  • The ways audiences consume animated film also have changed. Once almost exclusively produced for domestic consumers, animated films are now produced for decidedly global audiences.
  • Where animation previously had associations with the world of children, today animated film are produced for and consumed as eagerly by adults as children.

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  1. Postmodern fictions:
  • Although commercial animated film still dedicates itself to reworking the well-known formula of Disney classics and translating classical fairy tales for a new age, it incorporates broader cultural trends.
  • Until Toy Story in 1995, animated features recycled two key elements: they centred on a “princess” figure in a fantasyland who is always saved by love; they were musicals, often featuring songs that crossed over to the pop charts.
  • Now, animated film become increasingly ironic, irreverent, and satiric. They not only abandoned the fairy tale, opting for cotemporary and future settings, individual films also parodies this storyline. Animated films have aggressively poached from popular culture and other animated films. These make animated films more appealing to adults.


Racial and Sexual Pedagogies in Animation

  • Animated characters, especially in Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks productions, are often racialized, even for the animal and other non-human characters.

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Racialized Animals in Shark Tale

  • Oscar’s blackness is not only in his accent and place of residence, but also in his mannerisms, behaviour and jewellery, which are highly racialized signifiers.
  • Sykes is labelled as a “white fish”.
  • Lino: Italian-American-accented Mob shark and the master of the reef.
  • Mrs. Garcia: overweight, middle-aged, single Mexican accented female fish, also lives in the south area.

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  • Animated characters, especially in Disney, Pixar, and DreamWorks productions, always have heterosexuality.

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Femininity and Citizenship in Animation

  • In classical Disney animations, the portrayal of female characters followed a similar pattern: princesses in need of rescue from unfair circumstances by Prince Charming. They are kind, passive, patient and graceful. They have no other options, and their agency is limited by their gender.
  • Recent animated film, the femininity portrayed is more assertive.

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-A story of a Chinese girl who decides to join the military to save her father.

-Mulan’s roles as a bride and a brave warrior.

-Disney’s ending requires the girl to be rescued by a guy.

-The Whiteness of a girl of colour. Mulan are given an honorary U.S. citizenship, because she is given agency to pursue the kind of individualism.

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Feminine Aesthetic in Women’s Experimental Animation

  • Feather Tale (Michèle Cournoyer, 1992, 5min)
  • The Hat (Michele Cournoyer, 1999, 6 min)
  • Accordion (Michele Cournoyer, 2004, 6 min)
  • Robes of War (Michele Cournoyer, 2008, 5 min)
  • Covers male/female relationships, incest, ageing and so on from a resolutely female point-of-view.
  • Constitutes a meditation on women, their sexuality, fantasies, desires, and fear.
  • Reflects surrealism, automatic writing, black humour and dreams.

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  • The Sick City (Bu Hua, 2005, 7 min)
  • The Last Phase of The Future (Bu Hua, 2007, 3 min)
  • Youth Does Harm To Health (Bu Hua, 2007, 3 min)
  • Savage Growth (Bu Hua, 2008, 3 min)
  • LV forest (Bu Hua, 2010, 5 min)
  • Dysphoria (Bu Hua, 2013, 4 min)

Screen Shot 2014-11-12 at 17.16.58

  • Transformed herself from a source of emotional power into an impassive bystander to the society and the world. She creates a little girl as her spiritual self, who leads the audience to witness what happens on screen, and who appears in each of her late animation works.
  • Sexual symbols and bodily metaphors: besides exposing the whole woman’s body as the source and object of desire, or the innocent painful victim, Bu Hua also “deconstructs” the human body into its component parts, animates these body segments on the screen.

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Sexuality is a subject for playfulness, erotic games an endless source of amusement.

The representation of eroticism.


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