From Mav: As we approach Valentines Day this year I started thinking about our Valentine’s special from last year about “fictional celebrity crushes.” One of the things we drifted into talking about on that episode was characters like Lola Bunny and Harley Quinn — characters that despite originating in children’s cartoons, were clearly created explicitly to be “sexy” or at least what a presumed child’s idea of “sexy” is. When Lola first walks into the scene in Space Jam, you’re definitely supposed to have “thoughts” about it… thoughts that we don’t normally associate with the eight-year-olds that movie targets. Sure, she’s a cute cartoon rabbit, but the way she sashays her hips about in short shots, fixing the strap on her bare midriff tank top that keeps falling off and nearly exposing her breasts, while speaking in a seductive voice and batting her eyelashes, oozes hypersexuality. Is there a kid gaze? You know, like the male gaze… but for kids.
Obviously, Lola’s not alone here. Kids cartoons are full of the hypersexualized female vixen characters. You have your Jessica Rabbit, your Hello Nurse, your Minerva Mink, your Red Hot Riding Hood, and even your Betty Boop. “Sexy lady character” is just sort of a default trope of children’s cartoons. And if the gaziness of the character is not obvious enough, the characters’ entrances often result in every male character losing their minds as they leer at the the sexy lady with their eyes bugging out of their heads. Laura Mulvey states that one of the most fundamental aspects of the classic male gaze is that the action of the narrative must freeze in order for the viewers (and other characters) to appreciate the female sexual performance. The Animaniacs‘ “Hello Nurse” moment is essentially the male gaze moment that Mulvey defines, explicitly turned into a visual gag that defines the kid gaze.
And it’s kind of easy really. “Sexy lady character” is kind of a default character in pop culture in general. It’s what the male gaze is all about. And even if we like to pretend they aren’t, children are certainly sexually aware… at least in as much as they are pop culture aware. And since children’s cartoons (at least westernized ones) tend to take simple stereotypical tropes and caricaturize them into extreme tropes, it sort of makes sense. If we define “feminine sexuality” in media by highlighting sexualized elements (breasts, butt, and legs, basically) through the male gaze, then it sort of stands to reason that when we overemphasize those for aesthetic effect as we distort reality into the cutenesss aesthetic (we did an episode on this too), it sort of naturally extends into the hypersexual. The character need not even be human. One of my personal favorite kid gaze characters is Cleo the cat from the Heathcliff and the Catillac Cats, where the cartoonists basically asked “how close can we come to just drawing a naked woman? Maybe if we give her flashdance leg warmers, no one will notice?” Sure all the other cats are also “naked” but it is impossible to look at Cleo next to her boyfriend Riff Raff and not see an obvious difference in their anthroporphisation when it comes to physical sexual characteristics.
Sometimes, this is maybe more questionable. I don’t know that Disney Princesses are necessarily supposed to be read as “sexual” per se (time for a third self-referential plug for an episode we’ve already done). They’re absolutely supposed to be “pretty”. There is definitely a performative femininity about them… with the exception of the two that specifically reject this (Merrida and Mulan) which is a performance in and of itself, much of the “look” of being a Disney Princess is “performing femininity”. I will grant that they’re not overtly “sexual” — Ariel and Jasmine show more skin in their standard outfits than the others, but they have good storyline reasons to do so. Male gaze being what it is, often I will admit that we the audience sexualize the very idea of femininity regardless of what the intent is. The creators might not be playing into this in every situation, but it’d be naive to not realize that it’s going to happen.
That said, Disney isn’t a stranger to this sort of thing. Esmerelda, while not a “Disney Princess” technically is still targeted at the same age group, and she absolutely is framed as sexually aware and even sexually charged. At one point in her movie, she even literally pole dances, an activity which while not necessarily sexual was certainly MOST associated with strippers at the time the film came out in 1996. Similarly, Jessica Rabbit’s entire gimmick is that “she’s not bad, she’s just drawn that way.” These are characters that are defined by their sexuality as their primary personality traits. But I’d argue there’s more to it than that. There are a couple points in Frozen II where Anna and Kristoff explicitly discuss their sex life with direct references to the the couple being into BDSM and kink. And of course, one could argue that these references might go over the heads of sexually innocent children (or sufficiently vanilla adults), but it’s certainly there to entice the imagination of those 8yos who AREN’T that innocent. And outside of Disney cartoons, the aforementioned Animaniacs as well as Looney Tunes, and Tiny Toon Adventures do this near constantly. It is pretty much the entire plot to Tex Avery’s career! Even with characters that are not hypersexually drawn. Babs Bunny spends MUCH of her time clearly trying to seduce Buster; it is the entire plot of a couple episodes. Pepe Le Pew’s early cartoons are essentially chronicles of his attempts to rape Penelope Pussycat and come across as extremely problematic, even for 1949, if you think about them for a few minutes.
So I want to talk about that on an upcoming episode. What are some characters from clear “children’s cartoons” that are clearly and explicitly depicted as being sexualized. I know a lot of people have crushes on Maid Marian and Robin Hood, but I don’t think they’re clearly sexual so much as a head canon dream (or am I wrong?). But then I look at someone like Kim Possible or the original depiction of She-Ra (and there you go, an unprecedented call back to a fourth previous episode!) and the male gaze seems obvious… or at least the kid gaze does. Or is it the “boy gaze”? I actually had a hard time thinking of explicitly SEXUAL male characters aimed at young girls. He-Man seems different… for one it’s definitely a male power fantasy, not a female lust fantasy. I suppose it could be argued that this is true in the newer incarnation of She-Ra or, if we want to move outside of American programming, something like Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Mask. Are there other examples? Or is the overwhelmingly heteronormative maleness of the kid gaze just another way in which we socialize gender roles in American youth?
Let us know what your thoughts are and what examples you can think of.