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by D.R. Baker
In a memory from when I was 4 or 5-years-old, I am in my car seat, behind my dad, who navigates the family van through plodding traffic. I don't remember where we were headed, or where my mother and two siblings were, but I do remember that I was bored out of my skull. I reach across the seat, as far as my twiggy arms can stretch, fingers splayed toward my Woody doll, which my parents had given me the Christmas after taking me to Toy Story. For a good deal of my childhood, the stuffed sheriff ranked among the top tier of my toys, which also included a Buzz Lightyear, and—of course—a Game Boy Color that almost exclusively projected Pokémon.
Now, some 20 years later, I can close my eyes and still hear Tom Hanks in the doll's tin-toned speaker, informing me that I'm his favorite deputy. The Buzz doll's gaudy laser SFX and Tim Allen's “Buzz Lightyear to the rescue!” stuck in my ear. I can still direct you through the darkened cave to Lavender Town in Pokémon Blue, can hum its theme song and hear its 8-bit instrumentation in my head, can recall the B-button’s crunch, from the time I spilled apple juice on my Game Boy and never cleaned it. These things stay with a person. They become sensory data; they spring back effortlessly, even after decades.
I can’t remember a time in my life when this information was not in my brain. These bits are among the oldest data on my mental hard drive.
In the spring of 1992, shortly before I was born, there was a dust-up over Fox Broadcasting’s plans to air a Saturday morning cartoon starring Chester Cheetah, a sun-glassed cheese glutton designed by Frito-Lay to hawk Cheetos to young viewers. Parental advocacy groups were not happy; according to a New York Times story on the issue, a coalition that included Action for Children's Television swiftly condemned airing what would essentially be a 21-minute commercial for junk food. Chester Cheetah got caught in the middle of a boiling conflict: Concerned parents and opportunistic politicians versus broadcasting and snack food corporations.
Speaking to the Times, Margaret Loesch, then-president of Fox Children's Network, said it was not the broadcasting giant's intention to sell Cheetos with the new cartoon. They simply wanted to capitalize on the popular character to create a similarly popular television program.
Although this claim was dubious at best, Loesch made an interesting counterargument about Mickey Mouse. She posited that the cartoon rodent, like the amphetaminic cheetah, had evolved to serve both as the central character of beloved children's media and as a spokesman. The myriad toys, snacks, books, CDs, school supplies, clothing, etc. that one could buy with Mickey's mug on them corroborate this idea, as do the widely attended Disney theme parks.
Sure, Chester Cheetah began as an advertisement. But should his origin have precluded him from becoming hero of his own misadventures, because he started on the opposite side than the Mouse of a dual-purpose that all cartoon characters have come to occupy?
Ultimately, the show, Yo! It's the Chester Cheetah Show!, never made it to air. But Chester starred in two video games for the NES and continues to this day to appear as a plush toy, on t-shirts, and, of course, in virtually all of Cheetos' advertising, for one simple reason: he is effective. He is effective for the same reasons that The California Raisins and Ronald McDonald are effective. Children respond to bright colors, funny voices, and silly personalities. They respond to Chester Cheetah's gruff cheese lust, to Ronald’s clowning, and to the Raisins' jazzy routines imploring young minds to eat cheese-dusted corn puffs, soggy burgers, and dried grapes.
Further, though: in 2017, cartoon characters don't really lead a double life anymore. We are, at all times, surrounded by images and narratives, to the point that fictional beings have integrated into our worldviews as deeply as close friends and family. Before media became so omnipresent, the divide between consuming and not consuming appeared to be as simple as flipping the television switch or abstaining from the movies. As a child of the ‘90s, my entire life, since birth, has paralleled the rapid proliferation of screens and moving images. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a cartoon character whose purpose wasn’t to sell me something. Reflecting on the media I consumed as a kid, a shockingly effective cycle emerges:
Films/TV: The narrative storytelling that introduces us to characters to make us care about them, to identify with their virtues, flaws, and struggles, and to satisfy us with neatly packaged Aristotelian plots that:
1) with films, send us home feeling good, humming songs, shouting quotes, running around the living room reenacting our favorite scenes, or...
2) with TV, like with snack food, satisfy us just enough to seed desire, to file the next episode under can't-miss-or-will-die, or...
3) with the most successful franchises, leverage our brand loyalties to sell us films and TV shows, and use each as a commercial for the other.
Related Media: This includes toys, video games, fruit snacks, soundtracks—you name it. Any sort of object or media with which we can interact to elicit positive sensations: the soft fabric of a doll or the thwack of two colliding figures; the rewarding sound effects we learn to associate with winning a battle, leveling up, gaining a vital prize; pleasant, sugary flavors; an ear-worm melody of triumph or epic march toward battle.
Iconography: T-shirts, backpacks, lunch boxes, binders, folders, pencils and pens, carrying cases for said pencils and pens—any physical object featuring a child's favorite characters they can bring to school and, unlike a toy or a video game, proudly display in the middle of a classroom in view of their peers; objects that provide children with positive interactions. In the fertile social environment of childhood—where one is just beginning to adopt values, beliefs, and customs and to influence these in others—these icons serve a vital role. They are a marketer’s greatest trick: materials that transform a child into a walking advertisement, one which their parents paid for.
Although the narrative storytelling is the big kahuna, a child's access to the characters and images can begin at any one of these three stations, as they journey to the others. Truly cyclical, the process feeds off itself.
Perhaps no other children's media embodies this idea of a buying cycle better than the Pokémon empire.
The entire franchise derives from a Japanese video game about the eponymous creatures, but when the English dub of the anime debuted, the mania really took off. Ash Ketchum, the ambitious (and very annoying) protagonist, is on a quest to “catch 'em all.” This statement of purpose appears on virtually all Pokémon media, beneath the yellow-and-blue logo. It serves as a tagline for the TV show and battle cry of the devotees. In 1998, Ash and his friends, including the world-famous Pikachu, made their theatrical debut in Pokémon: The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back!, which, despite being a genuinely horrible film whose multi-tiered title confounds, grossed upwards of $160 million worldwide.
The film was the crown jewel of the veritable Pokémania sweeping the planet at the time, where everywhere you turned Pikachu's face graced the TV, soared above Manhattan at the Macy's Thanksgiving parade, and glowed upon an endless array of toys and trading cards in his and his pocket-monster cohorts' likenesses.
In the tangled web of integrated media, finding beginnings and endings in the Pokémon franchise is even harder than a needle in the proverbial hay. Everything fits so snugly into the cycle of influence. After the success of this first film, Ash’s story has continued in various TV incarnations for over 20 years, and in 18 films. As for the video games, over 60 titles have appeared across every platform Nintendo has introduced since 1997.
Critically speaking, the films and anime feature grating characters, formulaic plots, and beyond irritating voice acting. The games are all functionally derivative of the original title, as are the offshoots, like Pokémon GO, which amounts to little more than walking around with your head down and destroying your cell phone battery. They offer practically nothing besides the familiar characters—which, of course, is the point. Pokémon GO, despite its limitations, allegedly received upwards of 500 million downloads. With it, the franchise capitalized on the loyalty they’ve bred in a generation of consumers.
Like Pokémon, Toy Story has also featured a trio of films (with a fourth incoming), some television, and additonial forays into video games. It spawned a great deal of merchandising, having taken nods for its characters from preexisting toys and then popularizing physical renditions of the same, like my Woody doll.
One thing that Toy Story managed to do that Pokémon has chosen not to is age with its audience. Like Harry Potter, although less ubiquitous, the series grew up alongside the children that, like me, were barely sentient when its first film came out.
In the second film, we were introduced to Jessie, a female counterpart to Woody. We learned that Andy’s favorite sheriff doll originated as a character on a children’s television show. These meta references to the role toys play in children’s lives, as extensions of a young mind’s very identity, endeared the characters to an entire generation of viewers. The second film elevated Toy Story from one-off hit to a franchise. Real-life counterparts to Woody, Buzz, Jessie, and their friends were produced en masse, allowing children to use these tangible objects as vectors for the personalities they’d come to adore onscreen. It’s emotionally resonant, but considering that a major theme of Toy Story is how unique Buzz is from all other Buzz Lightyear toys, it’s also ironic that its product line encouraged such connections with mass produced likenesses.
In the third film, this emotional resonance peaks. Eleven years after Toy Story 2 came the third installment, where both Andy and the toys deal with the existential crisis of moving away to college, and what this will mean for their relationship. In the film’s narrative structure, this conflict is perhaps merely a framing device, as the meat of the movie consists of the toys' escape from a shady daycare, but it's fitting that it concludes with Andy's decision to give them away to his young neighbor. It’s a reflection of the original audience, who had grown into young adults themselves since the first film—like me, 18-years-old and sitting in a southeastern Ohio movie theater with my parents, 500 miles from home and shortly before I moved to college myself.
The German playwright Bertolt Brecht resented this kind of Aristotelian storytelling, writing of the need in inter-war Germany to dispel such emotional investments in fictional narratives. He saw popular entertainment, like the theatre and cinema, too easily manipulated to promote nationalistic agendas. He implored his fellow theater makers, and by extension all artists, to radically transform their mediums, in order to combat their exploitative potential.
While it's easy to shrug off Brecht's ideas as reactionary, I think his view of the emotionally manipulative potential of Aristotle's ideas is not too far-fetched. Look at how Hollywood, our country's standard-bearer of narrative storytelling, uses character, plot, and emotion to influence our wallets, especially with regard to children.
An important distinction to be made here is that these ideas in no way reflect the inherent quality of a piece of media. Toy Story is a delightful and moving series of films, I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for the Pokémon games, and Yo! It's the Chester Cheetah Show! almost certainly would have been very, very bad TV.
But it should raise eyebrows that a snack food ad transitioning to a series is considered wrong, while the opposite is acceptable. Perhaps all children's media is an advertisement. After all, what was Steamboat Willie besides a way to compel more children to attend the movies? What is any children's film but a vehicle to sell them and their guardian’s tickets to see it?
Maybe, when a kid likes something, they have the opportunity to express their fandom in all its innumerable forms. This is a nice idea, but it's worth noting that integrated media is not as aggressive for other films. There's no La La Land video game. As far as I know, no such thing exists as a Mahershala Ali plush doll. Children’s psyches are the most fertile soil in which to seed lifelong devotions and buying habits. I can’t help but think that Brecht would shudder.
My own life is wrapped in threads of influence that begin from my earliest memories and, though I'm not much of a gamer or toy-purchaser now, remain with me in adulthood. I was not among those queuing for Pokémon Sun and Moon last November, but I did download Pokémon GO, if only for its ubiquity and a lingering curiosity to see what those familiar characters were up to. Even though part of me doesn't want to, I will probably go see Toy Story 4, if only to find out if Pixar ruins the series. I have loyalty to these brands. They remain a part of how I have learned to view the world.
A few years after the one in the back of the van, I have another memory of my Woody doll. My older sister loved Toy Story too, particularly the sheriff, but for whatever reason my parents never purchased her a Woody doll. Meanwhile, I had both Woody and Buzz Lightyear, the latter of whom I liked better anyway. So one year, for my sister's birthday, I gave her my doll.
She held onto it for a few years, but neither of us remembers what happened to Woody. Nor do I know what became of Buzz or my Game Boy cartridges, the VHS tapes on our wooden shelf, the DVDs that replaced them, or most of the other pieces of plastic that dot the landscape of my memories. Perhaps—probably—they're in a landfill somewhere, millions of years away from their half-lives, or maybe another kid inherited them after I lost interest. Wherever they rest, I can still close my eyes and hear them, feel their plastic contours, remember the images they projected onto my family's screens.
D.R. Baker is a writer of fiction, music, essays, and plays. His work has appeared or is forthcoming at The Young Folks, Independent Music News, Paragraph Planet, The Open House: Telephone, Fredericksburg Literary & Art Review, and on stages in New York, New Jersey, and Ohio. Dan also creates instrumental music under the name After Lake Starfish. He lives in New York City.
by Will Fabro
Queer people are often asked “When did you know?” as though there was simply one irrevocable event that changed us, a clearly signposted fork leading us off the default path of heteronormativity. The question is fallacious at its core, not just in its presumption of a dominant heterosexual identity compromised, but also in its binary notion of cause and effect, i.e. This happened and you became That. My experience, instead, was one of sporadic but seismic rumblings—sometimes self-aware, mostly subconscious, and others externally applied—of difference throughout childhood that marked me as queer long before any actual sexuality asserted itself during puberty. Todd Haynes evokes such rumblings in Dottie Gets Spanked (1993), originally filmed for ITVS. Haynes, with his breathtaking formal control and bracing intellectual curiosity, would be considered one of the world’s foremost filmmakers regardless, but it is his oeuvre’s unrelenting investigations and interrogations of queer identity that makes him such a vital artist.
In Dottie Gets Spanked, Haynes focuses on the inchoate queerness of young Steven Gale, a “six and three-quarter” year old obsessed with the comedienne Dottie Frank (loosely based on Haynes’ childhood love of Lucille Ball). Steven, with loving parents and an almost satirically archetypal suburban home, seems like a fairly ordinary child—sweet and dutiful, though maybe too meek for a “normal” boy—until the intensity of his heroine-worship initiates a slow but persistent recognition of his difference, a minor but profound transgression that Haynes insinuates as queer. Steven’s love for Dottie is desire, but not a normative/heterosexual one; it is instead an act of emotional transference and identification. To be a queer child is to disrupt norms you are just beginning to understand; to be aware of the burgeoning self-consciousness of your othering. Over the course of Dottie Gets Spanked’s 30 minutes, Steven Gale’s Dottie idolatry increasingly ostracizes him from his family and peers due to the implications of his deviation from a more conventional, and less complicated, expression of desire.
Young children are much more fluid in their expression of gender than is assumed, too young to know or really understand societal norms or essentialist behavior. There is a wild joy in the freedom of their interests, how they range from the expected to the surprising. As a young boy I was passionate about basketball and read anything put in front of me. For a party trick, my uncles would ask me to recite the standings for each NBA Division, as well as each team’s win-loss percentage, which I had gleaned from that morning’s newspaper. I loved stuffed animals and action figures, toy soldiers, my cousins’ Barbie dolls. And I found an affinity for performing in all respects: a frequent student reader of Biblical verse at my Catholic school’s Sunday mass, cast as Joseph in our second grade nativity play, or learning the choreography of Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” video. She became the subject of most of my obsessive drawings, along with the era’s basketball stars, mainly Dominique Wilkins of the Atlanta Hawks. I read X-Men comic books and watched every re-run of I Love Lucy with my grandmother.
I was aware that some of these interests were “for boys” and others “for girls,” but it never occurred to me that they were absolute and separate. At a young age, we are simply attracted to what gives us pleasure; it’s later that we learn to feel shame for what we love. Dottie Gets Spanked opens with Steven rapt, drawing pictures of Dottie as he watches her television show. This is normal, to both him and his mother, until a neighbor remarks upon the strangeness of his attention; her own daughter can’t keep still, so much so that her husband spanks the child. “We don’t believe in hitting,” Mrs. Gale demurs quietly, but Steven’s focus has been diverted, piqued by the conversation.
On a school bus the next day, Steven sits behind a trio of girls as they cheerfully discuss The Dottie Show, Haynes evoking both his desire to join in and his frustrating remove in a nearly frantic POV shot that glides to the back of each girl’s head as they speak. The shot has a controlled energy—as if Steven is choking on his own words but desperately wants to contribute and share in the revelry—but his/our experience is ultimately deflating, because of the barriers, both physical and social, between him and them. They are in “girl world,” and a cut to his frustrated face indicates that he knows he cannot enter it.
He does anyway, later on the playground, as the girls talk about Dottie’s original hair color and whether or not she wears a wig on the show, the answer to which Steven obviously knows and shares. They erupt in laughter, as if shocked that he has breached the girl/boy boundary; boys are not supposed to know something like this, let alone use the word “brunette” instead of “brown.” One of the girls will later tell him, “My sister says you’re a feminino!” with a childlike glee that is both cruel and not; it would be accusatory if it wasn’t so casually blunt, full of the gauche, unvarnished honesty that children master because they haven’t yet learned to self-censor or be politic. And so immediately Steven is labeled as “not normal” before he is even conscious of it. But gender norms are so prescribed, and at such an early age, that Steven’s rudimentary identification—coded as fanaticism—with Dottie is transgressive; it is a rejection of informed notions of masculinity that many queer boys intuitively find restrictive.
For some queer boys, the near-total absence of non-conforming, real-world, male role models, along with the assumption of heterosexuality, entails an early adoption of female-centered art and media, which more readily address notions of gender-based power imbalance and dynamics and give voice to perspectives that challenge dominant masculinity. (Along with Janet Jackson, some formative figures of my past include Punky Brewster, Florence Griffith Joyner, Roseanne, Holly Hunter in The Piano, and Kathleen Hanna. With hindsight, I realize now that I sought out a specific kind of female role model for an essence of exceptionalism that was contrary to stereotype. Florence Griffith Joyner had long, beautiful fingernails and ran with grace and power; Kathleen Hanna let out hair-raising screams about social inequity and male brutality over the heaviest guitar noise I’d heard to that point. Corporeally and/or emotionally, these were not dainty women, and because I did not consider myself “one of the boys”—those whom I was around seemed crass, loud, and dirty—they became examples as deconstructors of gender-based restrictions on what seemed possible or acceptable.) What Haynes does brilliantly in Dottie Gets Spanked is convey the creeping awareness of one’s difference, and the suggestion of how it informs Steven’s present perspective and possible future identity. At such a young age, sexuality is not present, but it is not too early to be marginalized for being strange, not normal, queer.
As the film progresses, Haynes begins intertwining the narrative into a larger exploration of desire marked as forbidden, and therefore necessarily hidden. Because of Steven’s age, desire is primitive. For Steven, the sublimation of desire manifests onto a symbol, the only outward expression available to him (Haynes would later expand deliriously on this idea in Velvet Goldmine, though because that film’s protagonist is older, hormones and lust play a much larger role). The desire becomes complicated, however, when he wins a trip to the set of The Dottie Show and witnesses a rehearsal wherein Dottie’s husband comically spanks her in the living room like a disobedient child. As the scene begins, Steven’s response is confused and fearful; from his mother’s earlier conversation, he knows this is a bad thing, something one does and should not want. But then Dottie changes from dehumanized character to woman in control, essentially directing her own spanking when she notices something wrong with the scene, strides to the camera and inspects the frame, instructs the couch to be raised, and reassumes her position. Steven sits forward intently, noticing how she has taken ownership and power over an action commonly associated with humiliation, as if taking notes on how to behave in the future.
Still, Steven is aware of the experiential gulf between a grown woman’s agency and his own pre-pubescent impotence. He draws a picture, in more vibrant color than his previous ones, of Dottie being spanked, but is ashamed when his father—disapproving of his odd, feminine obsession—catches him in the act. The film reaches its climax in a remarkable black-and-white dream sequence where Steven, accused of a crime by a hectoring mob, is to be punished with a spanking from a hypermasculine strongman, who then morphs into a disguised Dottie. Clearly, this is laced with metaphor. It is in the dream’s spanking sequence—intercut with shots of an almost ecstatic, emboldened, full-color Steven thrashing his right arm in a downward motion to mirror his spanker, as if author and origin of his own tumult—where Haynes articulates most clearly the complex perspective of young queer consciousness through his aesthetic mastery. As it is for Steven, this sequence for the audience is confounding, uncomfortable, perverse, thrilling. It is a remarkable confluence of content and form, theme and execution; one of the greatest instances of visual and sonic montage in a career that does not lack for them.
When Steven awakes from the dream, it is an awakening of consciousness itself. Desire has become inextricable from shame, at least for now, at least in this world. And his ensuing response rings poignant to the experiences of many queer people: we become attuned to how others perceive us, and we learn how to calibrate ourselves for minimal exposure, in order to hide. I would adopt the mannerisms of the boys around me and learn the language they used to denigrate anything feminine. I hurled insults at softer boys, hoping this would deflect any similar accusations against me. I choked on my emotions, at least until I was alone in my bedroom and could wail along to PJ Harvey. I kissed Simone even though I knew I’d rather be kissing Jason. I still find it difficult to hold another man’s hand in public.
At the end, Steven takes the drawing of Dottie being spanked and sneaks outside in the winter night to bury his icon, cognizant that his strange love has been weaponized against him, turned him into a mark, or prey; mocked for a difference that he finally grasps as incomprehensible to the outside world. But he also takes care to wrap her in foil beforehand—protecting her, as if knowing he will need this part of himself later. In the garden, he carefully sprinkles soil over this entombed treasure, and pats it gently before leaving. The location is significant; for Haynes, this buried desire is merely a seed, and both it and Steven will eventually grow, expressing themselves in ways that could only be hinted at earlier. I can imagine an older Steven being asked the same question that is posed to so many of us. I’ve never been able to answer that question; I don’t know when I knew because it seems to me to have occurred in fits and starts. It’s not one big moment but dozens of seemingly small ones. Everyone else will wonder when and how it happened, but only Steven will know when and how it began.
A plethora of LGBT films, from 1996’s Beautiful Thing to the recent Being 17, have centered around the teenage coming-out process, which is understandable considering the dramatic potential of such stories, with their volatility and usual sense of closet-busting triumph and more explicit engagement with sexuality. But Haynes—whose cinematic expressions of queerness has ranged from the Genet-inspired eroticism of Poison’s “Homo” segment to Velvet Goldmine’s glitter extravaganza to the repression in Far From Heaven and, finally, the gorgeous romance of Carol—is far too slippery a filmmaker for something so cut-and-dry. What is radical and unique about Dottie Gets Spanked is Haynes’ examination of a nascent queer identity, incipient and unformed though it may be, in children. Though filmed in 1993, Dottie Gets Spanked still feels true and fresh, detailing a queer perspective on childhood in a way that has rarely (if ever) been depicted with such insight. If Haynes’ oeuvre can be seen as a career-long investigation on the myriad ways to be queer, Dottie Gets Spanked is singular in its articulation of the nebulous but potent birthing of queer consciousness.
Will Fabro is a writer currently living in Missoula, MT. His work has been previously featured in the fiction anthologies Fresh Men, Userlands, and Cool Thing.
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