“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
This iconic quote from Pride and Prejudice sets the tone for the mainstream representation of women in fiction, and how female characters have always been assigned identities based on their relationships with male characters.
For a long time, the depiction of women in popular culture has served to reinstate stereotypical notions about womanhood, marriage, relationships and sexualities. The accusation (and rightfully so) against mainstream content is its unwillingness to speak of and for women-centric narratives. Animation movies and web series are, unfortunately, yet more spaces where the conventional portrayals of women find shelter. It is truly exhausting, and not to mention demeaning, how women are mostly depicted in animation — powerless stock characters with no significant ability to further the plot. It’s difficult for women to relate with the unrealistic standards set therein — beautiful, slender, pale-skinned, emotionally vulnerable girls who exist to serve the men (read: Male writers and audience) and their fantasies. An unusually long (and needless) shot of Wonder Woman’s thighs in DC’s Justice League, the over-sexualisation of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in Marvel’s Avengers, for instance, add to the already extensive list of female characters who exist to cater to the male gaze. Women are tired of watching their stereotypical selves on screen, and, if we cannot depict their honest representations in 2019, I don’t know who will.
Netflix’s animated comedy series, Tuca & Bertie (2019) has come as a relief, if not cure, from the conventional characterisation of females in the animation world. Created by BoJack Horseman’s production designer, Lisa Hanawalt, Tuca & Bertie is a refreshing, chuckle-filled web series based on the friendship of two 30-year-old bird-women, and their struggles with the anxieties of life. Their struggles extend not only to rummaging through the drawers for a dress and applying make-up, but fighting sexual harassment at the workplace, and having conversations about mental illness.
What Hanawalt has been able to achieve with the show — made by and about women — is a genuine representation of real-world women. Complex themes of female friendship, gender and mental health prevail in what is a surreal and unapologetic universe of birds that live like humans. The show follows Tuca and Bertie, two “bird” best friends living in Birdtown, where buildings have breasts and plants wear clothes and walk. Females in T & B are loud, unrefined, funny, brave, and independent. The show talks about the new-age working women, their misadventures and forbidden desires. From the mundane to the larger issues, everything about the show is laced with dark humour — sex, sex bugs, sexism, sexual harassment and sexualities. From periods to past traumas, unemployment to unmarried life, there is something for practically all women to relate to. And yet, there is no dearth of amusing jokes delivered at full pelt.
In most animation for adults, women’s bodies are presented in an overtly sexual way, appealing only to a particular male fantasy. Hanawalt believes that our bodies are weird, funny and floppy — and should be shown as such. In an interview, Hanawalt revealed that she chose birds as her characters because they are funny and weird in a way, just like people are. Animation gave Hanawalt the liberty and depth to design her strange world, no holds barred. Breasts are an integral part of her world — just like ours, minus the objectification and judgements that real life throws at women. Sound effects are objects, snakes form subways, sexually transmitted infections are sentient bugs and Bertie’s left breast decides to leave her body and walk away. Unlike any universe we’ve seen, Tuca & Bertie is created by a woman and boasts female protagonists based in a town that is indisputably non-conforming at its core.
Hanawalt didn’t shy away from playing with and transcending the boundaries of animation to suit her story, rather than putting the brakes on her imagination. Perhaps, animation can lead the way for other modes of artistic expression to show things as they really are, especially women’s characters.
The writer, 21, is a Masters student at English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, and is currently interning with The Indian Express