There are few creative industries as innovative as the animation industry. There are also few creative industries wherein women play such a prominent role. There are female directors, producers, scriptwriters in amounts that most art disciplines can only dream of. So it’s only natural that a lot of animation films deal with female themes or unapologetic feminist themes in all varieties. Here are five of the most noteworthy examples.
By Natasja van Loon
Borderline 1 & 2 by Monique Renault
No list of feminist animation would be complete without at least one movie by independent French animator Monique Renault. Her work is based upon social themes like feminism, anti-militarism and anti-religion. Her technique is mainly colored pencil applied directly to paper.
Renault’s most recent film, Holy Smoke, was made in 2000, when smoking was still socially accepted. It focuses on a woman writing a letter: when she lights up a cigarette she remembers all the important cigarettes of her life. It’s a beautiful rendition of a time when the cigarette was still a symbol of empowerment, and a woman could appropriate male iconic power by smoking. I chose however one of her older animations for this top 5. Borderline 1 & 2 were made in 1981, but especially Borderline 1 is still strikingly relevant in our age and will stay that way as long as there is a wage gap, and household and caretaking chores aren’t evenly distributed between the genders. Borderline 2 is a shorter and more philosophical animation about the feats of men, as seen through the eyes of women.
Among The Black Waves by Anna Budanova
The Russian Federation is not a regime one usually associates with women’s rights, so it’s a small miracle that Among The Black Waves by Anna Budanova got funded by the Russian state. Perhaps because the story is based upon an ancient northern folktale that conveys its feminist layers in a very subtile and implicit way. But make no mistake: the legend of the seal girl whose skin gets stolen by a man giving him power over her, has a distinct feminist message. The seal girls are free spirits, they represent women who do not bow to the will of men – which is why the male adversary is dead set on taming one of them.
Budanova’s stylish black and white animation is imbued with the threat of male power, symbolized by the dog of the man that ferociously guards the woman he has made his wife. But neither man nor dog wholly succeed in taming her spirit and she keeps longing for the freedom of the sea. It is no coincidence that the one who ultimately frees her is another woman: the seal girl’s daughter.
Teat Beat of Sex by Signe Baumane
It’s hardly surprising that a lot of feminist animation films deal with the subject of sex. After all, the male fear of female sexuality is responsible for the creation of a societal system that is completely dedicated to the suppression of the female sexuality. Chosing one animation out of the countless productions that are worthwhile was hard, but the work of the New York-based Latvian animator Signe Baumane mustn’t lack in this overview.
Sexuality is not Baumane’s only feminist topic: she also tackles difficult themes like pregnancy and depression and makes them palatable through humor and irony. She usually narrates her personal stories over a flat 2D hand-drawn style of animation. Her short film Teat Beat of Sex is a perfect example: it’s funny and frank, but also highly educational and based on first-hand experiences. In Teat Beat of Sex Baumane doesn’t shy away from taboos, she addresses among other things the size and shape of male penises, the female sex drive and how masturbation can keep a woman out of trouble.
Edge of Alchemy by Stacy Steers
Because of its allegorical power and poetic qualities Edge of Alchemy is not the most accessible story, but that doesn’t make this film any less fascinating. This 19-minute short by American director Stacy Steers, who is known for her process-driven, labor-intensive work, is composed of over 6.000 collages and explores the psychological terrain of women’s inner worlds.
Steers incorporates close-ups and medium shots of the faces of two of the greatest American actresses of silent cinema, Mary Pickford and Janet Gaynor, into a surreal and slightly dystopian Frankenstein-ish storyworld. Although the film defies an easy interpretation, it is clearly a commentary on the importance of bees for the sustainability of life. In Steers’ story the bees have all died out and a female Frankenstein-like scientist creates another woman, a kind of supreme queen bee, with the ability to give life to the dead bees. Edge of Alchemy is the natural sequel to Mary Shelley’s original story, that basically handled male jealousy of the female ability to produce life, but it also dives into a very female dilemma: the inevitable moment when a woman has to say goodbye to the life she has given birth to.
Edmond by Nina Gantz
Wait… what? A story about a male character in a list of feminist animated films? That must be a mistake! But it’s not, since feminism doesn’t just address the position of women in society, but of all minorities, as well as the consequences of (toxic) masculine stereotypes for the men in our society.
Edmond, the main character in Dutch animator Nina Gantz‘ breathtakingly beautiful animation short with the same name, is such a man. His cannibalistic tendencies make him painfully unfit for social interaction and he desperately longs for a return to the source of his existence: the womb of his mother who he avoids in real life. Returning to the womb is of course a universal human desire, that is at its strongest when life makes you miserable, but it is hard to imagine a depiction of this theme that is as stunning as this stop motion film, that rightfully won a BAFTA Award for Best Short Animation.
Natasja van Loon is an editor at Zone 5300, a Dutch magazine for comics, culture and curiosities, and a publicist at Machina, a magazine about living in the digital age. She also reviews books, tv, movies and music, and works as a freelance press officer and PR and communication consultant for several organizations like the comics festival Stripdagen Haarlem. She loves art, history, philosophy, science, politics and all forms of storytelling.