Women’s Animation and the Creative Feminist Politics of Social Change

March 25, 2020   •   By Vanessa Cambier

Banner image: Quasi at the Quackadero, Sally Cruikshank (1976)

Featured image: Stand With Standing Rock, Martha Colburn (2016)


ON THE SURFACE, Sally Cruikshank’s animated film Quasi at the Quackadero (1976) and Martha Colburn’s film Stand With Standing Rock (2016) do not have much in common. Cruikshank’s piece is carnivalesque and fantastical; it follows two humanlike ducks, Quasi and Anita, and their motorized, sentient scooter companion, Rollo, to an amusement park called the Quackadero for a day of funhouse mirrors, psychic readings, and a lot of time travel. The animation itself is reminiscent of old Fleischer Studios films featuring Betty Boop or Popeye. Produced 40 years later, Stand With Standing Rock (2016) is a political support piece of the Dakota Access Pipeline protesters, a primarily animated collage in the spirit of other activist, feminist work, such as Martha Rosler’s House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home collage series. Colburn intercuts contemporary images of protesters with older, appropriated images that feature racist and colonial depictions of indigenous peoples. With the themes of playful psychedelia and political protest seemingly at odds, finding a through-line from Cruikshank to Colburn might seem as unlikely as spending a day at the Quackadero.

These films are strange but necessary bedfellows, together illustrating animation as a genre of moving-image culture continuously shaped by women without being a traditional “women’s genre.” Most notably, women’s animation mutates matters of domesticity, marriage, and family into unrecognizable forms that represent the simultaneous jubilance and consternation of inhabiting these traditional roles. Other times, it rejects these themes entirely, opting to reclaim the territory of the screen as a space for women’s creative aspirations and political rage. The fluidity of animation seems potentially potent to the needs of current, media-based feminist activism, while gesturing to a historical relationship between animation and feminism that has yet to be fully examined by scholars and critics. Feminist animation studies is an undeveloped field that holds vital possibilities for media activism, just as cinema studies did in the 1970s. Scholars and filmmakers in this period jointly examined how women were always the objects of representation, and rarely subjects with agency, particularly in mainstream, Hollywood cinema.

One of the most prominent voices charting the relation between feminism and cinema is Annette Kuhn. Kuhn begins her groundbreaking work on feminist cinema, Women’s Pictures: Feminism and Cinema, by stating: “This book is about feminism and cinema: it assumes, therefore, a relationship of some kind between two sets of practices, and explores various points of overlap and intersection between them.” [1] I argue for the importance of reading animation and feminism together in this way, especially now, as we enter what some have described as feminism’s “fourth wave,” an intersectional movement based heavily on using the internet and media (especially social media) activism to both imagine and enact political change. Regardless of agreement about which “wave” of the feminist movement we are experiencing, one of the enduring and underexamined relationships between media and feminism happens within the practice of animation.

The exchange between feminism and animation has much potential to flourish through Kuhn’s method of examining overlaps and junctions. I see these films, by Cruikshank and Colburn, and others — and these animated moments, which surface as the films are viewed collectively — as a radical point of intersection between the two fields. Cruikshank’s film existed on the margins of experimental and avant-garde films of the 1970s, as they too fought for recognition in more mainstream arenas. Politically, Cruikshank’s work was also composed on the margins of large battles women, especially artists, were fighting over public funding and public space, just as Colburn’s film exists on the margins of fights over borders, immigration, and land rights set against the backdrop of government attempts to roll back freedoms, especially reproductive freedoms, for women. A primary issue here is power, namely, how animation interacts with, represents, and pushes against dominant, patriarchal power structures.

“Quasi at the Quackadero,” Sally Cruikshank (1976)

This is not to say, though, that all animated films made by women are overtly feminist or activist. Many are, like Colburn’s Standing Rock, but just as many are not, like Cruikshank’s Quasi. Animation, however, centers on imaginative power, and these films all demonstrate how female-identified and feminist animators illuminate private creative agency, shaped under patriarchy, through a range of political statements and commentaries on public life that seem to flourish especially in animated films. Frequently overlooked in terms of feminist film, media, and activist studies, animation warrants more attention for its critical power and potential, as both a historical marker of women’s struggles centered on the personal and the political, as well as the contemporary flourishing of feminist animators intentionally deploying films as activist texts. And this makes sense, there being more women studying and producing animation than ever before.

Groups such as Women in Animation point out the growing numbers of women gaining the skills to create animated films. However, while 60 percent of animation students are women, only 20 percent of creative industry jobs are held by women. With the high rate of women in animation programs and the lackluster percentage of women in leadership roles in the industry, the paucity of critical writing on animated films made by women should come as no surprise. However, exceptions do exist. Animation historians like Maureen Furniss and Jayne Pilling have written evocatively about animators like Sally Cruikshank and Suzan Pitt and notably placed these films into more general histories of animation. Pilling especially has worked to bring focus to women’s animation by writing Women & Animation: A Compendium (1992). Unfortunately, it is now out of print. Pitt and Cruikshank are only two examples of a handful of important animators held up as benchmarks for women gaining ground in animation during the 1970s. But for all the examples, moving past the historical conditions of production and into the complex formal structures that featured heavily in many of these early films seems like an afterthought.

“Asparagus,” Suzan Pitt (1979)

Two films that are often highlighted as critical in histories of women and animation are Cruikshank’s Quasi and Suzan Pitt’s film Asparagus (1979). These works are as joyous to watch as they are unsettling, arguably the two touchstone films in their makers’ long careers. Both films radiate the psychedelic look popular with underground cinema at this time, but it is Asparagus that delves into thematics associated more with conventional notions of femininity and the “woman’s film.” The color scheme alone, a sea of vibrant pinks and reds, suggests something feminine, sexual, and passionate. The lush domestic interior, and a faceless, female protagonist that we “follow” on a journey both signal the familiar (woman, home, private space) and the uncanny, ending in the space of the theater. Of the two films, only Pitt’s is taken up in feminist film scholarship, most notably in Judith Mayne’s book The Woman at the Keyhole: Feminism and Women’s Cinema (1990). Mayne reads the film as evoking the pleasures associated with early cinema and describes the film as “dreamlike, painterly, and childlike.” The relationship Mayne sets up between the dream, the painter, and the child points both to the unique qualities of animation to tell stories in a way potentially unavailable or at least much more difficult for a live-action film. Accessing dreams and the painterly are particularly suited to animated films and also point to the very real difficulty in describing women’s animation, especially from this time period. It is by no means inaccurate to refer to Asparagus as dreamlike, but the descriptions are limited in their engagement, or lack thereof, in terms of politics. A more focused engagement with the formal elements of the films unlocks potentially important contributions Asparagus might make to feminist film and media studies. Furthermore, this process might also rescript the “dream” into something more politically aligned with feminism and the “painterly” with more “legitimized” art practices.

“Asparagus,” Suzan Pitt (1979)

Taking this point as inspiration, reading Sally Cruikshank’s Quasi at the Quackadero “against the grain” — and alongside those contemporary animations inspired by it — reveals how this film is deeply symptomatic and illustrative of anxieties that arise from changing social landscapes. An intense and fast-moving film, Quasi is not quite “feminist” in theme or content. It looks a lot like a conventional Saturday morning children’s cartoon. At the time of its production, in the mid-1970s, it reflected the placelessness of the American promise or American dream. The films’ politics, what Paul Wells refers to as a “partial feminism,” come to life in the contexts of rapidly changing gender politics of the American landscape in the 1970s. Quasi also demonstrates something that feels and looks very current in terms of anxiety, radiating something akin to our modern take on anxiousness through its combination of aggravated and fidgety characters, edgy visuals, and narratives that supply constant access to carnivalesque situations and atmospheres. This is all especially notable in the rapid pacing of scenarios as the characters Quasi, Anita, and Rollo move from attraction to attraction, without purpose, constantly looking for the next experience. Within this context, the primary relationship between Anita and Quasi, which started on shaky ground at the film’s beginning, breaks down and Anita eventually pushes Quasi into a “time hole.” His fate is sealed as he is forced to live in the prehistoric era. It is tempting to say that the feminist politics of the film involve sending horrible men to live and die with dinosaurs. However, what this unsettling plot twist exposes is the combination of joy and terror that emerges from many points in the film. It is an unsteady viewing experience that does indeed demonstrate the “dreamlike, painterly, and childlike” while also twisting them in a way that changes them from metaphoric, as Mayne’s writing on Pitt suggests, to metamorphic. They become terms of intense change.

“Moon Breath Beat,” Lisze Bechtold (1980)

And then there are films like Lisze Bechtold’s Moon Breath Beat (1980) — a highly experimental animation of 2-D drawing that was even deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the National Film Registry — that is never written about or discussed in reference to women’s animation or even experimental film, although it evokes both quite readily. Bechtold’s film, made while she was still a student, is stunning in its simplicity. Hand-drawn images animated to a beat tell the story of a woman and her two cats. As the three figures disappear, reappear, and morph in and out of becoming shapeless objects breathed in and out by the moon, they erupt into wild laughter within the first minute of the film. The laughter becomes more like screaming as the outlines of the woman and the cats become spiked and electric. All three laugh with closed eyes and heads thrown backward. The film shifts through several more cycles of metamorphic transitions. The women, her cats, and the landscape. But it is the laughter that is most striking here. As the title of the film suggests, the sounds of breathing and a steady beat are dominant throughout, but the wild laughter shared between the woman and the cats is both joyful and frightening. While this resonates with the joy/terror combination in Pitt’s and Cruikshank’s films, it also points toward a general discomfort with women being “too loud” or “too feminist” and the resulting influence of these attitudes on what gets to be a “feminist film” in mainstream culture.

“Moon Breath Beat,” Lisze Bechtold (1980)

Turning toward specific examples of feminist animators who deploy their films as activist projects, in I Am the Mace (2013), animator Kelly Gallagher places herself in the film amid painted images of waves and the sound of the ocean. Right in the middle of the films, and also of the frame, Gallagher speaks a series of lines, directed at rape culture, including, “I am not your entertainment when you walk home from the bar, I am not some bitch that would look good in your car. I am the MACE in my pocket, waiting to blind you. I am the knife in my purse, waiting to cut you.” In the contemporary, the joy/terror combination gives way to anger — and rightly so. Many of Gallagher’s other films are also directly political and feminist. With subject material ranging from historical work on Lucy Parsons, John Brown, Marilyn Buck, to issues like abortion and rape, Gallagher’s animated films directly address intersectional feminist politics in a way that might be “too feminist” for mainstream animated films. By intersectional, I mean that Gallagher’s films examine interlocking structures of power that exist to marginalize and stratify nondominant people and groups in various ways according to the overlapping effects of oppressions across categories such as race, gender, sexuality, disability, and class position. Often using a mixture of animated collage alongside experimental film techniques, Gallagher uses her own form as well, frequently placing herself and her body into the frame. Notably, Gallagher highlights her whiteness and often explicitly acknowledging her own privilege.

And it is no coincidence that all of the animators I reference in this essay are also white. If the history of white women in animation is difficult to locate and write, the histories and politics of women of color and nonbinary animators are nearly invisible. Two sites working to change this are Black Women Animate, a group dedicated to helping black women, women of color, and nonbinary artists gain exposure and find creative work, and Great Women Animators, a site dedicated to maintaining an ongoing directory of female-identified animators inclusive of trans and gender non-conforming animators.

“I Am the Mace,” Kelly Gallagher (2013)

If dominant forms or representations of women (their bodies, labor, in advertising and beyond) is always already pressed into service for profit, then what might it mean to remove bodies entirely? Animated films help move women from being “bodies on display” to authors of bodies of work. The body is not on the screen, rather it is in the image, in the transitions and cuts, just as their names are printed in the rolling credits. This is precisely what both Janie Geiser and Martha Colburn often do in their films. Geiser’s film Valeria Street (2018) animates ephemera found after her father’s passing (20 years earlier). Centered on a photograph of her father at work, standing near a conference table with other men, the film opens into a layered commentary on male power and the gendered nature of work. Slides, collage, and geometric shapes are layered and cut into montage creating a sense of active construction. While collage and montage, as they are borrowed terms from art history and film theory respectively, are always meant to point to the constructed nature of the piece, this meditation on gender, labor, and power holds the sense of Geiser’s presence within the layers of the film, even though no female form is on screen.

“Valeria Street,” Janie Geiser (2018)

Martha Colburn also creates films without her form present in the frame. Her work is often specifically political but in a visually jarring way that incorporates pieces of popular culture and animated collage. Colburn’s Stand With Standing Rock, while a protest film, is also bright, full of saturated colors, an intense violin score, and cartoonish puffs of smoke emerging from police weapons. Colburn’s political protest work creates something aesthetically close to the brightly unsettling effects of Cruikshank and Pitt. Openly political in nature, this film weaves animation with activism and still holds on to elements of dreaminess present in something like Pitt’s Asparagus. Colburn’s films cover a range of topics, including anti-fracking and the reproductive system. She also uses elements of popular culture juxtaposed with political commentary. For instance, Dolls Vs. Dictators (2010) features stop-motion and collage animation of TV star dolls interacting with dictators. The results are both hilarious and disturbing as Muammar Gaddafi interacts with Jon and Ponch from CHiPs. Notably, animation, politics, and moving images are gathered within this short film. The intersection of politics and image is exactly where most feminist film studies begin.

“Stand With Standing Rock,” Martha Colburn (2016)

Hilarity and disturbance are held in tension in all of these films, although they approach representation differently. For instance, while Gallagher’s Mace is explicit about its feminist themes, Bechtold’s tale is, again, dreamy and metamorphic. And yet, they both instill discomfort and fear at women’s laughter and direct address. Feminist media activism holds, as one of its goals, collaboration. To think about how moving images and moving image histories operate in the process of social change, it is imperative to look at the moving images themselves from many angles. To do this, it is necessary to think about the gaps in animation history, where women’s work, especially as creative directors and artists, is still being uncovered.

On critics’ ends, this requires a rigorous process or rereading of animation through a feminist lens and revisiting some of the mostly unresolved questions of feminist film studies, namely: Why does feminism need cinema? And why does cinema need feminism? Animated films, possibly more so than live-action experimental films, do not follow, or seem concerned with, linear conceptions of time or even necessarily plot. In other words, what seems to be very personal views of the body, sexuality, and femininity are not simply personal at all but shared experiences and communal concerns. These women’s films speak to animation's ability to make “material” those aspects of private life most intimately shaped by patriarchal power structures from rape culture to the Hollywood film industry.


Vanessa Cambier is a PhD candidate in Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society at the University of Minnesota and assistant editor of the journal Cultural Critique.


[1] Anette Kuhn, Women’s Pictures: Feminism and Cinema, 3.