In this video essay, I explore the intersection between feminism and animation by focusing on how the latter has reproduced and critiqued the disappearance and reappearance of women’s bodies. In my videographic diptych, I assemble cut-out fragments of an animated dialogue across different times and places, between the invisible labour – behind the screen – of early animation’s craftswomen and the embodied, affirming presence – on screen – of contemporary independent ‘animateurs’. In this dialogue, the main protagonists are Liu Jiamin and Lotte Reiniger.
Liu Jiamin is a Chinese animateur. My exploration of the (re-) appearance of the vanishing woman is imagined as emerging from Liu’s 4-minute animation Animate, i.e., her own dazzling, humorous, pensive, explosive and poetic, rhythmic and chaotic reflection on what it means for her to 'animate'. My main audio-visual source is indeed Liu’s Animate, from which the two main recurrent visual tropes are taken: her animateur’s (animated) hand and her (animated) body. The former – the hand – reaches out from the moon, the archetypal site of human escape from the real. The latter – the body – is Liu’s ‘live’ self, sitting at her drawing desk. I wanted Liu’s corporeal presence to be manifest, clear, defined, self-determining and indexed both to her craft and creative agency.
The much more famous Lotte Reiniger likely needs no introduction. While during her active years Reiniger’s work was largely marginalized and overlooked by film historiography, later she was reappraised, although not quite elevated to match the avant-garde (male) artists, film directors, and musicians with whom she collaborated. More recent scholarship has focussed on the artisanal quality of Reiniger’s work, beyond and in tension with the avant-garde discourse that has allowed her to re-appear in film histories, seeking instead to reassign social, cultural, aesthetic, and political value to the 'crafty animator' (Boeckenhoff and Ruddell 2019). In my video, Reiniger’s corporeal presence is less explicit, like a silhouette, fluctuating between visibility and invisibility, but still clearly indexed both to her craft and creative agency.
The selection of Reiniger (as the European pioneering silhouette animator) and Liu (as the Chinese contemporary digital animateur) may suggest a comparison based on an implied dichotomy between West(ern) and East(ern) viewpoints, or on past (analogue) and present (digital) divides. This is not the case. In bringing Reiniger and Liu together in my diptych, the goal is neither to contrast their national identities, nor their animation aesthetics. Reiniger’s silhouettes often framed in orientalist fairy tales arguably share very little with Liu’s playful conceptual animation. Instead, their encounter is declaredly an act of intervention specifically aimed at crafting a visual dialogue between their persona and their animated works. I see their affirmation of corporeal presence and creative agency as part of a broader, ill-explored, feminist critical approach to animation or, possibly, an animation critical approach to feminism.
Reiniger’s gendered, domesticated, and marginalized hands, scissors, and silhouettes, both praised and dismissed for their ornamental, pretty, and crafty quality (Boeckenhoff and Ruddell 2019, 78-82), are re-animated as they intersect with Liu’s body, which Liu morphs, disintegrates and reassembles, together with the very drawings and cut-out animated images she has created. In the magical and corporeal potentiality of animation, 'vanishing women' (Beckman 2003) have found a way to craft their own (re)appearance.
Beckman’s trope of the 'vanishing women' focuses on the inescapable patriarchal repression of women’ subjectivities via the erasure of their bodies – a trope that has dominated cultural discourses both on and off screens. My argument rests on the specific contribution that animation, as an embodied practice, can offer in both exposing and countering such erasure. More specifically, I focus on one of animation’s key gestures (Flusser 2014): cutting, as an act of both disassembling and reassembling through which women animators have re-affirmed subjectivity and creative agency.
If Reiniger and Liu are the protagonists of (feminist?) embodied gestures, Georges Méliès is indeed the antagonist, or, rather, the symbolic embodiment of the archetypal patriarchal gesture of erasure. In my video, his 'vanishing lady' trick serves, first, as a prologue and, later, as a recurring act, i.e., a reminder of how cinema has cut women out of histories, made them disappear, controlled their bodies and denied them agency. Méliès dissolves two women who are his peers, i.e., prominent pioneers of the moving image: Helena Smith Dayton, whose stop motion clay animations have all been lost and Alice Guy Blaché– an energetic, creative and exceptionally prolific filmmaker. My use of the 'vanishing lady' trick therefore aims at positioning my feminist diptych in the broader critique of the disappearance and reappearance of women in film and animation histories. As Daniella Shreir has pointed out, as we ‘re-discover’ these vanished women, what emerges is that they have not simply been forgotten but were indeed wilfully, manifestly, and unapologetically erased ('Transforming Limitations', 2021) and that their re-appearance does not necessarily restore the plurality and complexity of their agency. Animation’s embodied gestures originate from a broader, shared experience of 'vanishing women', and refute the patronizing and oppressive act in which women are both made to disappear and reappear, with a smile and a bow.
In my video, I critique and reverse Méliès’ quick, nonchalant gesture of erasure, by contrasting it with the slow, laborious, creative gesture of crafting through which women animators reclaim presence, control, and agency. Reiniger’s hands and Liu’s body are key sites for their affirming gesture of re-appearance both off and on screen. On one side of the diptych, in The Adventures of Prince Ahmed, Reiniger’s hands have crafted the animated silhouette of Pari Banu, who is chased and embraced by her amorous suitor, Ahmed (just like Galatea is by Pygmalion, who is played by Méliès himself). Yet, she is not simply a prey or an object of male gaze and desire. Rupturing patriarchal narrative tropes, not only is she the ruler of her kingdom, she is also 'the film’s central lover, rather than merely the love interest. Her desire is palpable from her first appearance, stepping into a pool with a belly dancer’s posture, arms outstretched in a slight ripple, hip jutting and head turned to exaggerate her voluptuousness' (Acadia, 2021: 153). The menacing evil sorcerer in The Adventures of Prince Ahmed – resembling the smiling benevolent illusionist Méliès – gesticulates to conjures his magic and asserts his power; even more threatening is the devil in Harlekin, confronted and defeated by feisty Colombine, who hits him with an iron ball.
On the other side of the diptych, Liu has crafted herself as a (re)animated woman and her hand reaches out to Reiniger and her animations. Liu sprays both her animated digital plants and the silhouette of Pari Banu, with life-giving water. In the latter and concluding section of the video, Liu becomes increasingly agitated as her body cracks open and splits in an explosive affirmation of creative agency. Liu’s explosion and exasperated scream signal a refusal not only to be erased, restrained, but also to be assimilated, homogenised. Instead, she reclaims multiple, heterogeneous, and clashing experiences. Out of the magic tunnel to/from the moon is the animateur’s disaggregated body, chaotically scattered alongside the other objects of her craft. What the future holds is yet to be assembled: in this messy pile of organic and inorganic materialities lies the affirmation of plurality and the possibility of collage, hybridity, and the encounter of physical and virtual bodies (but that is indeed another story and another video essay). My video ends with Liu’s open mouth in a gasp, rather than a sigh of despair or relief. She is catching her breath, in preparation for her next embodied gesture.
Final note: myself as the ‘acanimator’
This is my first video essay, my first serious attempt as an academic to approach my ‘object’ of study (but also a life-long personal ‘passion’), by embracing a more subjective and creative perspective that, instead of written text, relies on an audiovisual medium as an expressive modality. In developing this project, I reflected on my positionality as an ‘academic-animator’, who, expanding but also departing from Henry Jenkins’s ‘acafan’, is both intellectually engaged with and enchanted by the animated works and their creators. Aiming at paying homage to ‘my’ protagonists’ creative practices, I wanted my own painstakingly slow and laborious acts of crafting (i.e., cutting, disassembling, assembling, making appear and disappear) to be visible and noticeable. In my amateur ‘acanimation’, I also wanted my critical voice to remain unobtrusive, implicit, and – in fact – silent, only visualised as a sort of essay silhouette, rather than an expository discussion. In this silhouette, the essay’s contours – my argumentative steps – are sketched in the opening subtitles (The Vanishing Woman, The Reappearing Woman, The Animating Woman, The Animated Woman), which I replay at the end of the essay. There are no spoken words, and text is only used to highlight key words and concepts that inspired me and to sketch the multiple potentialities – magical, corporeal, (dis)assembled, affirming – of the still gasping, re-animated woman.
 For Liu and many other contemporary artists, 'being Chinese' refers to a fluid – and often contested – positionality, a combination of localised and transnational (i.e., 'accented') experiences, rather than an increasingly problematic and untenable fixed geographic or linguistic belonging. My use of the term 'animateur' is meant to refer to Liu’s creative work as an artistic and artisanal light praxis which is neither mainstream nor avant-garde. (Voci 2023)
 Originally, to emphasise the plurality and diversity of past, vanished women’s 'embodied gestures,' I considered creating a collage of superimposed, (dis-)appearing images of Disney animators such as Lillian Friedman Astor and Retta Scott, or independent animators such as Hermína Týrlová Suzan Pitt or Maria Lassnig. However, such a collage of animators, all of them with different approaches to the animated image, would have necessarily distracted from the main focus of the video essay.
Acadia, Lilith. 2021. '‘Lover of Shadows’: Lotte Reiniger’s Innovation, Orientalism, and Progressivism'. Oxford German Studies 50(2), pp.150-168.
Animate, 2019, dir. Liu Jiamin, http://missbowtie.com/filter/animation/Animate
Beckman, Karen Redrobe. 2003. Vanishing Women. Duke University Press.
Boeckenhoff, Katharina, and Caroline Ruddell. 2019. 'Lotte Reiniger: The Crafty Animator and Cultural Value'. The crafty animator: Handmade, craft-based animation and cultural value. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, pp.75-98.
Douglass, Jason Cody. 2017. 'Artist, Author, and Pioneering Motion Picture Animator: The Career of Helena Smith Dayton'. Animation Studies Online Journal. https://journal.animationstudies.org/jason-douglass-artist-author-and-pioneering-motion-picture-animator-the-career-of-helena-smith-dayton-runner-up/
Flusser, Vilém. 2014. Gestures. U of Minnesota Press.
'Transforming Limitations: Caitlin Quinlan talks to Daniella Shreir, editor of Another Gaze, about the new irregular streaming platform, Another Screen'. 2021. MAP, Issue 61, April. https://mapmagazine.co.uk/transforming-limitation
Voci, P. 2023. 'Para-animation, in Practice and Theory: The Animateur, the Embodied Gesture, and Enchantment', Animation Volume 18(1), pp. 23-41. https://doi.org/10.1177/17468477231155543
Paola Voci researches and teaches at the University of Otago in Aotearoa New Zealand. She specialises in the 'Chinese-accented' moving image, and, in particular, documentary, animation, and other hybrid video practices. She is the author of China on Video, a book that analyses and theorises 'light' movies made for and viewed on computer and mobile screens and co-editor of Screening China's Soft Power, an investigation on the role played by film and media in shaping China's global image. Her current research focuses on vernacular 'animateur' practices and postdigital documentary and examines their contribution to the theory and archeology of the moving image.