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Deconstruction Zone — Part 1 (Or: Semiotics Means Never Having to Signify You’re Sorry)

Dr. Toon takes on the deconstructionists about the ideas they read into classic cartoons.

Is Cindy Bears love for Yogi Bear unrequited because of that pesky interloper Boo Boo? © and  2004 Cartoon Network.

Let me be the first to admit that examining and quantifying what is occurring in a given piece (or indeed an entire season) of animated film is a useful and necessary component in analysis and critique. This can be done in several ways: viewing an animated film as an integrated whole can be as valid as breaking it down into component parts (e.g., background, script or voicework). There are a number of divergent theories to work from, but most theories operate from common base assumptions including these: 1) Animation is a specific form of communication arts that 2) Is inseparable from the culture that produces and consumes it. Most of you who have perused Maureen Furniss exemplary book on animation analysis, Art In Motion, will find familiar ground here; these two assumptions help to explain why American otaku, for example, throw themselves into study of Japanese customs and mythology in order to experience a more authentic enjoyment of anime.

Would Joe Barbera and Bill Hanna say analyze this to overanalyzing postmodern theorists? Courtesy of Warner Bros. Animation.

There are some theories, however, that take analysis and critique in a different direction. One of the premier theorists of postmodern criticism is Roland Barthes. He might look at animation in terms of semiotics: A text (lets say, in the form of a Happy Tree Friends cartoon) would be a highly subjective piece of reality since it is constructed of signifiers (objects translated by the viewers brain into working definitions called denotatives). The Happy Tree Friends cartoon is thus constructed by the viewer just as much as it is by Rhode Montijo and Kenn Navarro.

Thus, all texts and films become a sort of do-it-yourself assembly kit in which you personally deconstruct and construct various meanings out of a given film or text. Your psychic LEGOS (perhaps this is simpler than I thought!) consist of said signifiers, symbols and icons, all translated into individual brain language.

As with LEGOS, there are many possible configurations, simple and complex. Complex arrangements commonly contain codes, which may be very roughly translated as representations. According to Barthes, all images are polysemous, this means that anyone and everyone is free to have a ball interpreting them based on their experience and familiarity with signs, codes and signifiers. A text may be readerly, meeting ones familiar expectations by providing enough context for readers to fix signifiers comfortably, or writerly, in which the creator throws the reader or viewer a curve in the form of hermeneutic trickery such as skidding, in which meaning changes because a single signifier unexpectedly calls upon multiple signifiers, and -- OK, lets please dont go there.

Dr. Jeffery P. Dennis searches for codes of same-sex desire in Ruff And Ready. Was this the La Cage Aux Folles of its time or were Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera just creating an animated Odd Couple? © and  2004 Cartoon Ne

Now that I have given my bemused readers enough material to reliably flunk a midterm in postmodern theory, it is time to examine how this is often misapplied in the analysis and critique of animated cartoons. The literature, unfortunately, is so dense, murky and stubbornly grounded in linguistic theory that several readings are often required to glean what the concepts are; how they interrelate is grist only for the loftiest of ivory towers. It is likewise hard to critique a theory in which one can, within the limits of universal signifiers, personally construct almost any meaning out of anything.

Curiously, the failure is not in the theories themselves. The problems begin when other explanations for a given text that seem to be more valid are ignored or downplayed. At times this is done with little knowledge of animation history, and yet the author will carry doggedly on with more faith in semiotics than Timmy has in his Fairly OddParents. To experience the effect of how postmodern theory imbues animation with bizarre, unfathomable, yet very obvious connotations, I give you an article by Jane Gaines from Cinema Journal 20, No. 1, Fall 1980.

The following is an analysis of the Tex Avery cartoons in which his eponymous wolf goes ga-ga over sexy Red (words between slashes signify signs):

On closer examination of the relationship between /eyes/ and sexual arousal, one sees that /eyes/ are not associated with arousal in the same way as /sex organs/ and arousal are related. As the participation of the eyes is not a physiological requirement in sexual intercourse, the connection between eyes and arousal has to have been made in some way other than the logic of biology... by means of rhetorical code-switching, the sign /eyes/ has acquired a new connotation, sexual arousal.

(Semitoicist Umberto) Eco has argued that rhetorical code-switching is always an ideological operation and that the newly acquired connotation is a false connotation... Rhetorical code-switching has two semiotic prerequisites: first, the signs being exchanged need to be overcoded (conventionalized), and second, the change of connotation requires the help of an accepted social premise.

This explains that the wolfs desire for the chanteuse is expressed through his comically bulging eyes. This is nothing new to that homespun Texas boy, Fred Avery, and it is also rather evident to any kid old enough to tell a signifier from a pacifier. Did you need an ideological operation to inform you of such? What all this linguistic masturbation doesnt account for is the fact that showing the wolf with a tent in his pants never would have made it past the censors (though, God knows, Bob Clampett might have been tempted).

Imagine if you will, semiotic legend Roland Barthes deconstructing and decoding Happy Tree Friends. © 2000 Mondo Media.

To illustrate the above difficulties with postmodern critique as it applies to animation, I have selected the following article from last falls edition of the Journal of Popular Film and Television. This edition contains an article titled The Same Thing We Do Every Night: Signifying Same-Sex Desire in Television Cartoons, by Jeffery P. Dennis. The author holds a doctorate in sociology and additional degrees in English and comparative literature. Dennis begins his search for codes indicating same-sex desire with the appearance of Hanna-Barberas Ruff and Reddy in 1957. He asserts that the titular dog and cat were the first significant partners in the history of animation (that were non-antagonistic).

Since Ruff and Reddy existed with little backstory available about how their pairing came to be, this ambiguous context lends itself to various readings by audiences. Dennis finally asserts that Ruff and Reddy are, in fact, romantic partners. Dennis does state that the producers of the cartoon had no intention of implying that Ruff and Reddy were a gay couple..., but We do not require authorial intent or overt audience reaction, however, to make this leap. Why is this? According to Dennis, Where no character is identified as gay or lesbian, we can locate same-sex desire in an interaction between two characters of the same sex, which is elsewhere coded as romantic but is not an obvious parody of heterosexual desire...

These codes include sharing a living space or bed; participating in social activities as a couple; being accepted as a couple by others; failing to pursue other substantive relationships, especially those with the opposite sex; rejecting romantic overtures from others; or overtly expressing desire through flirting and sexual talk. The author then goes on to detail how Yogi Bear and Boo Boo meet these criteria and so illustrate ...the arguably erotic tensions inherent in the cartoon dyad.

What Dennis really means is inarguably erotic tensions, because semiotic theory asserts that audiences will decode cartoons this way if the context is ambiguous enough. Every male pair of cartoon buddies, then, signifies a gay relationship, if the creators and writers do not embed specific signifiers to the contrary within the text.

Wow. Of course, one might consider that William Hanna and Joseph Barbera lost their jobs when the MGM studios closed in 1957. The duo desperately pitched the concept of Ruff and Reddy to Screen Gems, who offered a budget of $2,700 per five-minute cartoon. You arent going to tell much of a backstory under that much pressure and that little dough. Ruff and Reddy (whom Barbera describes in his autobiography as friends) came as a pair because Hanna and Barbera were doing what they did best; produce cartoons featuring a pair of characters. These were, after all, the same directors who won seven Academy Awards with Tom and Jerry, and Hanna and Barbera were playing to their strengths, not creating codes for romantic partners.

Would postmodern theorists peg Snagglepuss as a member of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy? © and  2004 Cartoon Network.

Much the same goes for Yogi and his sidekick; although they made their debut on Huckleberry Hound in 1958, they spun off into their own show by 1961.

Dennis makes much of the fact that Cindy Bear is unable to attract Yogi as a romantic partner (ostensibly because Boo Boo already had Yogis heart and will not give Cindy any help), but again, is that what kids really wanted to see? What would that have done to Yogis adventures? Yogi was meant to be a good-natured rogue; his schemes to outwit Ranger Smith and filch pic-a-nic baskets were the hallmarks of the series. Dennis also fails to mention that in the 1964 movie, Hey There, Its Yogi Bear, Yogi and Boo Boo risk their lives in a daring cross-country chase in order to rescue Cindy from sadistic circus owners because Yogi comes to realize that the she-bear is his true love. Boo Boo, incidentally, aids rather than obstructs the rescue. I suppose, though, that this can be written off as a hermeneutic shift in Yogi and Boo Boos homoerotic reading. Semiotics means never having to signify youre sorry.

What of Snagglepuss, the fey pink mountain lion who also appeared on Yogis show? Lets code him for fun: Unattached; pink; effeminate and lion, (a predator), are signified. Before appearing on Yogi, Snagglepuss was an antagonist in other early HB cartoons. It could thus be coded that Snagglepuss, through connotative analysis, is an antisocial gay sexual predator. What Hanna (who devoted considerable support to the Boy Scouts of America) would think of such a postmodern analysis is best left unconsidered.

Yet it is the same sort of semiotic contrivance that postmodernists most dogmatically defend, regardless of the fact that their contorted analyses of American animation would have best been suited for the (hilarious but presently down) Cartoon Over-Analyzations Website. I am not speaking of Dr. Dennis exclusively; I simply chose him as a representative text. Next month we will examine the article further and say a few more words about animation analysis.

Martin Dr. Toon Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.