by Ash Bishop
My daughter and I both play Cyberpunk. While the game has interesting things to say about the power of community, the rot of late-stage capitalism, and even body-modification, we mostly argue about who is more attractive, Judy or Panam.
There’s no doubt Panam is attractive, but I prefer Judy. There’s a world-weary sadness in her eyes that I find appealing, not to mention her punk aesthetic. Judy is a lesbian and only romantically available to those playing female characters, but I don’t mind just admiring her from afar. Heck, considering the travesty that is the only heterosexual male love interest option — the corny, stupidly named, River Ward – I lucked out just having Judy as eye candy.
Except that with every recognition of her beauty comes the guilt. Isn’t it kind of weird to be judging the appearance of what is essentially a high-detailed cartoon?
I started to think about this subject back in 2003, when Tecmo released the first version of Dead or Alive Extreme Beach Volleyball. One of their editors made a joke online, saying they were thinking of incorporating a topless mode, and immediately 10,000 enthusiastic young people flooded the Tecmo message board suggesting that was a good idea. It crashed the Tecmo servers and caused enough of a sensation that it made the mainstream video game news.
What sticks out in my mind is that in the comment section of IGN, for every few posts supporting the idea of a topless mode, there were always accompanying posts shaming those same requests. The mild shamers frequently, defensively, mentioned how much they loved and were fulfilled by their real-life girlfriends (in Canada). The more aggressive struck out in every direction, telling people to “get a life”; “get out of your mom’s basement”; “don’t you know that internet is full of real topless women”; etc…
…as I recall, there wasn’t any recognition of the dangers of overly idealizing, and sexualizing, young women’s bodies. But then again, it was 2003.
Putting aside our social growth in this regard, AND the shame impulse, let’s consider where the attraction is actually coming from. Comic book artist Scott McCloud accidently weighed in on the subject in his brilliant book Understanding Comics. (If you haven’t read it, buy it, now). McCloud explains how cartoons work in the subconscious by first introducing us to the idea of closure. Closure, sometimes called object permanence, is the neurological phenomenon wherein people use their imaginations to “fill in the blanks” of the world around them.
Our imagination is working constantly, supplying the information that is left out of the realm of our senses. Every second, it is compensating for the millions of blanks of our limited perspective. Here’s how McCloud explains it (he does a better job than me):
We end up living much more in our imaginations than in so-called “real life”. Real life is just what we can see, hear, smell, touch and taste, literally everything else exists in our heads. It’s one of the reasons people’s recollections will differ so significantly even when they share a common experience. It’s one of the reasons we have Fox News, and CNN, and never the twain shall meet.
This process of closure effects the way we experience everything, and art is no exception. In fact, in art the process is often purposeful. The less details an artistic rendering has, the more the viewer must “fill-in” with their imaginations. Abstract art exists almost completely to take advantage of this neurological principal.
So how does it work with cartoons? Consider two artistic versions of the archetypal femme fatale. In the Brian DePalma film, Femme Fatale, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos plays Laure. Not being a cartoon, Mrs. Romijn-Stamos is stuck already fully formed in our imagination.
In Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Jessica Rabbit is far less defined. With her broader strokes, she can expand outwards in our imagination, becoming a non-specific amalgam of every femme fatale we’ve ever encountered, in real life or otherwise. This cartoon-like flexibility allows her to persist in our collective conscious, our fanfic, our cosplay, etc… while Mrs. Romijn-Stamos has been, sadly, lost to time.
The same principal works with the character of Dimitri in Nintendo’s Fire Emblem Three Houses. No one should romance him, he’s a psychotic madman, yet he’s one of Fire Emblem’s main romantic choices. If we can look past the murder, his otherwise lack of specific details are very forgiving. They leave us free to fill in the blanks — physically and otherwise — with our imaginations. And, if we’re so inclined, to buy these pillows:
Conversely, when you add enough details, the figure becomes limited, even boring. Consider Nicolas-Jacques Conte, 18th century French painter and inventor of the pencil. Conte accomplished quite a lot and, like Dimitri, he rocks an awesome eyepatch. But is he the subject of anyone’s fan-fic with this level of detail in his etching? Probably not. There’s too much information – nothing is left for the viewer to provide for themselves.
The cartoon takes advantage of closure to become a cipher for so many different things. It’s a partially blank canvas, with just enough information to launch our imaginations in a certain direction. The guy on the IGN message boards in 2003 is admitting an attraction to Kasumi, but he isn’t just attracted to her. He’s using her as a non-specific representation for all women of a certain type. He’s probably dreaming of classmates, the girl he saw at the mall, co-workers, and even your girlfriend (in Canada). Shamers be happy, it’s real life that he wants after all.