Fantasmagorie: Sex, Gender and the Elephant in the Room

Behind the times: Cohl was around 50 when he began animating.

The title of “The Father of the Animated Cartoon” is a hotly contested claim, but for many film historians the crown goes to an obscure and unusual Frenchman: Émile Cohl. Born in 1857 as Émile Eugène Jean Louis Courtet, Cohl was a Parisian caricaturist of the Incoherent Movement, a prominent cartoonist in humorous magazines and an avid philatelist. Generally, the focus of the Incoherents was absurdism, dream imagery and the drawing style of children. In fact, they prided themselves for their amateurism and lack of seriousness. However, far from being the often sentimental and childish genre that animation would later become characterised as, early animators like Cohl created a nightmarish, chaotic and often violent world that was as funny as it was disturbing. Indeed, themes of violence and sexuality are littered in Cohl’s brief movies, and Fantasmagorie is no exception.

Ladies Will Please Remove Their Hats

While there were a considerable number of films released before 1908 with stop-motion or drawn animation in them, Fantasmagorie is considered the first fully animated film ever made. By shooting each frame onto negative film, Cohl reproduces the likeness of a blackboard with chalk drawings. The two-minute film has no standard plot or structure, and largely consists of a stick figures rapidly morphing, deconstructing and reassembling in a seemingly random order. In fact, many have argued that the film is in a stream of consciousness style, depicting all the passionate or contradicting thoughts, feelings and associative leaps that characterise the human thought processes.

However, there are certain recognisable characters and relatable moments in the film. For example, we witness a woman donning a large hat enter a sketchy theatre and sit in front of a male viewer. This blocks his view of the screen and was a pervasive problem among turn-of-the-century moviegoers. So, the man gradually rips up her feathered hat and even sets the woman alight. Amazingly, a clown-figure bursts out of the woman’s head, causing it to inflate into a giant circle. In moments like these, issues of class, gender and sex seep through. When discussing the representation of women in wider motion picture culture, including magazines and advertisements, Shelly Stamp argues that “the mammoth hat figured the female viewer precisely as a visual blockage […] less a distraction to the eye than an obstruction to view, an absence – literally a blank spot where vision becomes impossible” (Stamp, 34). Consequently, this evokes the androcentric notion of women as ciphers or zeros. They are seen as nothings: excluded from the world of work, politics and legal rights, they are to be passive and silent. They are empty or castrated spaces: there to be physically or symbolically filled by men. This is evident in Fantasmagorie by how the clown miraculously appears in the woman’s head, her skull expanding and emptying to accommodate his presence. In addition, the man actually creates a hole in the screen itself in order to discard one of her large feathers, which further associates the woman with absence.

Developing this analysis of Fantasmagorie, Donald Crafton evokes Freud’s notion of the castration complex, which draws upon the symbolism of burning logs and a man’s ability to extinguish a fire by urination. He argues that the action is cruelly misogynistic because “her symbolically castrating punishment, being set afire, is excessive in comparison to her “crime,” which was only that of wearing a hat that blocked the view of the male” (Crafton, 266). In fact, she is set ablaze by the obviously phallic symbol of the cigar, further undermining any suggestion of female authority and instead associating them with sexual subservience or lack. So, we can see Cohl promote and uphold a male orientated perception of the world, where women are seen in negative terms.

Moving pictures: A sexual aggression towards women is prevalent in Fantasmagorie.

Continuing the exploration of this scene, one could argue that Cohl is self-referentially drawing attention to the artifice of this film and alienating his audience from simply immersing themselves in the enjoyable spectacle. He achieves this by setting this cartoon-within-a-cartoon in a cinema. Moreover, he positions the short meta-films at the edge of the screen and the woman at the centre so that our ability to view and understand what is happening on the miniature screen is thwarted. This reflects a wider preconception of female patrons in the lampoons of newspapers and magazines, where “caricatures of hat-wearing filmgoers suggest that a delight in self-adornment which […] was actually at odds with evolving viewing practices that de-emphasized theatre space, the viewer’s body, and interaction among patrons” (Stamp, 33). Hence, Cohl creates a self-awareness and disorientation that recreates the cinemagoing man’s own frustrations with the woman and highlights an apparently feminine focus on bodily spectacle and frivolity. Yet again, Cohl reveals a rather misogynistic view of women as a disruptive and superficial spectacle.

Seeing the Elephant

In this scene, the clown comes across an elephant. This animal becomes a house. Our intrepid hero goes inside, only to have the door locked behind him. He subsequently dives from the building’s upper window, only to injure himself upon landing. Now, you might ask what this random and rather brief chain of events has to do with sexuality? Historically, the French had constructed a gigantic stucco elephant for the Universal Exhibition of 1889, but afterwards it was transported “to the Jardin de Paris, right next to the Moulin Rouge. Inside its enormous paws were spiral staircases leading into the belly of the beast. Suddenly, attractive ballerinas would appear, ready to entertain the most enterprising clients” (Adinolfi, 77). Arguably, this elephantine building may include a sense of sexual adventure and sensual excitement. Anybody who has seen Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! should understand this symbolic association.

This atmosphere of fin de siècle sexuality is amplified by how the elephant’s former eye unexplainably becomes a large, round lamp positioned above the door on the outside of the building. In combination with the Moulin Rouge reference, the position and prominence of this beacon suggests that our hero is in the presence of a brothel or a red-light district. Although the phrase emerged around 1900, the common symbol “of the red light perhaps either originated or became best known for its use in Paris and […] licensed brothels in France once had a red lantern with the number of the house over the door of each establishment” (Allen, 178). Moreover, the lack of frames used to manifest the turning of the character’s head creates jagged and quick movements. This exaggerates the intensity of the clown looking over his shoulder, emphasising that entering the building produces a sense of suspicion, panic and moral violation.

Never forgets: Historically, elephant-shaped buildings served as places of sexuality in both France and America.

Additionally, these images of hybridity highlight a latent sexuality that permeates the film. Here, the protagonist’s eager smile appears to temporarily fuse with the elephant’s tusk and then the elephant merges into the building. This intermingling is representative of how “the film tends to incorporate hybrid monsters […] demonstrating the Freudian concept of condensation” (Crafton, 266). In Freudian psychology, one’s instinctual feelings and images are unconsciously displaced and transformed because they are considered dangerous by social conventions. According to him, this is often what happens in dreams. Thus, this oneiric merging of animal and man or animal and property (and therefore instinct and civilisation) suggests a feeling of sensuality that is made liminal by societal condemnation.

Developing this argument, the apparent presence of a patrolling policeman, who seemingly locks the doors of the premises, may refer to the policing of registered and unregistered low-class prostitutes by the French government and law enforcement. Contextually, during the nineteenth century “France introduced systems of medically regulated prostitution, seeking […] prostitutes to register with the police and receive medical examinations from police physicians” (Roades qtd in Ditmore, 548). If this brothel was shutdown by an officer, it was likely because the workers were revealed to be diseased and risked the health of their clients. Therefore, this may add a darkly comic motivation behind the clown’s sudden and desperate leap out of the window, as the activities he was currently engaged in were suddenly shown to be dangerous to his physical health.

Health and safety: Does the policeman suggest moral policing or a regulation of prostitution?

Next, the stick figure is decapitated after defenestrating himself from the apparent brothel. Suddenly, the artist’s hands enter the scene and, with assistance from a pot of glue and a brush, manage to repair the newly revived clown. Initially, this may seem to be a benevolent act by a god-like creator. However, in early animation, the cartoon characters that interact with the real-life artist often “seek to deprive him of his pen (phallus) or creative inspiration so that they can take control of the narratives and their own lives” (Zipes, 50). Consequently, Cohl uses his phallic brush to reassert his masculine dominance over this animated creation that has been involved in failed or fleeting sexual activities. Moreover, “Cohl” is homophonic to the French word “colle,” meaning glue. Hence, the phallic action of pasting the bisected clown together signifies and amplifies Cohl’s individual identity and influence. Thus, Cohl sees identity, power and agency as inexorably linked with male sexual prowess, something that the clown has lost in his disastrous interaction with the brothel.

Sticky situation: Cohl reasserts his own masculine dominance by repairing the clown with his phallic glue stick.

Overall, this combination of an elephant, a policeman and a prominent light suggestively alludes to the controversial, dangerous and morally damned practices of commercial sex in Cohl’s France. While making the clown humorously suffer as a consequence of his actions may satirise the industry, Cohl’s phallic imagery nevertheless maintains an overtly masculine conception of the world.

Cohl’s Fantasmagorie, with all its unexpected transformations, violence and sexual references, perhaps has more in common with today’s anarchic cartoons: it is more like Family Guy than any Walt Disney production. Yet, it would appear that for all his innovations, Cohl nevertheless maintains a rather traditional attitude to women in this important film. In conclusion, he seems to produce images of sexuality that maintain a patriarchal order and even dismiss women as absent spaces. While we may indeed “see the elephant,” we never see who is inside it or what takes place there.

Works Cited

Adinolfi, Francesco. Mondo Exotica: Sounds, Visions, Obsessions of the Cocktail Generation. Ed. and Trans. Karen Pinkus and Jason Vivrette. Torino; Duke University Press, 2008. Print.

Allen, Irving L. The City in Slang. New York; Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.

Crafton, Donald Clayton. Émile Cohl, Caricature, and Film. Oxford; Princeton University Press, 1990. Print.

Fantasmagorie. Dir. Émile Cohl. Gaumont Film Company, 1908. Film.

Rhoades, Michelle K. ‘World War One Regulation.’ Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work: Volume 2. Ed. Melissa Hope Ditmore. Westport; Greenwood Publishing, 2006. 548-549. Print.

Stamp, Shelley. Movie-struck Girls: Women and Motion Picture Culture After the Nickelodeon. Princeton; Princeton University Press, 2000. Print.

Zipes, Jack. The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films.
New York; Routledge, 2011. Print.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Posted on by
An English and Drama student who watches too many films, plays too many games and reads too many books. Has a genuine interest in most things, often with an opinion to match!
Edited by Jordan, Misagh, Danny Cox.

Want to write about Animation or other art forms?

Create writer account


  1. I love the stop tricks with the artist’s hands at work…reminds me of the intro to South Park, the television show.

    • Interestingly, Donald Crafton argues that Cohl’s depiction of his own intrusive hands reflects the changing technological landscape of the world. Previous animated films showed performers in their entirety drawing images on easels or blackboards. But in Fantasmagorie the drawings have become primary and the artist secondary (he is shown only by hands labouring to repair and help his creation when needed). Thus, artificial films and images have replaced the old vaudeville traditions and human comedy in the cinematic age. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Richard

    This animation is nowhere near perfect, but it is good and definitely deserves to be seen and appreciated.

    • Some of the film’s apparent flaws can be attributed either to the technologies of the time and/or thematic issues. His basic and geometrical style was a necessity required to reduce the number of lines to be hand-drawn, repeated and animated. Indeed, this is also why the film is a disorientating lessthan two minutes long. Moreover, during the early phases of animation, the creators had only an intuitive idea of how his film will appear after the processes of drawing, retracing and photography. However, the surprise and gratification that results from finally seeing the drawings move “by themselves” helped to promote a romantic notion of the animator as paternal and God-like creator who imbues a work of art with an independent existence. This raises issues of originality, power and art. Meanwhile, the shocking and sudden transformations of abstract figures follow only the logic of the movement and flow of the line itself, focusing on the process of becoming instead of a metamorphosis between two ready-made and recognizable shapes. This exaggerates themes of agency, identity and materialism. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Thanks for posting this. I am just starting to get interested in early animation, so i had never seen this. I see some influences of this on Winsor McCay

    • What I personally find engaging about early animators, like McCay or Cohl, is just how often they utilised issues of race, class and technology in their films. In Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), McCay originally appeared on stage and talked to Gertie as her trainer. His interactions with her break the segregation of fantasy and reality, enhancing the truthfulness of the fantastical Gertie by implying that they inhabit the same narrative space. Thus questioning the claims to realism of photography and film. While the realistic, mischievous and charismatic dinosaur reduced McCay’s status into a straight-man, giving him (and reality) less autonomy or importance. While in Little Nemo (1911), McCay directs workers carrying masses of paper and barrels of ink into his studio, evoking issues of labour and class. And, as Mark Winokur argues, the characters in Little Nemo created by McCay are exaggerated versions of blackness, Anglo whiteness, and ethnic whiteness that maintain a racial hierarchy. I hope you liked the essay and thanks for commenting!

  4. Jine Palacios

    What an amazing early film! I’m doing an essay on animation too, but focusing mainly on early disney (1920s). 🙂

    • Appreciating the earlier Disney films is important and useful in showing a different (and sometimes more complex) side of the often-schmaltzy Disney aura. His 1920’s films increasingly reflected the alienating or dangerous relationship between the organic and the mechanical, like The Mechanical Cow (1927) or Plane Crazy (1928). And Steamboat Willie (1928) exhibits what Esther Leslie calls “a strange literalism”: a cow that is fed hay assumes the size and shape of the bale. Here, materialism is the dominating and life-altering force of the world. Thanks for commenting!

  5. Bok SChmit

    It’s one of the most innovative movies ever made. Cohn was really waaay ahead of his time here, by about pretty exactly 60 years. And in contrast to many of early silents, it’s still breath-taking and mind-twirling after 100 years.

    • At the time, animators like Cohl were considered magicians, because of their vaudeville origins and their ability to make the immaterial appear alive. Their films sometimes seem kind of amazing to me today. Thanks for commenting!

  6. From this to Beowulf and Avatar in only 100 years. Can you imagine a hundred years into the future…

    • At one point, I imagine that realism in animation and computer games will reach a limit. They should embrace visual distinctiveness and the opportunities for differentiation that it offers, rather than assimilate everything into the hegemonic sameness of realism. Thanks for commenting!

  7. one of the earliest animated movies

    • Indeed, though some film historians get QUITE argumentative about who is the first animator and what is the first animated film. Other important figures include James Stuart Blackton, Charles-Émile Reynaud and Winsor McCay. Thanks for commenting!

  8. Keneth Peebles

    Wow, amazing work done 106 years ago. This deserves to be in the National Film Registry with Gertie, Duck Amuck, and One Froggy Evening.

    • I don’t know whether the National Film Registry, being an American organisation, would preserve a French film, regardless of its influence. Although I agree with you. Thanks for commenting!

  9. i like so much…the animation begin in the note pad sequence, is real amazing!

    • The graphical playfulness and self-aware humour of early animation is both interesting and entertaining. Otto Messmer and Pat Sullivan’s Felix the Cat is my favourite example of this self-reflexive comedy: The cat’s tail often transforms into question marks, fishhooks or the ink from the artist’s pen itself. Funny and thoughtful stuff. Thanks for commenting!

  10. This is a wonderful, historical little film. Not to mention a big trippy.

    • Speaking of trippy: In The Hasher’s Delirium (1910) Cohl depicts a waiter witnessing words like “wine,” “alcohol” and “absinthe” distort and transform in front of him. He is haunted and physically abused by the objects that dominate his work. A comment on consumerism and labour or a drink induced hallucination? Thanks for commenting!

  11. Thanks for this article! Helped my understanding of the history of animation!

    • Although the last decade has seen an increase in published material on the subject, I do wish there was more scholarship into early animation. There are few in-depth, academic and critical studies that I have enjoyed reading or found enlightening. Hopefully, my little contribution helps. Thanks for commenting!

  12. Pretty impressive how far animation has come in one hundred years.

    • Well, animation seems to have evolved through a curious mixture of book illustrations, comic strips, film and vaudeville traditions. Who knows what art forms will emerge from our own genres and categories in a hundred years? Thanks for commenting!

  13. colby beltran

    Cool! I love watching these old animations! Thanks for the writeup — I would never have known that wasn’t actually a chalk drawing!

    • Chalkboard iconography was a common trope of early animated film, and Cohl’s own adaptation of the imagery may be a reference or homage to James Stuart Blackton’s Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906). Thanks for commenting!

  14. And the moral of the story is…don’t do drugs!

  15. I have been spotlighting early animators on my blog and have posted a link to your well written entry on Emile Cohl. Keep up the excellent work!

  16. I stumbled across this article and got roped in by the title. What I found was… unexpected. This is a jewel of history!

    It’s clear that you have a solid grasp of literary criticism. You’ve analyzed the film from historical, feminist, and psychoanalytical lenses in such a concise way that it’s hard for me to go back and view it without considering your argument.

    To try and add something to the conversation, I wonder why the protagonist is a clown. Do you think the artist is trying to engage in social criticism? Perhaps he wants people to think about these topics in a comedic light? Or maybe he’s trying to say that these beliefs and practices are childish?

    • I agree that the clown image is significant, but why it is exactly I am not sure.
      According to some critics, Cohl uses the clown figure in order to situate the new medium of animation with the traditional and popular vaudeville acts, giving his work a sense of authority and history. This would link his comedy to that of the working class perhaps, and give his work a more ‘bodily’ feel.
      Others suggest he uses it, alongside his bourgeois characters, to mock stuffy convention and to promote a more anarchic worldview. Arguably, then, his misfortunes may show the damages that hypocritical authority and repression cause humanity? Perhaps the clown may serve as a parody of the bourgeoisie, making their actions seem silly and childish.
      Certain critics see the clown figure, used throughout Cohl’s creations, as his alter ego and a symbol of the Incoherent artist. Interestingly, the clown could be said to escape Cohl’s grasp at the end of the film, fleeing on a horse and suffering no ill consequences after his escapades. Subsequently, one can see the clown as the life Cohl would like to lead, one of utter freedom to physically and sexually do what one likes without any negative aftermaths.
      Thanks for your insightful comment!

  17. wow, I had never heard of any of these before. Very interesting to read and very enlightening as well. It was really cool to get a glimpse at history through animation! And also interesting that someone challenging the taboo topic of sexuality would still hold such a conservative view towards women. but I suppose one opinion never necessarily equates to another.

    • I suppose it is only one way of interpreting the issue of sexuality in the film. In another of Cohl’s works, Un drame chez les fantoches, his treatment of relationships seems a bit more liberal.

  18. I know about early films, but for an animation lover my knowledge of its origins are slim. This is really interesting, and I hadn’t seen the film before. Thank you for giving it exposure!

    • Thanks for the comment! It doesn’t help for those who have an interest in the origins of cinema that a lot of early films – animation or otherwise – have been lost. 🙁

  19. LaurenCarr

    Stamp collector, eh?
    What a great read! Thank you!

    Animation became popular in entertainment for children because it produced capital. The style is consistent in 2D and 3D animation because it’s what the studios know will sell. (coughdisneycough)

    Finally there are many forums besides television or theater which provide independent animators an area to show new uses and genres for animation.

  20. This writer did a good job. Very good points was made about the subliminal messages in the films. It is common to tie animation to innocence so it is easily missed. It is like the disney movies and the subliminal messages placed in it. I like the clips of the short animation so i was able to follow along.

Leave a Reply