gradual unease: desires
It’s funny to think that the words “hungry” and “horny” bear not just a phonetic and orthographic similarity, but also a parallel in their very meanings. Each term relates to the fulfilment of a basic human need: the former fulfils the need or desire for food, the latter for sex.
Fulfilling hunger is one of the most basic drives for human physiological survival, while tasting and enjoying food is one of the first human experiences of pleasure. Before they can express their pleasure verbally, infants communicate pleasure through their facial expressions and intuitive sounds. With that in mind, it is no surprise that a great deal of imagery created for the entertainment of young children centres on food. Sugary treats such as cakes, cookies and ice-cream are especially ubiquitous, as humans have evolved to find sugar the most attractive and palatable of flavours. Moreover, these foods have a pleasing, delectable, and highly attractive aesthetic with pastel colours, foamy and spongy layers, whipped and creamy textures, rainbow sprinkles, and so on.
It comes as no surprise, however, that when erotic imagery is interrelated with imagery of both innocence and food, a provocative tension is created: imagine the familiar trope of a conventionally sexy woman with baby skin, sucking on a lollipop or licking an ice cream cone in a suggestive manner. This creates a great deal of guilty pleasure for the viewer.
The tension generated by such an image lies not only in the juxtaposition of two cultural motifs—childish innocence and sex—that seem to exist on opposite ends of the moral spectrum, but also in the paradoxical resonance and compatibility between childish and erotic images in the way they communicate visually. They both present a simplified, straightforward view of an imaginary world. They speak bluntly to their audience and get a clear message across and eschew the complexity and messiness of the wider reality.
The Karnival Kid. Mickey Mouse. Directed by Walt Disney, Ub Iwerks, William Hanna. 1929.
Animated cartoons have long played with this fantasy, the tension between sex, food and innocence. My personal research focused mainly on early American animations from the late 1920s to the late 1960s (including the well-known Walt Disney and Hanna-Barbera cartoons), as they are globally recognisable and established the aesthetic foundations for the vast majority of animated visual imagery in the decades to follow.
A perfect example can be found in one of the first Mickey Mouse animations, a 1929 black-and-white short film called “The Karnival Kid”. In one scene, Minnie Mouse is standing on her doorstep, bringing a freshly grilled hotdog to her face. Drool drips from her mouth and her eyes gape in admiration and awe. Mickey Mouse, who prepared the meal himself and presented it to his recurring love interest, stands a few steps below, watching her, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, awaiting her bite into his offering.
There is a tension in the suggestive visual form of the food as well as in the subtle visual depictions of the characters: their body language and facial expressions are full of innuendo, even if they are, after all, anthropomorphised mice. While the innuendo may not be clear to children, they prove entertaining and humorous to the adults who choose to see them.
“The Karnival Kid” is also a typical cartoon in that its characters spend a lot of time obsessing about food. They will get into all sorts of trouble over a wedge of cheese, a juicy slab of meat, or a creamy slice of layer cake. Think of Tom and Jerry: almost every episode features some kind of food in the chase between cat and mouse.
Cartoon food, furthermore, is always delicious—shiny and glossy, the most perfect, sanitised version of itself. The meat never sweats, the cake frosting never droops. Cartoon food is attractive in its colours, shape and form. It speaks to not only its animated admirers, but also its human audience, on a direct and primal level. What’s more, it stimulates our imagination by portraying the food as juicy, salty, oily, fatty, or crunchy through multiple artistic methods that appeal to our senses: it is everything we could want it to be precisely because we will never get to taste it.
Cartoon characters rarely eat to fulfil a physical hunger, but rather to fulfil a desire to possess the food itself. Their hunger is greedy and gluttonous, but it fuels the narrative. Their sinful greed and gluttony may seem forgivable and funny because they are animated, but their insatiable obsession reflects our human tendency to possess what we think is delicious without the prerequisite of actual need.
In a broader sense, we can compare the gluttonous nature and desire for food of cartoon characters in the animated world to our greedy nature and desire for objects as humans in the physical world.
Our desires for food and sex may be based on biological imperative, but our desire to possess and acquire physical objects is not. The amount of objects we need for functional, practical, and survival purposes is meagre. We do not need much, yet we are driven to acquire belongings. This is not just a condition of modern consumer society but part of our very nature as human beings, our tendency to covet what seems attractive.
We can draw a parallel between our desire for objects and the imaginary hunger for cartoon food by examining their surrounding narratives. Regardless of our personal taste, food and aesthetic preferences—when so many objects promise rich, delicious experiences, how can we draw the line between what we want and what we need?
As children, our desires are fuelled by curiosity, beauty, and primal attraction. As we enter puberty and the need for sex is ingrained into our bodies, our subconscious longings only become more complex. Human desire extends to our physical reality and our relationships with objects. Desire is a lifelong accompaniment and is a never truly resolved: fulfilling one need (or possessing one object) is only a prerequisite for further needs and possessions.
Given the tension and complexity embedded in the most “innocent” of entertainment forms, it is thus important to recognise and celebrate the kitsch but captivating cartoon imagery of cakes, meat, and sausages, their ability to conjure up “hungry” and “horny” feelings in their viewers. What we might be tempted to dismiss as visually tacky and tasteless, unexpectedly, expresses a deep understanding of the mechanisms of desire.