In the last few months in the UK, the mainstream press, and in particular The Guardian newspaper, have been campaigning to raise awareness of the issues of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Alongside, the movement has been keen to encourage the UK Education minister Michael Gove to write to schools to ensure teachers take note of any absences of ‘at-risk’ groups of girls who might have been taken out of school for the procedure to be carried out.

The press coverage reminded me of an excellent, if slightly disturbing paper, I saw at the Society for Animation Studies annual conference in Melbourne 2012. Ellie Land, of Northumbria University, showed her 2004 animated documentary on FGM, Everything was Life and discussed the responses she received online.

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Quotes ranged from disgust and shock, to the defense of other cultures, and the issues of male circumcision as a comparative practise.  Personally I found the film hard to watch. It was graphic without being literal, but rather visceral and emotive. It made me angry, not just that this barbaric practise was still being carried out, but also that there was not greater awareness of the issue and little being done to stop it. That the film was made ten years before this current campaign is telling in the lack of movement in something which is often ignored as an uncomfortable area (pun intended); not for discussion. 

We have seen elsewhere in this blog, and in much of the recent discourse in animation studies on the animated documentary; the power that the form has in presenting particularly difficult topics. In this regard it is the perfect medium and Land’s film does what good documentaries should – unsettle and raise questions.

I was very interested to find out that Land’s next film Centrefold (2012) dealt with a similar issue – that of what could essentially be argued as FGM, but done voluntarily by women; this time medicalised (or potentially taken under the cosmetic surgery heading), Labiaplasty.

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Her film again uses interview dialogue of individual women’s stories – their reasons for the surgery and what they thought afterwards.  Again it is a relatively seldom discussed subject, but much like FGM calls into question some of the cultural pressures faced by women and girls, either by force in the name of tradition, or due to aesthetic comparisons to ‘ideals of beauty’ (there was one participant who had viewed the procedure as a medical issue, but her voice was perhaps less prominent).

There is little judgment in the film and the participants are treated respectfully, but it is interesting to view the range of comments available on the hosting site. Viewers are invited to discuss both the film and the issue, and like any of these forms of online discussion the arguments range in sensitivity and awareness of the greater issues. Land has also gathered quotes from medical professionals, which she has given me permission to reproduce below:

“In just a few minutes, through the skill and sensitivity of the filmmaker, we hear the spoken words of real women and are able to explore their meaning. Gently and respectfully, the film leaves us asking questions about how girls relate to their developing bodies, the portrayal of women’s genitals in pornography and the role of surgery in an erogenous zone. This proves a powerful antidote to the cringe-inducing approaches of sensationalist TV programmes or self-interested advertising and I hope it gets wide coverage and discussion.”  Susan Bewley MA MD FRCOG Professor of Complex Obstetrics St. Thomas Hospital.

As a registrar in obstetrics and gynaecology I was really excited to discover Centrefold.  During my training I have been involved in the care of women requesting and undergoing labial reduction surgery.  I had felt concerned about the social pressures that had motivated these women to seek surgery to change their appearance, particularly when they had normal genitalia, and had been frustrated that there were so few satisfactory alternatives to surgery to offer them. Like the women in Centrefold, many had described uncomfortable symptoms to me which were clearly impacting significantly on their quality of life but were sometimes hard to understand when their labia appeared normal.  The narratives in Centrefold are very powerful in communicating the impact of women’s concerns on their lives and in challenging viewers’ preconceptions.  The artwork in Centrefold is beautiful and, together with the women’s narratives, facilitates a sensitive exploration of the underlying issues which need to be considered by health professionals, academics and the public.  Together with the ‘What the experts say’ film, Centrefold is a fantastic resource for women considering labial reduction as it contains useful information about the pros and cons of the procedure and the reflections of women who have had the surgery.  I will certainly recommend it to women I see in clinic and I have already recommended it highly to colleagues. The film challenges clinicians, researchers and society to better understand women’s attitudes towards their bodies; engages us in the important debate about the ethics of labial reduction; and challenges us to develop alternatives to surgery and better ways to support women.” Dr Rebecca Say, Specialty Training Registrar Obstetrics and Gynaecology Northern Deanery Oct 2012

These quotes both suggest that there is a greater societal pressure at play here and that this is an issue which should be discussed more openly. Centrefold has already garnered awards and nominations at international animation festivals and will hopefully continue to educate audiences. If the implements are sterile and done in a medicalised setting does this make the procedure any less troubling than FGM, or are they two areas of the same thing, but from one extreme to the other?

The films are certainly handled differently; with Everything was Life far more extreme in its graphic depiction of FGM than Centrefold. It is interesting to see the variation in style which is possible in the medium of animation and the responses they can elicit. One thing, which stood out for me in the comments was that no one ‘noticed’ the animation as such, the subject was more important. I would argue that this makes the films even more successful; the viewer is immediately drawn into the subject. In the case of Everything was Life, the painterly style replicating blood smears significantly added to the shocking stories being told in the voiceovers. The styles seemed to reflect the content and level of campaigning, for want of a better phrase.

What both of these films do (as well as hopefully raising awareness of the issues) is to remind us of the power and potential in the subtlety, or rawness of the animated documentary as a distinct form.


Many thanks to Ellie Land for providing me with the material to write this post.


Dr Nichola Dobson is based in Edinburgh, lecturing part time at Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh. Founding editor of Animation Studies from 2006 until 2011 and has recently established a new academic blog Animation Studies 2.0. She has published on both animation studies and television, most recently The A to Z of Animation and Cartoons (2010) and Historical Dictionary of Animation and Cartoons (2009) for Scarecrow Press.  She has published in anthologies on Crime Scene Investigation and Life on Mars as well as shorter works for the online journal FLOW.  She is currently working on a book on TV animation with Paul Ward for Edinburgh University Press and a book on Scottish animator Norman McLaren.  She began a new role as Vice President of the Society for Animation Studies in autumn 2011.