Friday, November 17, 2017

Social Constructs and the Individual: An Analysis of Identity and Representation as Shown in 'Bananya'

Modern technology has brought with it the democratization of the arts. Once the domain of kings and religious institutions, the internet allows art to be created and discussed by all. This domain is a platform for a new age of patrons to forge hitherto neglected ideas into reality.

Though Bananya is only 13 three-minute episodes long (a side effect of its crowd-funded origins),  the show will linger long in the hearts and minds of its viewers. In what can only be described as the I, Claudius of the cartoon cat genre, the show encapsulates the struggle for personal identity in an increasingly superficial world.

For those unfamiliar with Bananya, but who want to participate in this dialogue, it can be viewed for free at the link here. (Note: all images used in this post are taken from this link.)

One could be forgiven for believing that Bananya merely tells the tales of a carefree group of cats who adorably live out their lives hopping around in bananas, but behind this premise lies a deeper meaning. The story uses our titular protagonist as an everyman with whom we are meant to connect. Bananya is a a fun-loving cat who enjoys sweets and is driven to achieve his dreams, much like the youth of today. That his dream is to become a chocolate-covered Bananya further serves to develop his uniqueness and authenticity.

May our own dreams be as noble.
His tale is told to us by the narrator who, through research, has discovered this strange variety of tiny cats, each with its own (admittedly limited) personality. This framing device allows us to serve as outsiders and critique the world we find ourselves viewing.

Initially, this world appears to be idyllic, with happy cats enjoying their lives as they bounce about with reckless abandon all while encased in fruit. Quickly, though, the cracks begin to show. It is revealed in an early episode that the lone female Bananya is self-conscious and uses heavy amounts of makeup to maintain her appearance. It is clear that these adorable cats have fears and anxieties similar to ours as humans. Through this, the world we are viewing begins to seem closer to our own.

Only the white parts, so not much.
With this revealed, we then must wonder, what is the driving force behind this anxiety? The answer may lie in the sordid consumerism of the human world that pollutes all who partake in it, even the Bananyas.

Our protagonist's dream appears to be derived from this culture. In the third episode, Bananya is shown to quite literally worship the chocolate-covered bananas on the television, suggesting that advertising is the origin of his motivations. The cheap but ubiquitous tactic of purveying sex appeal for the sake of profit is also on display as stereotypical trappings of societal gender constructs are used to draw the unsuspecting cat in and deprive him of his self-determination.

Pictured: A cat trying to motorboat a television
As if to add insult to injury, it is revealed at the end of the episode that Baby Bananya is responsible for the rapid changing of the channels, only amplifying the arbitrariness of this dream. Are we so different in our own lives? Would thousands of little girls dream of being princesses if there was no Disney around to peddle such stories?

This cultural pressure is further alluded to in Bananya's friendship with a mouse in episode four. So long as Bananya is on his own, the friendship remains, but as soon as another cat is brought into the situation, Bananya falls victim to peer pressure, much to the chagrin of the mouse.

Chagrin = Terror
This vignette clearly highlights the struggles between the internal and external self. Separated from the external world, Bananya's inner morality holds fast. But these cats do not exist in a vacuum (that would suck) and face pressures from their own cultural groups to act in certain ways. The limits of this clan mentality can only develop in isolation from the real world for so long. Eventually, Bananya ventures out in to the real world to a grocery store where his naïveté is on full display.

"I've seen enough hentai to know where this is going."
Here he meets Namaste Bananya and the regal Elizabeth Bananya. These characters are shallow and presented as caricatures of their respective nationalities (Indian and British). Our protagonist is surely not a well-traveled Bananya and quickly falls back on crude stereotypes to make sense of his experiences.

In a world with innumerable individuals, all with their own story to be told, how can we hope to understand others in a finite lifetime? Simplification allows an easier-to-understand narrative, but something is always lost in the process. The greater risk is that through this process, the whole will be lost and we will be left with tenuous fragments of experience akin to Baby Bananya rapidly changing the channel. 

This is further exemplified by the problematic interaction with Black Bananya. Walking through the house late at night, the various Bananyas become terrified, believing that danger lurks in the darkness. When it is at last revealed that the shadowy figure was only Black Bananya, the narrator makes a crude joke for humorous affect.

The insensitivity displayed by this offhand remark is contrasted when, at the end of the episode, it is revealed that he is a cultured cat who hails from France and loves fine wine and food.

While the narrator is quick to defend his joke through this portrayal, these details do little more than create additional questions around issues such as Western hegemony and colonial imperialism. Furthermore, Black Bananya does not protest this treatment, suggesting that these experiences are so commonplace that he lacks an internal locus of control in a society that has institutionalized his mistreatment.

Clearly, the internal worlds we create are fraught with error due to the limitation of time. This then begs the question: can these internal models be reconciled with the external world, or will we forever be adrift from others like ships passing in the night?

Bananya as a show clearly takes the latter viewpoint. In episode eight, Bananya encounters a regular-sized cat who does not live in a banana. In this scene, the stray cat urges Bananya to open the window and let him in; Bananya comes close to doing so, but eventually falls asleep, closing the curtain (literally) on this scene. The house represents our internal world with the window acting as the lens with which we view our surroundings. These worlds cannot be reconciled, but so long as we give this no thought, peace can be achieved, as it is with Bananya when he falls asleep at the end of the episode.

With this development in mind, the purpose of the bananas the cats live in becomes clear. The peel serves as a metaphor for outward societal presentation, with the inner fruit (er, cat) representing our authentic self. The tough outer peel bears little relation to the sweet inner fruit, but is needed to protect what lies within. We, like the Bananyas choose when and how we show ourselves and hide behind our "peels" when exhausted. In an anxiety-fraught world where we are bombarded by a constant stream of messages, we return to the peel more and more, severing our understanding of others further.

Can true happiness be achieved in a world like this? According to Bananya, only ephemerally. The show ends with Bananya fulfilling his dream of becoming a chocolate-covered Bananya, but a closer examination reveals that the chocolate is all on the peel, implying that in the end, his success and happiness is only superficial.

It is clear that, according to Bananya, the external world cannot give us meaning, for at its core, it is a world that isolates us and prevents us from achieving the true human (cat?) connection we all crave. Can we leap this chasm, or are we forever left hiding in our peel? Left to ponder the implications of this, what more can be said except woe, woe unto Bananya. For in this world, all is vanity and chasing after the wind.

What is your favorite show involving cats? Sound off in the comments section below.


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