Have you seen “Sidewalk” yet? It’s a four-minute animated short by Celia Bullwinkel. It tells a woman’s entire life just by following her as she walks down the street. Somehow it manages to encompass the excitement and heartache and unfairness of aging while female, like if “10 Hours Walking as a Woman In New York” was a cartoon, covered 100 years, and was set to a light, jazzy score. It is so elegant and sharp and real and clean, and I could keep going, but really, just watch it. I’ll wait:
The short has been making the festival rounds since April. Bullwinkel posted “Sidewalk” online on September 16; it’s been seen nearly 3 million times on her Vimeo and YouTube channels alone. To find out more about how this animated piece came to be, I gave Bullwinkel a call.
Where did the idea for “Sidewalk” come from?
It wasn’t a hard decision to know what medium I wanted to use, because I’m a professional animator here in New York. I do freelance for TV and independent film. I really wanted to make an independent film for myself. Having been here for 17 years, and being someone who doesn’t own a car, I have no choice but to do most of my errands by walking. I love walking the streets of New York City, but I spent most of my twenties here, and you accumulate a lot of catcalls and stories from friends about catcalls. And it really did bother me.
I remember talking to my mother on the phone about it, I was complaining to her, I was in my twenties, it had reached that critical mass. And she said, “enjoy it now, because when you get older, it goes away, and you might just miss it.” And you have to remember, this is a generation gap . My first impression was, absolutely not, that’s terrible. But I also kind of realized that when you grow up in a culture like this, you come to expect validation in negative ways. It becomes acceptable. And so I wanted to tell this like a parable. It’s a story about a woman who kind of buys into it. I know it’s not aspirational, as a lot of people who viewed the film wanted it to be. But I wanted it to be honest, I wanted to reach the people who, maybe they’re not conscious of it, but they kind of do rely on [catcalling] as a way of telling you that you’re okay. That yes, you are valuable. I thought about a lot of things. I did a lot of research on Nora Ephron.
Oh, she’s always a good choice. What works of Nora Ephron’s did you read?
She wrote that book, I Feel Bad About My Neck. I’m only 36. I started the film at 30. I wanted to get someone else’s opinion [about aging]. And I really liked what Ephron said about age in that book. She talked about how the neck was the part of the body that always gave away a woman’s age. And she thought about getting a facelift that would take care of the neck; celebrities do it all the time, most notably, Jane Fonda. But she found out what the procedure entails — you have to take your entire face and neck off and put it back on — and when she realized just how dangerous and invasive and horrifying the procedure was, she said, “I’m just going to wear a scarf or a turtleneck.”
I don’t think women are afraid of aging, but society tells us that we should stop. And I understand biologically that there are reasons men don’t catcall old ladies, but at the same time, I think, we’re such a visual culture and so much of what society tells us in terms of our value and worth, as soon as you reach a certain age, you get put on this pedestal and get knocked right off it. I had a conversation with the producer with the film Make Me Young: Youth Knows No Pain, an HBO documentary, and she was saying, once you reach your forties in Hollywood, you’re kind of no longer allowed to be in movies. There are always anomalies, but it’s hard to find films that talk about women past their, really, childbearing years. Past your forties, no one cares about what your life is like anymore. No one wants to know. I started to really think about how I could make a film that dealt with body acceptance, and how life is more than just how you look or how you feel about yourself being young. Who cares if you get older? Everyone ages at the same rate. We all do it, so why not celebrate it?
CREDIT: Celia Bullwinkel
I was really struck by how, as soon as this girl hits puberty, she feels cool for all of a millisecond and then immediately hides her body in a hoodie. What determined her reactions to the way her body changed?
A lot of that stems from me. I never was a flaunty person, even during the years when girls really do like to exert their presence publicly. I kind of related to the girl of not being ready to grow up, trying to suppress it through baggy clothes. I would be surprised if anyone didn’t go through that phase, so it’s very relatable. And then she kind of realizes she’s attracting men, and she’s not really aware of what she has. That lack of self-awareness, a lot of teens have it, and that’s great, because it means you have your mind on a lot of other things. But to her it’s like, “What is going on? I just put a dress on today.” It’s like the responses to catcalls; just because a girl puts on a dress and nice shoes doesn’t mean she’s trying to attract men and she wants to have sex. Maybe it makes her feel happy, maybe she wants to be feminine. At least publicly, people think it’s an indication, when it’s really just a self-gratifying act.
As she gets older, she never really seems to stay in love with her appearance for very long.
When she becomes self-aware of what her body possesses publicly or culturally, she becomes so aware that she loses faith in what she is. She didn’t like [the attention] when she was young, and then she missed it. That’s where it ties in with my mother’s conversation. She didn’t like it, but she wonders where it went.
Can you talk a bit about animation? It seems to free you up in a lot of ways here.
I love cartooning animation. I love to use it, to exaggerate, I can show someone’s entire life in four minutes. One of the great things about animation is you can compress time, and it feels great. It doesn’t even, people don’t even notice that you just saw someone’s whole life go by. And of course, the breasts popping out and the butt popping out, going from pregnant to exhausted motherhood to overweight, it’s all something you can exaggerate. And the boobs sagging at the end, which is one of my favorites. People laugh at that scene, though some people really get upset by that. I think it hits a nerve: they connect to the woman at this point, and they don’t want to see what’s coming down the road.
CREDIT: Celia Bullwinkel/Sidewalk
So you knew you wanted to tell an entire life. How did you decide what scenes to include? What moments are the most important to keep in this bare bones story of her growing up?
I called each stage a transition, and I wrote it down on paper, and I had almost thirty. I had to bring it down. I think, at this point, I’m down to under twenty. But I came up with a lot. And I had to make very important decisions about what the story was going to be about. A lot of people wanted to know about what happened to her husband and her son. I did have them more incorporated in the story, but then I realized, the story wasn’t about her relationship with her body anymore. What made it important was the message but in order to bring it down to the short format, I had to really stay the course to what the underlying message is. Male viewers, particularly, felt like they were slighted, when they felt the male characters weren’t portrayed enough, and some felt for the characters.
Sorry, I just have to say, the whole idea that men would complain about not being portrayed enough in your independent, four-minute animated short, that is just so laughable to me. Do they have any sense of what it feels like to be a girl watching full-length feature films?
So of all the things I learned from making “Sidewalk,” well, number one is, how well a film does in the festival circuit cannot serve as a prediction of how well it will play out online. It did okay in festivals, it won a couple of awards. It wasn’t a huge festival hit, but it became a huge hit on the internet. And once it’s up there, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. That’s the second thing that I learned. You can’t take it back and explain to people how it’s supposed to work. It is going to go through the prism of the individual, they’re going to see it how it pertains to their lives. The third thing I learned is that, some people will never understand the film. One of the major issues I noticed were men who only relate to characters of their own gender do not relate to “Sidewalk” at all. But that’s okay. Some of them even comment and say, “I don’t identify with any of this, and where are the men?” And I think that’s wonderful, because they just added themselves. The most rewarding thing about “Sidewalk” is, people actually opened a discussion about it. And men said it reminded them of what their wives were growing through, which I think is great. Some men would say, my mother never went through this, therefore this film is wrong. Which is interesting, because he’s seeing it through his perspective of his mother.
CREDIT: Celia Bullwinkel/Sidewalk
Which stage did you struggle with the most? What was the hardest transition to depict?
The ending was definitely the hardest. Because I wanted to tell people how I felt about body acceptance and age, but I had over a dozen endings. And it ranged from positive and negative to hilarious to abstract, and finally when I came upon the ending, I knew I had a film. I knew I had it together. The second hardest was letting go of the husband and son. I kind of wrote them into the story, and I had to take them out, because for the format, and the length of the film, there wasn’t enough time to talk about anyone else.
You worked on “Sidewalk” for so many years. Did anything about how this girl evolved surprise you?
She’s a passive character. And I think that’s perfectly fine. I think we identify with passive characters, people who take what they’re given in life. She’s not a type A. I’m kind of a person who is really low key and mellow, and I wanted her to have the same demeanor. But she also doesn’t come off as someone who feels like she really got what she wanted in life, and part of it has to do with the mindset that she created for herself. And I wanted to show that, even if it takes you until the end of your life to change your outlook, change your mindset, about who you are, it’s never too late. You can learn to love yourself at any age in your life.
CREDIT: Celia Bullwinkel/Sidewalk
Between the reception you’ve said you’re receiving for “Sidewalk” and the huge response to that “10 Hours Walking as a Woman in New York City” video, it feels like we’re having this moment of heightened awareness and, sometimes, outrage about the way women are treated in public spaces. What do you think it is about that specific issue, within the broader realm of gender relations and sexism in general, that gets people so fired up?
First of all, I love the fact that it’s becoming a discussion. I feel like it’s all kind of coming about in the last few months. But I do believe that there’s something about a woman being in public, somehow it is culturally acceptable still, [that when] woman goes outside, she becomes open for public scrutiny. Whether you’re working at an office and your coworker decides to tell you how he would evaluate you on a scale of 1-10 of how you dress or look — that hasn’t happened to me, but my dental hygienist told me a story like that. It made me realize; it’s not about going outside, but going outside is where it happens the most. And what’s funny, the people who catcall are usually the men who are the most economically underserved. As one of my old roommates used to say, they’re always the people who are the most screwed over by the man. It’s a source of power. It’s a way of taking back something that they feel like they don’t have. And I’ve never had a man who made more money than me catcall me.
But the actual stats on street harassment tell a very different story: it happens across all lines of race, class, socioeconomic status. It’s not something that is limited to a “less empowered” group of people.
I do believe that men in high economic levels can catcall. But the ones that I’ve dealt with on a personal basis are people I feel are looking for an opportunity to (a) amuse their friends or (b) assert some kind of dominance. And the people who need to assert their dominance in such a kind of lowbrow way, I find, are people who really don’t feel like they have that much control over their lives… If they don’t feel like they have any power, why not feel better by exerting power over someone else?
Can you tell me more about the conversation you had with your mother? It sounds like it had this huge influence on you.
My mother is kind of a fierce creature in her own right, and she owned quite a bit of feminist literature. I found it in the basement when I was a teen. And that’s where you could say “Sidewalk” even began. In the first chapter of one of the books, this was 20 years ago, they’d done a poll and asked women, if you could be any age, what age would you be? And most said between 18 and 21. And one woman said, “I’d rather be 50, because I’m more free. People won’t look at me as a sexual object anymore, people will take me at face value, as a person.” And I thought that was kind of amazing. What’s amazing is that our sexuality is so tied in with who we are as people, that we feel like we lose ourselves. Especially women who know that they’re beautiful, they know they hit the genetic lottery, I think that when their beauty becomes such a large part of their identity, I think aging is very tough for them. It’s like a part of them dies. But my mother, I think she was trying to be supportive. She was almost trying to say, “hey, maybe instead of hating it, you should like it, because you know that it’s finite, it will go away.” But the fact that she would even suggest enjoying such negative attention from strangers, no less, from people who obviously don’t know you from anything other than how they perceive you that one particular day on the street, I thought that was so surprising.
What I find really shocking and disturbing is how quickly people start telling you that you’re “lucky” to look younger than you are. Like if you’re in your twenties, and you get carded at a bar, the idea is that you should “take it as a compliment” that someone thinks you look 19 years old. As if looking 25 is so horrible, you should be grateful people think you look like a teenager.
If people think that is old, they’re going to have a really hard time with life. You’re going to be older than 25 for most of your life. [I overheard] somebody saying once, “I’m turning 27, I’m so old,” and I know that they’re just doing it because it’s funny and they want sympathy and free drinks. But to me, calling yourself “old” before you hit 30, it’s not cute. It’s not endearing. You’re basically promoting the fear that you’ll lose your value. You’re like a car, as soon as you roll off the lot, you start depreciating in value.
When in your film do you think this girl is at her happiest? She never seems to stay happy and confident for very long.
I’m really giving myself away: she’s happiest when she establishes herself in the career. And a lot of people were upset about this, but as soon as she feels good about herself and things are going great career-wise, she meets someone and gets pregnant. And she can’t live for herself anymore; she has to live for someone else. I don’t show that she still has a job, but more or less –- and I know this isn’t true, but it’s based on my own phobias -– once you become a mother, you lose upward mobility in your career, because people know you can’t commit yourself and make it your number one priority.
And she’s also happiest in the beginning. She knows she’s going to grow up but it’s still an abstract concept. She sees the sign for “big girl clothes” and she thinks being a big girl is going to be great, it’s going to be so fun. She doesn’t realize how hard it is to grow up as a woman. So part of it is naivete, and midway through life, she kind of gets the hang of it, but as soon as she gets the hang of it, things change and she’s knocked off kilter.
CREDIT: Celia Bullwinkel/Sidewalk
Is there a feeling you want people to take from “Sidewalk”? If someone watching the short were pregnant with a girl right now, should that person feel optimistic about the life ahead of that baby?
I think they should be happy for having a girl, because being a woman is really fun. I’m biased. But I think there’s just a lot of traps and nonsense that women have to get through in order to live a happy life. There’s one quote that really kept me going throughout making the film, by Francoise Sagan: “There is a certain age when a woman must be beautiful to be loved, and then there comes a time when she must be loved to be beautiful.”
To me, I find that body acceptance is important. Learning to love how your body is always changing, it’s an organic thing, it’s allowed to grow and expand and shrink and do amazing things like produce lives. And I really think that people who try to fight that, whose bodies are not in the realm of their control, I think [struggle]. I hope this film will help them realize that this is what your body is meant to do, and it’s okay. Everyone ages. We all do it, and why not do it together? But then there’s also a very social angle, which is, the anti-aging industry is growing rapidly, and I really wanted to make this film to have a more honest view of what aging really is. It does kind of scare up a lot of people’s fears of being less interesting, less important, forgotten, but that’s the point.
What would a version of “Sidewalk” about a boy look like?
I think someone really should make a boy version of “Sidewalk.” I can’t make that film. I feel like, “Sidewalk” is so personal, I don’t think it would be authentic if I were to make a boy version. I think that he would probably feel like he could take control of the world more than the woman feels like she can grab the world by the balls. But I think men have their own unique issues. I think women and men are on the same page when it comes to the anxiety with being perceived by the opposite sex. I think women are more visually scrutinized than men, socially, which is why women deal with it much more than men do. But even men are starting to wear cosmetics. Even men get procedures to make themselves look better. Men get manicures now. The only way forward, I think it’s awful, but it’s becoming an equal playing field of cosmetology and overpriced jeans that make your butt small. I think it would be wonderful to see what kind of social pressures a man feels.
“Sidewalk” took four years to make and was a fully self-funded film. I really believe that if you have something you want to say, whether or not you can get grant money, whether or not you have the time, because I found the time, I made time for “Sidewalk,” you should do it.