Digital Residency: Ashleigh Williams

Ash - IMAGE 4.jpg

During her Digital Residency, Ashleigh Williams (BNC2020) will be drawing on cartoons, live performances and song lyrics to have discussions about race, disability and class in a way that diverges from standard academia - celebrating her marginalizations as positive aspects of her identity.

Ashleigh Williams (b. 1995) is a visual artist based in London. Their practice seeks to procure a more representative art world, creating art (mainly under their collective, Babeworld) and facilitating events for those who are marginalised by their class, gender, race, and everything in between. With an emphasis on collaboration, Ashleigh's practice focuses on themes of political and societal identity, such as disability/ accessibility, mental health, sex work, ‘poverty porn’, and oversharing- otherwise known as attention-seeking on the internet.

Video Essay: Sometimes You Gotta Close The Door To Open The Window

Ashleigh Williams, Sometimes You Gotta Close The Door To Open The Window, 2021. Music credits: Tyler, The Creator, OKAGA, CA (Instrumental) + Megan Thee Stallion, Body.

Anime and Cartoon Reviews

Adventure Time (Obsidian): Trash Water Harpies and Run Of The Mill Cave Hags

When I was growing up, in an all girl’s school may I add, it was hard to be “gay”, in multiple senses, literally. I was taunted at school for any whiff of lesbianism, and forced by my mother to adhere to societal femininity - when all I wanted to do was live my futch dream of wearing a football shirt with my 40-inch weave. After 22 years of falling in love with random girls from across the classroom and dating below average men whilst just grinning and bearing it - Marceline and Princess Bubblegum kissed. Who?

1.png Adventure Time: Distant Lands, 2020, Season 1 Episode 2, Available to watch on HBOMAX

Marceline and Princess Bubblegum are two cartoon characters from Adventure Time. I binged the series alone, and throughout thought I had spotted another case of classic queer bating. Two women, both hot, both smart, both talented - friends of course - with unruly sexual tension. Enough that you could fantasise about them actually being together, but not enough so that you know what you think is true. With no direct talk of their love, lust, whatever it was - I really thought I'd been played. In the final episode of the series, it happened. They kissed.

When I tell you I cried, I cried. It was as if the uncertainty of their love/lust was a reflection of mine around my sexuality due to SA and traumas- and their onscreen kiss cemented my feelings. I never felt queer enough, gay enough, butch enough - and these two characters offered an alternative narrative around sexuality, one that showed two people existing beyond queerness. Very iconic.

So why are we here today? Well, Adventure Time made the spin off series Obsidian. It shows the lives of the characters in the future, and this episode focuses on PB and Marceline, far in the future, very gay and very in love.

2.pngAdventure Time: Distant Lands, 2020, Season 1 Episode 2, Available to watch on HBOMAX

The whole episode is based around Marceline saving the Glass Kingdom, whilst Marceline and PB resolve their relationship. When entering the Kingdom they receive abuse, being called “trash water harpies'' and “run of the mill cave hag” - no smart analysis on this, I just thought it was funny. But what I really enjoyed was this representation of a queer relationship. I tend to find mainstream media regarding lesbian culture specifically leans on some stereotypes, including “the yearning lesbian” or “the super, super closeted lesbian” - or they tend to lean the other way, into this hyper-sexual, tense relationship fit for the straight male gaze. In this show we see PB and Marceline engaging beyond sexualisation, it shows the mundane tasks such as building furniture, cooking, reading etc. It humanises our experience and our representation, beyond content for your average man at home having a wank to whatever the ridiculous porn title is.

As a queer person I have found there’s no real template on how to navigate relationships, with little representation in mainstream media. The representation we do get shows a very palatable, often wealthy queerness - favoured by the general public. Obsidian shows two women living day-to-day life, doing day-to-day tasks and setting a template for, well, ‘normality’ (for lack of a better word). Fuck being ‘normal’, but it would be great to be accepted.

3.pngAdventure Time: Distant Lands, 2020, Season 1 Episode 2, Available to watch on HBOMAX

From my experience, there seems to be a sensationalisation of queer relationships - they're placed on a pedestal, as if in order for our love to be valid it needs to be 100% un-confrontational. In Obsidian we see PB and Marceline, fight, break up, mend, and get back together again. It’s important we see queer relationships heal and resolve, and it’s important to note that we have vulnerabilities too. Cis-het relationships often have different goals to queer ones - for example, my Girlfriend and I can’t conceive, we’ll never be able to afford to adopt and hell, we wouldn’t be allowed to anyway, seeing as I’m on disability benefits. We can’t get married, because I’m disabled and will get my money taken away, and she's trans and not able to afford to legally change her gender, so she wouldn’t be my wife. You do the maths. Sorry for the rant, but this show is so important to me because it sets alternative goals, it creates alternative structures for fulfilment in relationships. Marceline just wants her instruments, and PB just wants to geek out. And they’re content with that. And I love that. It sets a standard beyond cis-het normativity, and demonstrates that your own wants, needs and goals are valid and justifiable. This isn’t to say it’s not got some queer clichés - two lesbians ride off into the distance on a motorbike, and PB shoots Jellybeans and rainbows out of her palm.

RENT A GIRLFRIEND: Tetra Glofish and Clueless Clients

So, I spent this weekend watching multiple anime to decide which one to binge next. I’ve got about 6 on rotation now, but (!) what we’re going to talk about today is: the first half, of the first episode, of Rent A Girlfriend. With a title like that, you know I just had to watch.

Ash - IMAGE 1.jpg Rent a Girlfriend, (2020) Episode 1, Available on Crunchyroll.

We’re introduced to 20 year old Kinoshita Kazuya. Recently dumped, and evidentially butthurt about it - the opening scene depicts Kazuya drowning in tears, surrounded by crusted up tissues. I’ll leave you to decide what they are. The scene shows him intermittently crying and raging whilst picturing his recent ex girlfriend, Mami, being fucked (and can I just note, actually pleasured). With the mixture of crusted tissues and visions of Mami being dicked down - it’s pretty obvious that this wasn’t love. Just extreme horniness. This tends to be the case quite a lot with cis het men, from my experience of cosplaying as a straight woman until I was 23. Long story short, he wanted his dick wet, and was more upset about the idea of Mami sleeping with someone else than actually leaving him. This opening scene immediately plants the idea that Kazuya sees women as nothing more than a sexual vessel - a serviceable being, able to be fulfilled in all categories just through sexual contact.

As he wipes away his tears, he exclaims “I’ve had it” - with energy behind him as if he was going to mend the situation; heal his soul. He comes across the ‘Rent a Girlfriend’ site. Through what I imagine is a healthy blend of arousal, jealousy and anger, he books a ‘Girlfriend’. Here we can see a very true reality for a lot of sex workers: clients coming into a situation, already with a chip on their shoulder. Clients booking us, and using us to ‘prove’ their dominance or their ‘alpha male’ status. Clients using sex workers as objects to vent to, with the expectancy that we can fix your problem, no matter the situation. And while my coochie definitely had special powers, curing toxic masculinity is not one of them.

Rent a Girlfriend, (2020) Episode 1, Available on Crunchyroll.

They meet, and go on a date to an aquarium. Mizuhara, the rented ‘Girlfriend’, talks about how it’s her first trip to an aquarium, ever. We can with the twinkle in her eye that she is in fact lying, obviously to pander to the needs of a client - get that bread, sis. She points at a fish, and asks him what the fish’s name is - acting overly impressed when he replies ‘tetra glofish’. Kazuya, in his internal narrative, exclaims “everyone knows the name of that it’s basic” in a very judgemental, “I’m better than you” tone. This reflects a reality in which a lot of us sex workers are treated like brainless fuckdolls - women unable to engage with the world past eat, sleep, suck dick, repeat. From their initial meeting, Kazuya has made it very obvious he’s a beta borderline cuck, so Mizuhara’s ‘playing it dumb’ will leave Kazuya, the client, feeling great about himself - and inevitably wanting to book again. Smart right? It’s called sex work, look it up.

Mizuhara continues the performance - when they’re walking to the station to say their goodbyes she clasps his hand. Of course, he eats it up. His mind races between “she’s so cute” and “maybe I could date her” - providing adequate evidence that her performance as a ‘Girlfriend’ had been successful - the delusion has kicked in. They depart and he goes home to leave a review. He finds hundreds of reviews from other clients, and to his dismay, he discovers ‘hand holding’ at the end is one of her ‘techniques’.

We all know what his response is, surely?

“How dare she play with my heart” - he exclaims, absolutely raging. He leaves a bad review on her site, proving his lack of respect for sex workers and their jobs - which is basically defamation, seeing as he was absolutely loving it until about 5 minutes ago. His review? “She was a moron who didnt even know the names of common fish”. Stupid, petty, and weirdly specific - the client review special.

Ash - IMAGE 3.JPGRent a Girlfriend, (2020) Episode 1, Available on Crunchyroll.

So he plans to meet her again, to give him a piece of his mind - which to me, is totally hilarious. Imagine paying to meet someone, to tell them how much you hate them. They sit for a coffee, and he starts with a gorgeous opening line “Hey, doesn’t it make you feel empty inside?” You know what makes me feel empty inside? Billionaires hoarding wealth, the thought of working 9-5 in an office, and when I don't wake up in time for a maccies breakfast. She replies with the classic “I love my job, it's great”. I mean, what else is there to say with such an invasive question. Clients are constantly questioning why we do sex work, and it always has to be a reason they deem valid. Never for yourself. Never to pay bills. Never because of the adaptability of the job. She does a great job convincing him, by ending the line with “I get to meet people like you”. Of course, there's a sparkle in his eye, and after a large serving of false connection, he's full of delusion once again.

They're back at the aquarium. This guy really loves fish. Surprise surprise, Kazuya is mad again. This time, because she is just too perfect. She’s doing everything she should: letting him be the man ™ and creating–well, replicating–intimacy. He explodes in public, calling her out for her act. The fact a client is willing to publicly cause a scene and potentially out a sex worker, shows the harsh reality in which we live. Clients want full confidentiality, respect and discretion but rarely give the same back. They see us as less than, barely human, objects to be merely rented and thrown out. She calls out the bulllshit, he exclaims “why do you get into these relationships you don't like'' as if...he's not paying her. As if money doesn't pay bills. As if capitalism doesn't exist. Grow up.

Ash - IMAGE 4.jpg
Rent a Girlfriend, (2020) Episode 1, Available on Crunchyroll.

Again, she breaks out of the ‘Girlfriend’ character, voicing her concerns for his actions. He’s shocked at this, thinking “she’s a completely different person to before” - yet still unable to draw the dots between sex work and performance. He just sees her as two faced, not as a performance that makes money, with an actual living, breathing human underneath the charade. He clocks he’s wrong, but before issuing an apology - an emergency crops up. Of course. His grandma is in hospital. Whilst this is true, she was in hospital - there’s something to be said with clients and last minute disasters.

Previous Events:

Cartoon Discussion Group

15 July 2021, 6 - 7:30pm

Join us for Ashleigh Williams' Cartoon Discussion Group - an online event using cartoons as a framework to discuss representation of marginalised communities within the arts.

Ashleigh Williams, 2020 Artist Page


"Seeking to procure a more representative art world, I (mainly under my collective, Babeworld) create art and facilitate events for those who are marginalised by their class, gender, race, and everything in between. With an emphasis on collaboration, my practice focuses on themes of political and societal identity, such as disability/ accessibility, mental health, sex work, ‘poverty porn’, and oversharing- otherwise known as attention-seeking on the internet. Through collaborating with other underrepresented artists, I cultivated networks to grow my online platform to fundraise, distribute grants and host alternative education events for marginalised people and communities.

My practical work aims to highlight the importance of lived experience, and in return maybe have some content beyond your classic art jargon. Something my family can access. I explore themes of disability and blackness through a working class lens. I’m autistic, physically disabled, working class, a sex worker and queer (phew, what a list. And let me tell you, when you're an underrepresented part of the ‘art scene’, presence and existence become socially engaging and political.

During my time at higher education, I struggled to engage with the curriculum due to the lack of voices and representation in these institutions of people like me. I used cartoons and music videos/lyrics as modes of research - solidifying their cultural and academic significance. In music and cartoons I see people with similar intersections to mine living beyond performing a palatable version of their marginalisation - thus in turn celebrating and uplifting marginalised communities. Music and cartoons are also considered “low culture” - a nod to my working class background, and also a style I wish to replicate so that as many people can engage with and digest the work as possible."