Look into my eyes: images such as this “art therapy” rabbit now outsell traditional colouring books and more creative drawing challenges.
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Colouring books used to be fun. When did they get so . . . mindful?

I've always bought colouring books – but these new, "therapeutic" offerings make me feel faintly distressed.

Although I’m a grown-up, I always get a colouring book for Christmas. Last year, I knew something was up when, instead of “Tudor Fashions” or “Mythical Beasts”, it had the words “art therapy” stamped across the front. Staring back at me for my colouring pleasure was the baroque visage of a cat; the face was fashioned from tiny boxes, each of those boxes contained more tiny boxes and the miniature colour-me rhomboids in its unblinking irises – barely large enough to fit the nib of a pencil – receded to infinity. Looking at the image, I felt faintly distressed. Nothing about it said: kick off your shoes and crack open the Caran d’Ache.

“These exquisite art therapy patterns allow you to access your inner creativity, balancing your physical, spiritual and emotional well-being,” says the Bromleigh House series Relax With Art. “You will embark on a personal journey exploring the world of creative art, discovering the secrets of harmony, balance [and] tranquillity and accessing your inner voice.” Five minutes colouring the Inca moggie and my inner voice was baying for release.

Last year the Telegraph ran a piece saying that French women were turning to adult colouring books in droves. Sylvie, a crèche worker from Marseilles, described herself as “anguished and stressed by nature” and colouring was helping. Last year that melancholic nation sold 3.5 million colouring books in the art therapy category. Similar titles now have vast audiences in the US and UK. Clearly I was missing something.

I’ve always bought colouring books. As a child, I wasn’t very good at drawing but I was a girly swot, and there was tremendous satisfaction in being given a ready-made drawing and just finishing it off. Colouring is a rather anal business and that’s a fact – you’re completing a task within very strict guidelines, and unless you’re in the psychedelic business of mixing up colours for the sake of it, it is essentially uncreative – the artist equivalent of writing a shopping list. Knights in armour were my figures of choice. There were ample opportunities for the best of all colours – red – on shields and banners. I never went near the Regency era: all those wigs and pastel breeches. Your black pencil went down quick on the Victorians, but sometimes you got canaries, cakes and surprisingly bright domestic interiors.

It was all about getting a balanced grain. Use the side of your palm as a fulcrum, rest the pencil along your fourth finger and make confident, smooth arcs of even weight. The sooner you wear down the tip of the pencil to a shiny wedge, the quicker you hit your stride. KEEP IT EVEN! The ­efforts of my peers saddened me, their crayons practically drilling through the page. And the unfinished efforts! Why sign up to a picture of the sea if you’re not willing to do all that blue? How will you function in the world of work?

The bizarre thing about the new adult colouring books is they are virtually impossible to complete. They have to be difficult, because adults are still embarrassed to be seen working away at infant activities. “So many people have said to me that they used to do secret colouring in when their kids were in bed,” said Johanna Basford recently: her ornate Secret Garden colouring book has sold over 1.5 million copies and Zooey Deschanel is a fan. “Now it is socially acceptable, it’s a category of its own.”

This “category” is a piece of marketing ­genius. By branding themselves as “analogue” activities, the new colouring books seize on our half-formed anxieties about living a digital life, providing commercially packaged screen-free pastimes that promise to reconnect us with ourselves. The analogue hobby then becomes a craze, with people sharing their work on Twitter or Instagram, thus bringing themselves right back to the digital world they were so keen to escape.

But the main thing making colouring “socially acceptable” is the link to mental health. The mindfulness industry has planted its flag on the business and many books are being sold as an offshoot of meditation. So you can now buy one title that calms your nerves, eases your mental pain, helps you to live in the present and become a creative artist all in one go. Result!

In the progressive 1970s, when Lego was advertised by little girls in denim dungarees and Tee Corinne’s Cunt Coloring Book (“the drawings in this book are of real women’s cunts”) was helping feminists reclaim their vaginas all over the world, an American art teacher called Susan Striker prod­uced a hugely popular series called The Anti-
Coloring Book
, which fought against the “damaging effects” of giving a young child such a strictly-defined task. Striker felt colouring books turned children into robots. Her books had semi-blank pages and captions such as: “The artist got stung by a bee and couldn’t finish his drawing. You finish it for him.” In 1982 she produced a version of The Anti-Coloring Book for adults, too.

I called Striker as she drove to Manhattan for a jazz concert. Susan, I said, what do you make of the new colouring book craze? “I feel like my life has been a total failure!” she cried. “Even though my books sold really well, the message clearly never got out to the general public that colouring books are not just innocuous but they’re actually very bad for you!”

She recalled one case study from the 1960s in which a child drew “a wonderful, lyrical picture of a bird” from his imagination. He was then supplied with a colouring book in which birds were represented only as “Vs”, as adults often draw them, and was told to colour them blue. The next time he drew a bird, he drew a V: “No eyes, no wings, no nothing. That was visual proof that when you are working with colouring books, it sends children the message that they are supposed to be drawing like adults – but since you’re too stupid to draw like an adult, here’s an adult’s picture and you can colour it in.”

This put me in mind of the popular new title Animorphia by the Filipino-born artist Kerby Rosanes. His book is billed as an Extreme Colouring and Search Challenge: one page has 30 bats drawn on it, with a large space in the middle and the instruction “Fill the page with bats”. What hope for the adult who wants to unleash their inner Van Gogh?

“If you want to turn off your mind, instead of turning it up, then colouring is one way to do it,” Striker said. “It can allow you to tune out of your life – it’s a choice: should I take a drink, or drugs, or pick up a colouring book?”

So what does she make of the link to art therapy? “People really have been educated to believe that they cannot do art,” she said. “A colouring book can help you empty out your mind. Yet to be ‘mindful’ is not to escape from your problems, but to face them head on. The new mindful colouring books are mindless. You should be drawing your own pictures!”

Even if you’re convinced you can’t draw, surely there are better ways of exercising your creative muscles – or destressing, for that matter – than by embarking on the sad face of a complex bejewelled rabbit, which, incidentally, appears in The Art Therapy Colouring Book half coloured already. If you want to experience the simple, untherapeutic pleasure of colouring, start with Tom Tierny’s Tudor and Elizabethan Fashions (Dover, £5.99). Then go wild and do that ermine cloak whatever colour you want.

Susan Striker’s “Adult Anti-Coloring Book” is reissued this month as an app and will be available on iTunes

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double

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Beyond Moonlight: how Hollywood is still failing LGBTQ audiences

2016 was a bleak year for gay and transgender characters in Hollywood pictures.

How was 2016 for LGBT representation in Hollywood? It was the year Moonlight was released – the breathtaking love story of two young black men that won Best Picture at the most recent Oscars.

Beyond Moonlight, many smaller studios produced thoughtful, empathetic explorations of the lives of gay characters: from Gravitas Ventures’s All We Had and 4th Man Out to IFC’s Gay Cobra to Magnoloia Pictures’s The Handmaiden.

So… pretty good, right?

Not when you look at the statistics, released by GLAAD this week. While a low-budget, independent production managed to storm the mainstream, of the 125 releases from the major studios in 2016, only 23 included characters identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer. And almost half of those releases saw that LGBTQ character receive less than one minute of screen time. Only nine passed GLAAD’s Vito Russo Test – which, inspired by The Bechdel Test, asks whether characters are treated as real people, or just punchlines. Plus, while many studios claimed characters were gay, they refused to explicitly or implicitly discuss this in the script: take Kate McKinnon’s Holtzmann in Ghostbusters.

A closer look at some of the LGBTQ characters we had from the big studios this year underlines quite how bad the industry is at portraying LGBTQ people:

Deadpool, Deadpool
While much was made of Deadpool’s pansexual orientation in the run-up to the film’s release, the only references that actually made it to screen were throwaway jokes intended to emphasize just how outrageous and weird Deadpool is.

Terry, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates

Mike and Dave’s bisexual pal Terry repeatedly tries to persuade other characters to sleep with her, often at deeply inappropriate times, and even attempting to bribe one character into engaging in sexual activity. According to this film, bisexuality = hypersexuality.

Marshall, Lubliana, Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

This whole film was a mess in its treatment of LGBTQ characters, particularly transgender ones. The very concept of being transgender is here treated as a punchline. Edina’s ex-husband Marshall is described as “a transgender” and treated as a joke, Marshall’s wife Bo claims she is now black, insisting she can change race as her husband has changed gender, while Patsy goes undercover as a man to marry the rich Baroness Lubliana, who announces “I’m not a woman”. Other lines from the film include ““I hate how you have to be nice to transgendered people now.”

Random strangers, Criminal

Remember the moment when two men kiss on a bridge in Criminal? No, me neither, because it lasted approximately four seconds. See also: Finding Dory – which supposedly features a lesbian couple (two women pushing a child in a pram). Literally blink and you miss them.

Bradley, Dirty Grandpa

The black, gay character Bradley only exists in this film as somone for Dick (Robert De Niro) to direct all his racist and homophobic jokes at. But this film doesn’t stop there – there are also a whole collection of jokes about how Jason (Zac Efron) is actually a butch lesbian.

Hansel, All, Zoolander 2

Dimwitted former model Hansel McDonald is now bisexual and involved in a long-term polyamorous relationship with 11 people – his entire storyline of running from them when they become pregnant, finding a new “orgy” and eventually coming back to them – relies on the most dated stereotypes around bisexuality, promiscuity and fear of commitment.

Meanwhile, straight cis man Benedict Cumberbatch stars as a non-binary model named All, who has “just married hermself” after “monomarriage” has been legalized, and exists purely so other characters can speculate loudly over whether All has “a hotdog or a bun” – yet again reducing transgender people to their body parts for cheap laughs.

Various, Sausage Party

From Teresa del Taco to Twink the Twinkie to the effeminate “fruit” produce, these are stereotypes in food form, not actual characters.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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