Bad(ass) BrainsAn Interview with Filmmaker Marina Zurkow, Creator of the Web's Freaky, Fiesty Cerebelle du Jour, Braingirl

I met Marina Zurkow in 1986 on the set of a horror film called Matt Riker: Mutant Hunt. I was the art director. She was hired to be my assistant. It was an entirely inappropriate crewing decision, typical of the low-low budget B-movie genre. I’d never studied art, never been on a film set, and never cared much for horror; Marina had graduated from the School of Visual Arts, she’d propped several films, and she had a true affinity for the horror genre. Needless to say, she saved my ass.

Marina Zurkow in her studio

We went on to form a set and prop design company called Medusa Studio, and co-art-directed such noteworthy films as Breeders, Necropolis, and Robot Holocaust. Over the years, we created alien slime pits, orgasmatrons, severed limbs, and a variety of collapsing, corroding, and exploding structures. Eventually, we even made an independent feature film, closer to our hearts, called Body Of Correspondence, which was shown on PBS and even won a very nice prize at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

I eventually got out of the business and started writing novels: They’re cheaper to produce and you don’t have to feed your crew or find them bathrooms. Marina stuck it out in film; she’s directed a lot of music videos, and recently became a total web diva as well. And I’m psyched to be the one to introduce her—and Braingirl—to you.

“Braingirl” is a 10-episode animated series that premiered on RSUB (the Razorfish subnetwork) in February, 2000. If you’re a fan of the book Geek Love, then you’ll thrill to the animated adventures of Braingirl, a mutant-cute superheroine who wears her insides on the outside. More experimental film than cartoon, “Braingirl” employs clip art, interface aesthetics, japanimation, and rave culture in order to turn a bit of the world inside out—starting with its eponymous anti-superheroine. The series now lives on its own site,

Ruth Ozeki: I loved Braingirl the moment you first showed me her picture. She’s got total attitude for a girl with no eyes, but there’s something sweet, vulnerable, and exposed about her, too, with her prepubescent, plug-like nipples, her hairless neotonous body, and her big naked brain. Oh, and her superhero stance. Where did she come from?

Marina Zurkow:She’s a combo of what I am, what I wish I was, and what I’m afraid of being. Her brain says she’s smart; her baby fat is almost old-ladyish; her tiny tits are truly adorable; her stance is tough and aggressive; and I have always been afraid of losing my eyesight. I think Braingirl wears her insides outside with aplomb.

RO: But where, exactly, did she start? As a novelist, I understand how a character from a book evolves. But I suspect this is different from what you do. Did Braingirl spring from your brain fully formed?

MZ: You wouldn’t think that on a computer characters could spontaneously generate, but every once in a while, you just hit one right on its big, fat, exposed head. I went back through all my sketchbooks to look for doodles. Nothing. I did find early versions of her when I still called her “Brainboy”—she had no genitals at all but she did have the body, the nipples, and the

At that time, I was very focused on icon-making, with a mind to getting these characters onto streetwear—messenger bags, clothes, posters, billboards, blimps. My dream was to turn the infantalizing iconography of rave culture and japanimation a bit on its head, by tantalizing with Cute but providing some sort of schism at the same time that could cause a viewer some concern and some query. It was only later that I grew Braingirl into a cartoon, and gave her voice.

The first part of her that emerged was definitely her body. She was a response to earlier characters I was making—I called them Prozoids. They were speculations about what would happen if fetuses were born in vitro from cells overfed on Prozac. Those lumpy androgynes had body and psychic crises, but Braingirl at least tried to keep her head on straight. Her brain wasn’t exactly an afterthought, but what better way to signify the head/body split than through this manifestation? I’ve always had an unreasoned fascination with the body, inside and out but preferably both at once and invading each other’s state.

RO: How do other people respond to her?

MZ: Women under 45 seem to love Braingirl, to “get” her; women over that age are often too frightened of her prepubescent qualities—they find her grotesque and are offended by her bald vagina. Men mostly appear uneasy and, when pressed, resort to [saying] “she’s scary.” My favorite [reactions] are [from] the plumbers and telco repairmen who come into my studio and see her on the wall amidst other strong but psychically challenged chick icons, and say “that’s cute!”

A sidenote that’s apropos: I’m in Helsinki, walking past a bar that’s blaring an ’80s techno throwback song that goes: “You and me baby we’re only mammals/So let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel.” Braingirl is one response to that rhyme.

Marina Zurkow

RO: How is she a response?

MZ: Two reasons come to mind. One, it’s moronic—Camille Paglia, do you like that song? Two, I’m playing with the idea that not everybody’s destiny is to be sexualized. I know that might be taken as reactionary, and in part it is: I mean, it’s great to be a sexual body, but to some extent it’s become de rigeur for the liberated female to sexualize herself.

RO: Let’s back up a bit and talk more about Braingirl’s you-know-what. Her little parenthetical twat. It’s just the merest curve of a line, right? Did drawing it cause you a moment of panic or pause?

MZ: Drawing her little camel’s-foot pussy never caused me panic or pause. After years of creating morbid and incendiary visuals, I finally found a simple way to be “naughty”.
I could entice and frighten with such a streamlined tool: one little curved line! I did have a moment in which I was afraid of being arrested for pedophilia. But since there’s a deliberate ambiguity about Braingirl’s age, and since in this day and age millions of adults have shaved pussies, I tried not to give my fear a second thought.

Someone once told me it was “cheating” to rely on disturbing or titillating visuals to lure in an audience. But I just said, “What, you don’t want to see anything naughty? Or do you only want it served up on XXX sites for men?” I’m sick of all the naughtiness belonging to the morally bankrupt creators of the world. And I think being visceral—sensual, shocking, and wearing your conflict on the outside, as Braingirl does—is fun.

RO: We know Braingirl is fun. Is she “responsible” work? Is that important to you, to make responsible work?

MZ: I actually do not think I am making morally responsible work. I may be making personally responsible work, and hope that through exploring some of these questions, I end up offering alternative to the status quo that are useful to people. The work I make has nothing overt to impart. I am not a feminist or any other “ist” per se; I am a woman who addresses issues that concern me—independence, body image, social interactions—because they are the questions that can be asked over and over, and when put to oneself make for a more interesting and conscious (though not necessarily
conscientious) world.

RO: Some pretty wild genderblending and genderbending transpires in Episode 6 between Braingirl and her bubbleheaded beau, BagBoy. BagBoy has gone to the local pharmacy and procured love potions for himself and his beloved, Braingirl. But under pressure, he gets confused and slips her the wrong potion. They instantly
switch genders. (This apparently has an historical precident since, in her development, you say Braingirl started out as Brainboy.) What’s this all about?

MZ: One of the writers I work with came up with the idea of a gender switch. (He is a magnificent stoner who does not have access to a computer and only knew Braingirl from a napkin sketch. When he finally saw her on my computer, he said “Oooh! she’s… kind of… hot”). I happened to love the genital switcheroo, but it posed a funny dilemma: I had to deal with my own conceptions of what it means to have a penis in the following episode, “Meatgirl”. And I didn’t have a clue! I didn’t want to be reductive or cliché (which was hard). The genderbend epitomized the kind of flub that BagBoy, that bimbo, would be embroiled in, after so much inefficacy getting anywhere with Braingirl. In a larger sense, it was a good continuum from the hospital scenes in the previous episode, where “authorities” do not give the patient enough information to properly take care of himself. Fortunately it’s a cartoon, where things fix themselves after perilous squash-and-stretch disasters. I think of Braingirl as taking the cartoon genre’s physical principle of Squash and Stretch and applying it to the psyche.

RO: Can you explain a bit more about how squashed & stretched Braingirl’s psyche is?

MZ: I think Braingirl bends the world to fit her perceptions, and stretches reality to keep her protected from things by which she feels imperiled. Very simple. I think the magic of classic cartoons, like Tex Avery’s, is making manifest through the physical what we do psychologically.

RO: And so what did you discover about your own penile conceptions? What was it like to have a schlong?

MZ: Well, I didn’t discover much more than I knew already. That it’s an external organ which is rather messy-looking when flaccid, and needs to be covered up. That it’s a very real barometer of one’s sexual feelings, and it needs to be covered up. That because of accompanying testosterone, or because she’s simply living up to her own preconceptions, Braingirl acts out the clichés of manhood—violence, anger, and a large appetite.

RO:“Meatgirl” is one of my favorite episodes so far, since the conflation of pharmaceuticals, TV marketing, and meat is something I ran across frequently while doing research for My Year of Meats. Can you talk about what’s happening to Braingirl, and where you think this will go in upcoming episodes?

MZ: Braingirl can’t figure out what’s happening to her since she grew the penis. In “Meatgirl,” she eats both a child and a pony. The pony incident causes her quite a lot of despair, and is a wake-up call. In the next episode, she goes to the hospital, accompanied by BagBoy, to find out how to get her gender back. During the interminable wait to see the doctor, BagBoy finds a reset button on the back of her brain and she returns to being female.

RO: People always ask me if my characters are autobiographical, and it’s so annoying, but now I’m going to ask you. Is Braingirl autobiographical? Or is she Everygirl?

MZ: Braingirl started as an icon—and to me, an icon is a collapsed narrative that tends toward the symbolic. So I guess she started as an everygirl personifying the old brain-body conflict, the aggressive-yet-vulnerable conundrum. But as the series progressed (and I was making the episodes on such a short turnaround that a lot of the work was directly subconscious, without time for much rumination), she started to have a life. And of course her life crisscrossed mine: I have a mother figure who was absent and who manipulated my self-image; I certainly feel that being tough and independent to a fault is tantamount to survival; and I have a personal thing against the Medical Institution.

RO: Let’s talk about being tough and independent. Is this important for all people, or just for girls? And while you’re at it, could you comment on BagBoy? Where did he come from? And what’s his deal? Is he like anyone you date?

MZ: Although it’s changed a little, I think girls need more reinforcement than boys that being tough and self-possessed are good traits. In the case of Braingirl, there’s a subtle inference that these traits can also be detrimental—that with no softness, the world is very difficult to negotiate.

BagBoy is neither tough nor independent. He’s the one who runs for help or asks for help or asks questions. I’m trying not to deride him, because those qualities can be good ones, just as I don’t laud Braingirl for her stubborn do-it-yourself denial, which has been the only survival tool she possesses.

I think I am terrified of infantile, dependent males. And we all know there are lots of them. But BagBoy is useful to Braingirl, and well-meaning. BagBoy provides a test scenario in which Braingirl is able to maintain her distance, and not get too embroiled. He started as Braingirl’s sidekick, and somehow he got the better of me, I guess: He was way too much fun to utilize, both as a menace (“Love”) and as a medical specimen (“Eyetest”) to let him remain a cardboard sycophant.

RO: Has Braingirl gotten more interesting to you as the story evolves? How has the creative process changed? What are your main challenges/difficulties?

MZ: A series is such a different experience from a one-off. And because, for temporal and financial reasons, I started making “Braingirl” before I knew where she’d end up, the series has emerged organically. When I began, I perceived it as a
set of experimental films that would form a narrative aggregate when the series was finished. I had a blind faith that somehow, it would all add up to be a story — not in the conventional sense, but that you’d have a good idea of what you’d seen and gotten a sense of a world that both in each episode but also as a whole, had arc, and a sense of beginning and end.

RO: What do you love most about animating? What do you hate? What sends shivers up your spine?

MZ: Love: making pictures and stories evolve over time with nothing in the way but what you cannot imagine. All the pretty colors. The freedom from the budgets for large-scale film productions. Being able to work at home, alone, and watch things twinkle and dance. Spilling out the brains onto the screen, rather directly.

Hate: doing it all by myself all the time. And even with Flash, the tool I use to animate, it still can be very tedious. Being obstructed only by what I cannot imagine!

Shivers: giving voice to character, and hearing composer Lem Jay Ignacio’s music and sound bring my stilted mute world to life.

RO: If you could create anything in the world, what would you make?

MZ: Right now, I’d be happy if I could finish the Braingirl series, and then make the next two pieces, “Little Miss NO” and “Funnelhead”, which are decidedly different but have equally strong female leads.

Marina and Ruth on a pony

RO: What do you do to counterbalance the influence of your own big, bad brain? To keep it inside your body?

MZ: Yoga. That’s the most in-body thing I can think of doing. For years I joked about becoming a head on castors. But I decided that’s dangerous. Having a body, brain, breath, and voice is dangerous, too, but a scary lot of fun.

Braingirl can be seen at or

Braingirl patches ($3.00 each) can be bought through Marinaís website,

Marinaís work can also be seen at her web site,

Ruth Ozeki is a filmmaker and author. Her first novel, My Year of Meats is published by Viking/Penguin. She is currently finishing her second. Her films have been screened at festivals, theatrically, and on television. She lives in New York and British Columbia.

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